What is the value of a phantom limb?
In 1964 Marshall McLuhan published a book called Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. It’s sort of like a religious text for media theorists, though it leans more towards apocrypha than canon. McLuhan was a bit of a heretic. He’s most famous for claiming it’s the form of a medium, rather than the messages we send through it, that has the biggest impact on society; not the violence we watch on television, for example, but the structural properties of television itself. Media change the world by changing its users on a fundamental level; by extending our bodies. The printing press is like a bionic mouth that lets us speak to a million people at once even centuries after our death. The internet is like a second face, a new partial self whose disembodied and digital form can both listen and speak to others of its kind. When I adopt a new medium it alters how I experience the world and what I can do to it, as if I had grown a new appendage. Even my Twitter persona, for example, represents a new facet of my body. At the same time, however, Twitter is a web service; a business run by people I can’t trust, yet with whom I nonetheless share ownership of my shiny new-grown limb. If they wanted to they could cut it off and sell it.
I develop videogames for a living, but I spent last year really hating videogames. I questioned how it was I could consume 60 hours of ‘content’ for Assassin’s Creed 3 yet feel utterly unsatisfied by my act of consumption. I questioned what it was I had consumed, other than my own time. I questioned what it was I sought from the game in the first place. I questioned the nature of the ‘content’ it claimed to offer me; privately I began to suspect it might not even exist. The games I was making and playing seemed more and more to me like empty forms: Puzzle boxes within puzzle boxes, each layer promising ‘content’ underneath it yet in the end yielding an empty centre. I became too tired and bored to care about games anymore. I could no longer see the point in it. I felt as if some enormous detritus had gathered upon my career and favourite hobby; that I could no longer reach through this detritus to claim the enjoyment I had once found underneath.
I awoke from my yearlong stupor the night I encountered a game called Problem Attic by a person named Liz Ryerson. It was like nothing I’d seen before. Rather than a puzzle box, it was more of a sculpture. Its ‘content’ was not buried behind teaching, gating or a thousand tiresome transactions; it was simply present, exposed, beautiful anywhere I cared to look. Ryerson had not designed the game to be consumed so much as authored it to contain ideas. We cannot consume an idea. We cannot lock and unlock it; we cannot buy and sell it; we cannot bundle it with an Xbox 360 at GameStop. We cannot possess ideas. But I learned from Attic that ideas can possess us. Attic made kindling of the detritus through which I’d been stumbling, lighting a bright yet tiny fire in the back of my brain. The more I thought about the game the more it changed the way I thought: About videogames, about Marshall McLuhan, about my job, about everything. As I put my thoughts into writing the fire spread, and the detritus began to burn away.
Upon completing Attic I resolved to write a brief close reading, so I sat down one evening hoping to produce 500 words. I stood up the next morning with 4000. Those words became Fashion, Emptiness and Problem Attic. But even as I published that piece I knew I was not finished. I’d learned Attic is a game about prisons of belief and behaviour: It’s not about looking at the path ahead, it’s about looking at the walls. Thus it was not enough to explain what Attic makes present that other videogames leave absent. I needed to understand the forces around me that created this absence in the first place. Another 4000 words later I’d concluded it was the values I internalized as a student of user-centered design (chief among them clarity and craft) that made me champion products I’d now come to hate. These words became The Cult of the Peacock. I liked that piece a lot, but still my work felt incomplete. I had yet to express the entirety of the thinking I’d been doing; columns of flaming detritus still swirled through my head. I’d learned Attic is not just a game about prisons; it’s also a game about jailers. It was not enough to criticize the shape of the prison in which my work was confined. I had to learn who built its walls.
McLuhan, if he were still alive, could tell us all about walls. He would say walls are a medium. By placing them in the world we form a new space that tells us where we can and can’t go, what we can and can’t do. In this particular sense McLuhan might also say that media, all our various technological appendages, function exactly like walls. When using media we tend to focus only on the messages we choose to send and receive through the paths laid out before us. But if we really want to know who has true power in the world we should seek the people designing the path; those who construct, own and operate the media through which we live our lives.
This is a story about how Steam, Twitter and the App Store came to exist. It’s about how these services present themselves as our friends while behaving as our enemies. It’s about how they stole the internet from us, creating a place where everything is ‘free’ but liberty remains unavailable. It’s about how their forebears stole our very language from us, creating a lexicon in which we have no means of even describing that which cannot be possessed and consumed. It’s about how they filled my head with detritus — with garbage — and sold all my new appendages to the highest bidder. Today I come to reclaim them.
The Politics of Form
Before I can reclaim my lost appendages we must first reclaim something more fundamental: Our language, the medium through which we think. Consider the power inherent in the words ‘form’ and ‘content’. ‘Form’ describes what the things we make are; thus they who define form decide what things can be. ‘Content’ is more powerful still because it defines what we want; they who define content decide what is and is not valuable. Like all powerful words, ‘form’ and ‘content’ have a political history: They have meant different things in different times and places, serving alternately as tools of liberation and oppression. In the present era ‘content’ is one of the ugliest words I know, translating roughly to ‘shit we cram into the middle of Assassin’s Creed 3 so it takes longer to complete’. This is what today’s English tells us we want. It isn’t what we used to want, however. Once upon a time some people stole this word from us. They buried the former meaning somewhere in the depths of history where they hoped we’d never find it. They supplanted it with a new meaning that by absolutely no coincidence makes it very easy to market downloadable ‘content’ for media like Assassin’s Creed. They would like us to forget the old meaning ever existed, but I refuse: Instead we’re going to find it and dig it up. To do so we’re going to need some help. We require a forensic expert who specializes not in the corpses of humans, but in the corpses of words and ideas. We need someone who views thoughts the way crime scene investigators view dead bodies: As components in an ongoing historical process we can trace backwards through time to find out why things are the way they are. Fortunately I know just the person. We shall enlist the aid of the most rigorous thinker I have yet encountered: A person named Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
Hegel is my favourite old German man because, in addition to having plotted the course of Western philosophy for nearly two centuries, he also holds the word ‘content’ to a beautiful standard: He uses it to encompass all of history, religion, philosophy and indeed the very concept of freedom itself. To Hegel what we want from our media is not merely a convenient way to waste 60 hours of our lives: What we want is access to universal truths.
