Critique of Ranking and Listing; Exchange with Kenneth C. Werbin

Critique of Ranking and Listing
Exchange between Kenneth C. Werbin and Geert Lovink

Since the early nineties I have been engaged in email-based mailinglists. In the beginning it was a tool to communicate and exchange texts and arguments with a growing group of people. I hesitate to use the word community as I never saw lists as safe areas for identity building but as arenas of contestation. To me, email lists were primarily discursive machines, essential in the making of a networked digital public domain. As it happens things started to get complicated. Group psychology kicked in, there was ‘symbolic capital’ created and people’s time and emotions had to be rewarded. Five or so years ago the study of list cultures emerged. These were not technical, even though many complained about the technical limitations of list software such as Majordomo, Listserv and Mailman. It was the limited complexity of the dialogues, the lack of overview one gets of threaded discussions that irritated common users who had no emotional investment in the project.

Even though I had a particular interest in contemporary studies of German fascism, I never made the link between electronic mailing lists and the bureaucratic efforts of Eichmann’s assistants to list Jews, gypsies and others. The computer aspect of listing deportees had been described by Goetz Aly and Karl-Heinz Roth in their brief but excellent 1984 book Die restlose Erfassung (The Nazi Census), which, at the time, made a big impact on me. As Michael Kater writes in his review (1), order is the premise of destruction. We all somehow know that Ordnung by punchcard prepared the path to Auschwitz. But to read all the details, and then remember, and implement its consequences in everyday politics is something else. In particular if you’ve made computing your passion and profession, as happened to me. Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust from 2001 provided us with the complete history. Far more detailed, it fails the analytic clarity of Aly and Roth, and political engagement, as this booklet was part of a poltical campaign against organizing a census in West-Germany. The collective memory of why authorities gather data of entire populations, back then, and a broad resistance was still alive, back then–and vanished so rapidly, particularly after 911. The resistance in 1970 against a census in the Netherlands is one of the first campaign that I remember. My parents, and in particular my mother refused categorically and explained the protest to me. The burning of Amsterdam’s population register was one of the many heroic acts of the Dutch resistance that I grew up with. However, the attack in March 1943 came too late, and the question why the deportation of Jews was so systematic, so successful, particularly in my birth town, so proud of its Nazi resistance, could only be posed in the nineties, and is still a matter of fierce debate.

Hailing from a long-line of Marxist thinkers and activists, as well as Shoah descendants, Montreal-based Kenneth C. Werbin works as a PhD student in the Department of Communication Studies at Concordia University. His nearly finished dissertation, The List Serves: Bare Life in Cybernetic Order, probes questions of list culture; arguing that the Third Reich’s engagement of a conjunction of early IBM computing technology, listing practices, and discourses of surveillance, identification and control, was the first cybernetic feedback system for maintaining social order around bare life; and investigating how the resonance of this conjunction reverberates today. Also a part-time lecturer, Kenneth participates as a moderator/event coordinator for the University of the Streets Public Dialogue Series, and is a student researcher with the Canadian Research Alliance for Community Innovation and Networking. I got into contact with Kenneth Werbin in 2005. The context of this exchange was the June 2006 debates on the nettime list concerning moderation and the growing limits of email lists in an era in which most users hang out on the Web, play games on their mobile phones and no longer care about their over-spammed email inboxes.

GL: Could you give a short history of the list? I am only familiar with the sociology of the cue, a mass practice in Eastern Europe.

