Becoming Digital
February 03, 2018
University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning

Esther Choi took part in a panel titled "Audience/ Experience" at the "Becoming Digital" conference. Hosted by the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, "Becoming Digital" was organized by Ellie Abrons and Adam Fure.

This panel addressed the ways in which creators of content build an audience through web-based platforms, and how aesthetic experience is fundamentally changed by digital production. Moderated by Thom Moran and Laida Aguirre, the session's panelists included Lucia Allais (Princeton University School of Architecture), André Brock (University of Michigan Communication Studies), Esther Choi (Princeton University School of Architecture) and Megan Sapnar Ankerson (University of Michigan Communication Studies).

Becoming Digital

(Transcript of Esther's talk, "Nature in the Digital Commons")

We’re all familiar with the metaphors used to describe the digital frontier: its real-time capabilities allow us to connect to anyone anywhere on the grid in an instant, surf its information superhighways to unknown destinations, access data and images of an unprecedented quantity, and effect the shipment of money and goods around the world with the click of a button.

But move past this Netscape, and you’ll find a land of unknown treasures still: a more rugged terrain, at the centre of which flows a digital equivalent of an outmoded primordial ooze. It’s filled with critter-like pixels that scurry about, tracking the websites we view to sell us useless products. There are vast canyons and mountain ranges of cyber junk, forgotten Myspace pages, and the crumbling ruins of Angelfire sites. If you’re lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of the hardworking little trolls that tend to come out at night, who mine its chatrooms and message boards with toil and strife. And then, there are the parts of the unmapped deep web or Onionland where we dare not go. Where forging node paths prove difficult, with its dark web of torrents, encryption, botnets, and block chain processing.

Indeed, the internet is a web of life, with its own laws and rules and values to which it abides. It’s also a fossil record growing at the time scale of the present now. Unless remnants are scrubbed clean and given a proper burial, they don’t decompose. They accumulate endlessly. In this environment, extinction is relativized and death is the norm. The minute one thing dies, four hundred thousand others are born.

One of the things about spending time in this world, just like any other place, is that when you start to spend a great deal of time in it, it starts to change you. It has its own systems of language, customs, and aesthetic preferences that seem to exacerbate some less than attractive aspects of human behaviour. In particular, the social sphere of a photo sharing application called Instagram—which has proven to be a significant part of the infrastructure of the cultural imagination—has been a mirror for thinking about the politics of community and the commons. In fact, I was just thinking to myself while scrolling through its ads the other day that for all of its pretence towards connection (which, I’m not sure is inherently a positive thing), it seems to be doing the opposite. It seems to be encouraging an attitude of neoliberal, anthropocenic individualism. In my view, this is particularly noticeable in its image forms of nature, which present a distorted relationship between the self, technics, and the natural world.

Let me explain by taking a quick detour.

You may be familiar with this story: when Instagram was acquired for $1 billion dollars in 2012, it had no revenue, but it was purchased by a company whose platform was based on a pretty cynical vision of human nature. You guessed it: Facebook. Instagram was a fairly benign application at the time, akin to a stylized Flicker account for your iPhone, where you could post low-resolution photos with kitsch filters. But one of the kings of this digital frontier, Mark Zuckerberg, who, lest us not forget, studied at Harvard with a double concentration in computer science and psychology, understood the soft power of image forms, especially when combined with social networking. Like Facebook, which from its infancy offered a view of human nature based on comparison, Instagram could perform this function just as well, if not better. The idea behind both platforms was, quite simply, that people want to look at what other people are doing and what they like in order to compare, exhibit, boast, and impress others about their activities.

Facebook caught the attention of its first external investor, Peter Thiel, because it echoed the ideas of a philosopher he became interested in while a philosophy major at Stanford. The philosopher was René Girard, who theorized that mimetic desire is at the root of all human behaviour.1 Whereas needs (e.g. hunger) are based on instinct, desire, he argued, is based on imitation. In other words, desire is not creaturely; it’s socially constructed. But Girard had a fairly moribund view of human nature. As empty vessels, he thought we have no intrinsic sense of identity but we have an instinct to copy and imitate. Contrary to the Romantic myth that our desires are expressions of our individual autonomy, human desire is actually arbitrary; it’s unaware of its own objective. The writer John Lancaster paraphrased this stance with the statement: we are homo mimeticus. For this reason, our desire needs to be directed by a third-party mediator: another person or thing, onto whom we project value or worth—such as an ad, an authority, an elite figure, an app, or, in the case of Instagram, a paid “influencer”— to tell us what to desire. We desire a thing because this third party appears to want it. In the realm of social media, this void caused by desire is a perfect invitation for marketers to step in.

So, here we are, together– pit against each other, and alone. Like the new age neologisms populating Instagram that distort ecological ideals of "oneness" as a foil for putting you at the centre of the universe, togetherness and community have become catchwords for mimetic desire. It stands to reason that this stance is also distorting our perceptions of our place in the larger context of the "natural" world. I can speak to several examples, all of which can be found on Instagram, that unapologetically position nature, along with its biological systems, resources, and organisms, as fodder for social engineering and capital accumulation. In so doing, I believe they persistently reinforce a narrative that the natural world is unequivocally an ever-replenishing playground for humankind to extract, domesticate, and direct, in so far that nature can bring us some semblance of satisfaction, despite the irrefutable ecological crisis that is taking place.

