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    23 Ways To Deskill The Self

    Social media are meant to help us express ourselves by saving us the trouble of it. Here, some key tips to enjoying an automated personality

    1. Don't work

    The concern with deskilling is probably as old as the history of automation. Often the core of such critiques is that by depriving people of opportunities to perform socially meaningful work, automation strips us of integrity, autonomy, and “real” satisfaction with ourselves.

    2. Forget Work-Life Balance

    George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), for instance, contains a lengthy tirade against automation. He declares that “the tendency of mechanical progress is to make life safe and soft,” and people interested only in passive pleasure rather than work: “Whichever way you turn there will be some machine cutting you off from the chance of working — that is, of living.”

    3. Embrace convenience

    Convenience for Orwell is a form of social control, and work is the struggle to achieve and experience a singular life.

    But the human addiction to automation, he predicts, will inevitably lead to total disempowerment and dematerialization, from which there is no opting-out:

    "In a healthy world there would be no demand for tinned foods, aspirins, gramophones, gaspipe chairs, machine guns, daily newspapers, telephones, motor-cars, etc., etc.; and on the other hand there would be a constant demand for the things the machine cannot produce. But meanwhile the machine is here, and its corrupting effects are almost irresistible. One inveighs against it, but one goes on using it."

    4. Automate belonging

    Orwell sounds a bit like a contemporary critic lamenting the inevitability of using mobile phones and social media, all while lamenting their deleterious effects. He believed that socialism would thrive if it offered people a healthy dose of character-building hard work rather than a technologically automated future of convenience. This concern is echoed in current debates over whether communication technology does more to reinforce social control than enable political resistance: Do social media facilitate the character-building hard work of building solidarity, or does it merely deskill activism and sociality itself while intensifying atomization under the guise of personal convenience?

    5. Consume friendship

    While Orwell worried about machines making us incompetent and lazy, critics now worry about more intensive forms of automation that impinge on what was once our nonwork existence, making everyday life at once more like work and deskilled. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in Consuming Life, for instance, writes about “social deskilling,” an erosion of the skills necessary to maintain relationships, which he links to the commodification of life necessitated by the “society of consumers.”

    6. Turn your friends into products

    Because consumer goods embody our culture’s values, we emulate their form and commodify ourselves to receive the kinds of approval brands and consumer goods receive. Social media facilitate this commodification, this standardization of the rituals of friendship, in the name of convenience. They encourage us to consume friendship as a reified good rather than confront it as an ongoing reciprocal practice. “Friends” are people who populate our feeds with novelty and entertainment; they do not impose their mundane frailties on us and demand comfort or accommodation.

    7. Eschew awkwardness

    By absolving social interaction of its necessary awkwardness, social media leave us less equipped to deal with the inevitable friction involved in any kind of solidarity building, making us even more reliant on technological interfaces to mask tensions and obviate the need for negotiation. This doesn’t seem to bode well for political organization, let alone intimacy. It does bode well for commercial interests and intensified consumption.

    8. Trade autonomy for comfort

    When friendship is commodified, it becomes subject to the acceleration pressures built in to consumerism: that is, it must be up-to-date, collectible, easy to use, easy to deploy as a signifier, and it must complete with all the other packaged experiences that we consume to experience and enrich our status. Communication technology is typically sold with this implicit agenda of efficiency. Get the benefits of sociality on your own time, without the hassle. But to enjoy that luxury, you have to make yourself available for the same treatment.

    9. Buy into liberation myths

    Convenience sweetens the consumption of social media, but a different sort of ideology is at work in encourage production on it. To that end social media promise a wider field of self-expression, and an identity that appears radically open to free development. The new communicative resources (links, images, likes, screen grabs, serial selfies, cut-and-paste collages, Buzzfeed listicles, etc.) can seem to express the self without the same limits brought about by the imprecision or, maybe more often, the overprecision of one's own words, or the biases engendered by one's embodied presence.

    10. Quantify yourself

    Most important, the impact of these new methods of self-articulation can be quantified: We can watch ourselves seem to grow “deeper” as the information that makes it up in a digital archive gets processed, in the way its data points intersect with others and lend themselves to further processing.