KW: When I first began my work on how lists serve, I was very narrowly investigating email lists, or listservs. However, in historicizing the use of lists in power/knowledge, I ended up going much further back to ancient times, discovering that the majority of early writings were constituted in lists, and much of early social organization revolved around listing practices. While there is little research that explicitly treats these questions, I am grateful that I stumbled across the work of the anthropologist Jack Goody (2) who studied early Sumerian, Mesopotamian and Assyrian documents, and provides a rather compelling argument for ancient list culture; arguing how on the one hand, lists establish boundaries and encourage hierarchies, but at the same time, call into question the very lines in the sand they draw. In this way, list culture involves dialectic operations; at once carving out knowledge, and at the same time opening up questions about the constitution of the knowledge by virtue of placing items together. The contradictions that lists bring to the development of knowledge and how they help organize experience makes them powerful intellectual technologies. But despite this power, our use of lists remains very much taken-for-granted, deeply burrowed into our social woodwork, since the dawn of literacy.

So where a history of list culture could easily start in ancient times, today, I find myself far more interested in and compelled by the intersection of list culture and computer-based technologies, which sees my historical analysis begin with the moment when the Nazis first used early IBM punch card technology to identify, isolate, round up, and control threats to social order. Here I am grateful for Edwin Black’s book ‘IBM and the Holocaust’, which revealed the ties between IBM and the Nazis, and also a book you recommended, Goetz Aly and Karl-Heinz Roth’s The Nazi Census, which provides an in depth analysis and examination of the 1933 and 1939 German censuses, and how such practices significantly contributed to identification and control in the Third Reich.

Building on such work, I contend that the ‘Nazi listing moment’, constituted in the conjunction of lists and computing_Hollerith machines, initially populated with census data, represents the first cybernetic feedback system in which discourses of identification, security and surveillance of social threats as social order took root. Indeed, this conjunction of listing practices and computer technologies, coupled with enabling discourses of identification and control, efficiently and effectively exposed what Giorgio Agamben (3) calls ‘bare life’; meaning life that no longer deserves to live, but cannot be martyred; life that cannot be sacrificed, yet may be killed; the musselmann that violence is wholly permitted against; the body exorcised of humanity.

Like Agamben, I believe that bare life is the fundamental political unit, it is the foundation of political life, and we are born into this bio-political order; meaning our lives are political in their very capacity to be isolated and killed from the get_go. For me, this conjunction of list technologies, practices and discourses of identification and control that expose bare life for the sake of security and control, continues to reverberate and expand in today’s global ‘cybernetic order’, albeit deeply recessed in our socio_technological woodwork. Despite our advancements in computing technology, or more appropriately, perhaps because of them, the establishment of such boundaries continues to resonate from Nazi times; calling into question the nature of social threats through the very fact of placing people together in lists. These are very real boundaries and questions raised by ‘list culture’ that we continue to negotiate today.

GL: How does the electronic mailinglist fit into this wider history of the list? At first sight one would think that the list, so to say, gets ‘dissolved’ in the electronic environment of the computer.

KW: I would say the list not so much dissolves in electronic environments, but rather further recedes into the socio_technical woodwork. Consider nettime in light of the preceding characterization of list culture; on the one hand, how lists establish boundaries and encourage hierarchies, and on the other, how they lead to questions about the nature of the grouping through the very fact of placing items together. I wonder if this does not sum up all of the controversy, contradiction and struggle that has raged around articulating nettime’s identity since it’s inception? The act of establishing a boundary called nettime, gave immediate rise to questions about the nature of nettime, through the very fact of placing people together in a list. To my mind, this is the culture that is very much alive today on nettime! I wonder what your thoughts are about such a characterization of nettime?

GL: So far I never perceived electronic mailinglists as lists, for the simple fact that they grow organically. You do not start with a list of people, your initiative becomes a list. In the beginning there is only a small collection of email addresses of the founders and immediate collaborators. Usually one sends out a letter of invitation to join the new list to friends and those interested in the topic. Later on, one started to send those announcements to other lists, websites and then blogs. But often a list starts with five, not more, email addresses. This, in my opinion, is one of the main obstacles for the insiders, to see lists in the way that you do. In the case of nettime, and many other lists, the beginning of the project is lying in the Event, a series of meetings in real-life. This also complicates the picture. The list, if you wish, echoes the Event, it is a by-product, a memory. Only much later it starts to develop a life of its own. Governance issues are not dealt with from the start, and this is perhaps the main reason why ownership and moderation controversies arise many years later.

