Skeins and the social

‘In civilizations without [browsers], dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.’ Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces’, 1967. Updated

The word skein is a strange one, and sadly underused. It’s got a bunch of meanings; to my mind, and when I came up the idea for this post, it was the trailing wake of something moving through a medium, but that’s actually a very minor (if not entirely subjective) definition. It also refers, specifically, to the V shape of geese flying in formation and an interesting application in knot theory, as well as being a spool of thread

Which, as I thought about it, actually fitted so well with an idea which I’ve been pondering a lot, and which came to a sort of fruition after reading both Bruce Sterling and James Bridle’s pieces on the New Aesthetic (ugh, capitalisation) and then visiting Jesse Darling’s exhibition ‘Stockholm Syndrome and Other System Failures’ exhibition. The new aesthetic and Jesse’s work are both trying to engage with facets of what it means to live in a world with mass produced and inherently digital objects and culture, and instant access to not just information that is of the world, but information that is in it; people, interactions and relationships.

So let’s talk about what I mean by ‘skein’, and why I think it’s a useful idea. The new aesthetic talks about the ways that machines ‘see’ the world; well, a facet of skein is the way the machines see us; especially the machines that are trained upon us. The drone is a potent symbol of this, but perhaps something more abstract in my mind; the clumsy way that the online marketing machines actually target us. Digital rights advocates (rightly) fight the acquisition and retention of personal data which goes on to be used mainly for targeting advertising. But given the volume of information collected on even the most cautious of us, the thing that must be acknowledged that these machines do not see well; we have all been chased from site to site by adverts; some intersection of our interests, google searches and browser articles means our attention is constantly being bid for by certain companies (mine are and, a converse shoe factory outlet). The ads for their products are familiar parts of the web landscape for me, popping up everywhere from the guardian website. On Amazon I am trailed by the shades of gifts I’ve bought others, or links to amusing reviews I’ve been IM’d. But the small intersection of the advertisers Venn diagrams that you fit into based on your web histories is a long way from being accurate, or, I suspect, really driving a great deal of traffic and conversions.

So I think this is the Stockholm Syndrome Jesse’s work helped me understand; that there is a comfort in, and perhaps an unhealthy forbearance of, online advertising and the impression that you are being tracked. And like stockholm syndrome, it’s the lack of exposure, violation, or even violence that brings us slowly to empathise with the point of view of the advertising drones. We feel a dissonance when we read stories of family photos being used in billboard adverts, or closeted kids being exposed by their facebook sidebar ads, or even the loyalty vouchers that Sainsbury’s had to stop sending as they knew people were trying to become pregnant before their partners and families. That dissonance is a violation of the intentionality we had ascribed to the bots; it’s to for you to watch, but don’t mess with me IRL. How deliciously voyeuristic.

The ad tracking networks are watching us, but what they see are not our footprints, just tiny impressions without narrative or intentionality. They are the malicious version of Berg’s ‘Be As Smart as a Puppy’; slavishly following and demanding attention, but occasionally pissing on the sofa or running around the house with a toilet roll.

I talked about nostalgia before; the wealth of history that you and your friends understand in it’s context, and how that can flow as part of the ‘timeline’, but not in discrete, packaged chunks. What I’m now finding is that that’s speeding up; recollection and familiarity are almost immediate, as we see quotes from articles before we’ve had a chance to rescue them from our instapaper libraries, or see them referenced in other, briefer, blog posts, or chat about them over a coffee with a colleague. Something that’s pushed this into my face is using Stellar, an app which is hard to describe, but addictive. It (as far as I can tell) let’s me follow people whose updates I often ‘like’ (or fave, or star, or whatever), and it shows me what they liked. And so it’s this hodgepodge of ‘read later’ starring, personal scrap booking and awesome tweets, videos and photos, with the most interesting updates being items that only one person has faved. This is an important part of what I think of as the social skein of the internet.

In the days of myspace, we had to actively seek the out updates and activity from our friends; the activity stream was in some ways Facebook’s breakthrough. While the stream wasn’t a new concept, Face made it their own, and adapted, tweaked, optimised and redesigned it countless times to keep you coming back, to keep you ‘liking’, and to actually show you relevant content. It works pretty well, in that you’re unlucky to ever miss a friends birth, engagement or birthday announcement, but not so well that you feel that you’ve seen all you need to. The clumsy metric is still the same; if something has more likes, comments or other interactions, I’ll see it. Recently, though, I’m seeing links being shared, and watching the spread of ‘content’ (oh please, let’s not bring up Kony 2012 here). But what content?

