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CRIT: Critical and Radical Information Theory

On Tiziana Terranova

What used to be the public sphere now seems like unmanageable noise. The internet is generally held to be to blame. But perhaps there never was a public sphere. Perhaps there is just different configurations of information and noise.

Contrary to certain popular narratives by latecomers, not everybody went gaga over ‘new media’ back in the late twentieth century. In the cyberculture period, from the popularization of cyberpunk in 1984 to the death of the internet as a purely scientific and military media in 1995, there were plenty of experimental, critical and constructivist minds at work on it. I would count Tiziana Terranova as a fine exponent of the constructivist approach, a sober builder of useful theory that might open spaces for new practices in the emerging world of post-broadcast and post-truth media flux. Her book, Network Cultures: Politics for the Information Age (Pluto Press, 2004) is still well worth reading for its keen grasp of the fundamental issues.

Lyotard sent everyone off on a bum steer with the idea of the immaterial, a problem compounded by Jameson’s famous assertion that the technics of late capitalism could not be directly represented, as if the physics of heat engines was somehow clearer in people’s heads than the physics of electrical conductivity. Terranova usefully begins again with a concrete image of information as something that happens in material systems, and thinks them through the image of a space of fluid motion rather than just as an end-to-end line from sender to receiver.

In Terranova, information is not an essence but a site of struggle: “I do not believe that such information dynamics simply expresses the coming hegemony of the ‘immaterial’ over the material. On the contrary, I believe that if there is an acceleration of history and an annihilation of distances within an information milieu, it is a creative destruction, that is a productive movement that releases (rather than simply inhibits) social potentials for transformation.” (2-3)

It helps not to make a fetish of just one aspect of media form, whether one is talking about hypertext back then, or big data now. Sometimes these are aspects of more pervasive technological phyla. Terranova: “Here I take the internet to be not simply a specific medium but a kind of active implementation of a design technique able to deal with the openness of systems.” (3) This might be a useful interpretive key for thinking how certain now-dominant approaches to tech arose.

Anybody who studied communication late last century would have encountered some version of the sender -> encoding-> channel-> decoding->receiver model, with its mysterious vestigial term of ‘context’. Stuart Hall opened this loop by adding a possible difference between the encoding and the decoding. He made non-identity a function not of noise as something negative but of culture as a positive field of differences. But even so, this way of thinking tended to make a fetish of the single, unilinear act of communication. It ended up as an endless argument over whether the sender’s encoding dominated the receiver’s decoding, or if the receiver could have a counter-hegemonic power of decoding otherwise. That was what the difference between the Frankfurt school’s epigones and the Birmingham school of Hall et al boiled down to.

Terranova usefully brackets off the whole critical language of domination versus counter-hegemony, moving the discussion away from the privileged questions of meaning and representation that still dominate critical thinking in the humanities. Like Alex Galloway (et al) in Excommunication, she insists that a critical perspective need not be hermeneutic. She does so by taking seriously the breakthrough of Claude Shannon’s purely mathematical theory of information of 1948.

Information actually means three different things in Shannon. It is (1) a ratio of signal to noise, (2) a statistical measure of uncertainty, and (3) a non-deterministic theory of causation. He developed his theory in close contact with engineers working on communication problems in telephony at Bell Labs, one of the key sites where our twenty-first century world was made.

The signal-to-noise problem arose out of attempts to amplify telephony signals for long distance calls, where the additional energy used to amplify the signals also shows up as noise. This, incidentally, is where one sees how the experience of information as ‘immaterial’ is actually an effect produced by decades of difficult engineering. It takes energy to make a signal pass through a copper wire, making the electrons dance in their predictable but non-deterministic way.

What was crucial about Shannon’s approach to this problem was to separate out the concept of information from having anything to do with ‘meaning’. Information is is just a ratio of novelty and redundancy. “From an informational perspective, communication is neither a rational argument nor an antagonistic experience…” (15) It has nothing to with communication as domination or resistance. It has nothing to do either with Habermasian communicative action or Lyotard’s language games.

For information to be transmitted at all, it has to confront the demon of noise. In Michel Serres’ version, sender and receiver appear as nodes cooperating against noise rather than as differentiated individual entities. Terranova rather follows Gilbert Simondon, who pointed out that in Shannon, the individual sender and receiver are pre-constituted. They just appear, prior to the act of communication. Simondon’s approach picks up the vestigial concept of context. For him, the act of communication is also what constitutes the sender and receiver as such. His approach is to think the context as the site where information produces individuations out of a collective, undifferentiated context.

