• Zoë

Social Algorithms

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

“Media, by altering our environments, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act”

-Marshall McLuhan, 1967

The social world is quickly becoming an algorithm: the rhythm of social mood, the rhythm of public interest, the rhythm of movement through physical space.

When you’re walking, what directs your movements? Why does it sometimes feel “wrong" to step off the path, onto the grass, to take a shortcut, to carve another path? Why do these bodily directives often feel like moral imperatives?

When you’re thinking, you is directing your thoughts?

The pulse of public opinion, the stretches of land, the design of desire. The rhythms guiding us, controlling us, and compelling us, are often out of our range of perception.

Paul Lamere, the director of the development platform for Spotify claims to have set out to create a “magic music player that automatically plays what you want to hear without you having to think about it, based on your context, your mood, where you are, and what you are doing.” We no longer search for music. Music finds us.

Surprise, discovery, experimentation, venturing out of one’s normal routine- these are undesirable functions to the companies that control our consumption.

If I stand at a particular isle in a store for a specific amount of time, this data is collected and returned to me in the form of personalized marketing. Companies now manufacture the products of my desire, as well as my desire itself. What I Google once or twice is returned to me in the form of 1000 ads. Reminders of a past thought. Stuck in repetition. What I purchase regularly is tracked to ensure I will continue this trend. Variation is not as easily trackable. We are directed to stay on the path so that we can be followed more easily.

True story: A teenager who lives with her parents sneaks out to Walmart to buy a pregnancy test, conspicuously, anonymously. A week later a slew of advertisements arrives in her parents mailbox: “Pregnant? We can help.” “Half price diapers.” She is found out.

Another true story: My friend made up a nonsensical phrase “hydrate or dyedrate!” She repeated it jokingly (near her phone) several times in one night. The next day a Google ad suggested that she order t-shirts with the phrase on it.

Google, a highly rational guru, designed to answer our questions effectively and directly, not to re-direct us toward more important questions. Damon Krukowski of Galaxy 500, in his brilliant podcast Ways of Hearing said that Google is not interested in offering “surrealist replies that turn our questions upside down or challenge why we are asking them in the first place." It is not designed to encourage us to dig deeper, think differently, reroute our inquiry. Google answers 63,000 questions per second. It is feeding us answers. Is it also shaping our beliefs?

Instead of bodies adapting to our social environments, these environments are adjusting to us, to our bodies and our desires. Yet this is not happening in a way that promotes growth, but in a way that stifles. What does it mean now that social space adapts to us, handing us what we think we want, cutting our bodies off from the spontaneous experience of discovery and experimentation?

In 1995, at the dawn of the virtual age, social researcher and trans elder Allucquere Rosanne (Sandy) Stone predicted that technology would change either everything or nothing. And if it changed everything, she predicted it could either be wonderfully transformative or entirely horrendous. There would be no in between. It would either empower us or control us. “The quiet death that comes when we have lost our presence in the discourses which shape our lives, when we no longer speak, but are spoken- that is, when not we but our culture speaks though our mouths- is for me the most frightening” (p. 167). She goes on to explain about these virtual systems, “it’s hard to see what they do, because what they do is to structure our seeing.”

I’m interested in exploring the ways that our movement patterns and thought patterns are directed. Technology is not the only guiding force. We are moved through all kinds of configurations every day, from the architectures that shape our cities to the misogynistic side glances that shape our fears. As bodies moving though space, our nervous systems are constantly tracking our environments and making calculations that pull us one way or another. Our muscle memories are shooting information up to our brains that keep us stuck in reflexive patterns that can be hard to even notice. The sounds that we hear, who we are drawn to and who we avoid, the smells, the triggering of the past, our orientations toward the future, meaning we ascribe to it all, shapes how we move, how we think, and ultimately who we are.

What is a somatics of technological attunement? How can we build an awareness of the ways that we are being shaped by these emerging social forces?

#embodiment #technology #somatics

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