KW: Yes, lists echo events; events in the case of lists being the decision to form the collection. So don’t all lists grow organically in this way, mailinglist or other; initially populated by a small set of items, or data, or people, or email addresses, wherein subsequent additions of items, or data, or people, or email addresses, call into question the nature of the list/grouping itself? While it might seem to be a big leap from Nazi listing practices to nettime, the underlying practice associated with list culture holds; collecting items/people to the cause of organizing knowledge/experience/life but to the effect of calling into question the nature of the collection itself.

Think of how census statistics were initially leveraged by the Nazis in the decision to first list desirable/undesirable, normal/abnormal people; and how this relatively small set of data, and the decision to create lists from it, called into question and further refined the kinds of identification and lists that were needed for social control that began with sterilization projects, and eventually led to complete identification, isolation and exposure of millions of bare lives to death. This conjunction of listing practices, Hollerith machines and discourses of identification and security were in fact, an open-ended cybernetic feedback system wherein control took increasing root and was further refined with every new piece of data that was coded for feedback. Now consider, with such resonant legacy, how each and every digital trace we leave behind today, including messages and email addresses attached to listservs, can equally be leveraged to manifest such lists, efficiently and effectively exposing bare life to such identification and control. I would say, we have just become very accustomed to this way of life, and as such, these practices have receded deeply into our taken-for-granted social reality.

We need look no further than today’s ‘no-fly lists’, and/or security certificate cases here in Canada, and/or equal measures in the UK and US that have spawned practices like rendition, and places like Guantanamo. In the last years we have seen infants, priests, the infirm, and more innocents than not, denied of or restricted in their right to fly, or worse, reprimanded to dire places, as traces and data, beginning with names, are increasingly left behind and continually mined to shape, refine and expand profiles and lists of threats. In this respect, and in terms of identification and control, not much has changed since the Nazi’s first leveraged this conjunction; if anything today’s cybernetic order continues to revolve around and expand such practices globally. What has changed, is the ability of everyday people to engage these same practices for the sake of communication and connection in the form of listservs, blogs, etc. And of course this has clear and massive benefits to the development of knowledge and community, but enough celebratory talk has transpired vis a vis our technological prowess, and I will not further fuel such techno-euphoric myths.

Indeed, to my mind, it is time that such techno-euphoria be placed in its proper context. It is but a single component in a triple bind that ‘list culture’ situates us in: On the one hand, we want to share our stories, insights, ideas and discoveries–this is a necessary and fundamental part of human existence and the development of knowledge–and lists and networked digital technologies do serve this, very efficiently and effectively–but at the same time, each and every digital trace we leave behind further exposes our bare lives and bodies to control, and equally, contributes to entropy and inertia by way of information overload, ultimately leading to increased reliance on quantitative reductions, like ranking lists for navigation in the blogosphere; all at the expense of critical engagement. What is required is more awareness of this triple bind, with the aim of fostering increased critical engagement with ‘new’ technologies, and the entropy, identification and control that are a fundamental part of their historic and contemporary use.

GL: Making lists is a popular activity that also found it equivalent on the Internet like the Listable site, 43things and other todo sites. Also, users vote on a variety of topics and occasions, creating lists of the most popular band, film, song and so on. Is this urge to list something worth studying? Has it got to do with a desire to create a picking order?

KW: It seems clear that since the earliest forms of communication, people have had the desire to list. People have demonstrated desire time immemorial to not only create picking orders, but also I would suggest, to reward them. At the same time, since early literacy, we have also been engaged in a never-ending battle to manage never-ebbing flows of information, or entropy, as von Neumann imagined it. And increasingly, these never-ebbing global flows of information make quantitative-based intellectual technologies, like ranking lists, a necessary part of navigating our ever-increasing information landscape.

