Interview. ‘Tools are meant to assist us, not to disturb and distract us. It could start with banning the business model based on capturing attention.’

Geert Lovink on putting social media to work for people, not the other way around

Geert Lovink is one of the most sophisticated commentators on social media and online culture. He publishes his reflections in books that describe the dynamics of digital media – a kind of reasoned reconnaissance, a map to orient us in the European and Western debate on the consequences of political, technical and practical solutions to the problems raised by online platforms. There are insightful and passionate analyses of the actions of the creators and users of the digital devices we are addicted to. His texts offer guidance on the most controversial paths of political resistance and the creation of alternative systems to the extraction of data from our commodified lives.

His latest work, Stuck on the Platform: Reclaiming the Internet (in Italian, Le paludi della piattaforma, ed. Nero, 217 pages, 22 euros), is a valuable contribution to the debate on platform oppression, in which he argues for dissent on the basis of historical internet culture. Among other things, Lovink also challenges the established practices of digital media criticism, turning the tables and trying to open up the impassable road to overcoming the overwhelming power of Big Tech, with originality and courage, avoiding the predictable and simplistic positions coming from the oligarchic ivory towers of aristocratic theorists.

In your book, you advocate for the need to take action against the free labor of users addicted to Silicon Valley platforms and those who fall victim to the latest conspiracy theories. How can we collectively take action, given that those who are subjugated are not aware they are subjugated? And how can we commit to revolt in the age of disillusionment?

We must avoid judging things from the outside and train ourselves in the critical imagination of social technology: what does the fact that TikTok has 1.5 billion users mean? Even though we may be disgusted, we must stand close to the social masses. How come they have grown so much in a short time? Paradoxically, we can only act by admitting that we too have been trapped in the gilded cages. The way out is to become social again, recovering the anonymous and collective state of both virtual and real masses. But are there other methods? In Italy, Franco Berardi and Tiziana Terranova have taken on the task of theorizing our techno-social condition – and the whole world is reading them.

Today, social interaction is felt as an antidote against the poison of social media, as Bernard Stiegler put it. The communal drive to overcome stress, despair and loneliness is present – even if only for a moment. Although this may sound liberating, it coexists with the “quantification of the social.” Rankings and ratings are real and have negative psychological effects. The message is: compete with those around you, don’t show empathy or solidarity, and keep your distance. These are the barriers that keep us from being together. We update our status and observe what others are doing.

You make clear the need for an anthropology of emergence that would think about online networks beyond alternative taxonomic models of control and decentralization. How can one take this relational turn without getting sucked into the old rhetoric of conflict? 

I focus on the design challenge for creating supportive tools for the difficult times ahead. So far, social media has been geared towards advertising, not useful functions. Italy has an opportunity to engage theorists, hackers and designers to devote themselves to this goal. We need to tame the digital networks so that they work for us, not the other way around. I am not an advocate of the European romanticism about going offline. A weekend of yoga in the countryside without your phone is not the solution (although I am in favor of banning cell phones from schools).

When we criticize Silicon Valley, we yearn to throw away addictive devices and take back our lives. But this is only wishful thinking, a pipe dream. The phone helps us coordinate our multitasking lives and is ideal for taking advantage of downtime. We should make apps that are not based on constant updating. Notifications should be abandoned. Tools are meant to assist us, not to disturb and distract us. It could start with banning the business model based on capturing attention.

Even taking into account the political effects of infrastructure, technical architecture does not exhaust our options for political positioning. Can we avoid relying on technological solutionism?

We need digital modesty. A radical redesign of the internet is a medium-sized global challenge that can be accomplished quickly, if compared with the climate crisis, the migration crisis or the need for housing and the emergence of social inequality. A redesign must take place at the local, national and European levels. We must act in Italy, in the Netherlands, without waiting for Brussels. European regulations come too late if they only address the problems that are already there. Regulation must be replaced with redesign.

In your book, you describe the addictiveness, but also the boredom that these devices bring, and you also discuss tactics for political opposition. What if we have grown tired of “binge watching” TV series? Perhaps resistance also means resilience in reorganizing our habits? 

According to some, boredom is a protective shield against mental intrusion from outside. At what point does endemic exhaustion lead to collapse? Where is the threshold? It’s important to learn from the scientific debate about the effects of a temperature increase of 1.5-2 °C on the atmosphere. Beyond that limit, unpredictable consequences will occur. The same thing can happen in the attention economy. The interconnected data economy is a house of cards. Let us be prepared for its implosion, which will not be the outcome of European rules.

We are aware that startups and Big Tech are fragile, as the Silicon Valley Bank crash shows. Yet we still believe in their power as they exploit people’s data, after having appropriated it in a shady manner. Why can’t we block them with rules, complaints and the perception of their weaknesses?

We, the billions of people online, are in Plato’s cave, mesmerized by the shadows cast on the wall by apps that are 2 or 3 years old. These startups are the fruit of past financial cycles. The example of ChatGPT is striking. Investment in AI peaked in 2022, we are nearing the next AI winter, but pointless apps continue to captivate users. It’s a similar situation with social networks such as TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter – all in different situations, yet similar in being stagnant and subject to the vagaries of fashion. Ordinary users are not stupid, they have realized that something isn’t working. The influencer marketing machine is in trouble.

Do you think the digital phase we are going through, with the spread of deepfakes, chatbots that mimic humans and with the consequent increase in the unreliability of information, is pushing people towards nostalgia for face-to-face encounters? 

The real and the virtual are no longer separated now. There was no post-Covid collective orgy, as some expected. We are driven from one anxiety to another: war, inflation, energy costs driving up travel prices. Real encounters are the end point, but they will inevitably be local. Seeing each other in person has consequences, while virtual information tends to remain “interesting.” If we also look at the shifting tangle of our desires, it won’t be hard to see why social forces that want to implement change politely decline to use Zoom/Teams invitations for their initiatives.

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