Notes from digital self-contradiction


Pictographs from the website of the University of Berne



Since mid-March, the new freedom of the state of emergency has been colonized by means of the digital. Whatever possible (i.e. according to the new given conditions), is to be done online. Obviously and quite welcome, the computer is proving to be the first and best machine for overcoming the boundary between work and leisure time that was once established for some. It goes as simple as this: existing Internet platforms prove their effectiveness as unchallenged centers of the social. Oldschool listservs are helping to organize solidarity. The new “home office” normality renders communication services such as Jitsi, Zoom, Skype, MS-Teams, Wire, BigBlueButton, etc. systemically relevant on a global scale. Friendships, love relationships and family ties are maintained or newly established by the very same tools. Schools, colleges and universities continue the daily business of teaching, learning, studying and teaching “by providing digital teaching and learning formats“.

This organization of “remote relations, cultures of distance” is the normality of the exception. The “live stream’s split screen” gains political dimensions in more than one respect. Also because of this: Whatever reality is now created and relayed by/via/as monitor and loudspeaker is created exclusively on the basis of computers. For all those who are not impartial towards the processes dubbed “digitalization” and who refuse to participate in them uncritically, the self-contradiction deepens.

More than ever before, I am part of and a driving force behind the networked spread and inherent dynamics of computer technology, from which I benefit and whose conditions, processes and effects are so urgent and difficult to describe precisely because of their comprehensive effectiveness. Whoever held seminars and discussed critical developments in a pre-Corona environment e.g. in media studies, software studies, cultural studies, platform studies, etc., has always been able to approach the topic of computerization by other than digital means. For the time being this can be called history: In the online semester and in the institutions’ emergency operations, everything concerning studying and teaching can (and ought to) be managed via the Internet. If computers (in whatever form) are now to be negotiated, computers are the only way and framework for doing so.

The (controlling) circuits are closing. Questions of data protection (especially delicate in the case of Corona’s superstar Zoom), licensing of (which?) software, availability of powerful computers for all students/learners, quality of internet connections, the possibility of discussions in online conferences – these and other questions about the new foundation not only have to be resolved within a few days; they have always been discussed on exactly the protocol-logical basis of Internet services and platforms that are at stake.



The decision for Zoom is reversed at a Zoom meeting. The difficulty of discussing “openly” in a videoconference is discussed as openly as it (cannot) be done in a videoconference. Suggestions for the “translation of teaching into online formats” as an “experiment in science policy that involves a number of institutional risks and also requires special attention from us as media scholars” reach and occupy me and many others online. Assessments (“Teaching cannot be simulated in environments built around projects, corporations, positivism, monitoring, and – crucially – loneliness and absence.”) and likewise calls for action (“Please do a bad job of putting your courses online”) reach me and many others online. At the same time – also in order to offer something to those who depend on it – the concrete planning of the online semester runs parallel to the commitment to take seriously this semester – not as a model but as a condition explicitly defined as a state of emergency.

This intensification of digital self-contradiction is affecting me strangely. It seems to me as if theoretical persuasions are now being confirmed not only in practice, but literally embodied. The basic conditions of digitality and computerization – the fact that processes of programmatic preparation, recording and filtering are happening that automatically exclude what is beyond the given conditions of the calculable – come to me as a bodily experience. After several days of continuous contact with the world via e-mails, chats and a lot of “telepresence”, I believe I can feel the exclusion. The “inexorable compression, compression, constriction of reality in (and through) the (handheld, desktop) screen” confronts me, at least I assume so, with fundamental issues. Rarely has it been so tangible to me that the Internet is not a network of people, but of computers – whatever great (and desolate) things people may do with it.

From here, out of the newly felt entanglement, the distance to what can be observed in more general developments decrease palpably. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the digital dynamics of the Corona crisis is that the wind has changed once again.

On March 3, 2019, Evgeny Morozov declared: “The observation that the ‘techlash’ – our rude awakening to the  gigantic power of technology companies – is gaining strength from month to month is already a rush.” On April 3, 2020, Deepti Bharthur summarized:

“The year 2019 was the year of ‘the first great big techlash’, when regulators actively started to push back against Big Tech’s eat-the-planet tendencies and launched antitrust investigations; when users demanded greater accountability from social media platforms on their arbitrary content governance standards; when a US presidential candidate based, in large part, a campaign agenda on breaking up Facebook; and when surveillance capitalism became an ubiquitous term to be thrown around in common parlance. And then came the great sickness, which spread through all of the land and things took a different turn. […] The current global environment has made it possible for digital economy players to reshape themselves in a positive light and move away from the regulatory din that has surrounded them for some time. But more crucially, it has firmly reinforced their critical significance to the global economy. At the end of it all, their stranglehold over the world may be tighter than ever.“

The different procedures of and debates on corona apps, which make it difficult to distance oneself from the Chinese regime of capture (aka “totalitarianism in digital garb”, Kai Strittmatter), are among them. The fact that they come at a time when survival statistics bespeak such control procedures and the social immune system is currently being massively strengthened to fight any concerns regarding digitalisation does not make the situation any easier.

