These are some notes related to a research project I just started at KABK. It’s entitled “The User Condition” and it follows Arendt’s tripartite model of vita activa to understand user activity and behavior. The initial intuition leading to my proposal was a blogpost in which I hypothesized that the contemporary web is characterized by a sort of ersatz praxis, aka political action, that replaced the fabrication dimension of the early days: whereas users were craftpeople at first, they later became political agents (in a very broad sense). I’m posting my note to self on a single thread on Mastodon, if you feel like following my convoluted thought process. If you like what you read invite me for a seminar / lecture / workshop, so I can keep developing this, or buy my book on the Entreprecariat.
If I were to intuitively point out a fundamental paradigm shift of user activity in terms of interaction, after the advent of the “corporate web” (this expression needs some clarification), I’d say that the user was reconfigured as a “hand”, understood both as a body component and as a someone who “engages in manual labor”.
Let me explain. One of the most common activity performed nowadays online is scrolling. The pervasiviness of scrolling has to do with the advent of the infinite scroll, a technique to insert content dynamically to the bottom of a webpage. While scrolling is not the most obvious type of interaction on a laptop, it seems to be on the mobile. Was infinite scrolling an historical necessity generated by the spread of mobile phones? Was it conceived or popularized within the context of the corporate web in order to maximize attention? I believe that tracing a genealogy of the infinite scroll is a much needed endeavor.
For the moment, I’d like to point out one of its most drastic effects: infinite scroll erodes the conceptual model of web as space to travel, because it “teleports” content into one single space. By displacing information, it eradicates the abstraction of space itself. The infinite scroll is part of a trajectory, which includes, looking backward in time, the RSS feed, and looking forward, the stories and the playlist (I’ll expand on this later).
Manually scrolling an infinite webpage feels somehow imperfect, accidental, temporary if not already antiquated, even weird one could say: it’s a mechanical gesture that doesn’t channel the agency of the user, but fosters the page need. It’s like turning a crank to listen to a radio. Following Arendt, is not action but behavior. It’s an automatism that hasn’t been yet automatised. This automatism doesn’t produce an event (such as clicking on a link) but modulates a rhythm: it’s analog instead of digital.
In fact, it has been already automatised, but not everywhere. Think of Youtube playlists which are reproduced automatically, or even better Instagram stories, where the behavior is reversed: the user doesn’t power the engine, but instead stops it from time to time.
We see here a progression that is analogous to that of the Industrial Revolution: some tasks are just unrelated to one another (click; preindustrial), they are then organized to require manual and mechanical labor (infinite scroll; industrial), finally they are fully automated and only require supervision (stories/playlist; smart factory). From this perspective Bernard Stiegler might be right when speaking of a societal automatisation. To use his vocabulary we could speak of a “proletarisation” of user interaction: from an action that coincides with a user’s choice (e.g. following a personal thread on Wikipedia), to a behavior that serves the needs of the webpage, and therefore of the platform, and is organized accordingly. Vita activa becomes vita contemplativa.
Is this a technically-driven or an economically-driven unfolding?
Who hasn’t caught themselves daydreaming while scrolling? Is this dérive similar to the one experienced by Simone Weil while she working in a factory? But can we consider this scrolling authentic interaction? Is the one who turns the crank truly interacting with the crunk-operated radio? The proletarisation of user interaction is then maybe the very denial of interactivity, as it is the death of the hyperlink and the space metaphors it fostered. Assuming that all of this started with the Web 2.0 (this needs verification), one could sense the irony: as soon as interactivity was embedded in pages that became dynamic, it actually disappeared. The corporate web reacted against non-linearity (or more precisely multilinearity) and reinstated hyperlinearity analogous to that of an assembly line. Sure, a user can still intervene, but that feels more like zapping than active exploration.
Speaking of zapping, I realize I was already having similar thoughts in 2012, when I created ScrollTV, a plugin that would automate scrolling on social media while adding a muzak soundtrack. The project was highly inspired by “Television Delivers People”, a 1973 video by Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman, in which the passive role of the spectator is revealed through the mode and language of broadcasting media themselves.
But there are many other projects that directly or not comment on this semi-automatisation of interaction, such as a rubber finger, that “Swipes Right On Tinder So You Don’t Have To”. I will try to collect them and then discuss them in another post. If you have any, just let me know.