Hegel believes truth is real and can be found in the universe, but that it does not reside purely in the physical world nor purely in human minds. Rather, it is composed of disembodied “ideas” that represent the interplay between both these domains. An “idea” in Hegelian terms must be the product of history. It begins as a mere notion: A nascent and subjective thought we pluck from our imagination. As we express our notions through words and actions, however, they travel out into the world. There they get to enjoy a life of their own, growing more objective, mature and idea-like over time. Eventually they encounter different notions with different origins. Some notions complement one another. Others, however, are contradictory.
In modern politics we misunderstand the relationship between contradictory notions: We tend to believe they should interact by beating one another to death. To Hegel, however, interaction is never destructive. Instead our notions engage in dialogue using human beings as their surrogates, challenging and refining one another until eventually they form the basis for a single, larger idea that benefits from the nuanced history of all its parts. This is what Hegel calls “sublation”: The gradual process by which abstract, subjective notions join with one another to become concrete, objective ideas. At the conclusion of this process, Hegel postulates, we shall be left with a singular impossibly-complex and all-encompassing Idea, the Idea, which as the product of all history and thought represents the complete truth of our universe (and, by virtue of its totality, the form of God itself). This is the crux of Hegel’s famous refrain: “The true is the whole”. I find it to be a beautiful way of thinking about the universe and my place in it.
What I find most helpful about Hegel’s thinking is that although we participate in the development of the ideas he describes we do not possess them. This is because ideas have far more in common with we human beings than with the inanimate objects we ordinarily claim to possess. Ideas have their own lifespans, rising and falling over the course of history. They have their own instinct, which directs them along the path from abstractness to concreteness. They have their own agency, bringing about revolutions both intellectual and physical. They have free will; indeed, as the product of our collective intellectual engagement with the world they represent free will made manifest. We cannot hope to possess entities as immeasurably vast as these; if anything, it is they who possess us. They, not us, hold authorship over history. They, not us, manifest the most power.
In English there is no word to describe the human traits belonging to an idea. The closest we have are “ghost” and “spirit”, which inappropriately connote the supernatural (and moreso the occult). Hegel, however, thinks in 19th century German, and as such his dialectical arsenal includes the word geist. Geist is a wonderful word. English scholars often translate it awkwardly as “mind/spirit” or “mind (spirit)” to connote consciousness without personhood, a type of consciousness enjoyed both by ideas and people. Geist permits us to imagine consciousness not as a trick of biology or some hallmark of ‘the divine soul’ but rather as the confluence of purpose, process, structure and motion. Art movements are not people yet they are of mind/spirit, which is to say of geist. The Enlightenment was not a person, yet it too was of geist. Chess is of geist. These things are alive in a very meaningful way, and they tower over us.
Content Versus ‘Content’
When we consider Art in Hegelian terms its purpose is not mysterious or difficult to grasp. For him Art is simply one of three different kinds of form (the other two being philosophy and religion) through which humans access the same content: Geist, the omnipresent mind and spirit of living ideas. Since we English speakers have no word for this concept we must be longer winded: We must say art connects us to the forces that guide our history, the conceptual manifestations of our free will and (for a religious person like Hegel) the nascent fragments of God’s master plan.
Without Hegel’s help the concept of Art, especially of videogames as Art, continues to make us a little bit anxious. When we arm ourselves with the concept of geist, however, this anxiety becomes irrational. It is fitting that computer-based art should be an important vessel for the geist of the Information Age; this much we have always known. So too is it fitting that this art should have to spend a great deal of time fighting for legitimacy in the wider world. If ideas must be the product of history, then there must be a span of history during which those ideas exist in an incomplete state. The “are games art?” debate, for all its exhausting bluster, is nothing but a snapshot of the sublation process at work: Of ideas in their abstract stages struggling to seize concrete form for themselves.
The vanguard of game making is already succeeding in this struggle, and has been for many years. The ideas contained within Problem Attic are vividly concrete to the conscientious observer. But for our more formalist videogames, which seek to gaze directly into the heart of the microprocessor, history moves slower. I have difficulty expounding on the content of a game like Spelunky, for example. Yet armed as I now am with some of Hegel’s philosophy this difficulty no longer troubles me. I need not disqualify Spelunky as art; I need only concede that despite its immaculately-polished surface the ideas behind it are still somewhat abstract. They shall not remain that way forever. Hegel once declared, famously and obliquely, that ‘art is dead’. Scholars do not agree on precisely what he meant by this, but my preferred interpretation suggests the art we fully understand is, by definition, already in the past. Art of the present must be alien, unfathomable and difficult to identify because it is of young mind/spirit. It is the bleeding edge of truth, reaching beyond what is achievable through discursive means to seize something new and untamed. Spelunky has a spirit I can feel as I play it. I need not feel anxious about whether its procedurally-generated elements (its Rogue-like parts) permit some kind of ‘meaningful artistic statement’. Rather, it is through enacting and observing the movement of these elements that its spirit, the Spelunkengeist, shall gradually come to life. At the end of the universe we will know the complete truth of videogames. Before then we can only experience their peculiar vitality.
Now that Hegel has located our stolen words we have the tools we need to identify the people who stole them. We have geist, which liberates me from anxiety about my profession and hobby by helping me articulate the kind of content I actually want from videogames. We also recognize today’s version of ‘content’ as something that oppresses me: It makes me feel bad about what I do and seeks to consign me to a life I don’t want. I believe the people who stole our words are the same ones who filled my head with detritus. I believe they had the means, motive and opportunity to bury Hegelian content in the past and put modern ‘content’ in its place, leaving us to waste our days haggling over the correct price in USD for ugly virtual armour on a soulless virtual horse. I believe they must be stopped. Come on then: It’s time to build our case.