    Every piece of information about the self becomes a site of multiplicity, intervention, inversion, metastasis — an explosion of possibility for self becoming selves, though all contained within servers, all safely digitized, all ultimately and concretely re-reducible to our singularity, our "real name." And none of it needs to be particularly complex or confrontational to be felt as transformative. Posting videos of one's cat is sufficient to tremble the network.

    11. Type faster

    So social media afford us a provisional, undecided self, and induce us to work within their captured spaces to produce it. And then, by the same logic of efficiency that has always governed capital-labor relations, social media must try to automate that self-expression work. They must try to extract the most amount of value as fast as possible with the least amount of reliance on labor.

    12. Outsource desire

    One can trace automation’s insidious infiltration this way: First, technology deskilled work, making us machine monitors rather than craft workers; then it deskilled consumption, prompting us to prefer “tinned food” to some presumably more organic alternative.

    Then it deskilled sociality, make it a matter of the self-centered consumption of other people.

    Now, with the tools of data collection and algorithmic processing, it deskills self-reflection and the formation of desire. We get preemptive personalization, “personalization” stretched to the point where it leaves out the will of the actual person involved, as when sites like Facebook and Google customize what you experience without your conscious input. This reduces the work of self-production to a kind of ratification of what the machine desires for you.

    13. Reinforce your reification

    We are invited to actively use social media to articulate and share a self, one we think is consistent and autonomous. But this data is combined with other digital traces we generate and then reprocessed by institutions and companies to create a demographically-grounded self relevant to marketers.

    This construct then guides what we see online (through recommendation engines and tailored pages and filtering and so forth), reinforcing it. It is also reinforced by shaping how we are presented to other people in the networks, who see us the way social media companies want them to.

    Social media are mirrors and projectors, but we don’t control the images that result in either case, though we are led to believe that we can. Social-media companies use filtering to support their business interests: making users dependent on them for a sense of selfhood and social belonging, and inclined to compulsively check the sites for confirmation of those things.

    14. Get branded

    As we chase some illusion of a final, authentic, autonomous self through broadcasting with these media, the very process steers us toward elaborating a self that has less to do with our intentions and more to do to formatting or “premediating” ourselves for more efficient processing. We turn ourselves into useful data, but it’s not necessarily useful for us, no matter how aggressive we are about using social media for self-branding purposes.

    15. Seek relief from ambition

    Preemptive personalization operates under the presumption we are eager to express ourselves only so that we may be done with the trouble of it once and for all, once what we would or should say can be automated and we can simply reap the social benefits of our automatic speech.

    Yet it is mandatory that we have a robust self to express, that we create value by innovating on that front. Otherwise we run the risk of becoming economic leftovers.

    So while social media use is driven by promise of self-expression, this is really just the pressure we experience to make our identities unique, a reflection of the neoliberal emphasis on entrepreneurializing the self. Preemptive personalization allows social media to provide relief from the pressure they at the same time engender.

    16. Be unique

    The point of “being unique” has broadened. It is a consumer pleasure as well as a pseudo-accomplishment of self-actualization.

    So all at once, “uniqueness” (1) motivates content production for social-media platforms, (2) excuses intensified surveillance, and (3) allows filter bubbles to be imposed as a kind of flattery (which ultimately isolates us and prevents self-knowledge, or knowledge of our social relations).

    Uniqueness is as much a mechanism of control as an apparent expression of our distinctiveness. No wonder it’s been automated.

    17. Meet the masses

    If social control is implemented through the illusion of self-expression — if we format ourselves through "engagement" and reproduce atomized individualism by insisting on our uniqueness — does pre-emptive personalization threaten its efficacy?

    In Baudrillard’s early 1980s writings about the “masses,” he seems to anticipate this question while also anticipating the shape of social media, of mass connectivity and Big Data modeling on the basis of ubiquitous surveillance: “This is our destiny,” he writes in “The Masses: The Implosion of the Social,” "subjected to opinion polls, information, publicity, statistics: constantly confronted with the anticipated statistical verification of our behavior, absorbed by this permanent refraction of our least movements, we are no longer confronted with our own will. We are no longer even alienated, because for that it is necessary for the subject to be divided in itself, confronted with the other, contradictory. Now, where there is no other, the scene of the other, like that of politics and society, has disappeared. Each individual is forced despite himself into the undivided coherency of statistics. There is in this a positive absorption into the transparency of computers, which is something worse than alienation."

