Fascist Regime

As I was writing a paper last summer that looked at artist practices, it took a dark turn at the end. I began thinking about the enormous ‘latitude’ it seems like we have with Google’s tools, nearly all ‘free’ to use; but their service also dependent upon users to contribute to their larger project, ‘free activity’, as Holland would say.  As we grow more dependent upon their tools (they are so smart! accurate!), we contribute to the structure that makes us dependent. Microfascism. Fascism, for D & G, is first evident in the molecular realm, where divisive, controlling behaviors play out on a variety of scales. It is when these microfascisms begin to really cohere into a larger formation that a fascist regime becomes possible.

Around the same time, my co-conspirator and I were contemplating organizing a panel on geophilosophy for the AAG- and we were looking for a conceptual framework that was broad enough to include both of our projects, while not so broad that it would lack any coherence. I was perusing A Thousand Plateaus to generate some ideas and thinking about planes and how they operate. We finally decided on ‘Planes of Urban Experience’ as a way to organize papers, which would allow different scales but also link them together. While Keith’s topic is a physical plane of organization, mine was virtual (not virtual in the Deleuzian sense), immaterial to some degree, but real just the same.

At the time I was thinking that Google best represented a fascist regime. I found plenty of textual support in ATP as I was browsing it, and it set me off on a path of thinking about Google’s dependence on users to help build a portion of their knowledge- either through countless hours of beta testing, the citizen cartographers that ‘unite’ to map the world, the need for them to maintain their status as the #1 search engine to continue to produce accurate results; this is solidified by enthusiastic users taking advantage of all of Google’s tools and applications that augment the internet experience- and increasingly wholly integrated across applications. One never needs to leave the Googleverse.

I’m currently working on that paper, while also working on a portion of my dissertation. Recently I ran across an outline of their company history, as told by them, and decided that I should build a spreadsheet that takes their milestones and makes that information more ‘accessible’ (compared to the 41 page pdf that resulted from printing their webpage) and ‘useful’, to use their jargon…. I’m about 3/4 through the timeline. What has become incredibly clear is how accurate that initial thought that I had last summer really was. To date, they are laying their own internet infrastructure in select places, powering free wi-fi, their mapping regime covers nearly every element of navigation, modal, temporal and spatial; they continue to invest in clean energy- large scale production as well as domestic systems, they are experimenting with countless environmental ‘stewardship’ models, they have the largest electric car charging infrastructure. That’s just the surface. They have become an important public service during natural disasters, providing communication and satellite imagery. They continue to acquire countless businesses to build models that continue to garner an enormous market share in which businesses rely on Google to make them visible; their positive ‘economic impact’ impact in the US economy was $64 billion in 2010, while also ‘matching’ up to $100 million to ‘jump-start’ the economy. They provide phone service via their email software, youtube is increasingly providing ‘live’ news features, they are willing to fund research that can provide news content in today’s ‘lean’ model. I’m not sure if there is any sector in the economy that they haven’t taken on to provide an alternative model.

Meanwhile, the State (used broadly) continues to take a backseat to much of their efforts. Many governments are too slow and unwieldy to perform and innovate like Google. Recently, some of their more controversial efforts have resulted in policy documents of ‘best practices’ that circumvent not only the court system, but also public participation. The current environment of legislative efforts is ineffective, not only at the State (US) level, but also globally- as each government has its own fractured guidelines. This prevents a clear mandate from taking shape- one that benefits all involved, rather than capitalist interests. Meanwhile, it seems clear that many governments tiptoe around Google’s practices, given that Google has increasingly absorbed the burden of providing many services, and most of them free of charge; a classic neoliberal argument if there ever was one. But it also feels fascistic, to recall the repeated rejoinder “why do we desire our own repression?” Continual concessions are made in favor of allowing Google to continue to ‘innovate’, so that it might make things ‘a little bit better’….  Instead of world peace through capitalistic ventures of the neoliberal order, Google is trumpeting data peace and the democratizing of information… of which they exert enormous control over the ways and means to search the information. How democratic is that? They want to refine my search results so that it continues to reinforce my existing habits. They even want me to personalize so that it can anticipate what I want. I don’t want that. I’m a fickle consumer! But boy, the accurate results and integrated tools are seductive…

While it would be easy to a default to a hyperbolic, deterministic argument here, it also feels almost accurate and fair to simply state that it appears that Google is perfectly poised to take over the world.

Identity Crisis called ‘Interdisciplinarity’

I’m currently contemplating future jobs (ok, applying for jobs) at the behest of my committee chair. And while fruitful to sit down and focus on statements of research, teaching interests, pedagogical positions, etc., what I’m really learning is this: interdisciplinary work can create an identity crisis. I might be somewhat unique in that my background is fine art, my interest lies in ‘the city’, much of my visual work engaged the built environment, with an emphasis on suburban development, obliquely engaging political economy, geography, urban and architecture theory, etc. Given that my visual work was so research-driven and I had a strong interest in writing, I found myself heading into a PhD program, with my intellectual promiscuity and a developed preference for ‘sketches’, or, in visual art terms, visual experiments that worked through intellectual ideas.

Going into the program, I imagined myself furthering my work on the single family home and really digging into the scholarship. I think I even fancied myself to work on developing a theory, based on an oxymoronic pairing of the words ‘oblique’ and ‘economy’. But my idle interest in Google Street View got the best of me, and I found myself switching topics, and with it, a whole host of ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ was set aside in order to focus on a fascinating visual phenomenon that suddenly pulled together a long standing interest street engagement and the public realm, phenomenological understandings and mental maps, as well as a host of other concepts that seemed to yield questions that needed to be asked, like “what happens to the concept of the derive in the era of Google Street View?”, and “Is it smooth or striated space?”

But now I find myself fighting an easy passage into geo-web, communication and ICT driven discussions, as I am not particularly interested in those discourses, at least not to the degree in which I see myself advancing the scholarship, though my topic simply begs to go that route. And I cannot even imagine teaching foundational coursework in ‘communication’… However, I continue to think about the city and how this navigational tool might affect our engagement with it, but I find myself drifting further and further from the discourses of the actual material city, for the discourses are not directly applicable to my topic.

So as I sit and look at job postings, the few that are out there, I find myself unable to articulate a clear future research interest that would place me back in an Urban Studies realm, for I do not anticipate a continued engagement with Street View, nor do I want to be Google expert. I’m also finding myself ill-equipped to engage something like a comparative studies program, as I lack some of the foundational coursework and am not fluent in other languages. I don’t know new media or media studies well enough, nor do I necessarily wish to put myself back in the art department, for I’m not currently making work, nor do I want to rejoin the faction of gallery artists. In short, my interest in theory and the activity of playing with it has left me with a broad understanding of a whole lot without content depth in what I’m truly interested in.
Despite that, I am applying for a position in an interdisciplinary arts & sciences program, trying to fit myself into the niche they are looking to fill. But as I sit and attempt to articulate the broader themes of my research and how it phases with art, the language I really need to wield has receded. I fear that I will be entirely unpersuasive in my ‘future’ trajectory, given that it needs to fit in the space of a page, and as my ‘co-conspirator’ Keith says, ‘that sounds really hard for someone who is not known to be concise.’  While I truly believe in the value of interdisciplinarity, I continue to be haunted by the words of Julia Kristeva (paraphrased) ‘to be interdisciplinary, one must first be disciplinary’. Those words always stuck with me, for I wasn’t sure then that I believed them. But increasingly, I believe them more and more, simply for pragmatic reasons, but also for the need for an intellectual lineage.