The Tango in the Trough
Just as a game like Spelunky uses procedural generation algorithms to help it stare into the heart of the microprocessor, so too does it use them to stare into the heart of the free market: To make profits. Spelunky’s near-endless formal permutations provide what consumers today call ‘replay value’. Although we tend to associate procedural generation techniques with videogames and specifically with the Rogue-like, in truth their roots stretch back a tiny bit further than 1980.
Consider the Holy Bible as a product in a marketplace. It has several attractive qualities, foremost among them the tantalizing possibility that it contains the true word of a being who created the universe. But it has several worrisome drawbacks as well. Like most written anthologies it has poor replay value when compared to something like Spelunky; after you read it once you know more or less how it goes. It features a relatively weak Physical Rights Management scheme; for example, you don’t need to purchase one for your household if you can simply borrow it from a friend or read it in a local church. Even its branding as a ‘perfect document’ becomes something of a double-edged sword; the first, purportedly perfect edition might seem very desirable indeed, but who is going to buy Holy Bible: Religious Text Of The Year Edition when the original is supposed to be immaculate? How are you going to make corrections, utilize analytics data or market additional ‘content’? Where will your fine sponsors place all their full-page advertisements: After the crucifixion or before?
The Bible, as it turns out, would succeed regardless of these drawbacks, due in large part to a strong pre-existing brand, a relative dearth of competition in what were then the early days of the printed word platform and also some degree of sectarian violence. (In these senses it was very much the Angry Birds of its day.) New competitors entering the space found, for all the reasons listed above, that the Bible’s monetization model would not work for them the way it had for the Christian Church. Fortunately the intrepid capitalists of the day wasted little time bringing ‘disruptive innovation’ to the printed word ecosystem. They envisioned an entirely new kind of product. It was something that, like Spelunky, their audience could consume over and over again. It was something whose ‘content’ was always sensational and new, demanding to be purchased for oneself rather than borrowed later or remembered from a previous reading. It was something that leveraged the power of microtransactions by selling a lot of small, inexpensive bits of ‘content’ (subsidized by ad revenue, of course) rather than one enormous, expensive, ad-free block of ‘content’ all at once. It was also something on which writers could iterate rapidly to optimize ad targeting, conversion rate and retention. This new invention would spark a sort of information revolution, transforming the landscape of media irrevocably, wiping out the dinosaurs that preceded it and ushering in a new and exciting generation of wider, faster and more accessible ‘content’ than anyone ever thought possible. I am speaking, of course, of the newspaper.
The newspaper represents one of the oldest and most compelling examples of a procedural work of media. Like Spelunky its form is governed by a set of rules, the former using source code to direct a microprocessor and the latter using a strict set of editorial policies and graphic design guidelines to direct the newspaper’s staff. Like Spelunky the newspaper is all about replaceable parts: One staff person may step in to take the place of another, yet the name, the look and the perspective of the paper need not change on a fundamental level. The newspaper even maintains its own ‘brand’, which is a special sort of geist that uses profit rather than intellect to guide the paper’s journalistic style. Just as Spelunky is a machine for converting pseudo-random numbers into dungeons, the newspaper is a machine for converting individual people’s writing into the newspaper’s ‘content’. Both provide limitless replay value through procedurality; both, therefore, have distinctly Rogue-like properties. Yet of course the newspaper predates Spelunky, and even Rogue itself, by nearly four centuries. If like Hegel we are interested in tracing the lineage of ideas we would be remiss to describe the newspaper as the first Rogue-like; we should say instead that Rogue and Spelunky are contemporary examples of the newspaper-like.
I believe our intrepid capitalists of yesteryear used newspapers, and other forms of mass publication, to introduce a new politics of form and content to the world. Where Hegel used these terms to distinguish ‘the work itself’ (form) from ‘the ideas behind it’ (content), the newspaper uses them to distinguish ‘the machine that aggregates/distributes’ from ‘the writing that fuels this machine’. What once was called ‘form’ is now ‘content’, and what Hegel would call content can no longer be described; it has fallen so far into obscurity that I must resurrect a 19th century German term just to communicate it in English.
Newspaper producers treat ‘content’ like a commodity, manufacturing it, appraising it and meting out certain amounts of it per dollar. ‘Content’ hereby becomes exclusively the product of a commercial transaction: The newspaper presents specific quantities of ‘content’ for specific prices, and in turn we consumers purchase as much as we can for as little as we can manage to spend. The formula we use for evaluating ‘content’ today looks something like this:
The concept of ‘replay value’, so critical to today’s hottest newspaper-likes, stems directly from this formula: Since we evaluate ‘content’ quantitatively it follows that a publication or videogame could increase the value of its ‘content’ either by improving yield or reducing the cost of production. We have hereby come to prefer our ‘content’ the same way we prefer our pig feed: Smooth tasting, from an Ikea-branded trough. Think about how a 19th century philosopher like Hegel might regard the concept of ‘replay value’. Would he commiserate with us about how the mind/spirit of romanticism just doesn’t make for large enough murals? Or would we have to pull out a bunch of obscure 21st century English words just to explain to him what the hell we were talking about? It’s important to realize that ‘replay value’ is not some timeless virtue sought by all media for all of history. It is a political viewpoint wrapped in a sales pitch perpetuated by people trying to improve the market position of their mass-produced entertainment products. By appropriating the word ‘content’, which denotes what we want, our intrepid capitalist marketers have steered us away from the conceptual, spiritual and artistic content Hegel envisions. All we want now is more stuff for a lower price.
