The Digital Culture – An Exciting Essay by Felix Stalder on Post-Democracy and Commons

50 years ago, Marshall Mc Luhan called out the end of modernity. Since then, cultural opportunities have multiplied enormously. Today, this change produces a culture of the digital. The internet is a medium with specific forms of culture and exchange.

Three of them are characteristic:

  • Referentiality – the use of existing material for the production of cultural objects;
  • Communality – resources are made accessible and meanings are stabilized through a collective frame;
  • The principle of algorithms – automated decision-making reduces information overload.

The aim of Stalder’s essay is to identify and describe two political tendencies in the digital culture: Post-democracy and commons. Digitality points to historically new possibilities for linking human and non-human actors. Find here a summary of the very interesting book of Felix Stalder.

Particularly interesting in the essay is the chapter on the networks as an action space. Networks allow the communication of larger groups. The compulsion to introduce an hierarchical structure becomes obsolete. However, the new forms of organization are only possible on the basis of technologies that form part of the infrastructure of the Internet. Digital technologies and social action are inextricably linked. The culture of digitality is becoming dominant.

It reminds of Clifford Geertz’s Deep play, when Stalder stresses that meaning is created by people working on relationships. In doing so, they usually refer to existing sources. This creates a system of references and a new form of authenticity. Cultural works become freely available. All this creates a cultural “mess”. Archives, libraries and museums no longer manage to channel the flood of information and organize it in comprehensive terms. Europeana, for example, is a “normal” database where everything is next to everything. The individual objects are detached from their systemic references.

In this confusing situation, the users make the references themselves. What they like or retweet is upgraded and thus get a meaning. Things get attention because of the connections made between them, Stalder says in a way that reminds of Bruno Latour. In recent years, a real culture of the remix has emerged: What’s current is what can be recycled (Eran Schaerf).

Communities form a social space of exchange that are a prerequisite for knowledge (Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger). Digital communities emerge in fields of practice characterized by an informal but structured exchange. Therein is an urge for permanent communication. Individual authenticity exists only in the moment. The most important motive for participation is access to resources. The formation of the community is the subject of the culture of the digital.

Referential procedures are spreading in fields in which established processes for the production of social importance erode. An important mechanism for the decentralized cultural production are algorithms that sort large amounts of data. A distinction between social processes in a technical infrastructure and technical processes that are socially structured, can no longer be maintained, Stalder writes, close to considerations of Bruno Latour and his concept of the actants.

An algorithm is a guide on how to use a number of steps to turn an input into a specific output. They make it possible to automate hitherto cultural techniques reserved for humans. Examples are the writing of texts or the content analysis of pictures. Dynamic algorithms are now able to semi-automatically develop programs through feedback.

Algorithms generate orders that are an important part of the culture of the digital. The best known is Google’s PageRank. The change from the analysis of the data (content) to the analysis of the metadata (relationships) is the prerequisite for being able to use large amounts of information. Information no longer depicts an external reality, they form their own, self-referential, closed world – the infosphere. A separate order is created for each user. An observer knows more about an actor than he does about himself. Here, Stalder describes a very important point in the further development of the culture of the digital.

He analysis two political developments: postdemocracy and commons. Postdemocracy describes a shift in the legitimacy of public action. Today the focus is on the quality of the services produced for the citizens (output legitimation). Democracy becomes governance. Stalder describes these developments as post-democratic, which indeed create opportunities for participation, but at the same time strengthen decision-making capacities at levels where codetermination is excluded. There is a separation between social participation and the institutional exercise of power. An example: Many platforms are based on closed standards that prevent users from communicating beyond the boundaries defined by the providers. Users have no control over the conditions under which they operate. Commercial social networks consolidate a gap in power between the use at the surface and the infrastructure behind it.

This is what Felix Stalder calls the dark side of cybernetics: It does not prescribe to the individual what he should do, but simply changes the environment in which he moves. Cybernetics conceives the human being as an organism that responds to stimuli. Important is alone his behaviour. Only the institutions that provide the infrastructure can manipulate the environment in which the users move. They maximize their profits and the effects of a network becomes those of a monopoly.

These processes lead to a black box society, as Frank Pasquale described it. It is controlled by infrastructure and data. In this post-democracy politics will be abolished and replaced by administration, Stalder says, rather pessimistic. But there is an antidote, he stresses: Commons. Wiki & Co. could create a horizontal trust that is of the utmost importance in a network society and could contribute to a renewal of democracy.

If you are interested in the development of a digital culture, it is absolutely insightful to read Stalder’s essay. It is going to be available in English, too. It’s title will be “The Digital Condition”.

If you are interested in these questions, you might also be interested in these posts: The silent revolution, about algorithms and knowledge; Geschichte digital, about my book on measuring historical worlds; The Philosophy of the Digital Humanities, about Dadvid M. Berry’s concept of the digital.

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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