    18. Binge-watch life

    To me, that sounds a lot like the combination of social media and Big Data: Surveillance and quantification produce the self as a set of statistics, a manipulatable data object. Rather than capturing “our own will,” they circumvent it; they predict what we want without our willing anything. Postauthenticity — social media plus Big Data — makes our will superfluous. It becomes something we can observe as a spectacle as much as experience as motivation, like an extension of the way Netflix enables binge-watching by automating the beginning of the next episode, pre-empting the necessary exercise of will to go on. Post-authenticity is a kind of binge-watching of life.

    19. Don't speak

    That automation of the self means we exist as statistical models that purport to reflectan outside reality but in fact are tautological, capable only of grasping what they have already predicted and modeled. The self Big Data is trying to capture ends up just being the one it has already reported to us.

    This, for Baudrillard, means the population of postauthentic dividuals (in Deleuze's phrase) can become “the masses,” an amorphous blob of individuals who paradoxically elude social control through sheer inertia. The system meticulously captures only what it already expects them to do, and beyond that, they are silent. They produce no novel data to drive the system out of its feedback loop, and move beyond manipulation, beyond influence, beyond desire. This, Baudrillard hopes, will eventually suffocate the system. Simply liking what we are told or expected to like becomes deeply subversive to a system that depends on our innovating new desires, new demand.

    20. Succumb to inertia

    Baudrillard posits a “radical antimetaphysics whose secret is that the masses are deeply aware that they do not have to make a decision about themselves and the world, that they do not have to wish, that they do not have to know, that they do not have to desire.” They don’t have to do anything; they don’t have even to “be themselves,” which would be a form of production, manifesting a certain consumer demand.

    21. Go viral

    Compulsive social media use can effect this radical antimetaphysics, freeing us from having a deep and complex self that would pose much more risk and require much more strategy to present and manage. We can feel as though we escape from the responsibility for identity and all the risk management that comes with having a palpable, foregrounded “personal brand” by shifting it back to algorithms, automating it.

    Within social media, then, self-expression can be a way of dismantling identity as much as building it, ultimately allowing for the offloading of the burden of self.

    Virality is the apotheosis of this, the circulation of the self as something being circulated. In this system, we don’t express our true self in search of attention and confirmation; instead attention posits the true self as a node in a dynamic network, and the more connections that run through it, the more complete and “expressed” that self is.

    22. Reject intersubjectivity

    When we start to measure the self, concretely, in quantified attention and the density of network connectivity rather than in terms of the nebulous concept of “effort,” it begins to make sense to accept algorithmic personalization, which reports the self to us as something we can consume.

    The algorithm takes the data and spits out a statistically unique self for us, that lets us consume our uniqueness as a kind of one-of-a-kind delicacy. It masks from us the way our direct relations with other people shape who we are, preserving the fantasy that we are sui generis.

    It protects us not only from the work of being somebody — all that tiring self-generated desire — but more insidiously from the emotion work of acknowledging and respecting the ways our actions have consequences for other people at very fundamental levels of their being. Automated selfhood frees us from recognizing and coping with our interdependency, outsourcing it to algorithms.

    23. Chase your tail

    But the tautological nature of this self makes it inscrutable, driving an expansion of surveillance, a search for new data streams from which to extrapolate new truths about the populations. Hence the push for expanding social media to encompass more of everyday life, and for the Internet of Things, embedding trackers in more and more everyday objects. If the masses seem to speak by these means, they become manageable again.

    However, as Kate Crawford argues in an essay about “The Anxieties of Big Data,” the more data you have, the more crises of interpretation you confront, leading to more data collection and deeper crises. Every demographic invented to contain people is eventually undermined by more nuanced data.

    So mass surveillance yields massive inscrutability. The ways social media allow us to speak may amount only to so much more silence.

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