But where it has been clear since the emergence of Marxist critique that bottom-line quantitative reductions fuel decision-making in capital order, this has not been so evident in cybernetic order, nor in the development of knowledge, specifically around questions of navigating never-ebbing information flows. The emergence of the blogosphere’s ranking lists are not only another attempt in our never-ending quest to wrangle in entropy through efficient and effective quantitative means, but also, would seem to further cement capital order’s hegemonic use of such reductions in decision-making, rewarding and further cementing people’s desires to neatly package life into the materializable. Indeed, a recent ‘group writing project on lists’ offered up cash and product rewards to random participants willing to post all manner of lists, from short lists, to long lists, to funny lists, to rant-like lists, etc. Additionally, CNN has recently incorporated ‘ranking lists’ in their news coverage, ranking and covering top stories by who is clicking through to what on their website. Tonight’s top story: Mel Gibson’s guilty plea, followed by JonBenet’s killer’s confession…while Lebanon and Israel barely round out the top ten.

And while there is little that is surprising in people’s inclination and fascination with reducing, measuring and competing in such ways, at least in western societies, where our earliest experiences in school and sport encourage things like ‘ranking’ from the get-go; ultimately preparing us for life in global capital competitive order, where quantitative effects-derived reductions, like ‘ranking lists’, are consistently privileged over qualitative affective ‘positions’ of ascribed human value(s); there is cause for great concern and reflection to be given to our increased reliance on quantitative reductions for navigating information/entropy, such as ranking lists, specifically surrounding the development of knowledge. The tendency I see is an increasing emphasis and reliance on connection, specifically, quantitative connection over critically engaged reflection.

Identity wars aside, I have noticed in the last years an increasing preponderance of forwarded (fwd:) information on nettime. It seems to me that as information swells towards infinity, peoples’ desire to critically reflect, and in turn, take positions, wanes. More and more views are forwarded, less and less views are taken. What do you think of this idea in terms of nettime?

GL: Forwarding gets more prominent when community involvement goes down and moderators no longer take initiatives and instead only see their role as administrators. That’s the main reason of nettime’s decline for me. Until 2000 people were invited to post to nettime, debates were arranged. There is a lot of work happening behind the scenes to have an entertaining conversation happening. Things have now moved to the iDC list, run by Trebor Scholz. Why? Because he invites people offlist to post material or respond to certain statement. And because he bans announcements and forwards. One could say though that iDC can put itself into such a luxurious position because other lists are already providing these services, such as Spectre, nettime, and Fibreculture. But yes, it is interesting to interpret forwarding as a symptom of decline, as you suggest: I am active, I forward.

Don’t you think it is useful, when it comes to ranking, to differentiate between blogs and listservs? In the case of lists rankings is informal and subjective. Let’s look into the case of Frau Mustermann who posts a lot on this or that email list and works on her visibility, even though search engine statistics show that this might not be the case. Most of her postings are responses to threads. The ‘listing’ that happens here is only visible later on. I suppose one can measure who is posting on the list most frequently but I have actually never seen anyone doing this type of research. I also do not know if there are software tools to do that kind of research. The point is that inside email-based list culture reputation is not ranked in a quantitative matter. One could perhaps only measure ‘reputation’ if the research would interview community members. Now, if we switch to blogs, the situation is quite different. RSS feeds and tags are there explicitly to get you higher up in the ranking. Everyone on the Web can follow this competitions amongst the blog elite members. Technorati is all about that, and their statistics also have a financial dimension.

KW: Yes, there is clearly a technical difference and practice (or lack thereof) between blogs and listservs that explicitly involves the use of RSS feeds and tags to establish ranking lists. And for me, it is precisely this practice–the privileging of ‘quantitative’ statistics for ranking ‘quality’ of information; measures of value and worth reduced to number of RSS feeds and tags–rife in the blogosphere, that I believe poses dire threats to critical engagement in a society increasingly marked by information/entropy. I contend that closures established by leveraging RSS statistics to materialize ‘ranking lists’ of ascribed human value not only continue to perpetuate capital order’s inherent and hegemonic bias towards quantitative reductions of value, but also further hinder and limit critical engagement in an increasingly entropic social order.