If the advertising skein is that of the wake of the boat, then this aspect is more like the geese flying in formation; a more traditional confirmation bias, but externalised. The machines are presenting me with the content they know I will click on, or like, and not even letting me make my own decision as to whether I feel like being challenged today. Except to articles like poor Samantha Brick’s, which are flagged up as controversial, and which was perfectly launched by the Mail’s online team at the monday morning coffee drinkers were blearily checking their twitter.

In fact, let’s talk (briefly) about that Kony video. Why was it so insanely popular, so fast? Because of how it was seeded; by ensuring that it was pushed into lots of different social groups and shared inside these tribes over a period of 48 hours, Invisible Children made sure that the algorithms pushed it to everyone who was checking their feeds. Twitter’s ‘trending’ algorithms frustrate activists because topics that are ongoing and popular don’t appear, and loud volumes between similar users are ignored. What the Kony video did was ensure that there were new groups beginning to talk about the video constantly, tricking the algorithms into seeing freshness. And didn’t it work well.

So the content machines know what they can shovel at us, and the advertising drones think they know what we want to buy, and thankfully mostly this just isn’t working that well. But our skeins are becoming more defined and more codified. We are going to have to become literate about the ways we are seen by the machines; not just in terms of wearing dazzle makeup to avoid facial recognition, but learning to hack the behavioural predictors.

I’ve lived most of my life in london in pretty close proximity to Thomas Bayes’ grave, and made a few visits. Bayes’ statistics help us to understand a simple question; if this thing has happened (or, more precisely, if we now have more information about something), how does that affect the chances of another thing happening (or, again, more precisely, another statement being true). It helps us avoid spam email, but it’s starting to hinder us with poorly targeted advertising and clumsy invitations to bolster the opinions we already hold (or at least look at yet another adorable puppy gif). We need to start to think about what it would mean to have perfectly targeted recommendations for things to buy, eat, see, watch, drink, visit, read, listen too and so on. And we need to ask if it’s a good thing, and if not, how we can stop the machines trying to understand us.

And finally, that spool of thread, doubled, doubled and knotted, that is also a skein. Foucault’s work on 20th century power relationships talks about “a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein”; he’s saying this in the context of his term ‘heterotopia’, described in ‘Of Other Spaces’. Heterotopia is (put as simply as one can with Foucault), the existence between actual social realities and societal utopias. Foucault says the ship is the perfect heterotopia, existing between spaces and time and self contained; I think the browser is the perfect heterotopia of our time; a space we can enter and exist, but wherein we become someone else and engage with more ideal forms of 21st century society. The smartphone generation see this, escaping into a 3.5” rectangle of glass, escaping the difficulty of IRL life for the comforting updates, alerts and codified status updates of virtual friends. We must resist this comforting anonymity and ensure we take the best of online, offline, while fighting the urge to farmville our lives away. Jesse’s work highlights this; the 640x480 framed anonymous cleavage of the reply girl, inviting trolls in an urge to be empowered and even paid through the reclaiming of ‘tits or GTFO’, and the comforting familiarities of Billy bookshelves that you and everyone you know owns; the cultural vehicle to say, ‘sure, I read, but not in a threatening fashion’, as facets of the same urge; to be accepted, we have to immerse ourselves in this culture of exhibition that has sprung up, and endorse the signs and signifiers that go along with whatever persona we have decided represents us best, while still being able to belief we are a unique and delicate snowflake.

To conclude; the idea here is that we need to become aware of, and attempt to control, our skein online. Understand how we are seen by the advert drones, and subvert them to be sure that we each remain the market sector of one we all so desperately believe we are; take comfort in the trail of poorly targeted adverts we see. Resist the comfortable content your networks place in front of you all the time, and seek out people who will seed your timeline with uncomfortable truths and contrary opinions. Understand that your browser is just that, for browsing, and that for real human connection and insight, we must find the best balance of online and offline, and take our place, not as render ghosts, but as residents.

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