Musing on proprietary content systems?

Some nostalgia and musing on proprietary content systems.

Story written on: August 16, 2021

Over the last months I've been playing with a variety of web technologies - new and old. In part the motivation was to re-engage with web development and on the other it was a growing weariness with the push-button mentality of CMS web development and the bloat that this has led too in popular turn key platforms.

The web used to be a place of rampant experimentation and innovation far removed from the social media platform it has become - a place where we explored what potential network technology held. In the last ten years we have increasingly relied on well established platforms to deliver the functionality that we sort. 'Platform capitalism' became the critical vector in the development of the internet. As particular platforms gathered greater market share and purchasing power we also saw a massive centralisation of engagement tending to near monopoly control of online interaction.

Creativity online shifted from exploring the non-linear, decentralised, computational, potential of the network and became more about use of platforms for distribution and iteration of content. Some have celebrated the shift to a more distributed amatuerism online that sees media creativity become vital and discursive; creativity democratised and a fluid iteration afforded by the provision of real time push button modulation and recombination of media and culture.

This culture never really appealed to me. Perhaps I was too old for its speed and endless internal referencing. Perhaps I was too caught up in old ideas of craft, practice and mastery. Something about it also seemed way too smarmy, self aware/obsessed, and although it was interesting at a rational level it was very rarely creative of anything enduring. Perhaps thats what I am looking for in creative work - for play to realise enduring and novel emergent-cies or artefacts - to suprise me.

The platforms that are now dominant certainly achieved this. Twitter was a (very) slow burning exploration of what its enabling constraint of 140 characters meant for massively distributed discourse. Hashtags are an enduring architecture of decentralised and open data aggregation born of Twitter's delimited/impoverished architecture and the experiments of users. But that is done. It enduring and creative artefact has been realised. I'm not interested in being a participant consumer of established infrastructure.

If i was to rationalise this feeling i'd suggest that if creativity can be usefully categorised on scale of creative engagement from interpretation, to recombination, to creation, then the modern network is characterised as embodying a relative shift from the creative to recombinatory media practices. These recombinatory media practices are dependent on and shaped by the provision (consumption) of (novel) platform affordances and their most successful producers are primarily adept consumers and promoters of those given affordances. The given doesn't interest me in the slightest.

That said even at the level of professional new media development we tended to shift to use of platforms and their affordances rather than the invention of new ones. There was no need to reinvent the wheel when someone else was producing and maintaining the wheels for us. But I think we started to forget all the assumptions that were and are built into that wheel and all the potential that was marginalised in these assumptions. At some stage I think we forgot how to make a wheel altogether - we fogot that playing with the materiality of network is what creates enduring artefacts.

Of course it is true that this can occur within and according to platform affordances (as was the case with the hashtag) but it is rare that a platform affordance maps across platforms in anything other than as an imitation or clone. Morever this is a clone unlikely to be charcaterised by the specfic contingencies of its context - and so it will tend to lack the vitality and continuity of its initial emergence - the hashtag just doesn't have the same dynamism on Facebook as it does on its native Twitter.

Once of the things that really started to bother me as I lost the will to build my own wheels was the fact that even those with a great deal of knowledge, practice and experience building modern wheels chose to do so with layer upon layer of tricky frameworks , libraries, services and platforms. It was clear as I tried to navigate and understand these layers and the myriad of choices that they necessitated that may people using these systems had a threadbare understanding of the systemic, cultural, and technical dependencies and assumptions they were building into their systems.

For my own part I had tended to use Wordpress in order to design learning, course management and publishing systems. When someone asked me to swap to another CMS I groaned at the expense of having to transition data from one place to another and I knew what I could do with a Wordpress install without the cognitive and temporal load of working within and working out another new paradigm. I could do a lot quickly with Wordpress and I could use it headless and no-one would be the wiser - except that I started to spec systems with the constraints and assumptions of Wordpress embedded. There was nothing really interesting in this process - I felt like a builder rather than an architect, my response to a development query was more 'yes I can do that' rather than any enthusiasm for building something new.

Back in the old days when I was thinking about network and web architecture more than I am now I argued that information systems should be built to the mantra; Open, Flat and Decentralised. It seems that with the development of the social network and web service as cornerstones of internet use we have moved completely in the opposite direction - toward large proprietary systems that are essentially closed, Byzantium or deliberately opaque in the structuring of data, and completely centralised in terms of control.

As someone who writes a fair bit about an array of things across a variety of disciplines and interests I find myself writing for many different formats and many different platforms. Most of these formats and platforms have their own means and methods of encoding and presenting that writing and very few of which do so in a way that guarantees me ongoing control or even access to the work I do. In essence I myself have had to become and create in a mode that is 'Open', 'Flat' and 'Decentralised. In this case however I am 'Open' to corporate exploitation, 'Flat', in terms of writing and producing content in a form that is limited by the constraint of working on all platforms, and 'Decentralised', in that agency is always and again given over in order that I can 'take advantage' of this closed, opaque and centralised systems effectively. The systems of platfom capitalism are not interoperable so we become open, flat and decentralised in our modes of production in order to operate between them.

The individual is the root abstraction of contemporary social media. Only as an organised network could have we shifted the inexorable tending to a centralisation of service provision and data collection. But we went there alone (to the social), as individuals and allowed them to shape and make dependent the dynamic of the collective that emerged therein. If we escape, we escape only with ourselves, we leave our communities behind. We accepted the 'terms and conditions' in the service of individual agency relative to the collective which we dissolved in the same instance. It is the classic move of late industrial capitalism : to individuate (or individualise) the collective and to dissolve collective power. We see it in the development of our urban landscapes, in the operations of representative democracy, in labour agreements; we give over the power and interest of the collective in the service of meagre gains in individual advance.

Perhaps if we'd been more organised as the internet developed we could have had a network that was indeed open, flat and decentralised. A network in which my willingness to contribute data in exchange for utility was repaid with a likewise openness of data rather than an intent to control and to capitalise on the surplus that the control of data supplies. Think of it as a much more effective tax regime of surveillance capitalism than the largely failed tax on profit. You can make money by collecting data, but the data must remain open, flat and thus effectively decentralised. We then may have maintained a data commons that would have allowed the more effective development and use of AI, Analytics (and etc) in exploitation of that data for governmental and welfare as well as for profit taking.

What has this got to do with my little web site? Not much. Except that I have found myself increasingly alienated from the techno-culture that once filed me with revolutionary fervour. The utopian pretensions of the pioneering age of network culture have been blown away. Hyper centralised and proprietary service provision has usurped and coopted the vaunted ideal of a new collective intelligence. That collective intelligence has had all of its agency and development, its cognitive and therefore economic surplus handed over to corporate interest. The network just isn't the place I hope it would become. It is tempting to use this as an opportunity to walk away from it all - to become a version of the grumpy old naysayer, the wizened hag, the hippy dropout.

This little revamp of my old site is kind of a half measure, a return to the digital homestead where I can re-engage and rethink what interested me over the last 20 years of being immersed in digital culture. What are they? The nexus of creativity and computation - the strange place where computation provides a means of opening onto the new - some version of moving beyond the biogrammatic assertion of my own habits and tendings. I'm still interested in what this means for things like the definition of intelligence and creativity more generally, the implications for our understanding of both human and machine intelligence as integral to each other, as the torsional coalescence of thought and felt, of affect and technic, somewhere there is the very definition of our being as becoming, 'technics as the very possibility of a future'.