Now, while both Spelunky and The New York Times respond to our intrepid capitalists’ commoditization of media by offering an endless sequence of ‘content’ chunks there remains one fundamental difference between them. Spelunky generates this sequence using the player’s microprocessor, which is not a person and does not demand royalties. NYT is not so fortunate, relying on a confederation of various specialists (journalists, editors and more) to produce its new editions. Under capitalism (which is itself a sort of Rogue-like in that it procedurally generates both wealth and misery) we have a special word for confederations of individuals acting as a single agent to sell products or services: We call them corporations. And the funny thing about participating in a corporation is that your prescribed purpose within it is both to collaborate and compete with your fellow participants all at the same time. Yes, you want to generate wealth for the corporation by selling a bunch of newspapers. Your incentive for doing so, however, includes securing for yourself the largest possible slice of that wealth by negotiating it away from your fellow employees. The resulting dynamic is a sort of capitalist tango with which all creative professionals are intimately familiar. The publisher tries to maximize the value of its machine (its volume, its distribution, the company brand) and wants to appropriate ‘content’ as fuel. Meanwhile the writer tries to maximize the value of the words (her story, her name, her personal brand) and wants to appropriate machinery as a vehicle. (Appropriation is what capitalists do best.) The most skilful and privileged tangoers (though seldom the most competent or hardest working creators) secure the most capital, becoming renowned authors or publications; less effective tangoers secure the least, and become bankrupt.
NYT must deal on a daily basis with the contemporary politics of ‘form’ versus ‘content’: Machine versus fuel, distribution versus production, company versus individual, pig feed versus trough. Each aspect seeks to appropriate the other in the name of personal gain, and the two hereby become alienated. By contrast, Spelunky’s level generation algorithm is not in competition with itself, freeing the game to pursue a Hegelian collaboration of form alongside content; to expound on the nature of the beautiful yet elusive Spelunkengeist. Modern ‘content’ is wholely commoditized, generated as a product so it might be sold, consumed and ultimately converted into wealth. Hegelian content is the opposite: It’s free as in libre, an infinite mental/spiritual resource built by and shared between all humanity. In other words, ‘content’ in scarequotes is fundamentally capitalistic while content in the Hegelian sense is fundamentally communistic. Our struggle over the definition of this word is not merely academic; it plays an important role in the central political conflict of our age. Since Hegel’s death in 1831 we’ve seen this conflict play out over and over again.
Libre and Gratis
The newspaper, alongside its sibling the magazine, reigned as Europe’s preeminent procedural media form for four centuries. It was well-suited to the era in which it lived, both because making 20,000 copies of something was prohibitively expensive and because there were far more people able to do writing than there were people able to mass-distribute. (If you know your microeconomics, this was what you’d call a “seller’s market”.) Printers got to be very choosy about whose writing they published and, perhaps more significantly, whose writing they ignored. Our intrepid capitalists lived as gatekeepers, selecting only the finest voices to represent their brand, politics, financial interests and so on while the best tangoers among them went about declaring stately pleasure domes and naming sleds after their lovers’ genitals. In the meantime Hegelians, communists and dreamers stood on the outside looking in. They longed for a medium that was multicast (allowing everyone to speak freely to everyone else) instead of merely broadcast (allowing Charles Foster Kane to make the people think WHAT HE TELLS THEM TO THINK).
The 20th century was a fateful one for these dreamers, though the fates it dealt were never quite the ones they wanted. For the first sixty years they found themselves strapped into a rollercoaster of raised and subsequently shattered hopes. First came radio, a technology very well-suited to multicasting as it was in fact invented for the express purpose of affordable many-to-many communication. Unfortunately the world’s governments were quick to colonize most available bandwidth and lease it out for commercial use, kicking off a golden age of big media broadcasting. Next came television, which in addition to murdering the golden age of radio proved itself the least multicastable medium in human history: It inherited both the bandwidth limitations of radio and the prohibitive costs of print, practically tumbling from the womb with a Chevy ad wrapped around its neck. After video had finished killing the radio star our dreamers hoped they could sneak onto the scene of the crime and dwell for a while inside radio’s decomposing corpse. To some extent they succeeded: Public and community-based radio outlets did indeed emerge, and the medium became more inclusive as a result. Yet the world still runs on capital, so these outlets struggled for funding and listenership against the mound of zombified corporate detritus that today delivers us a ceaseless discharge of top 40 and talk radio along the lines of ‘DJ Shitty Steve in the Morning’. (Procedurally generating piles of garbage is what capitalists do second-best.)
Our dreamers looked upon Steve’s coveted “soundboard of a thousand farts” and despaired. But then, in the final forty years of the century, something remarkable happened. The microprocessor, by day a mild-mannered accountant and by night a Rogue level generator, found a fresh-faced sidekick in the fibre-optic cable and a grizzled, grudging ally in the long-distance telecommunications infrastructure. They formed a new league of technological superpowers that was terrible at fighting intellectual property crime but very good at changing the face of media forever. Together these powers would constitute the internet.
As a multicast medium the internet is not a seller’s market; it is, in fact, the greatest buyer’s market of all time. A computer with internet access can manufacture and distribute copies of something hundreds of thousands of times per second, costing its operator an infinitesimal fraction of what a printing press might. The word ‘cheap’ doesn’t even begin to describe it: We now live in a world where it’s so easy to copy media that paying money for it has become the exception rather than the rule, and even the world’s most powerful corporations are incapable of effectively preventing piracy. Where distributing new ‘content’ to one hundred thousand people once per day used to represent an enormous technical and financial barrier, modern web services like Twitter make it trivial for us to reach millions and millions of people as often as once per minute. The relationship between ‘form’ and ‘content’ as established in the era of the newspaper has hereby been inverted: Where to consumers ‘content’ had been closed, exclusive and valuable it is now open, ubiquitous and cheap. In turn the writer’s predicament no longer involves convincing some corporation to make copies of her words; that part is practically free. Her predicament now involves capturing the attention of an audience with virtually limitless options available to it, then somehow converting this hard-won attention into half of a living wage (presumably through a pagan ritual like crowdfunding).
The newspaper would continue to exist on the internet via news sites, blogs and so forth. But its margins would grow ever smaller, and its grip ever weaker. As Hegel infamously said regarding Art, the form of the newspaper was now dead; its mind/spirit was in the past. Our intrepid capitalists were not technical experts, but they were gifted with the ability to detect the presence of geist because, to them, geist smells exactly like money. So when in the mid ’90s the spirit of the newspaper began to fade they knew it was time to reinvest. They read a newspaper article about some new thing called the “Information Superhighway”; as they did so the scent of capital suddenly enveloped them. They rushed out to buy a PC, a modem, and an AOL account. Then they spent six hours on a technical support line trying to figure out how all this shit worked. When at last they made it online and scrambled into the nearest chatroom they found themselves face to face with the very Hegelians, communists and dreamers who’d fled to the internet years ago in an effort to escape them. The communists, especially, were pissed.
