The Political Ideology of the Cloud

“Among the declarations of faith in the future is the act of buying. Each time we go out and buy a new car or decide to purchase a new suit, a pair of shoes, a house, we base our decision on a philosophy of a life, a Weltanschauung. Buying is more than a commercial function…The real salesmen of prosperity and therefore democracy, are the individual who defend the right to buy a new car, a new home, a new radio.”

Ernst Dichter – The Strategy of Desire (1960)

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Dichter’s muscular defense of the right, and rightness of consumption is understandable given the man, the time and the context. Fleeing Vienna in 1939, he was part of the wave of emigre’s shaped by experience of the old world that went on in the years after the Second World War to shape the new. He was to advertising what Bernay’s was to PR. ‘Motivational Research’ as he called it provided the foundation for much of the second-rate persuasion I have spent the last ten years of my career working on, as well as theoretical framework of sorts to sit behind it. This, however, is not the place to dive deep into that.

Having recently been working with a number of large tech firms, consulting on product development and marketing strategy before (perhaps rashly?) joining one, I have been reading Dichter in the light of that work. Above, he essentially describes purchase as a political act. An ‘vote’ with your chequebook for a particular version of the future cast by checkbook rather than ballot box. What he describes above as democracy is in truth a very specific strand – consumer-capitalist democracy –  which however you feel about it has created the environment in which we are now living. What we see around us is a ‘world according to Dichter et al’, whether you believe in the Congruence of Consumer Capitalism and Democracy or not. Again, for another time. But his work is of a particular time – of a bipolar world of Sputniks and Studebakers, of H-bombs and the Berlin Wall. It was a time when you were truly ‘with us, or against us’. However, in it’s early 21st Century incarnation, it has, like so many things become far more fragmented, much more multiple, and considerably more complex. Where buying was once a blunt instrument, a first past the post race for the line, it is now plurality of purchase. If buying is an ideological statement, whether intentionally or otherwise, there are far more ideas for sale.

These competing visions of the future – for an ideology is a just a grandiose way of explaining how you see ‘what could be’ – range in scope and implication from the petty to the profound. And how conscious we are of their implications is mostly inversely correlated with their profundity. Choosing organic milk or washable nappies are some those that lie at the obvious and small end of the graph. Chromebook or Macbook may be at the more profound for the second and third order future visions that you are unknowingly choosing between.

Before I am accused of creating my own forced binary between Apple and Google, I am aware that I am exaggerating to make a point here, but this is caricature to contrast, rather than a fabrication. In these two corporate citizens we are offered an implicit choice between two competing visions of what could be.

Apple, for all it’s relentless, glossy shining modernity is offering what could be described as a conservative ideology. For all it’s brushed aluminium minimalism, sleek lines and the Kubrick-futurism of their stores, they are selling the past. That the references are mid-century modern, whether cinematic or aesthetic is telling. They use a well-spoken vernacular of ‘visions of futures past’ to make you feel a comfortable part of a certain future; bleeding edge contemporaneity forged from deja vu. It is little wonder that buying their computers or phones is a bulletproof decision, one where no-one questions why. There is nothing futuristic about being taken for granted.

The bigger point about Apple though is not the ‘how’ of their execution, but their focus on the execution itself. They are a ‘Temple to the Thing’. Discussing my thoughts here, a good friend pointed out the strength of their ecosystem, of iTunes, App Store and iCloud; this is where I exaggerate for effect. Of course they are not just about the thing, the artefact, but they fetishises the artefact, beatifying objects with the faux-modesty of the lowercase ‘i’. The ecosystem is in service of the object. They are a makers of things. Ideologically speaking they are a highly polished 21th Century incarnation of a comforting, nostalgic 20th Century thought – the reassuring comfort of the possessed object.

Apple’s product design is very intentionally designed to evoke feelings of the numinous. They are meant to be worshipped rather than understood. Curved, clean construction and their own crisp glyphs make them feel like artefacts from another civilisation. Increasingly the physical product itself is seamless, with no access to change a battery, upgrade memory or view its workings. As technology regulates more and more of our world and the imperative to understand how it does this increases, Apple urges us not to look behind the curtain. The sacred cues continue into the packaging itself – jewel cut crystal-like plastic boxes, common on their smaller devices evoke modernist reliquaries. Phones and Laptops come sitting on their own altars – you lift the lid to reveal the device sitting like sacrement on it’s matte white ‘cloth’. The theme runs onto the stores themselves, mentioned already which have more than a whiff of the Reform Church or the Rothko chapel. The influences are multi-denominational, but unmistakably meant to make the object an article of faith, a crux of belief. It is at it’s heart a conservative faith that continues to celebrate modes of consumption that tie us all the way back to Ford.

