Resonance Machines: From Reflection to Refraction in Protest Movements, Carbon Credit Markets, and Radio Stations

A Crystal-Image of Refraction: General Form interacting with local conditions to produce differences that share a family resemblance, but without the original/copy dichotomy

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Sara Horowitz, the founder of the amazing organization The Freelancers Union, describes various new forms of economic  subjectivity in what she calls ‘The Sharing Economy,’ here’s some quotes:

Kickstarter. Zipcar. Shareable. Etsy. Kiva. Prosper. Airbnb.

These and other “collective consumption” companies are part of the new economy arising out of necessity, as traditional businesses and government are increasingly unable to meet Americans’ needs and provide basic supports.

This sharing economy is based on people coming together to create their own markets (Airbnb), their own products, (Etsy), and their own currency (TimeBanks). It relies on shared needs, trust, and the belief that the group is stronger than the individual . . . collective purchasing and goods exchange (Zipcar and SnapGoods), solving social problems (Open Ideo), aggregating information (Ushahidi), financial lending (Prosper and Kickstarter), networking and connecting (, office space sharing (Loosecubes), teaching (Skillshare), and even child care (babysitting co-ops).

Horowitz describes the ways in which these are creating alternative economies that allow people bypass or act as collective agents within the markets dominated by large monopolistic corporations. In each of these, individuals lend a portion of themselves, a dividuality, to the collective, for as long as they participate, but the result is a consistent subjectivity, despite the fact that its parts keep changing. Ultimately this is like an organism, for our cells all change over, and the nutrients we consume from food enter our system and then often leave, yet we remain the same.

From Mob and Nation to Corporation and Protest-Movement

Is this different from a traditional group like a mob, nation, or corporation? Mobs and nations tend to be composed of a core of sameness over time, such as a territory, or a particular group of people, while corporations often change radically while appearing outwardly the same, even as Occupy-style protests appear to made of completely different actors each time, yet there’s a sameness of purpose, belief, and method. Herein lies the distributedness that differentiates both corporations and protest-movements from nations and mobs, in that they have life-spans despite changes in their physical components. What’s more, there’s a porosity to them. While people are generally either part of a mob or not, and are generally allowed one national affiliation at a time, corporations and protest-movement don’t mind sharing parts with others.

Whether these are truly ‘between’ levels of individual and group depends on what you consider as determining each level, which is ultimately relative. An individual human is a group of cells, after all, and to the US Supreme Court, corporations are persons. But I think its still pertinent to call these types of groups ‘transvidual’ because they don’t have individual humans as their components, but rather, their parts. This is why in previous posts I’ve spoken of Facebook and ‘the wave’ at a stadium as examples of this. While corporations have been around for a very long while, these are early transvidual formations which have only radicalized in form as capitalism has gotten more globalized, informatic, and distributed. And likely there have always been resistance movements (ie: Lollards, Levellers, etc.) like today’s occupy movements, and what we see today is simply a more extremely distributed mutation for the age of the internet.

Robustness versus Cancer

But if even corporations are becoming distributed, how can we tell ‘good’ from ‘bad’ forms of distributed, transvidual subjectivity? Hardt and Negri’s notion of Empire seems to argue that contemporary multi-nationals are often distributed, readily cross borders and change forms, and seem to be everywhere but nowhere. This is quite similar to what Deleuze and Guatarri call a ‘resonance machine,’ in which various different matters in a system end up having similar forms to a dominant power by means of its indirect influence upon them. For example, no-one tells people they must speak in the political memes used by their newscasters, but I hear people talk in soundbites fed to them by the media all the time, exhibiting resonance in content as well as form.

Hardt and Negri opposed to this the notion of a ‘multitude’, of which Occupy Wall Street is a great example. These are aleatory, temporary ‘beings-in-common’ that form in relation to specific situations, and arise at the margins of empire as alternate forms of subjectivity. In many senses, they are also resonance machines, because they seem to form semi-spontaneously, yet what they resonate is the desire for difference rather than sameness. They are anti-empire, so to speak, in content as well as form. For while empire-style resonance machines are distributed, they serve underlying networks that are ultimately centralizing and paranoid. multitude-style resonance machines resonate only in opposition to the pull of centralization they see encroaching into the world around them. They are distributed not only at a surface level, but down to their pores.