Our dreamers had been busy over the past ten years. They’d invented the BBS and the MUD and some strange new thing called a ‘web browser’ that runs on something called ‘hypertext markup language’. Some of them had become hackers, striving to embody the political notion that information wants to be free. Others simply wished to create the first holodeck, or to realize William Gibson’s striking conception of “cyberspace”. Our intrepid capitalists thought little of these silly pursuits, but they recognized the making of history when they saw it. Just like in Gutenberg’s time, the mind/spirit of a new age was again unfolding before their eyes. They thought about it for a moment, then they smiled wide. It was time to do what they always did, what they did best, what had made them an unbeatable historical force for several centuries. It was time to appropriate.
As our two opposing political forces coalesced we observed both the invention of all the technologies we use to sustain the modern internet alongside all the ludicrous excesses of the dot com bubble (so named because if you were a publicly traded corporation in 1999 you could double your stock price solely by adding ‘dot com’ to the end of your NASDAQ listing). On one hand our dreamers hoped to make the world more free as in libre by building accessible tools for creating things. They’re the reason why you no longer need HTML skills to leave a comment on a blog, and indeed why blogs and comment sections exist in the first place. But on the other hand our intrepid capitalists sought to appropriate the concept of freeness while appending a commercial twist: They planned for web services to become free as in gratis, turning “do it yourself” into “here, let me publish that for you in exchange for the right to profit from it and oh, by the way, have a look at this Chevy ad”. In the span of three or four years everything about the internet changed: The do-it-yourself, Geocities-like, weird internet of the mid ’90s became the professional, social networked, boring internet we have today. We retroactively labelled this movement ‘Web 2.0’, a term describing the set of technologies and design/business axioms that on the surface intend to anoint the user as a free (libre) contributor rather than powerless consumer while on the underside exploiting her contributions as freely given (gratis) ‘content’ to be sold as a commodity. In other words, the left hand frees us from mere consumership while the right hand monetizes the products of our new-found ‘freedom’.
This duality between gratis and libre was essential to the new kind of newspaper our intrepid capitalists sought to build. The idea was to craft a sales pitch around the prospect of creating Hegelian content, content as libre, while simultaneously converting readers’ contributions into ‘content’ as gratis to fill the paper’s pages. They no longer intended to act as gatekeepers between producer and consumer; all consumers would now become producers, multicasting ‘content’ back and forth to one another through the ‘form’ of the all-in-one medium/product/town hall/marketplace the newspaper would soon become. On one level our intrepid capitalists’ new ‘web service’ would be ubiquitous, serving all purposes for all people: A place to meet, chat, buy, sell, fight, work, play and so on. On another level it would be totally invisible, surrendering the overt editorial presence newspapers tended to possess by publishing virtually anything anyone wanted to publish without any money changing hands. The web service would become the pavement on top of which its users formed their town square, the atmosphere through which their voices travelled.
At the same time, of course, this service would manifest all the beneficial properties of the newspaper-like as supercharged by the microprocessor. Where the newspaper delivered replay value by hosting new ‘content’ every day the web service would do it every few seconds. Where the newspaper transfixed the reader by telling her what happened recently the web service would tell her what’s happening right now. Where the newspaper monetized its audience through crude instruments like subscriptions and broadly-focused mass advertising the web service would seek to monetize everything: The user’s personal relationships, her attention, her demographic data, her politics, her labour, her secrets, her entire life. Our beleaguered dreamers would finally get their wish. The user would no longer be a powerless consumer. Instead she would become something much worse. She’d become ‘content’ itself, a person qua commodity whose only real power lies in her potential to be consumed. She would be a human AA battery, in other words, digested one limb at a time by the hundreds of giant software systems now descending upon her.
Virtually every one of today’s most profitable web services inherits from the ‘Web 2.0’ archetype, but nothing fits it better than Twitter. Of course Twitter runs predominantly on user-generated ‘content’, presenting itself as being composed entirely thereof. Its sales pitch promises us libre self-expression, inviting us to invent and maintain a personal brand for ourselves. On Twitter, as the pitch goes, we can find an audience for our work, make new friends and organize ourselves politically; Twitter even serves as de facto battleground for our various internet culture wars. The tools it provides are so easy to use they all but disappear before our fingers. Gone is the HTML/CSS with which we contended in the MySpace era; gone is the bloated wall of features we encounter every time we open Facebook. Just like a videogame the Tweet™ is easy to learn, difficult to master and punctual with its feedback. (Twitter has excellent game feel.)
A Tweet™ provides the sort of constraints that afford five minutes of creativity rather than five weeks, freeing us from the tyranny of the blank page we would otherwise encounter should we open Notepad++ and start coding an HTML site from scratch. We spend a lot of time min-maxing our Tweets™ to take full advantage of this freedom. We view this freedom as being an inherent benefit of the service; indeed, we view the service as being inherently beneficial. We’ve come to view Twitter as the pavement beneath our feet, or the oxygen floating upon it; as a free and invisible medium of self-expression. We spend very little time thinking about the service’s inherent drawbacks.
The sales pitch speaks highly of the things Twitter provides to us, but of course this is not the complete story; to figure out what Twitter takes from us as compensation we must examine what the sales pitch omits. Twitter, like most Web 2.0 technologies, benefits tremendously from something media theorists call ‘the network effect’. This means it becomes exponentially more powerful as more and more people adopt it: The more users on Twitter, it pitches you, the wider your audience, the larger your circle of friends or the stronger your political demonstration. Consider, however, the downside of the network effect: That although the presence of more friends permits the service to benefit us, the presence of more enemies simultaneously permits it to to bully and marginalize us. Twitter does not advertise the fact that every moment a person like Anita Sarkeesian spends using the service is fraught with threats, harassment and attempts at sabotage.