In the case of Frau Mustermann, despite her best attempts to work on her visibility on the listserv, the quantity of posts she sends to the list will always be measured invisibly, in the minds of her audience, based on their own critical engagement with the material. If the knowledge is to be ranked, it will be thus; critically and individually. Indeed, an abundance of posts on the part of Frau Mustermann could very well work to the detriment of her ‘invisible ranking’ on the listserv, and in turn the frequency of her material being consumed by its subscribers. If the quality of the information she posts is critically and continually judged to be poor in the minds of subscribers, no matter how many posts she makes, she will achieve no greater ‘ranking’ in their minds, and certainly no greater audience through forwarding. So despite whatever intentions Frau Mustermann has on a listserv to be #1; there is no #1, no way to be it, no way to rank it, and no way to research it. Who would want to anyway? Frau Mustermann, maybe; corporations, for sure.

Let’s set Frau Mustermann loose upon the blogosphere, where suddenly, the quantity of connections to her blog results in a numerical value ascribed as to the quality of information she provides, materialized in a ‘ranking list’. To what ends might she now strive to increase RSS tags and feeds to her blog? Might she set-up dummy blogs, endless ports on RSS streams that lead us further into critically-defunct nowhere? Might she also cement agreements with corporations who value such numbers and ranks and now have a way of leveraging and ‘researching’ them? Have we not seen such nefarious practice the internet over? Do we not see how ranking further distracts and limits our critical engagement in entropic cybernetic order? As for Frau Mustermann; her rise to the top of the blogosphere’s ranking lists heralds a troubling trend; our waning critical engagement. And if that’s what technorati is all about–how information and ultimately knowledge quantifiably and materially ranks; I want no part of it.

In this way I think of listservs and nettime as productive closures that foster and promote critical engagement. If we understand the internet as cybernetics would have us–as a social experiment in controlled complexity–then we also understand that closings, like listservs, are as important as openings, like blogs; and perhaps the qualitative nature of the closures associated with listservs, specifically, the filtering out of quantitative noise, like ranking lists, might very well be a key to re-awakening critical engagement in a society increasingly plagued by the inertia of information overload.

GL: Let’s extend on this resistance as there is, to my knowledge, little critical knowledge about Technorati and its cynical logic. What I see around me is an ill-informed reluctance amongst activists, but also artists, to start a blog and buy into the PR logic to present one’s persona within this limited, pre-formatted interface. Yet, we also know that this reluctance may as well be a result of ignorance, not being able to keep up with the pace of change. How can we raise awareness of the logic of blogging and ranking and the politics of search engines? How much knowledge should people have about the tools they use? To what extent is it justifiable to distract them from what they do, dealing with issues, producing art works? And then there is the generation question: whereas young people use all these tools without any hesitation, the old generations are hesitating, without really knowing why.

KW: On the ‘generational’ question, one thing that has struck me profoundly lately is how ‘uncritically’ willing people have become to subject themselves to research, analysis and experimentation. I remember very clearly an older generation, in the 1970’s, who were extremely skeptical and critical of ‘scientific’ human research and experimentation. Yet with the rise of digital technologies in the last 30 years we have come to accept human ‘guinea pig status’ almost unconditionally in our everyday lives, attested to in ‘agreements’ struck daily by individuals the world over to ‘license’ all forms of online software tools. One of the first releases in Google’s privacy agreement stipulates: ‘We may also use personal information for auditing, research and analysis to operate and improve Google technologies and services’ (4). Indeed, such ‘experimental’ releases are prominent in almost every end-user software licensing agreement I have ever perused, which is logical, given the cybernetic imperative to mirror, model, and research life in open social order.

