To Be Is to Be Updated

Somehow This Is Caring
by Wendy Chun and Brian Droitcour

The following conversation was recorded at To Be Is to Be Updated on February 12, 2016. Chun spoke about her book Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media and argued that our technologies matter most not when they are new but when they have become obsolete—when they have moved from the bleeding edge to the realm of the everyday, when our use of them has become habitual. In the book, Chun asserts that habits are automatic—they “remain by disappearing from consciousness”—but also voluntary and even creative: we are constantly encouraged to seek better habits, better patterns. Habits make us like our peers, demarcating social class; they are also deeply personal. Chun explores how the slow, “creepy” accretion of habits—both conscious and unconscious—relate to distinctions between public and private, memory and storage, individual actions and social systems.

Brian DroitcourYou conclude your new book by suggesting that we need a legal framework that enables people to take risks without giving up their rights or making themselves vulnerable to attack. It strikes me that this ability to be safely vulnerable requires empathy, but I’m not sure empathy is scalable, or that empathy can be encoded into legal frameworks. How would the future you’re suggesting work?

Wendy ChunPart of what I want to do is outside the legal framework, precisely because, for me, the most important thing is loitering. That is, rather than being empathetic, what if we viewed public life as a fundamental space in which to loiter? This idea comes from the work of a group of fantastic Indian feminists: Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade, who wrote Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets (2011). They point out that the prevailing logic of safety in Mumbai is really perverse: If you’re an Indian woman who wants to be safe in public, you shouldn’t walk in the streets! You see this too with young girls on the Internet. They’re told that if they want to be safe, they should get offline. For Phadke et al., this logic also requires that “we” rid the public of dangerous (to many Hindu nationalists, Muslim) men, which leaves the public open to a few privileged folk. Phadke et al. argue that you don’t need better security or surveillance to foster safety for women in Mumbai; rather, you need a place that can be publicly occupied. They called for changes in infrastructure—public toilets, for example. Part of my argument involves wondering what mass loitering would look like online. What if we were to embrace loitering rather than notions of safety? And I argue that we’re already loitering; our computers already operate by automatically downloading other users’ traffic, and then disregarding what isn’t addressed to us specifically.

DroitcourYou use an excellent phrase to describe new media: “wonderfully creepy.” It reminds me of the way Freud theorizes the uncanny as the proximity of the horrific and the familiar. But it also seems like you’re encouraging identification with the “creep.” You talk about loitering as a positive model, and you approvingly call our devices “promiscuous,” because they take information from everything. You seem to use metaphors that reclaim promiscuous or creepy behaviors as appealing.

ChunI like “creepiness” because it implies a certain slowness, which gets us to think through the slower time of new media. Creepiness also has to do with trackability or modes of authentication. We should question the distinction between what’s traceable and what’s not. How many of you recall the story of Eldo Kim? A couple years ago, someone sent a bomb threat to Harvard administrators. Harvard took the threat seriously, in part because it was sent via the TOR network—there was a sense that because it was sent secretly it was somehow more lethal—and canceled all final exams scheduled to take place in the threatened buildings. Kim was an undergraduate who hadn’t wanted to write an exam, so he logged onto the Harvard network using his own laptop and sent bomb threats via TOR. But, at the time he sent the threats, there were only three computers accessing a TOR node on the Harvard network. He was incredibly traceable. There’s this idea that because TOR nodes are encrypted between hops, they are therefore anonymous—well, there’s still the first hop, right? My use of the phrase “wonderfully creepy” has in part to do with thinking through allegedly secure things that aren’t in fact secure.

DroitcourYou write about the ideological ramifications of “friending,” a habit introduced by Friendster that remains on sites like Facebook and LinkedIn even though Friendster has long disappeared. Are you trying to use this new book as a space to identify the ideologies associated with particular habits?

ChunFriending is interesting to me because it’s really dangerous (although whenever I say “dangerous,” I mean it in both good and bad ways). It’s dangerous precisely because it was introduced as a way to create safety. Friending is supposed to ensure our online communication and activities are safe because we know who we’re dealing with—everyone has been authenticated. But this notion of friending has actually led to an explosion of crowd-produced cyberporn: sexting. In one famous case in Florida, two teenagers took a picture of themselves having sex and sent it to themselves. It was legal for them to have sex in Florida, and it was legal for them to have gotten married, but it was illegal for them to have sent this picture to themselves. They now have to register as sex offenders, even though we can’t even publish their names in the media because they’re juveniles. Friending and authentication have set up sort of fake modes of safety, while also producing disturbing situations like this one.

