The nonsensical excesses of pataphysics one can now find in the very warp and weft of the social fabric, while pataphysics itself, appropriately enough, has sailed far out of sight of the shore of the normative values it once critiqued.
Zuckerberg Tyrannos: The improbable, baby-faced founder of Facebook — whose first name, for those who have been living in a cave (or, at least without Facebook) the past several years, is Mark — recently announced the death of individual privacy, dismissing it as a “social norm” from which the wider wired world has evolve away. Apparently now only a hoary fetish for Enlightenment political philosophers, privacy has exited with nary a tear nor lament. Today’s human, homo ostentatius, is a fundamentally different creature from her eighteenth-, nineteenth- or even twentieth-century antecedents. Or so saith Zuckerberg.”People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.”
Zuckerberg’s generalization strikes one as rather sweeping. Several people of my acquaintance profess themselves not at all comfortable with the — shall I say demographic nudity? — which Facebook demands of its participants. These friends of mine not only have a problem with sharing information of any kind, but also have deep philosophical reservations about those who share this information “more openly and with more people.” Admittedly, these friends occupy (along with me) a sociocultural periphery, one occupied by those who would prove reluctant joiners to any new fad. I can’t help thinking, however, that my friends and I simply represent a contingent afflicted with a particularly acute case of self-consciousness that is more or less present in everyone, a backwardness when it comes to publicizing oneself, particularly in the manner which Facebook encourages: the revelation of personal details. Some details might be boring, others embarrassing; Facebook doesn’t discriminate. It welcomes them all.
Indeed, Facebook doesn’t discriminate; it assimilates, turning all these tidbits into ever more detailed profiles of the users supplying them for the ready consumption of Facebook friends and, more importantly, marketers. This shouldn’t come as a startling revelation. Facebook as essentially a massive data-mining operation is more or less an open secret by now. Immediately upon logging on to one’s page does this fact become glaringly obvious. One sees a raft of reports of transactions — one’s own as well as those of one’s Facebook friends — each scrupulously registered and recorded. The interface has a creepy air of anal retentiveness about it, one which lends baby pics and dispatches about one’s morning jog an air of importance they do not at all deserve. It’s an interface patterned after the behavior of the stalker. These various reports on one’s “wall” are the digital equivalent of locks of hair and fingernail pairings — trash to everyone incapable of recognizing their scintillating particularity, that is, to everyone besides the stalker.
This assiduous information gathering, which Facebook constantly upgrades and refines, would truly seem to spell the doom of individual privacy, if it wasn’t for one thing: the sheer amount of data being generated. Over the course of a day, even an hour, this amount is staggering; over the course of a month, a year, a decade, this amount is literally incomprehensible. For data’s dirty secret is that, left outside the scope of human intelligence, data never achieves it’s desired end of becoming information. The giga-quantities of data produced on Facebook thus threaten to languish like “[f]ull many a flower … born to blush unseen / And waste its sweetness on the desert air,” as the poet Thomas Gray writes in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”
Media theorist Jean Baudrillard put his finger on this very 21st century problem. He characterizes it as one of “obesity.” Obesity replaces dialectic, the latter having become obsolete in an age glutted with information. The obese, Baudrillard writes in his indispensable Fatal Strategies, “no longer makes sense in some distinctive opposition, but in … excess, … redundancy, … hyperreality.” Dialectic, which seeks to discover mutual influence between opposed terms, no longer applies in the age of the obese. The opposite of fat, in other words, is not thin, but obese, which is fatness taken beyond the sort of fatness which can be measured against thinness, is fatness “in that ascension to extremes related to the absence of rules for the game.”
Facebook is obese with data.
Personal data on Facebook have similarly ascended to extremes where the rules for the game no longer have any relevance. Facebook is obese with data. Hence founder Mark Zuckerberg’s declaring privacy an outdated “social norm.” Facebook, and the Internet generally, have steered sociocultural development from the notion of privacy so decisively that privacy is no longer a functional term in this development’s logic. Pre-Internet publicity stood very much in a dialectical relation to privacy. Privacy shaped publicity, gave it its specific content, because publicity was equally as much about what was withheld as what was disclosed. Now, in an age of uncontrollable inforrhea, the opposite of publicity is, as Zuckerberg correctly points out, no longer privacy, but Facebook, publicity carried to the extreme, elaborated to the nth degree.
Characterizing the Facebook phenomenon in terms of Baudrillard’s theory of the obese would seem to offer only the cold comfort of knowing that our own personal data get lost in the ever metastasizing body of information straining the circuits of server farms around the globe. Regarding informational obesity specifically, Baudrillard writes that “operational modernity” amounts to a
frenzy to store and to memorize everything, to pass, in the most total uselessness, to the very limits of the inventory of the world and of information, and in the process to set up a monstrous potentiality for which there is no representation possible, which can no longer even be put into play.
The drive toward absolute transparency of the daily lives of billions can only produce a new sort of opacity as the data extracted from real-world things surpass the totality of real-world things themselves.
The drive toward absolute transparency of the daily lives of billions can only produce a new sort of opacity as the data extracted from real-world things surpass the totality of real-world things themselves. This potentialization in the direction of the nth degree of information leads to situation much like that in Jorge Luis Borges’s famous story (pdf) of the map that, in the interest of fidelity to the realm it represented, ended up being as big as the realm itself, and blanketed the realm and its inhabitants.
In Fatal Strategies Baudrillard frequently invokes French Surrealist writer Alfred Jarry. Baudrillard is particularly interested in Jarry’s concept of pataphysics, which Jarry defines as “the science of imaginary solutions.” Anterior, superior and posterior to physics, pataphysics, like most things Surrealist, includes in its logic contingency, chance (the aleatory for the French-Theory oriented), as well as outright silliness.
Baudrillard’s thesis, however, rests on the observation that contemporary existence has seen pataphysical logic move from the avantgardist margin to the quotidian center. The nonsensical excesses of pataphysics one can now find in the very warp and weft of the social fabric, while pataphysics itself, appropriately enough, has sailed far out of sight of the shore of the normative values it once critiqued. If, as fellow Generation Bubbler Rob Horning wrote recently, “hipsterism is born when the cultural underground dies,” then postmodern, post-individualist informational obesity is born when absurd laughter dies. We live, Baudrillard writes, “a century after Jarry, but in a cool universe without irony, and without pataphysical acid.” Life in Père Ubu’s no longer jolly paunch, under Borges’s suffocating map, within Facebook’s constraining algorithms.
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