For Google, the ‘thing’ is not the thing. The thing is simply a means. Google’s benevolent supra-statist ‘taxes’ our every activity in return for free stuff. But the stuff they focus on is digital rather than physical. Though they do produce some of their own physical products, they are not a ‘maker of things’ in that sense. In fact the stuff they do produce that exists virtually, digitally is as they would have us say ‘surface agnostic’. That means it doesn’t care what it happens to be residing in or displayed through at the time – that is just a temporary physical ‘host’ (apologies, the spillover of the religious language is not intentional, but it is the best explanation). Google’s version of ‘what could be’ is indifferent to the physical world, and as such, indifferent to the object. Ideologically it represents, whether knowingly or not, a vision of a new, thoroughly 21st century worldview. More so than the ‘gig economy’ or the  ‘uberfication’, Google’s mass cloud applications offer a new kind of (non)consumption.

Once you place the Data above the thing, there are a raft of ramification. When every app and every photo on your phone is automatically backed up, down to background and settings and that identity can be switched from one handset to another in minutes, or reloaded to a new one if the first is broken – is that original phone even your phone? When the docs you work and collaborate on exist neither on one person’s machine or another, when they no longer need to be sent place to place but are simply able to ‘be’ on their own corporeal plane, indifferent to how you access that plane, why do you need ‘your laptop’? Why need a possessive when the thing that matters is not the terminal, but where you are using it to access. The emotional centre moves from the tangible to the intangible, with the emotional value and irrational significance placed on the tangible thing steadily decreasing. Why be careful with your phone, when the phone is ‘a phone’ – and ‘your phone’ is a set of configurations and information that resides nowhere and can be anywhere. Suddenly the thing becomes a commodity, a functional rather than emotional good. A good far more easily shared, even provided as a public good or given away as a loss leader. Handed person to person when needed. I can check “my computer” – a collection of information independent of the physical through any terminal. I could edit a file from a street corner touchscreen, then notify clients via a strangers iPad. Ideologically, this is profound stuff; purchase of the thing is optional, rather than essential for participation.

In Dichters world, the choice was really, what to buy; it was that or being accused of being a ‘red’ or dropping out of the mainstream. Not to buy was not an option in a binary world. However, a glimpse of a ‘post-object’ version of consumer capitalism gives just a hint of world where buying at all is a choice, and a world that is object agnostic. And it has profound implications for anyone who is betting on the old world of ‘things’.

Fear and Loathing and Facebook

The leading execs of Big Pharma, Big Oil and those managing payday lenders really ought to get themselves to the Googleplex for a crash-course in image management. Compared to these industries which are often burdened with toxic reputations (sometimes literally rather than figuratively) Google is seen as a benevolent public institution rather than publicly listed profit-generator. Tax issues ebb and flow across the foreshore of public consciousness, but ultimately fail to wash away the general positivity and goodwill.

Likewise, raising concerns about privacy feels like praising the latest Yotam Ottolenghi cookbook at a dinner party in Herne Hill; it’s one of those things that one is socially obligated to go through the motions of…  Germany aside, (where frankly, there are some longer standing issues around ‘files’ and ‘secrets) – protests about data security sound generally anemic. I don’t know anyone using ‘Duck Duck Go’ and most privacy settings go mostly unchecked. Frankly, I am more worried about my bank than my browser. The reality is that this a company that could – and often, by our ‘consent by default’, does know everything about our online selves. Which in 2016 amounts to an awful lot of us. Probably more than our partners. I wouldn’t share my entire browsing data with mine. Would you?

I am writing this on Google Docs, in Chrome browser, at a cafe I searched for, or rather ‘Googled’ with their Search Engine and then found with Maps on my Android powered phone. If you have watch some content from YouTube or replied to an email through Gmail between these devices you are providing more and more cumulative understanding of who you are, so they can sell that ‘who’ to the highest bidder. Their argument is that they want people to be able to sell to you in a way that is more rewarding for us all. Whatever the reason is, most of us are okay with the Faustian pact we are entered into. We take the free stuff in return for becoming their product. At the same time, they want to cover the world with balloons in the sky the broadcast internet and they have just released an AI-powered device that will one day run your entire home through their systems. How you feel about that depends how dystopian/lazy you are feeling in any given moment. I have a sneaking suspicion that rather than this being the result of careful reputation management, it’s more like watching a horror film seated 6 inches away from a megaplex-sized IMAX screen; you never see anywhere near enough of the whole picture to realise how incredibly fucking scary it is.

