Thursday, November 19, 2009

Collective Action and the Mass

Chris Csikszentmihályi's lecture on civic media interested me as much for its examination of the politics of science and technology itself as for its presentation of certain technological forms of political activism. Csikszentmihályi exposed the ways that major reasearch universities like MIT are entangled with the Department of Defense & other miltaristic government & corporate organizations; these relationships come to be reinforced in the educational and career practices of engineers, which are, according to Csikszentmihályi's account, dominated by a client-oriented paradigm. On the receiving end of science and technology, the history of science is reduced to a march of progress, and technology users are posited as individual consumers .

Csikszentmihályi's solution to these problems is to intervene at the level of educational practice and technological distribution. In education, he carves out a space for engineering students to work for themselves; in so doing, he taps into the potential of free labor, which is affectively motivated and retains the power of transformation, of the swerve that can only be marginally captured by capital. Protest Bot, whose design is open source, is a technological product that encourages others to replicate it for their own purposes, relinquishing proprietary claims over design schema and implementation of technology. Protest Bot partly bridges the gap between producers and consumers of technology. Furthermore, digital interventions like the ExtrAct project (which includes Landman Report Card) interpellate users of this technology not merely as consumers, but as rights-bearing citizens & members of collective action.

Keeping Terranova's schema in mind, it seems that Csikszentmihályi's projects attempt to avoid the kind of image relationships that characterize a mass; instead, his work focuses on the microsegmentation of informational milieus: allowing individuals to post reviews of energy company agents they've dealt with and aggregating it into a searchable database; mapping natural gas wells in Colorado and collecting stories from residents of these areas. Csikszentmihályi claims in an interview that he's interested in creating tools to facilitate collective action, which goes beyond creating a media scandal of an environmental catastrophe. While this desire is certainly noble, I wonder if it is feasible to facilitate collective action without taking into consideration how such groups may be both microsegments & a mass. Indeed, it seems that affect plays a role in the video cited above: a story of an elderly couple's house that exploded, a woman whose grandchildren developed asthma after a natural gas well was moved next to their property. Perhaps the "mass media spectacle" may be avoided without interpellating affected residents exclusively as property-owning citizens (a common feature of Landman Report Card). In order to take advantage of the kind of affectively motivated, transformational free labor that I claim characterizes his students' work, Csikszentmihályi may have to take a detour through, if not the mass media, a consideration of the mass as media: of images and affects, of the specific intensities that flow through a mass. Everyone is simultaneously mass and X, as Terranova points out; it seems that the mass is a terrain too crucial to leave out of the equation.

I don't want to criticize Csikszentmihályi's work too early, for it seems that there is great affective potential in mapping personal stories (and perhaps images should also be taken into consideration); but it seems to me that if Terranova is right, "citizen" or "landowner" might not be enough to facilitate collective action on the scale required to combat industry. It seems to me that technology companies interpellate users as individualized consumers, while ExtrAct interpellates users as individual landowners or citizens; to move beyond such subjectified categories of political action, masses, images, and affects need to be researched and mobilized.

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