With regards to ideology, cultural critic Richard Dienst has a great revision of Althusser’s concept of “hailing” or “interpellation” (in which Althusser compares ideology to the person who, called after by a police officer shouting “Hey you!,” turns around and, in so doing, becomes a subject, because she has recognized that the hail was in fact addressed to her and not someone else). Dienst says that the hail can sometimes miss its mark, which means it was never meant to always hit the mark in the first place. Rather than ideology always hitting its mark, it both misses and hits, because we respond to “missed” messages by eavesdropping on others. Dienst thinks of ideology as the moment of short-circuit between the general and the particular (the individual responds to a general call as if it were directed to her in particular). Data analytics operate in this way: Other people’s actions, evaluated in the aggregate, come to single out the actions of the individual—but it is other people’s actions that make our own actions a target through predictive analytics or spam. Spam has gotten really good because it comes not only from familiar email addresses, but is often accompanied by an expression of care.

DroitcourAre you going tell the story about your Twitter spam bot?

ChunI got a direct message on Twitter that said, “I can’t believe what people are saying about you. Click here!” I was really distracted at the time, so I clicked on it, although as soon as I did I knew I had made a mistake. But the message was from a former student, and on some level I was thinking, “She must care about me!” It was really embarrassing because it sent out direct messages to everyone who followed me on Twitter. (Clearly what you need to do on social media is only friend and follow people you hate!) This targeting happened through the logic of care. I like spam, loitering, and promiscuity as concepts because they make us rethink the types of contact that can happen. Spam can reach out to people and say, “I care about you enough to put you at risk; I like you so much that you’re on my list.” I’m trying to think through these unconscious messages or moments of targeting that seem so personal, and that question the machinic and the social. Those happy-birthday messages on Facebook, for example. That’s spam! You’re being prompted by a machine to spam your friends. And somehow this is caring. I’ve found it really productive to think through these modes of contact.

DroitcourIn your book, you use the case of Amanda Todd as an example of the sinister capabilities of friend networks. Todd was a middle-school girl who was convinced to send topless pictures of herself over the Internet. Her classmates later used the images to torment and bully her. She eventually committed suicide after making a confessional video and posting it to YouTube. There’s also the Steubenville rape case, where a high-school girl was drugged and raped. Images of her ordeal were later shared on social media. Hackers from Anonymous found the images and used them to pressure the authorities to press charges. It strikes me as interesting that schools have become a prime place where these stories of promiscuity and these networks—not just of friends but of haters—can emerge.

ChunIt is interesting how young girls are blamed for the leakiness of networks—for being “bad users”—whereas the issue seems to be that networks fundamentally spread images! The Todd case was horrific. I also wondered why no one was asking why our society is so distressed by a thirteen-year-old girl flashing her breasts online in the first place. Young girls are always condemned as wanting—as being “attention whores.” In the last chapter of the book, I talk about the ways in which we use shame to critique networks that are allegedly shameless.

Lizzie FeidelsonYou observe in your book that because our language and actions online are reduced to standards—keywords on the one hand, and big data on the other—we’ve lost the ability to explain what we mean, to define and clarify our own intentions. This loss strikes me as really frightening. Our utterances are reduced to tags, and we can be punished for “threats” we had no intention of making, especially if we happen to possess other ostensibly suspicious characteristics. I’m wondering, though, where intention can come into play, particularly in terms of expressions that might register multiple or complicated meanings—irony or humor, for example.

ChunThe question of meaning and how it comes into play is crucial. Part of what interests me with habit, however, is that it is considered to be beneath the level of conscious intent. I’m fascinated by moments of contact and action that are beneath meaning. Antoinette Rouvroy, a brilliant Belgian lawyer, argues that the problem with predictive systems is that they deny the importance of human language—your action becomes what’s important, what’s captured. I’ve been trying to think through action itself as language. How do we act, and how do we mean things outside of language? How can our actions become some sort of grammar or intervention?

Audience 1The rise of the Internet coincided with part of the AIDS crisis. The United States refused to acknowledge AIDS as a public-health issue, forcing it to remain a private-safety issue for individuals. Today, Tinder is valorized as a perfect neoliberal site for heterosexual homosexuality, or for heterosexuality itself, while Grindr is where you can go to get axe murdered or to acquire diseases. It’s actually often cited as a vector of AIDS and other sexually-transmitted infections. I’m thinking about the AIDS crisis, and mourning for things that were shameful in the moment, but also about how we still have the same difficulties with forms of the Internet that are associated with “risky” behavior.

ChunAIDS activism was a brilliant moment of public occupation. ACT UP insisted on a certain public display of things that were deemed shameful. What’s fascinating too is that in all these public-health articles talking about the spread of AIDS based on analyses of Grindr, vectors like Grindr are discussed precisely because they enable a certain notion of contagion that completely erases other questions of habituation or infrastructure.

DroitcourACT UP produced viral media before the Internet: They changed the Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture into an AIDS meme in the same kind of way that viral media works now. It was also a time when outing was becoming a mass practice.