By contrast, Facebook should be a big cuddly blue bear, right? It’s where all your friends are, your pictures, your contacts. You spend hours there, they know that, they have the data; you’ve been there swiping up, swiping up swiping up for the last four hours! You LOVE it! Or so that’s their pitch to advertisers. They are all about the love. And they are working on giving us more love. I woke up today and fired up Ol’ Blue to find it telling me “Good Morning Adam – Stay dry Today in Singapore – Rain is forecast”. THANKS Ol’ Blue. Great to know. Or sometimes it’s a message to tell me it’s International Peace Day, or Pizza Day, or whatever. I don’t know, but they were thinking of me!

Snark aside, Facebook, like the rest of the internet, trade on our attention. Just like Instagram (which they own) or Snapchat or Twitter, it is our engagement that they sell ( or fail to, if you’re Twitter). And Facebook feel threatened by lots of other social channels coming onstream that are growing and engaging users rapidly, including messaging services such as Line or the also-Facebook owned WhatsApp.

But online as well as off, Engagement comes in many different flavours. Websites may measure it quantitatively (time spent on page, Unique Monthly Visits etc.) but there is also a strong qualitative element to it. Why are they engaging; what is the mindset, mood and motivation at the moment? There was a time when Facebook was probably loved. Or at least liked. When it was small, when it was amusing, when it felt intimate. But it became a vast all-encompassing thing, and it aims eventually to include everyone. Somewhere along the way, it became so big that it became an institution. In fact, it became infrastructure. Having a Facebook account is akin to what having a phone line was in the late 20th century, or a mobile phone just a little before now in the 21st. It’s like running water and sanitation. No-one loves their toilet, but you are pretty angry when it doesn’t flush. But Facebook still wants to be loved and still wants attention – it’s like a 30 year old man who still acts like the overindulged toddler he once was (!). So it creeps me out with messages about the weather, about what’s happening in the world, about my ‘last year in review’. Confronted with myriad platforms that are more novel and more compelling, it tries even harder to make you love it.

The big problem is there is a massive disconnect in how it wants to be seen, and how people see it. And this comes from this quantitative measure of engagement. By looking at how long people are on their app, scrolling their feeds and equating this with how much people care, or even love your app, they are making a dangerous mistake. And from this dangerous mistake they are building an even more dangerous strategy’ trying to make their news feeds stickier and stickier, getting people to dwell longer and longer, making their messenger ever-more intrusive. Because this time does not equate to love. Simply put, people hate themselves for using it. And the more their functionality tries to encourage that, the more resentment and loathing it builds. To go back to the toilet, it would be as if it only allowed you to flush once you had sung a late 80s Madonna hit to it. You’d do it, but you’d really rather not…

Facebook, like Google is now a grown-up part of the internet. It is one of the foundational elements from which all the lovely, interesting, grotesque and surprising bits of the internet spring. Whether by accident, design, or simply the nature of the core products they are pushing, Google is acting like an elder statesman, whereas Facebook doesn’t want to grow up. But neither did Myspace or AOL.

Facebook’s function as a universal sign it, it’s role as the depository of contacts and personal photos and a whole bunch of other core functions it plays within people’s online lives are vital – it is somewhere between a filofax and a permanent scrapbook, a fixed social CV that means I can be found (like a sexier version of the Phone Book) are really useful. Much of the rest is not. And by trying to fight the ‘new’ at the periphery it obfuscates it’s core. How many party invites, events or groups have migrated to (mercifully for them, FB-owned) WhatsApp, whose utilitarian, user-driven structure seems ever more appealing. That should be a space they own. Why build chatbots for Messenger, when people are already querying businesses via WhatsApp?

So what is the result of all this? The eponymous Fear and Loathing. People hate themselves for using it and is seeing diminishing returns on the ‘useful’ parts, even if the headline ‘time on site’ show we still think it’s wonderful; other tools are getting a greater share of more meaningful interactions. It doesn’t help that their leadership is either sucking up to China, much to the derision of both the Chinese internet and the West, or patronising the developing world. The worse part is the fear – FB is the one that constantly suffers from privacy issues, from accusations about how it uses people’s data, it’s the one that ‘knows too much’ even though in truth it’s Google that probably has the deeper insights. But Google is the Elder Statesman and Facebook is the 30 year old man-child. Who would you rather trust with your all of your browsing and personal data? Me or Kofi Annan?