Saturday, September 29, 2018

"Five theses on technoliberalism and the networked public sphere"

Via the journal Communication and the Public (CAP) SagePub.
How have digital technologies affected the market logics and economization that constitute the underlying governing rationality of neoliberalism? This essay unfurls five theses that further develop the concept of technoliberalism, the intensification of neoliberalism through computational technology, in the context of the networked public sphere:
(1) technoliberalism names the dominant governing rationality in cultures where digital computation technology suffuses everyday life;
(2) technoliberalism replaces public, democratically accountable power with the private, technical expertise of digital technology firms;
(3) technoliberalism focuses on contriving technical systems to change culture at the expense of democratic argument and deliberation;
(4) technoliberalism intensifies the commodification of attention, resulting in undemocratic forms of “noopower”; and
(5) technoliberalism standardizes subjectivities through grammatization. Each thesis complicates the prospects of democratic deliberation in the networked public sphere and articulates lines of communication research necessary for keeping democratic practices vibrant.

On 12 September 2017, Apple’s senior vice-president for retail, Angela Ahrendts, took the stage during the annual Apple Keynote event. Ahrendts followed Apple CEO Tim Cook, who had, adhering to the generic expectations of these technology events, just extolled the virtues of new technical improvements across Apple’s offerings—most notably announcing details about the new iPhone X smartphone. As Ahrendts shared Apple’s evolving retail strategy, she noted,

It’s funny, because we actually don’t call them “stores” anymore. We call them “town squares” because they’re gathering places for 500 million people who visit us very year ... places where everyone’s welcome, and where all of Apple (2017a) comes together.

Ahrendts went on to detail how Apple Stores in major metropolitan areas were being redesigned with plazas to “meet up with friends” or “listen to a local artist on the weekends.” Inside, she explained, “we’ve designed a forum, a place for customers to create, collaborate, or just connect again with one another” (Apple, 2017a). The corporate absorption of the language of democratic gathering, paired with the simultaneous positioning of the subject as a consumer rather than a citizen, is legible as a species of neoliberal rhetoric.

Apple’s shift in marketing strategy appears, if nothing else, as a cynical public relations stunt to co-opt democratic ideals and increase their own profits. Yet, Ahrendts’ announcement offers a slight twist on the typical neoliberal fare, one that foregrounds the role of digital technology in intensifying the particular governing rationality of late capitalism—what we will refer to as “technoliberalism” (Malaby, 2009; Pfister, 2018).

This twist can be detailed with further exploration of the activities envisioned for the new Apple Town Squares. An April 2017 press release announcing “Today at Apple” programming adumbrates the pivot from retail store to town square, quoting Ahrendts saying,

We’re creating a modern-day town square, where everyone is welcome in a space where the best of Apple comes together to connect with one another, discover a new passion, or take their skill to the next level. We think it will be a fun and enlightening experience for everyone who joins. (Apple, 2017b)

What kinds of activities will these new Apple Town Squares offer? Photography workshops that teach tips on “capturing candids” or “building a brand on social media,” Teacher Tuesdays for school instructors “to learn new ways to incorporate technology into their classrooms,” opportunities for businesspeople “to engage with global and local entrepreneurs in the new Business Circuits program,” specialized Kids Hours teaching coding with Apple’s programming language or how to make music with Apple’s GarageBand, and lessons on community organizing from local radicals (Apple, 2017b). 
As if! 
The incongruity of that last farcical item with the activities actually outlined in Apple’s vision for its retail stores lays bare the fantasy that these spaces would be hospitable to the wide range of activities that sustain civic culture in town squares and other public spaces. “Everyone” who joins the activities at the Apple Town Squares will be welcome so long as they pursue individual, depoliticized, aesthetic projects.

While traditional town squares are often sites of public pedagogy, places where citizens go to learn from each other, Apple’s vision of public pedagogy is avowedly market driven. As technology journalist James Vincent (2017) explains it, “Apple frames these disciplines [of photography, coding, and music- making that will take place in the new town squares] as modern equivalents to the Medieval trivium —an essential educational resource that makes a person a person.” Ahrendts licenses this analogy in the Apple Keynote by announcing a new position within their retail structure: the Creative Pro, who helps bring Apple users’ visions to life using the latest Apple technologies.

