The Network as Interpassive Object

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


December 12, 2011

The Network as Interpassive Object

danah boyd wrote something very interesting today on her blog:

When I was growing up online, talking to strangers allowed me to getting [sic] different perspectives on the world. As a queer teen, the internet allowed me to connect with people who helped me grapple with hard questions around sexuality. I very much thank the internet for playing a crucial role in helping me survive high school. In 2001/2, I visited the online forums that I grew up in, only to find that they were filled with hateful messages directed at LGBT youth by religious ideologues who, quite simply, told these kids they were going to hell. I learned that LGBT networks had gone underground.

As the sexual predator moral panic kicked in in 2005, youth started telling me about how all internet strangers were dangerous. They swallowed the message they’d been told, hook, line, and sinker. What really startled me were all of the LGBT youth I met who told me that they had no one to talk with… I’d ask them if they connected with other LGBT folks online and they’d look at me with horror before talking about how scary/sketchy/bad strangers were.

As a self-described “youth advocate”, it’s strange that boyd ascribes so little agency to these teens. When she was a teenager, she used the internet to find supportive people who helped her in a difficult time, but when today’s LGBT teens find hateful religious bigots. Is it so crazy for them to believe that strangers on the internet are dangerous? The internet has changed since danah boyd was a teenager – it was the province of tolerant countercultural types who accepted differences, but as it became mainstream, it started to reflect more mainstream and less tolerant values. If teenagers believe the internet is populated with dangerous bigotry, but not because they have passively accepted brainwashing – boyd herself admits that that this is what they have found.

Boyd asks if LGBT youth are no longer able to connect with support structures, does this lead to an increase in suicide? And if so, who is responsible? She suggests that “stranger danger” is to blame, but fails to implicate large corporate interests who converted the internet from a space for academics, geeks and subcultures to a mainstream commercial phenomenon.

In his review of Jeff Jarvis, Public Parts, Evgeny Morozov remarked, “In Jarvis’s universe, all the good things are technologically determined and all the bad things are socially determined.” This seems to go for danah boyd as well. As a teenager, she met some people who were supportive and encouraging, and without that help, she would not have survived high school. Is she grateful to those individuals? Apparently not - she credits “the internet” instead. But now that the internet has moved from a force for good to a force for evil, this technological determinism vanishes – she blames the media, parents, marketers, talk shows, reality TV; social determinism takes the starring role.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that danah boyd is not so much a youth advocate as an internet advocate – if “the youth” reject her preferred means of saving them, she sees them as pathological victims of media brainwashing. In the blog post, she talks about her chance encounter with former Columbine students who told her how in the aftermath of the tragedy, they were relentlessly hounded by the media. It’s interesting that she emphasizes that she didn’t go looking for them – “I was in my tent, writing in my journal, when a group of kids asked me if they could come in. We got to talking…” Presumably this is intended to shore up her credentials as being on the side of teenagers, quite unlike the media she criticizes, even though her research for Microsoft on youth on the internet subjects teenagers to a similar kind of surveillance.

But she also does not make the connection that social networking sites expose teenagers to an even more pervasive and implacable paparazzi assault. Of the Columbine teenagers she met, she reports: “they couldn’t hang out with friends, how they had no place to go anymore because the press would sit on their lawns and beg them for more details.” Sitting on our own virtual lawns and constantly begging for details is not such a bad description of user-generated content sites that she enthusiastically enables through her research.

We see an analog to this kind of thinking – good effects are technological and bad effects are social – in the way that the Egyptian revolution was credited to Twitter and Facebook. We’re told that the internet is inherently democractic and laden with liberal values, but when authoritarian regimes use the internet to shore up their repressive rule, this is not the fault of “the internet” – technology becomes neutral. This shift implies that they subtly impute agency to the internet, as danah boyd does when she thanks the internet for the actions of real people. The internet is basically good, and if it does do anything bad, it was led astray by bad people.

In this, we can read the traces of Žižekian interpassivity, the opposite of interactivity - the idea that objects take on the burden of activity for us: a DVR “watches” TV for us; a Tibetan prayer flag prays for us with every flap of the breeze; canned laughter laughs for us so we can relax and watch silently. Here, the internet, reified as an object, takes on our political values, intentions and goals so that we can remain passive, a reversal of the familiar rhetoric that the internet offers greater participation and activity. We know that “the internet’s true goal” is democracy, and promoting authoritarianism is a misuse of it because those are secretly our intentions.

Morozov criticizes the term “Twitter Revolution” because it credits American technology companies rather than actual Egyptian activists in Tahrir Sqaure – this is undoubtably an important point. But it is also possible to look at it in the opposite way: by ascribing agency to “the internet,” we Western liberal voters are able to disavow our own responsibility and involvement in Mideast politics. On one hand, we feel a responsibility (or superego injunction, guilt) to do something to democratize authoritarian countries, but also feel guilty for forcing other countries to do what we want. “The internet did it” offers the illusion of doing both, registering our lack of activity rather than taking responsibility for it.

In a previous post The Anarchist at the End of the Universe, I noted a closely related phenomenon at work in anachist collectives in Zucotti Park – rather than openly admit that they are de facto leaders, those who control the General Assembly hide behind the term “facilitators.” We see same disavowal of political agency, and both of these positions are perfectly compatible with today’s dominant ideology that Žižek identifies as post-ideological ideology which claims to reject all forms of ideology and only tries to solve concrete problems in a non-partisan way. Just as the anarchist consensus-based organizations want to include all views, today’s neoliberal technocrats are also open to all views on how to solve problems.

Some commentators have interpreted the Occupy Wall Street movement as evidence that traditional American political institutions no longer represent the interests of the people. Zeynep Tufekci poses it as a conflict between institutional power and network power, and she has told politicians that their time is coming to a close, soon to be replaced by new, growing forms of networked organizations that empower the people. But viewing the internet (and networked organization) as interpassive objects, we come to the opposite conclusion: the network algorithm diffuses, distributes and obfuscates power, disempowering all politics. That’s what we like about it. Network politics relieves us of our agency, assuring us that our viewpoint is just one among the great diversity of viewpoints, which will all be safely neutralized before they coalesce into an idea and explode as a truly disruptive, revolutionary act.