Thimbl, Unlike Us & A Pair of Inconvenient Paradoxes

Unlike Us: Understanding Social Media Monopolies & Their Alternatives, March 8-10, Amsterdam

The Institute for Network Cultures will be holding the 2nd Unlike Us conference (1), “Understanding Social Media Monopolies and Their Alternatives.” I’ll be there, representing Telekommunisten’s Thimbl(2), which will be present among many other projects.

Thimbl is quite different from the other projects. Conceived as an artwork, a “performative economic fiction,” Thimbl is a symbolic work that artistically explores the obstacles faced by projects that seek to create an alternative to social media monopolies.

Well-meaning technologists or social media enthusiasts initiate most projects, and as a result, they start in a rather irrelevant place: technology. They start coding and architecting better solutions, to the best of their ability, yet the primary problem they face is not technological.

In Andrew Feenberg’s McLuhan lecture at Transmediale 2012 (3), “10 Paradoxes of Technology,” Feenberg describes what he calls the “The Paradox of the Frame,” and argues that ”Efficiency does not explain success; success explains efficiency.”

Feenberg argues that certain technologies become efficient as a result of further development and investment. However, these technologies were chosen for development or investment in the first place for social reasons, generally the choice is motivated by political and economic reasons. The eventually successful technology was often originally chosen over more intrinsically efficient alternatives.

This paradox is perhaps nowhere more apparent than it is in social media. The Internet has always been about sharing, and decentralized sharing technologies such as usenet, IRC and finger have been and continue to be available. Yet, these technologies have not been chosen for further development and investment once capital became the driving force, centralized platforms like Facebook have.

Facebook was chosen because the choosers are venture capitalists who need to have a means of capturing profit in order to have a return on their investment. Thus, the more intrinsically efficient decentralized technologies were not chosen, since they fail to provide the very thing that capital requires; control and scarcity. As a result of being chosen by venture capitalists, Facebook could obtain the needed financing required to become efficient enough, despite the massive disadvantages poised by its centralized architecture.

Facebook’s business model of capturing and monetizing user data and interaction was appealing to investors, and thus Facebook was successful at attracting investment and financing development.

So, if Facebook was chosen because it allows investors to control users and monetize their use of the platform, than newer, even better designed open and decentralized alternatives, like the many that will be presented at Unlike Us, will likewise not be chosen, as they are no more appealing to venture capitalist investors than the classic decentralized internet platforms were.

Thimbl addresses this by creating a decentralized microblogging platform based on the old finger protocol, a platform for posting status updates that was developed in the 1970s. The explicit point of this is that the challenge faced by those working towards alternatives to social media monopolies are not technological, the technology is the easy part, the challenge is political.

The challenge is to overcome the hegemonic economic power of those that finance these monopolies.

This is not a challenge that can be programmed around, it is a challenge that requires a social solution. So long as the development of our technological platforms are directed by the profit motive, the platforms will need to engineer in the control and scarcity that capitalism requires.

In there March 2011 Monthly Review article (4), John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, apply another paradox, The “Lauderdale Paradox” named for James Maitland, 8th Earl of Lauderdale. Foster and McChesney phrase the implications of Maitland’s paradox as “Scarcity … is a necessary requirement for something to have value in exchange, and to augment private riches”. Their conclusion is that the communications platforms must be removed from the domain of capital, and be made available as a public good.

‘An innovation is commercially developed, and a market created, only by finding a way to “wall” off a sector of public wealth and effectively privatize and monopolize it, leading to huge returns. Information, which is a public good—by nature available to all and, if consumed by one person, still available to others—is, in this way, turned into a scarce private commodity through the exercise of sheer market power.’ — John Bellamy Foster & Robert W. McChesney

This is the real problem faced by those who seek to create alternatives to social media monopolies. Any genuine alternative would need to first identify, not a new way of developing and architecting a technical solution, but a new way of financing the development at a sufficient scale to rival the capital funded platforms.

‘Communication is more than an ordinary market. Indeed, it is properly not a market at all. It is more like air or water—a form of public wealth, a commons.’ — John Bellamy Foster & Robert W. McChesney

Making something into a public good is a social choice, something that society must undertake, it is not a technical innovation that software developers can develop on their own.

As I wrote following Social Media Week back in October (5):

‘Just like science fiction becomes reality when science transcends the limitations that existed when the fiction was imagined, for economic fiction like Thimbl to become reality, economics will need to transcend the limitations that we currently face’

I’ll be at Cafe Buchhandlung (6) around 9pm as usual, please come! And if you will be in Amsterdam , see you at Unlike Us. For those in Berlin, be sure to checkout CiTiZEN KiNO “Electric Sheep Revisited” (7), Wednesday, March 7th at TheaterKapelle









Leave a Reply