26. November 2015

Berlin-based curator and artist Robert Sakrowski talks about the influence multinational corporations have on cultural reality.

By Robert Sakrowski

The infrastructures that enable these social networks take to the public stage as neutral media.

Social networks are reflections of social structures in software. They constitute institutionalizations of cultural practices in which social, cultural and economic capital is generated and is converted by or negotiated between the individual fields of society.

Identity is one of the basic concepts of our culture. Identity defines structure. Identity enables us to perceive something from the flow of the indistinguishable. Our very culture hinges on naming something and distinguishing it from among everything. Within culture, the regulated coexistence of individuals in a community, identity plays a constitutive part in describing and naming the individual, as community only arises from the joint presence of individuals. The joint presence of different communities in turn generates society.

Only if the rules that organize a community can be addressed, too, can their function in ordering things come to bear. Ordering involves relating the respective individuals to one another, individuals who thanks to their identities can be defined as being part of the community.

Attributes such as language or place of birth serve both to identify an individual as part of a community and to define the identity. What is decisive here is that identity is testified to in order to prove membership of the corresponding society. However, even in a small community of individuals, not all relationships can be realized continuously. As of the moment when several communities join to form a society it becomes impossible to maintain testifying relationships for all individual members of society. This necessarily spawns a system of representation. Direct testimony is then replaced, for example, by institutionalized testimony. 

Representation is always also a matter of subsumption. The linkages of representations, i.e., when representatives are chosen by representatives, pyramid-like shifts in “social potency” arise, creating positions within the relational matrix of society that offer immense scope for action. What is notable here is that it is not important who occupies the positions. Rather, it is solely their existence that is decisive as they structure network-like relationships within a society.

Of necessity, there are few “top” positions in society, which triggers strong competition. In capitalist society, the idea of fair competition is transposed onto this rivalry. The concept of competition and its fair resolution is also reflected within the social networks. For example, its participants interpret the quantified illustrations of social and communal relationships as mathematical or logical illustrations that are per se objective and thus guarantee a value-free determination of what is true or false or “top or down”, independent of any particular interests. The myth of enlightenment finds its most superstitious followers in the fascination with and enthusiasm for the presentation of figures and numbers as a set of Views, Clicks, Friends, Likes, Links, Quotes, Votes, etc., which are read as purportedly objective illustrations of social reality.

By virtue of it being shared in the social network, the publication of permanent self-reflection, the uninterrupted documentation of events, creates a form of testimony intended to certify one’s own presence and existence in the world. The actual event itself, what is documented (i.e., the content) does not play any real role. Events are interchangeable, and are solely significant as the medium or document of the testimony sought through sharing. In this way, the others and their worlds as intended for sharing become a constitutive part of the so-called “real life” of the individual. If the individual is prepared to assume the function of paying testimony to the others, then he can more likely expect that they will grant him the same.

The relationships that take place through the permanent exchanging acts of knowing the others and recognizing them then generates social capital, which can potentially be traded in for the next higher position within the social network. Here, the identity-constructing elements of testimony are almost irrelevant compared to the number of testifying relationships. And the shared identifications, the relationships to the representatives, become ever more remote through the complex chains of links, meaning that the individual’s position is subject to uncanniness and uncertainty. The members of the network sense this in the increasing pressure to dissolve the individual in an indistinguishable whole.

The power that the social networks possess as regards how they are embedded in our cultural reality is deeply problematic. The performative character of the reality of the Net has attained such significance that may outstrip that of the traditional and institutionalized decision-making processes. Net space is not only one space alongside many other social spaces, such as the family, religion, politics or art; rather, it embraces them all and the positions it adopts are then inscribed in all the other spaces, too.

From the viewpoint of the participants, their relationship to the social networks become problematic when the illustrations thereof are perceived as ostensibly objective descriptions and not as interest-driven interpretations of our economic, socio-political and cultural realities. Social networks are no more objective than the press, radio, or TV. The infrastructures that enable these social networks take to the public stage as neutral media. As such, they disguise their owners’ interests, whose external positions and interests dominate the social networks. These positions are never part of the competition. Yet given their quite unprecedented power, their technological control over the social media, precisely they are able to influence social reality.

About the author:

Robert Sakrowski was born in east Berlin 1966. Since 1986 he works in various constellations in the field of music and new media art. He studied art history at the TU-Berlin. From 1999 to 2003 he headed the project netart-datenbank.org at TU Berlin. From 2003 to 2006 he lead as chairman the web.museum e.V. In the 2007–2009 period he worked at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute Media.Art.Research in Linz at the „netpioneers 1.0“ research project. Since 2007 he has created various exhibitions dealing with questions circling art and art practices related to the web 2.0. These themes are also the main focus of his current project CuratingYouTube.net. 2014 he worked as curator for the Transmediale Festival „capture all“ in 2015. In 2015 he curated the Newman Festival in Lithuania and various exhibitions in Germany.