So, I believe the hesitancy you are observing in older generations, whether conscious or not, is in fact a remnant of more ecumenical times, when closures besides those of science, such as religion, were privileged far more in everyday life, fostering a skepticism of technology and the iterative research and experimentation inherent in technological practice. And I believe that a return to ‘skepticism’ is what is required now, more than ever; meaning a reinvigoration of people’s critical engagement with technology and a heightened awareness of the control inherent in its use. People need to think more deeply about what aspects of their lives they choose to mirror in the digital realm. In this respect, to answer your question, people, specifically young ones, need a lot more knowledge about the technological tools they are currently and uncritically using, specifically, a critical awareness of how they contribute to identification and control in cybernetic order, which begins with mass acquiescence to research and experimentation. People need to be critically aware that this is happening, and the more they willingly and unconditionally choose to mirror their lives in cybernetic order, the more subject they are to its control.

GL: How could such a suspicion against technology be revived, and wouldn’t it be a step back? Asked about MySpace and why millions of teenagers put intimate data about their private lives online, social networks expert Danah Boyd explained that the surveillance in real life of parents is worse and restricts kids to a far more extend compared to the Web, which is, still, seen as space of freedom to escape into. How would you convince these teenagers? Where to start? How to convince youngster that control by the System is something they should object to? And don’t we have to include in such a debate the traps that Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter have listed in their book The Rebel Sell? How can a subversive culture be established that is no longer buying into rebel lifestyle element in order to promote their critical aims?

KW: What I find particularly interesting in Danah Boyd’s explanation about surveillance in cyberspace for youth paling in comparison to surveillance by parents, is the foregone acceptance by youth that identification and surveillance is a fundamental part of everyday life; it merely being a matter of choosing between the lesser of evils. I believe and hope that ultimately a threshold will be reached, wherein youth ‘lo-jacked’ by cellphones and MySpace will reach a limit in terms of their tolerance for and acquiescence to everyday_moment_to_moment surveillance. In his book ‘The Digital Sublime’ from 2004 Vincent Mosco argues that ‘new’ technologies and technological forms, have always carried with them liberating myths of freedom and democracy. Whether it was the telegraph, radio, television, or cyberspace today, it is only when such communication technologies, forms and practices deeply recede into the social woodwork, fundamentally becoming a part of our everyday lives, that their true power is revealed.

I wonder how youth will feel in the coming years, when updates to MySpace are required as a part of school curriculum? I wonder if resistance to powerful GPS surveillance technologies afforded to parents through family-based cellphone plans has not already begun? Are youths tossing these technologies and practices aside, or are they already performing the unexpected with these devices and/or in these spaces, jerry-rigging them to achieve their own rebellious ends? I have little doubt that eventually resistant instincts to technological surveillance will begin to prevail amongst youth, at least once we all get past the mythic lore of these technologies, when youth, like everyone else, come to see and feel how efficiently and effectively bio-political technologies and spaces expose our bodies to an other’s order.

In this respect, and somewhat facetiously, I look forward to the coming ubiquity of radio_frequency_identification (RFID) in everything we consume; from our shoes, to milk containers, cars and event tickets. Indeed, I wonder how adults with on_star equipped vehicles will react the first time they are summoned to court, familial or judicial, for a seemingly ‘unobserved’ indiscretion in their auto? Or for that matter, how they will begin to resist when they are eventually taxed by the kilometer through such surveillance technologies? I believe and hope that such movements towards complete social mirroring, monitoring and surveillance will ultimately go a long way on their own towards heightening critical instincts and engagement around bio-political technologies and spaces in us all.

GL: Sound like the world upside down to me, in which youth conforms to the norm and the grown ups stand up and rebel. The more wired, the more tired. The longer you’re wired the more you wake up. Right? What interests me in your work is the ‘formative’ aspect of network technologies. Many before you have pointed at the formative in the word information. Why is the enlightening critical work exempted from this? If all information forms, then why bother? How can we escape such generalizing depressing statement that border on techno-determinism?

