Wednesday, July 1, 2015

On “Emoji-Con: Coding the Economy of Affect” by Jenna Ng and David Theo Goldberg by Amber Reed

The logic of desire may be parsed as the ideology of power/knowledge. Top of Form Bottom of Form
            I created this sentence using an algorithm from the University of Chicago’s “Write Your Own Academic Sentence” (http://writing-program.uchicago.edu/toys/randomsentence/write-sentence.htm). While this exercise is obviously humorous, it raises what I see as an important issue in academia itself: the highly structured confines of our disciplines. One of the benefits of this workshop is that it forces us outside of our seemingly formulaic vocabularies, methodologies, and theoretical frameworks. For instance, the focus on happiness diverts our attention from explanations of human suffering to thinking about its alternatives: satisfaction, pleasure, desire, and joy. Here, we see the dangerous confines of the algorithm.
            But, as Ng and Goldberg suggest, algorithms are also increasingly used to actually produce happiness in the contemporary world. While limiting choice might stifle possibility and creativity, do algorithms have the potential to decrease unhappiness? My own work looks at intergenerational conversations and narratives of democracy and Apartheid. One of the things that is most striking about these discourses is the negative connotations attached to certain types of “freedom” and the longing for a perceived past of structure and limitations. Many rural, black South Africans express nostalgia for a time when life was, at least in hindsight, “secure,” “stable,” “known.” I kept thinking about this during the presentation today, wondering if perhaps the ubiquity of algorithms in the world today reflects some kind of common human desire to have limited agency? This is most certainly not to say that such nostalgia actually reflects a preference for oppressive regimes or any kind of factual accounting of history; rather, it critiques the present dissatisfactions with democracy. Apartheid only becomes desirable when viewed through the lens of the present unhappiness with a system of widespread corruption and poverty. But beyond these structural inequalities, many people frame liberal democracy as “too free.” That which offers equality to all, at least in rhetoric, appears to have no moral compass and no guiding sense of right and wrong. In other words, when all beliefs and practices are given equal weight, the “algorithm” of leading a moral, good life dissolves. How might we use the metaphor of algorithms to further interrogate notions of freedom, structure, and agency in the world?
            On a last note, I’m not entirely convinced that the ideology of power/knowledge might NOT actually be at the root of the logic of desire.

Amber R. Reed, University of Pennsylvania