When we encounter a situation like Sarkeesian’s, something outside the parameters of the sales pitch, our typical response is to blame it on some hostile other (‘the trolls’) or some fundamental defect in the internet. Though we may chide Twitter for failing to develop effective anti-harassment policies we reason the blame must lie ultimately with us users; after all, the sales pitch convinces us that Twitter makes us free as in libre, and ‘a few (hundred thousand) bad apples’ may therefore choose freely to do harm. We neglect to consider the possibility that Twitter did not fail at anything; that preventing harassment has never been Twitter’s goal because the service has far more to gain from permitting this sort of bullying than it does from preventing it (new and more interesting ‘content’, increasing entrenchment in its role as town square, more investment from users, etc…). As far as Twitter is concerned the ideal anti-harassment policy is just effective enough to prevent Sarkeesian from leaving while simultaneously permitting thousands of people to enjoy harassing her every day. In this way Twitter doesn’t need to engage directly in the Charles Foster Kane-style yellow journalism of its predecessors; it reaps the same rewards (while incurring very few of the risks) by allowing users to do so on its behalf. So long as we continue holding Twitter solely to the standard of its sales pitch the service remains free (as in libre) to preside as a ‘neutral third party’ over the very culture wars it facilitates, dropping a Promoted Tweet™ or two into our timelines between all the vicious bile.
Consider the second, more insidious downside of the network effect: The more friends you have using a service, the harder it is to go anywhere else. If Sarkeesian were to leave Twitter for some similar but less abusive service she would be abandoning any followers who don’t maintain an account there. If she were to try splitting her energy between the two services, any followers exclusive to one side would see only half as much of her. Web 2.0 services love the network effect because its libre hand empowers their users even as its gratis hand integrates them into a nearly-inescapable and monopolistic social network (what our intrepid capitalists would call an ‘ecosystem’, though that term is ironic in that there is very little biological diversity in prison).
Modern services like Facebook and Twitter have learned to use the dual nature of the network effect as a loss leading technique, producing a pattern business people describe euphemistically as the ‘social network lifecycle’. The service first premiers offering nothing except the sales pitch, all libre and asking nothing in return (presenting no ads, for example, and offering open APIs allowing other services to extend its functionality). If it’s successful, both users and investors flock to it. Gradually the users grow into the service, developing a new appendage made of Tweets™, followers, likes and/or favs. Once they’ve become fully entrenched the company goes public, making its creators obscenely rich. Then the amputations begin.
Steadily the service becomes no libre and all gratis; it remains ‘free’ in a certain sense, but what users save in currency they pay in other ways. First ads show up in our feed, over time becoming more numerous and intrusive (auto-playing videos, for example, or pre-expanding images so Chevy can show you a giant advertisement regardless of whether you actually wanted to look). The open APIs once offered freely in a bid to help the service establish itself (and upon which many other sites now rely) suddenly close up, reverting all rights and privileges to the parent corporation alone. (This corporation buys out some of these other sites; others simply collapse.) The service uses its newly-consolidated privileges to operate a $50,000,000 per year ‘side business’ selling its users’ free labour to non-competing corporations in the form of proprietary ‘demographic data’. Where it encounters competition the service either absorbs it or crushes it mercilessly using an ever expanding, ever more entrenched network of users alongside an ever more formidable war chest. Even though the service now derives far more benefit from our ‘content’ than we do from its ‘form’ we have no power to renegotiate the terms of our agreement; the service is ‘free’, after all, and the EULA is entirely within the service’s control. We are left with no way to reclaim the appendages we’ve already cultivated within the service, and even if we were prepared to walk away from them the service has guaranteed there is nowhere else to go.
We typically consider our one-sided economic relationship with web services to be a benign, inherent property of the ‘free’ internet. But let’s consider the full extent of the transaction taking place. Consider that by adopting the medium of the Tweet™ we surrender not only the ‘content’ we produce but the ‘form’ of our work itself. Not only does the work we invest in our Tweets™ benefit Twitter far more than us, so does all the work we put into min-maxing our Tweets™: The work we did to learn how to produce the work. The style by which we amass followers is proprietary to Twitter. The way we present our work to them is proprietary to Twitter. The way we select which work to develop is, of course, proprietary to Twitter as well. The medium is the message, as McLuhan famously says, and all sides of that equation are now the property of a corporation that seeks above all other things to monopolize. It monopolizes access to our audience by exploiting the network effect against its rivals, then it monopolizes our work itself by forcing us to render it in a proprietary form. Twitter pitches us the concept of freedom while delivering its very opposite: An ‘ecosystem’ qua prison colony in which there is no alternative but to Tweet™.
We ought to regard the Tweet™ suspiciously, as a glorified status update tuned more towards Twitter’s data mining business than to our ostensibly free expression. We ought to insist Twitter shape itself around our work rather than shaping our work eagerly into Twitter’s business model (and thanking it for the privilege). We ought at least to demand Twitter use some of its extraordinarily lucrative data mining expertise to fight the harassment of our peers rather than tacitly affording it. Instead we fixate on the libre hand dangling a new social appendage in front of us while the gratis hand converts all our ‘freely given’ energy into its own money and power.