Take, for instance, the wellness and health industries and the commodity culture of self-improvement, which inscribes the human body as a site for intervention and voluntary biological engineering. From controversial $135 coffee enemas, to the extraction of precious minerals for crystal-healing water bottles and jade yoni eggs, and the harvesting of rare herbs and spices for wellness oils and brain potions, the body has become a literal repository for the calming, soothing, and optimizing effects of “Cheap Nature.” Likewise, nutriment has adopted the efficiency and formality of space food. It is in this example that perhaps nature and technics merge in the strangest ways to represent the natural in its most synthetic guise. Plant life, in all its marvellous imperfection, has been turned into pastel smoothies (the most efficient food commodity) or spandreled avocado toasts (an edible with the greatest cultural cachet) that mimic the plastic gradients of Rhino renderings.

But I think this condition of instrumentalizing the web of life becomes best summed up in situations where human subjectivity collides with the creaturely other. In the Playstation video game called "Everything", a player can embody anything and thus colonize everything in the universe, from cells to trains to galaxies, all the while amassing specimens of knowledge in the naturalist’s taxonomic tradition. Both natural and manmade are equal and animate in this universe; they are all within the reach of human control. Despite its rhetoric of relationality, the player never experiences discomfort when adopting the experience of the nonhuman, the inorganic, or the manufactured Other. At the centre of this universe is still the egoic “I” in control. Characterised by the new age neologisms of Alan Watts whose narration pops up sporadically throughout the game, he says:

Every creature in the universe that is in any way sensitive and in any manner of speaking conscious regards itself as a human being. It knows and is aware of a hierarchy of beings above it and a hierarchy of beings below it.

We feel like a ghostly phantom following a protagonist on their journey. We are still us.

Charles Foster, a nature writer, lawyer, and Oxford professor, tried to enact “Everything” in real life, seeking to live life as a badger, a fox, an otter, a stag, and a swift in order to inhabit lives that are not his own.2 Aware of the obvious physiological differences, his experiment entailed a kind of gung-ho immersion: sleeping in a sett in a Welsh hillside, catching fish with his teeth, crawling on all fours, understanding a landscape through scent, and eating earthworms whilst noting their terroir. While reading his fascinating account, I was struck by his close observations of the anatomical differences between species. Take, for instance, the muscular sphincter that badgers have just before the entrance to their nostrils, which they can close up when they’re digging to prevent earth from getting in. Or imagine his difficulty enacting non-bipedal movements, such as scuffling out of a hillside on all fours. The profundity of his account lies in the overwhelming limitations by being human. Foster’s experiment was based largely on the ideas of Jakob von Uexküll, a German biologist in the early 20th century. Von Uexküll's theory of the Umwelt proposed that organisms produce a perception of their world based on the information generated through their senses.3 The Umwelt is the literal boundary or “surrounding world” which forms their subjective reality. As such, the worldview of a tick comprised of three stimuli (butyric acid, a mammal, and warmth) would radically differ from, say, the worldview of a chimpanzee, a carrot, or a frog.

The cleft between the human and nonhuman has infiltrated the cultural imagination in the digital commons as well. Consider Instagram's and Snapchat's use of animal filters as shamanic skins that can perfectly overlay and align creaturely signifiers atop our human realities. Yet, I’m growing increasingly convinced that we place these animal skins over us, not as a heartfelt attempt to bridge the species divide, but because we still believe, at our core, that these creatures or natural constructs are extensions of us. For the mimetic drive here seems more evocative of ritualized practices of cloaking oneself in the hide of the creaturely other to symbolize our own power, strength, and dominance. Indeed, the overt tone of domestication in the rendering of these animals is evidence enough. (They have since removed all endangered species in favour of cats, dogs, and neutered bears rendered to resemble stuffed animals. Likewise, it comes as no surprise that Instagram is populated with images of endangered animals that people try to keep in their homes as pets.)

For those of us concerned with image forms and polity, what are we to make of these cartooned technological and evolutional logics superimposed atop our current situation of rampant geobiophysical meddling? In an age of the Anthropocene, at a time where we are literally treading on terra incognita, what does it mean to augment images of the built and managed environments and human and nonhuman constituencies into a space where processes of extinction and obsolescence are the norm? Given the immense time that we spend on these apps, absorbing its values and mores through habituation, might this subtly encourage us to maintain a somewhat glib, utopian denial of our role in the planetary mess we’ve created? Rather than viewing these examples as ironic gambits, consider the eruption of similar logics in the world, such as the mimetic tendencies of landform building wherein architecture is slipping inside the shamanic skin of geological massing, appearing as mountains, ocean waves, and topography.

We are, perhaps, too inside the contours of our contemporary moment to know. But I would urge us to be vigilant in our awareness of the perversions of the digital frontier, and, above all, its allegiance to capital accumulation, which will always naturalize the exploitation of nature for food, raw materials, energy, and labour power, in unsustainable terms. And if you, like Wall Street, had any doubt of the digital commons's allegiance to the market, fear not, for the owner of one microcosm recently offered them–and us–these words of reassurance: “When you care about something, you’re willing to see ads to experience it.”