The “Corona data donation” (of the app of the same name from the Robert Koch Institute) may be given with more ease if the “corona crisis […] also makes the digital sceptics aware of the consequences of worldwide networking” (SZ); if “the digital, ostracized by cultural pessimists and progress sceptics as a refuge of human alienation, […] keeps work processes, the possibility of learning and social interaction alive” (Welt); when the German secretary for Digitisation describes the Covid 19 pandemic as “an initial spark” for “digitisation” – even if it is “a pity” “that it will take a crisis in our country too, so that we can rethink digitisation, abandon existing reservations and see in it the chances for improving life” (Spiegel).

Becoming aware of these discursive shifts and acting on them appears to be uncannily close. From one platform to another (Rosa Mercedes); this is how links work. This not new, but probably more intensive than ever. It is in this intensity that lies the chance to perceive the conditions of the present condition more clearly.





April 9th, 2020 — Rosa Mercedes / 02

A  word on “post-truth” by postcolonial and photography scholar Zahid R. Chauhary (from his 2020 essay “The Politics of Exposure: Truth after Post-Facts”):So perhaps it is not simply that truth acts (such as whistleblowing) expose what we already know, but that the place of knowledge in an atmosphere of fetishistic disavowal lends such disavowal a libidinal frisson. In cynical reasoning, truth actually matters a great deal because acting in spite of it is what endows the action with its distinctive fetishistic pleasure.”

October 26th, 2021

Lauren Berlant, the brilliant theorist of “cruel optimism” and related issues, died of a rare form of cancer on June 28. The following, devastatingly optimistic quote is from a 2016 essay on the commons as “infrastructures for troubling times,” part of a book that they worked on with the typically double-edged title On the Inconvenience of Other People: “What remains for our pedagogy of unlearning is to build affective infrastructures that admit the work of desire as the work of an aspirational ambivalence. What remains is the potential we have to common infrastructures that absorb the blows of our aggressive need for the world to accommodate us and our resistance to adaptation and that, at the same time, hold out the prospect of a world worth attaching to that’s something other than an old hope’s bitter echo. A failed episode is not evidence that the project was in error. By definition, the common forms of life are always going through a phase, as infrastructures will.”


Some basics from the Strike MoMA site: “Campaigns, actions, and letters chip away at the regime’s facade from the outside. Inside, every time workers organize, defy the boss, care for a coworker, disrespect secrecy, or enact other forms of subversion, cracks are created in the core. Cracking and chipping, chipping and cracking. As the walls that artificially separate the museum from the world collapse, we reorient away from the institution and come together to make plans. Let us strike in all the ways possible to exit from the terms of the museum so we can set our own.”


via Hyperallergic on the environmental impact of blockchain referring to recent NFT (non-fungible token) art sales: “This is not the first time the art world has come under scrutiny for being on the wrong side of the climate conversation. Artists and activists have protested everything from the carbon footprint of physical art fairs to the fossil fuel money funding major museums. But some say the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies is particularly egregious, and research shows it’s relatively easily quantifiable. A study by Cambridge University, for instance, estimates that bitcoin uses more electricity per year than the entire nation of Argentina. (Ethereum mining consumes a quarter to half of what Bitcoin mining does, but one transaction uses more power than an average US household in a day, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.)”


Nicholas Mirzoeff on “Artificial vision, white space and racial surveillance capitalism”: “Based as it is on ‘epidermalization’ (the assertion of absolute difference based on relative differences in skin color), AI’s racial surveillance deploys an all-too-familiar racialized way of seeing operating at plan-etary scale. It is the plantation future we are now living in. All such operations take place in and via the new imagined white space of technology known as the cloud. In reality, a very material arrangement of servers and cables, the cloud is both an engine of high-return low-employment capitalism and one of the prime drivers of carbon emissions.”


Sara Ahmed on the performativity of disgust (from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004): “To name something as disgusting is to transfer the stickiness of the word ‘disgust’ to an object, which henceforth becomes generated as the very thing that is spoken. The relationship between the stickiness of the sign and the stickiness of the object is crucial to the performativity of disgust as well as the apparent resistance of disgust reactions to ‘newness’ in terms of the generation of different kinds of objects. The object that is generated as a disgusting (bad) object through the speech act comes to stick. It becomes sticky and acquires a fetish quality, which then engenders its own effects.”

November 7th, 2020
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