Consider the ways in which the Tweet™ and its allies make our work disposable. Every ‘content creator’ is familiar with the bell curve our analytics show us each time we release something new. The objective, it would appear, is to “go viral”; to propagate like an airborne contagion through the internet’s various social media services, leaving big fat bell curves on every site that posts a link. We tend to view this dynamic as part of the internet’s fundamental nature. But is it? Consider all the reasons why our intrepid capitalists of yesteryear replaced the (almost) timeless Holy Bible with a newspaper whose time is always the present; consider the political redefinition of ‘content’ to mean consumable rather than everlasting. A Tweet™ spends no more than a day or two in public view before vanishing into a database somewhere. Once our Tweet™ has been consumed and forgotten we make another and another, never Tweeting™ the same thing twice without dedicating 5 characters to an apologetic “ICYMI” (in case you missed it). The ‘form’ of Twitter, like that of the newspaper, demands a constant stream of new things to bury all the old ones. It wants there to be cases in which we miss things so we’ll adopt the underlying assumption that work should shoot past us like a copy of The New York Times rather than stand in permanence like the Bible, awaiting our approach. The bell curve we see is not the inevitable product of posting work on the internet; it’s the product of routing our work through a host of different web services designed to consume the new and then discard it. We chide Twitter for how ineffectual its search functions are, how challenging it is to obtain any legible historical record of our contributions to the free dialog its sales pitch claims is taking place. We ignore the implicit acknowledgement that Twitter does not want us to remember this history; that in fact, Twitter wants us to forget. It wants us to depend on new ‘content’ rather than dwelling in the old. It wants us to have a presence to maintain rather than construct. It wants us to forget the name of the author we just read but remember to Tweet™ it at all our friends no more than two or three times. It wants to be a windswept desert made from a billion atoms of homogeneous and disassociated ‘content’, ‘freeing’ us to build castles in the sand. The libre hand promises us an oasis while the gratis hand c converts the whole internet into a desert.
Consider also the ways in which the web service makes our work unsustainable. Recently we’ve decided to praise (or, alternately, vilify) Steam for abandoning the curation it once claimed to do, making the platform ‘free’ to all comers. We neglect to realize the concepts of freedom and curation are irrelevant to Steam’s best financial interests: Firstly to collect royalties from everyone they can; secondly to transfer all financial risk from Valve to developers; and thirdly to exploit the network effect against services like Origin and itch.io that have grown in around it.
The App Store sales pitch (and, soon, Steam’s) tells us the service is egalitarian: Anyone can make a game, anyone can put it up for sale and anyone can potentially succeed. It omits the fact that the process for selecting successful entrants is not be meritocratic in any sense of the term. Check out Gamasutra’s blog section sometime. Observe the relentless stream of ‘content’ concerning which monetization model is The One to Rule Them All (This Month), what the latest data scraps say about cloning versus original work, which magical incantation made Flappy Bird a surprise hit or the 50 Easy Steps to Indie Success. As developers our game can be good or bad; we can self-promote or be totally obscure; we can spend a year in development or three days. All these variables are completely non-predictive. Nobody knows how success on the App Store actually works and no one ever has; hiring some ex-Apple consultant to help us would be about as effective as ritualistically slaughtering a goat. The App Store is a madhouse in which success is entirely arbitrary. Usually when we find ourselves participating in an arbitrary selection process granting invariably low odds of success we don’t call that ‘egalitarian’; we call it buying a lottery ticket. Every game theorist knows lottery tickets are a waste of our time and money.
The mistake we make when dealing with the App Store is, once again, watching only the libre hand as it offers us the chance of a generous reward for our hard work; we ignore the gratis hand tossing our name into a hat. This is why, looking upon the madhouse, our response is to assume there is some defect in the service, perhaps poor ‘discoverability’ or a lack of curation. We neglect to realize that from Apple’s perspective these are not defects. Apple presides, as a ‘neutral third party’ of course, over a lottery that generates ~30% royalties regardless of who wins. They have no reason to ‘curate’ or to make our apps ‘discoverable’. Their goal is to do just enough to keep players and developers imprisoned in the ‘ecosystem’, locking everyone inside a horrific Thunderdome of their creation (oops, I mean a ‘walled garden’) while charging admission for the privilege. When we observe today’s class of small, broke, powerless game studios subsisting from tiny mobile project to tiny mobile project, we typically attribute their existence to an apathetic audience and/or soulless business executives. We neglect to notice how convenient our ‘neutral third parties’ might find it that these developers are incapable of renegotiating the royalties they pay or, say, founding a new ‘ecosystem’ of their own. Today we see Valve travelling in the same direction as Apple, and we wonder whether Gabe Newell can ‘fix’ the madhouse. If you’re Gabe Newell the madhouse is not broken.
Consider, most damningly of all, the ways in which the web service makes our work interchangeable. We approach Twitter, Steam and the App Store with the newspaper-like mentality that wider distribution is always better. We neglect to realize the internet is a buyer’s market: Maximum distribution means maximum competition between ‘content creators’ alongside minimum risk for the marketplace itself. Not only does this make it difficult for developers to carve out an audience; it also creates tremendous downward pressure on the value of our work. Anyone intending to charge money for their videogame faces an army of competitors willing to give theirs away for less, or for free. The audience sees little difference between one piece of work or another; it wants what the medium tells it to want, so what it wants is ‘content’. The audience doesn’t care about the individual nature of our work, its ideas or its mind/spirit. (We don’t even have words for that stuff anymore; they were stolen from us by the people who made Twitter.) The audience expects its ‘free’ relationship with the service to guarantee it ‘content’ as gratis. It pays Twitter in time, energy and possibly its immortal soul for the ‘free’ use of the service; why, then, should it pay creators as well? Ultimately the audience wants only to consume something, whatever it is, and move on. ‘Content’ is ‘content’; a Steam game is a Steam game; an app is an app; a Tweet™ is a Tweet™. All is proprietary; all tends towards gratis. Web services hereby reduce our work to the status of junk food or pornography: Interchangeable instruments of gratification whose value to consumers increases the less they cost. Our intrepid capitalists dream that one day we will all be ‘free’, and the only people making money will be them.
Where the newspaper works like a traditional corporation, the web service works exactly like Walmart. It moves precisely as much ‘content’ as its customers want from whoever gives it the best deal, abusing its growing media monopoly to drive prices ever downward. It collects the premiums it requires to become rich while selling its ‘content creators’ as short as possible; in turn, its customers grow to love it. We believe it’s becoming impossible to make money on the internet because our peers are underselling us or because our audience doesn’t appreciate us. We neglect to notice the ‘neutral third parties’ that connect all these things together, converting our increasingly ‘free’ action into their increasingly gross capital gain. When the Steam Sale comes around we joke to each other about how our wallets just can’t take the existential threat that is nearly-free ‘content’. Within these jokes, of course, is a fragment of the truth. We do indeed face an existential threat. Our wallets, however, are the only place we shouldn’t look. We fail to realize the closer we get to ‘free’ the higher the hidden cost, and the more our intrepid usurpers profit from the ruin of everything around them.