KW: Despite our ever increasing use and reliance on bio-political_network technologies in cybernetic order, I certainly do not believe us to be determined by them. But whether life’s ‘formations’ are understood as criss-crossing rhizomes; or we see the world as cybernetic organism; or we understand life as a bio-political order: the universe, and information, will always tend towards entropy. That is undeniable. Indeed, the ‘formative’ aspect of network technologies is entropy. And despite this too, human beings continue to, and will always, embody distinct purpose and autonomy in the world. So although I am embedded in an open social order in which communication and information flows freely and endlessly towards entropy, I am nonetheless in constant feedback with the world around me; capable of critiquing, making decisions, imagining other possibilities, acting, learning and growing with others. Far from being automatons, life is continual interaction with our environment and those around us and this is not technologically determined. But nor is critical thought a given in such wide open social order; it must be fostered and maintained and its demise must be guarded against vigilantly.

Indeed, I believe, much like Arjun Appadurai (5), that in a world marked by global cultural flows and schisms, imagination is the central form of agency. And following on such thought, I believe it is crucial to work on peoples’ imaginations, specifically, spurring critical engagement with our increasing everyday reliance on bio-political_network technologies, and how such practices not only efficiently and effectively expose bare life–further cementing it as the fundamental political unit–but also move us towards critical entropy.

In ‘The Dream Machine’ Michael Waldrop sketches out the history of information theory and its direct ties to the physicists understanding of entropy, recounting von Neumann’s insistence to Shannon that information and entropy were one in the same. In fact, von Neumann’s actually insisted that ‘information’, in Shannon’s ‘Information Theory’, be re-named ‘entropy’. Indeed, entropy is understood by physicists as an indicator of the randomness of molecules; randomness, according to the 2nd law of thermodynamics, always increases, never decreases; and the more random something is at the molecular level, the ‘less information’ we have about the arrangement of the molecules; entropy is, in this way, ‘missing information’.

And it is this ‘missing information’ that I think needs to be brought to bear on peoples’ imaginations; how the molecules that constitute our networks are arranged for identification and control; how with every digital trace we leave behind, we not only contribute to further entropy, but also increasingly expose our bare lives to an other’s order. With every passing moment, with every information nugget that is mined, with every trace individuals, groups and communities leave behind that expose bare life to surveillance, identification and control, the diversity and variety of stories we tell and access about life also continue to open infinitely; forwarded in never-ending emails to never-ending lists, hyperlinked ad-infinitum in the blogosphere, reported on an infinity of broadcast channels and websites. And the more stories and information we are exposed to, the more we tend towards critical entropy; meaning, the less we see how the molecules are arranged, the less inclined we are to take positions about the arrangements, and ultimately who arranges them. How could we? Knowing that there is so much more information, and so much more missing information.

In this respect, and back to where we started, our increasing emphasis on quantitative reductions, like ranking lists, at the expense of critically engaged qualitative thought, can be seen as bottom_line strategies for efficiently navigating our increasingly entropic (sic networked) cybernetic order. Indeed, cybernetic order is marked by such fundamental contradictions and ambiguities; the deployment of information to ever-expanding global bio_political feedback systems to the cause of an open society, but to the effect of a controlled one, plagued by information overload and waning critical engagement. Escape from here is in our imaginations and I believe that exposing these contradictions and ambiguities for imagining, whether depressing or not, is certainly worth the bother.

(1) Review of Goetz Aly & Karl-Heinz Roth, Die restlose Erfassung, Berlin, 1984.

(2) Goody, Jack. 1977. The domestication of the savage mind. Cambridge Eng. ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

(3) Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo sacer : sovereign power and bare life. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.


(5) Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.” Pp. 27-47 in Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.