Courtesy of Stephen Yang

February 24, 2021

YANG | How to Counter-Culture in the Age of Surveillance?

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The imaginaries of surveillance have entered our popular culture in pervasive ways. To borrow a term from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, content that speaks to the countercultural resistance toward the “societies of control” has been blossoming across genres and mediums. 

And there’s a newness to the “societies of control,” which largely center around the tech hegemony known as Big Tech, depicted in contemporary popular culture. The success of Black Mirror, particularly the episode “Nosedive,” is an archetypal reflection of the emergence of a culture of surveillance. Surveillance — namely watching and being watched — is now the default as not only a way of living, but as the norm of living.

Our information society is a surveillance society. Since the publishing of Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism, surveillance has been widely used as the buzz word to conceptualize the emerging logics of a society organized by Big Tech. But the prevalent use (and misuse) of the term often obfuscates more than it elucidates. This is especially perplexing when it comes to cultural industries, where the concept of surveillance fails to capture the essence of the changing landscape of the attention economy for cultural producers.

This is not to say that surveillance is no longer relevant as a concept. Rather, I’m saying that it is a lot more useful to talk about surveillance and platforms at the same time. As Prof. Lee Humphreys, communication, puts it:, “Inherent to the definition of surveillance is the power or influence over others.” In the realm of culture, platforms present the most power in influencing what we see in the discursive space.

At the present juncture, platforms seem to occupy a dominant position in our society. Our everyday life has been soaked into the ecologies of platforms. We rely on platforms for just about everything from socializing with friends, listening to music, reading news and to buying stocks. Our life has been largely platformized, a process only accelerated by the virtualness of our pandemic life.

Platformization matters. It can be said that our surveillance culture is only made possible by the platformization of culture. Conceptualized as “flat, featureless and open to all,” the term “platform” is used by tech companies to describe themselves as neutral hosts of users’ content, as Cornell Professor Tarleton Gillespie articulated in his canonical article

But platforms have politics. Arts and culture have politics, too. Gillespie sheds light on the implication when these companies are intrinsically intermediaries that hold the power to shape discourses with their own politics. Platforms need not proactively censor one’s content in order to exert their influence. They can govern their discursive spaces simply by rendering certain content invisible through the use of personalization algorithms. 

When arts and culture are “mediated” by such platforms, there emerges an underlying tension between platforms and cultural producers on the governance of cultural production. Such tension has given rise to a culture of surveillance in which we’re always watching (the discursive spaces) and being watched (by platforms) at the same time.

Most hard hit by the emergence of surveillance culture are the countercultures. Before platforms existed, such communities resided in abandoned warehouses, communicated on bulletin-board systems, and were written into existence in zines. In the age of platforms, they have dispersed in all directions in the digital sphere.

The reason is simple: Their very existence is incompatible with the central tenets of surveillance culture. Countercultures seek to either challenge norms of the mainstream by being hyper visible or establish an alternative discursive space by being away from the mainstream. Big Tech platforms barely serve their needs.

Therefore, countercultural communities have attempted to find alternatives beyond the rhizomatic presence of Big Tech. For instance, underground musicians who disagree with Spotify’s policies have increasingly migrated to alternative platforms like Soundcloud, Bandcamp, and Resident Advisor. In another case, amateur pornstars have moved from Tumblr to Twitter since the former platform’s NSFW ban. 

Nonetheless, it seems that these attempts have yielded limited success so far. Most of these communities merely moved from platform to platform. After all, there’s little room for visibility if such communities migrate to the margins of the Internet, beyond the reach of Big Tech platforms. 

These days, it seems rare to come across the online equivalents of underground venues, independent bookstores and art cinema. Does that mean the platformization of culture signals the end of counterculture?

I’m pretty sure this is not the end of counterculture. But, what are some alternatives to platforms? Are there alternatives besides alternative platforms? We may want to find out the answer soon.

Meanwhile, there are also countercultures that repurpose existing major platforms to serve their own needs. Communities like the Brooklyn drag community still leverage Big Tech platforms like Facebook to connect with one another. Maybe that’s the start of something revolutionary, like the Internet itself.

Stephen Yang is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at sy364@cornell.edu. His column Rewiring Technoculture alternate Wednesdays this semester.