Terrorist networks, globalized postmodern monopoly-capitalist networks, and army networks may be distributed, but underneath lies the paranoid, centralizing core, and here we see the ultimate structural difference, which is to say, distributed structure in these cases serves paranoid ends. This is opposed to most living organisms, which use centralizing, paranoid structures, and often rely on them, for ultimately distributed ends. But how can we tell the difference?

Most of life we know of uses a single currency, the molecule ATP, to transport energy. Hardly a diversified economy! And most life we know of uses DNA/RNA to store information, and we all know that the form of a representational system impacts its potential contents. Most forms of life also guard their boundaries as if their lives depend on it, and in fact, they often do.  That said, these systems evolved when life was at its most fragile, and they have turned out not only to be incredibly efficient, but also startingly robust. Which is to say, they can give rise to massive diversity of living forms, and have been used precisely to this end. To mess with them could actually lead to a massive destruction of diversity. These centralizing aspects have given rise to massive diversity, and support it. While we should be open to other forms (ie: forms of life not-based on ATP or RNA/DNA), at least unless they attack us or harm us somehow, it seems that these types of centralization actually serve diversification, not the other way around.

Terrorist networks, monopolistic post-modern capitalist networks, and army networks foster distributedness precisely as a way to short circuit actual distributed networks. Terrorist cells can spring up anywhere, yet they always have the same ideology, and their goal is to enforce resonance with this ideology by means of affective waves of fear. The very distributedness of these networks makes them liable to differences popping up between the groups, and here we see that distributedness has a way of trying to gain the upper hand, so that the resonance has to be incredibly rigid lest reflection become refraction. Army networks often use small, distributed agents, yet they often have a centralized training and protocol to help them operate according to the same form. As Alexander Galloway has argued, protocol is the manner in which control gets soft, yet remains devious and mobile in these types of formations. And capitalist networks use the very algorithms of life, like evolution, to evolve ever meaner corporations, giving rise to products that are memes themselves, and yet they do so not only by means of a centralized information carrier, namely money, but this is also a value carrier (like ATP), which becomes an end in itself. While living organisms always increase their ATP stores and reinvest them in more life, which continually adapts to changing environments, capitalism uses money to reshape environments to the increase of money.

Humans of course are the most able to change their environments of any species. And this eventually become a question of ethics. How do we want to change our environment? Because in doing so, we change the very structures that evolve us, and hence, this becomes a question of values. Do we want to evolve ourselves, and our supra-individual structures, like corporations, to make us money producing machines, or robustness producing machines?

A Reflection Matrix: The Goal of Centralizing Networks

Here we see a key term from network ethics, ‘robustness,’ and this term originates in various complex systems theories about natural organisms, material systems, and economic actors like corporations. A robust system is one which has sustainable complexity. Network ethics is based on the maxim ‘let all your networks operate at maximum robustness,’ where all is seen to include all those with which you are intertwined. A robustness producing machine value complexity, which is a hell of a lot more than money, but rather, the ability to produce sustainable growth, not just in quantity, but also quality of life. And to be sustainable, a system must be distributed to varying degrees, which is to say, everyone must benefit, otherwise, it will eventually collapse from within from its instabilities.

Repetition of the Same or of the Different: Reflection versus Refraction and a tale of Radio

This is why it perhaps makes sense to think of monopolistic forms of capitalist networks as cancerous in structure. They use distributed means to grow, yet growth in exactly the same form is the only thing they seem to desire. The result is the reproduction of only one type of value and the structures that mirror it. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze differentiates between repetition of the same (which he sometimes calls ‘clothed’ repetition, for it hides a core of difference just trying to burst out from underneath the guise of sameness) and repetition with a difference.  Capitalist networks reproduce the same in everything they touch, and if they use differentiation, it is only in the service of this ultimate freezing of everything into one form. As Henry Ford famously said, “have any color you want, so long as it’s black!” Today it’s “have any color iPod, the choice makes you free!” The notion that there’s other types of choice is covered over by this pseudo-choice which only leads to diversity so long as it feeds back into pure reproduction, thereby eclipsing much of what diversity aims to do.