Audience 2One way you’re using habit is to displace theories of affect. That struck me as strange in some ways, because, at least according to a Darwinian genealogy of affect theory, habit is so central—our emotions themselves are completely habitual.

ChunI wouldn’t want to claim that affect theory has it wrong. Some of my best friends are affect theorists! It’s just that, by focusing on affect and intensities, we miss ways in which intensities are constantly ignored. Looking at habit requires you to consider the ways we shut down the environment while still engaging with it (we learn habits from others, and they are provoked by environmental cues). I’m trying to get away from extremes and toward modulation.

Colby ChamberlainDefining the viral in terms of patient zero seems somewhat reductive. There are other models of the virus: William Burroughs describes language as a virus, for example. In his formulation, a virus isn’t just something you catch; it’s something you can’t suppress. He asks us to think of having a moment without any language: You can’t, it’s just going to come forth. Similarly, our relationship to technology is not just habitual but compulsive.

ChunWe can complicate the viral at the level of the biological: The more you engage with the way virology is discussed in biology, the more you realize the importance of environment. People talk about the viral spread of information as if everyone is six degrees apart—patient zero infects someone, who infects someone else, and so on until everyone is wiped out. This would mean that information should spread quickly then disappear—but it doesn’t. This gets us to a certain undeadness of information: it’s less like AIDS and more like the common cold, which we all get again and again.

Audience 3Whether biological or technological, networks influence our ideas about accountability. When something goes wrong on an app, the human user ordinarily is to blame; but when something goes right, of course, then the programmers are considered heroes.

ChunBy accepting the terms we’re given—the idea that networks are secure—we fall into blaming users rather than dealing with fundamental leakiness and publicness. The initial laws around slut shaming didn’t cover selfies, because the idea was that if you were stupid enough to take a picture of yourself, then you shouldn’t be protected. I’d like to move away from targeting individuals on all levels.

Sarah FriedlandYou’ve referred to habit as “the scar of others left in our bodies.” But scars fade. How does the scar connect to the desire to forget, to the hope of being able to delete something?

ChunI went with scars because, for me, they don’t fade. When I use the term “scar,” I mean it as something that can never disappear completely. I’m also thinking of Sara Ahmed’s really wonderful work arguing that the scar is important because it gives a history to the injury—it moves us away from talking about injuries to talking about the histories and remains of what has happened.

Audience 4When Amazon or Netflix tells me “This is recommended for you,” it is both a form of interpellation and predictive personalization. When you talk about new media, how do you define this “you,” and what does this subject consist of?

ChunI’m trying to move away from classic notions of subjectivity and instead think through language in terms of actions. At a certain level, Netflix doesn’t care if “you” like something. Netflix cares whether or not “you” stop streaming. The Netflix algorithm has actually moved away from ratings: It doesn’t care what you say you like because it has a record of all your actions. These algorithms also will sometimes recommend materials they know you won’t like in order to make you feel like you’re not being interpellated. Disidentification makes us feel singular. Target got in trouble for sending out coupons for baby supplies to sixteen-year-old girls; they were accused of trying to get girls pregnant. Now Target allegedly sends out noise, for instance motor-oil coupons, alongside the diaper coupons; the motor-oil coupons can be ignored. Moments of identification are not necessarily the most important; it’s actually moments of disidentification that nevertheless produce action.

With Wendy Hui Kyong Chun & Brian Droitcour 7:00 p.m. 155 Freeman St, Brooklyn $5

Media theorist Wendy Chun will discuss her forthcoming book Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media. Chun argues that our technologies matter most not when they are new but when they have become obsolete—when they have moved from the bleeding edge to the realm of the everyday, when our use of them has become habitual. Habits are automatic—they “remain by disappearing from consciousness”—but also voluntary and even creative: we are constantly encouraged to seek better habits, better patterns. Habits make us like our peers, demarcating social class; they are also deeply personal. Chun explores how the slow, “creepy” accretion of habits—both conscious and unconscious—relate to distinctions between public and private, memory and storage, individual actions and social systems. This event is organized in collaboration with Light Industry.

Chun will be joined by Brian Droitcour to discuss how our habitual uses of media relate to the standardization and regulation of social and economic life.

  • Wendy Hui Kyong Chun is Professor and Chair of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. She has studied systems design engineering and English literature, which she combines and mutates in her work on digital media. She is the author of Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics (MIT Press, 2006), and Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (MIT Press, 2011). She is the co-editor of a special issue of American Literature entitled New Media and American Literature; a special issue of Camera Obscura entitled Race and/as Technology; and the book New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader (Routledge, 2015). She has been a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, and a Wriston Fellow at Brown. Her latest book, Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media, will be published by MIT Press in May 2016.
  • Brian Droitcour is a writer, critic, translator, and associate editor at Art in America.