Ahrendts explains that “the Creative Pro is now to liberal arts what the G/genius has always been to technology” (Apple, 2017a). It isn’t clear if Ahrendts was referring to technological geniuses throughout history or to the “Geniuses” who provide technical support at Apple retail stores. In either case, Ahrendts’ intimation is that there is finally a use for those liberal arts degrees: they can be harnessed to Apple’s computational processing power to help customers take more striking portrait photos or develop a consistent Instagram brand.

To put it mildly, this represents a departure from articulations of the liberal arts that reigned in earlier moments of liberalism. Traditionally, advocates have tied defenses of the liberal arts to participation in public life; indeed, the classic trivium of the liberal arts— rhetoric, grammar, and logic—formed the basis of education for centuries so that citizens could be capable of the argumentation and advocacy required for a robust public sphere. Now, following Ahrendts’ reasoning, the liberal arts are being repurposed for more market-oriented ends. Hannah Arendt’s (1958) “space of appearance,” a place where the trivium was practiced for democratic ends, is thus converted into Angela Ahrendts’ marketplace of appearance, where Apple’s new trivium is yoked to more efficiently moving consumer products. While land ownership was once a condition for participation in the public sphere,

Apple’s vision of the public sphere presumes one has an Apple device. What is lost in the articulation of Apple Stores as the new Town Squares is the sense of traditional town squares (understood as common meeting places for citizens) to support collective action oriented toward raising attention about systematic problems of public life. Private, corporate spaces do not have the legal protections of public spaces for freedom of speech, assembly, and protest.

It is difficult to imagine Apple Town Squares tolerating a protest about labor conditions at Foxconn factories where Apple products are made. This is especially so given the recent court case that granted the Mall of America the authority to remove Black Lives Matters protesters from their premises (Brown, 2016; Moeckli, 2016).
“This vision of civic action,” Megan Beam and Greg Dickinson (2015) argue in the context of the new lifestyle centers where many Apple Stores are housed: is made possible only and exclusively through the structures of consumer capitalism. And the modes of affiliation offered are not those of a community built of difference, but those built out of the smallest units imaginable: the individual and the nuclear family. (p. 180) 
Absorbing the civic language of the town square implies that Apple Stores will carry democracy’s torch; yet, the constraints of the space, the kinds of groups and the activities that are encouraged to occupy that space, and the telos of the corporation all portend market activity rather than civic activity...MORE (16 page PDF)
As we've noted elsewhere, using the example of Foxconn ranges from either a bit of a straw man to an outright falsehood depending on whether one is comparing working conditions on the Shenzhen factory floor vs. Tim Cook's office in Cupertino (straw man) or the suicides by workers in 2010 (statistical falsehoods) which made international headlines and about which we noted in 2012's:
 "What May Happen When the Foxconn Robots Become Self-Aware"
...In 2010 when 18 Foxconn employees attempted suicide and 14 succeeded there was a worldwide outcry.
This outcry stemmed from a number of factors including an ignorance of statistics and a profound ignorance of suicide in human populations.

At the time Foxconn had 930,000 employees (now 1.2mil.) resulting in a suicide rate of 0.001505376% or 1.505 per 100,000.* According to the all-knowing one, Wikipedia, the rate for China as a whole was 22.23 per 100,000.

The Foxconn rate was lower than that of 99 countries including every country in Europe, the U.S. (12.0) and the rest of the G20.

As a general rule, if you aren't feeling too chipper stay out of Eastern Europe and the Western U.S.

*Half of the workforce is in the gigantic Shenzhen complex of facilities. 14/450,000 only gets you to 3.1 per 100,000 or about the rate of Malta and less than a third of the worldwide rate of 10.07 per 100K.
Yeah, I looked it up.

Not meaning to sound like an Apple apologist, they can handle their own PR but bringing up Foxconn was just a facile way for the writers to make the point that turning over hitherto public functions to private entities does limit free speech.
The rest of the piece is worth a read if so inclined.