This Pattern is Alive!: Subverting repetition from within. Upon close inspection, there's many centers, many figures, many differences between figure and ground, and fewer repetitions than might appear. Now if only the sizes varied, and the patterns were a little less resonant of each other . . .

We see the effects of this, for example, in the way the deregulation of markets often allows smaller producers to be swallowed up by big-ones, resulting in a homogenization of product. The radio stations in New York City, where I grew up, were decent as a kid, because there was competition between local stations that while not incredibly profitable, had to stay diverse to compete with each other. And since New York is a diverse place, the stations had to be diverse. Once the national radio station markets were deregulated, most stations in the country were bought up by massive corporations, and now most radio in the nation is controlled by 2-3 mega-companies. They’ve largely standardized programming across the nation, so each city has one of each of the most profitable niches. As a result, there’s now no diversity, and each city has whatever is the least-common denominator, and hence, the most profitable. Since profit rather than quality drives the competition, the radio stations now are terrible. This has lead to the rise of satellite radio, which is now incredibly diverse. But one has to pay mega-corporations to gain access to it. Here we see the progressive drainge of diversity from one market, and the monetarization of it in another, as two sides of the same movement.

Previously, however, each station in each city was in local contact with their listeners, and what they considered ‘quality’ varied from city to city. Since ‘quality’ drives profits if there are many small stations with niche-constituencies, as opposed to mass listenership with broad ones because there are no other options, local stations diversified, they ‘refracted’ their contexts, rather than ‘reflect’ a centralized programming algorithm. Here we see the crucial difference between reflection of the centralized same, and refraction which combines local and general. The problem with too much reflection is that it’s not robust. While stations became more profitable, overall listenership started to decrease, giving rise to demand for satellite radio. People want diversity, but while it was previously free, now they have to pay for it.

Architectural Capitalism

This is a pump of sorts, a pump of surplus. People and systems will always demand difference to some extent, and any system which provides pure sameness will, as Marx famously said, ‘dig their own graves.’ Capitalist systems try to maximize the amount of sameness they can get away with, so as to maximize their reproduction. They go between being deadly cancers, and cancers that you can barely survive with. But the question is, why have a cancerous growth in the first place?

How to Avoid Being Maximized . . .

The question, of course, is how we could survive without capitalism. This is where the study of complexity economics is essential. Texts like Eric Beinhocker’s fantastic The Origin of Wealth describe how it’s possible to see corporations as organisms, markets as evolutionary algorithms, and start to question how we could evolve corporations better according to values other than cancerous growth that can put the whole system in danger. Others have argued the need for alternate currencies, based on things other than just reproduction. For example, the ‘cap-and-trade’ model of using carbon credits to help lower pollution creates a market, but one for carbon-credits. This creates an algorithm which has corporations do what they do best, namely, compete, but to pollute less! It uses market dynamics, but in the name of a value, such as clean air, other than pure reproduction. It’s talking capitalism’s own language, yet it does so to make it say different things than just ‘more!’

Some have described this as Capitalism 3.0, and there’s actually a clever book of precisely that title. Whatever we call it, it would be silly to throw market systems away, for they are algorithms for maximizing efficiency. The question, however, is to try to use them to maximize things we value. Otherwise, they will maximize us for their own ends.


~ by chris on December 11, 2011.

2 Responses to “Resonance Machines: From Reflection to Refraction in Protest Movements, Carbon Credit Markets, and Radio Stations”

  1. […] that between reflection and refraction (and for more on this in regard to political formations, see here). And while Marks values the insights of Sufi mystics, both in art and philosophy, she expresses […]

  2. Reblogged this on Deterritorial Investigations Unit.

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