IMPAKT FESTIVAL 2011
THE RIGHT TO KNOW
Social networks are not simply virtual. They also effect the real. Mercedes Bunz looks into their political impact.
“What is the most resilient parasite? An idea. A single idea from a human mind can build cities,” explains Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘Inception’ to Ellen Page, when he recruits her as a dream stealer. Communism as an idea that in effect had built several cities – Moscow, Brasilia, Halle-Neustadt to name but a few – resonates in DiCaprio’s phrase, the setting of the idea his character is talking about in the noir science-fiction movie of Christopher Nolan, however, is quite different. It is not focused anymore on crowds taking over the state in order to erect a better world. DiCaprio’s crew plants an idea in the company boss’ subconscious with the help of dreams, and they work on behalf of corporate interests.
In the past, reaching out to crowds changed the course of history. Now contemporary storytelling finds it more comprehensible for ideas to be placed in a single person and for a corporate dream. Obviously, there has been a shift in our society with economy as a dream stealer that has kidnapped the political idea. Can technology be of any help to free the political? Is digitalization changing the organisation of our society? Can we organize ourselves in new ways with the help of algorithms? And will these new ways pave the way for new and different ideas?
Again and again sociologists and critics like Richard Barbrook or Urs Staeheli, Joseph Vogl or David Harvey, have shown that the political idea of democracy has been set aside by a shallow version of economy with the free market as the neoliberal ground for a free society where free individuals trade. The debate of a complex and interesting subject that can be interpreted in many ways came to hold. Instead, economy was disguised with a pseudo-ethical icing. When the stock market boom attracted smallholders, for example, it was not anymore about adding capital to the market. The idea that this changes the financial market from a place for the elite rich to a democratic market was introduced
to the public discourse, hereby carefully hiding that in this market chances were not equal. Some people were freer than others. The political idea of equality became an image campaign for an IPO, and pushed for the sake of this argument also further privatization.
While democracy has been annexed by this dull version of market economy, its political idea, however, cannot be appropriated. The political sphere is fundamentally different to the economical sphere, and always will be. Its aim is not to make profit, but to organise the collective living of human beings for the better. In this, economy is undoubtedly essential as the distribution of goods nurtures the collective, but politics and economy need to be balanced. The consumer might have a choice, but buying is not the same as voting, and democracy is not built on self-interest. Self-interest is not a political idea. It is a poor man’s ethos. This is what Inception makes apparent: There has been a tectonic shift of these spheres. In the past, reaching out to crowds was a political act. In the present, it is an economic act. We are confronted with quite a chaotic shemozzle, in which we need to make new room for the political as in the beginning of the 21st century we experience an economisation of everything. Efficiency has left its old place, work, in order to spread. Life is now fully viewed in these terms, as economy is more manifest in education, health, and politics than ever. Of course, this has also reached the internet – there seemed to be nothing outside economy, and no alternative, nothing to balance it. Can the digital public be of any assistance? Can digital technology help us to prevent our society from being taken over by the god of efficiency and its void values that are turning everything into profit? Or does it facilitate the downfall of a political idea, because algorithms are reorganizing our world more efficiently? It is up to us to decide.