This is the final passage of a trilogy that began and shall now end with Problem Attic. The most important thing I learned from Attic is that change is not about what you want the world to become; that’s just your message. Rather, change is a medium. The change I want must not take the form of the breakneck, zero-sum, all-consuming ‘disruptive innovation’ favoured by our intrepid usurpers. It must not resemble Twitter or Steam; there must be no viral bell curves and no Tweets™. Instead the change I want must resemble the form of Attic itself: A tiny fire in a mound of corporate detritus, growing a little at a time. Recall that procedurally generating piles of garbage is what capitalists do second-best. This garbage is the inevitable by-product of consumption, incontrovertible evidence that the sales pitch is not all it seems. Our intrepid usurpers deposit these by-products in all manner of places. The by-products of physical consumption they deposit mostly in landfills; the by-products of mental/spiritual consumption, however, they deposit in our brains. Through the act of consuming our time and energy to power their massive ‘content’ machines they leave us with minds full of spent battery acid, the inevitable by-product of their consumption. Our intrepid usurpers don’t think much about the detritus they generate. They believe it to be a ‘neutral third party’ in their quest to consume everything they see before them. They neglect to realize the detritus is flammable.
Now that my investigation is complete and my case is made, I realize I will never find my missing limbs. Our intrepid usurpers amputated them gradually over my many years spent on the World Wide Web; they now lie broken to bytes across every server of every business that ever promised me something for nothing. I don’t know how much money they’ve made off of me, but at least I know something of what I lost. Though these services claim to extend me they produce only worthless illusions. In truth they seek to use me as an extension of them. I no longer intend to allow it.
I began this project as an analysis of form and content in political terms. I never imagined I would conclude it so many months later on the latter end of the centuries-old struggle between capital and community. For years beforehand my thinking had actually been fairly pro-capitalist; I often espoused the myriad benefits of currency and commerce. What I never did was consider the problem in terms of consumption versus communion. I realize now I had fallen for the sales pitch. This is not to say, however, that I currently advocate some bloody communist revolt circa 1917. Instead I believe in sublation as Hegel describes it. The internet is not some idyllic communist utopia ruined forever by capitalist invaders; that is not the whole truth. Without capital the internet would be a weird intellectual ghetto; without community it would be a hopeless corporate nightmare. It was the coalescence of these forces that gave the internet its mind/spirit and created the Information Age. Neither force is capable of simply erasing the other; thus, the whole truth must result from both of them. The only way forward is to let them merge together into something completely new.
The heart of my complaint, then, is not merely that predatory corporations exist on the internet. It’s that we don’t recognize them for what they are. We’ve spent fifteen years ignoring them, doing the capitalist tango with one another while the ground beneath us gnawed on our legs. Usurpers have run roughshod over us without our even realizing it; the scales have tipped way too far in their direction. This must end. It’s time to tango with Twitter, Valve, Apple and all the others. It’s time to accept what ‘free’ really means, and to demand an equitable share of the proceeds our labour generates.
We need to resist the monopolies created by the network effect. Today our media trend towards larger and larger ‘forms’ pushing more and more ‘content’ in smaller and smaller chunks worth less and less capital, siphoning all wealth towards the people moving the highest volume. If we want to restore the value of our work our most effective play is to dissolve the virtual empires these services have constructed: To balkanize the internet. Use web services that are small; seek the ones with terms that actually serve you better, not just the ones with the best sales pitch. Or eschew web services altogether: “Make things for yourself” as Liz Ryerson might tell you. It is not impossible to create your own website; our Hegelians, communists and dreamers have spent years making it very easy. Use Twitter where you have to for finding an audience, but always remember that Twitter is not your friend and using it carries a cost. The most important tool you have against capitalist hegemony is understanding the whole nature of the transactions you perform. Remember you are not merely a ‘content creator’ if you don’t want to be. You don’t have to alienate the form of your work from its content, shaving all the edges off so it can exist as a grain of sand in someone else’s desert. Make the work YOU want to make and shove it down the internet’s throat.
We who Twitter views as ‘content creators’ now live in a world where, paradoxically, the most anti-capitalist measure we could take is to charge money for things. I believe we need to do this whenever possible. Offering your work free as in gratis might seem noble and kind to those who want to see it, but remember that giving things away ‘for free’ via services like Steam, the App Store or Twitter costs both you and your users far more in the long term than $5 would cost them right now. Don’t fall for the sales pitch. Don’t let these companies make you into a scab. Participate in Steam sales when you have to, but understand what the transaction entails.
Most importantly of all, we need to create history. Recall that Hegel models ideas as fundamentally historical: Free structures of thought whose lineage stretches all the way back into antiquity, guided forward by the recollection of past mistakes. Yet in the capitalist dystopia we are quickly coming to inhabit there are no ‘ideas’ anymore. There is no form, no content and no libre; we live in a world where ‘free’ means gratis, ‘form’ means Twitter and ‘content’ means Tweets™. Recall that appropriation is what capitalists do best. The goal of appropriation is to erase history entirely: To focus solely on the eternal now, divorced from all context, leaving us no basis on which to make choices. History, by contrast, gives us the freedom to understand and to choose. If we want freedom we must create a history for ourselves rather than allowing our intrepid usurpers to bury it; we must resist appropriation by refusing to be erased. Understand that when you conduct a career via Twitter you are building a castle in the sand; Twitter is planning to discard your efforts once it’s done consuming them. Use the service insofar as you have to, but resist it however you can. Stop participating in the “ICYMI” culture that renders your work into a newspaper clipping. Your latest project does not need to exist solely as two weeks’ worth of viral bait in someone else’s ‘ecosystem’. The projects you’ve done in the past do not need to languish as half-eaten corpses somewhere in a forgotten database. Create a history for your work by interconnecting it in meaningful and permanent ways (not just in Twitter mentions). Provide paths from the new to the old. Connect it permanently to other people and ideas so that these ideas can grow. Your work is not a commodity; it’s alive. Build a home for it.