This is a step toward thinking the space of information as a more turbulent, metastable system that can be disturbed by very small events: “the informational dimension of communication seems to imply an unfolding process of material constitution that neither the liberal ethics of journalism nor the cynicism of public relations officers really address.” (19) The materiality of information is prior to any discussion of ‘real’ reporting or ‘fake’ news or the sender-receiver nodes such flows constitute.

Terranova’s work points toward a critical and radical information theory (CRIT), to thinking about information production and protocols, rather than to second-order questions of meaning.  It could be a way of framing a problem of information system design for the whole field of media and culture. Information design could be about more than messages defeating noise, but rather designing fields of possibility beyond click-counting, including problems in the organization of perception and the construction of bodily habits.

Information systems tend to be closed systems, defined by the relation between selection (the actual) and the field of possibilities (the virtual), but where that field appears in an impoverished form. “Information thus operates as a form of probabilistic containment and resolution of the instability, uncertainty and virtuality of a process.” (24) For Terrannova, what might be a constructive project in the wake of that is some kind of information culture that does not enforce a cut in advance in the fabric of the world, and then reduce its manipulation to a set of predictable and calculable alternatives.

Interestingly, Terranova’s approach is less about information as a way of producing copies, and more about the reduction of events to probabilities, thus sidestepping the language of simulation, although perhaps also neglecting somewhat the question of how information challenged old regimes of private property. Her emphasis is much more on information as a form of control for managing and reproducing closed systems. This then appears as a closure of the horizon of radical transformation. As in Randy Martin, instead of a livable future we have futures markets.

In information systems, the real only ever emerges out of the statistically probable. “What lies beyond the possible and the real is thus the openness of the virtual, of the invention and the fluctuation, of what cannot be planned or even thought in advance, of what has no real permanence but only reverberations… The cultural politics of information involves a stab at the fabric of possibility.” (27) The virtual does not arise out of negation, out of a confrontation with techno-power as an-other. It is unquantifiable. It is what an information system does not know about itself.

One of the more powerful features of the theory of information is the way it linked together information and entropy. Thermodynamics, which as Amy Welding shows was a key to the scientific worldview in Marx’s era, offered the breakthrough of an irreversible concept of time, and one which appeared as a powerful metaphor for the era of the combustion engine. In short: heat leaks, energy dissipates. Any system based on a heat differential eventually ‘runs out of steam.’

Hence the figure of Maxwell’s Demon, which could magically sort the hot particles out from the cool ones, and prevent an energy system from entropic decline into disorder. But that, in a sense, is exactly what information systems do. The tendency of things might still be entropic: systems dissipate and break down. But there might still be neg-entropic counter-systems that can sort and order and organize. Such might be an information system. Such might also, as Joseph Needham among many others started to think, might be what is distinctive about living systems.

Needham’s organicism borrowed from the systems-theory of Bertalanffy which pre-dates Shannon, and was based a lot more on analog thinking, particularly the powerful image of the organizing field. Much more influential was the transposition of the thought-image of the digital to the question of how life is organized as neg-entropic system, resulting in what for Haraway in Modest_Witness (1997) is a kind of code fetishism. What is appealing to Terranova in the confluence of biological and information thinking is the way it bypassed the humanistic subject, and thought instead toward populations at macro and micro scales.

Where Terranova and Haraway intersect is in the project of understanding how scientific knowledge is both real knowledge and shot through with ideological residues at the same time:  “An engagement with the technical and scientific genealogy of a concept such as information… can be actively critical without dis-acknowledging its power to give expression and visibility to social and physical processes… Information is neither simply a physical domain nor a social construction, nor the content of a communication act, nor an immaterial entity set to take over the real, but a specific reorientation of forms of power and modes of resistance.” (37) While I would want to pause over the word ‘resistance’, this seems to me a usefully nuanced approach.

One way she does so is by appealing to Bergson’s distinction between a quantified and a qualified sense of time, where time as quality, as duration, retains primacy, offering the promise of a “virtuality of duration.” (51) But is this not yet another offshoot of romanticism? And what if it was really quite the other way around? What if the figure of time as quality actually depended on measurable, quantitative time? I’m thinking here of Peter Gallison’s demonstration of how the engineering feat of electrically synchronized time, so useful to the railways, enabled Einstein to question the metaphysics of a universal clock time that was the backdrop to Newton’s mechanics. As Gallison shows, it is only after you can actually distribute a measure of clock time pretty accurately between distant locations that you can even think about how time might be relative to mass and motion.

It is certainly useful that Terranova offers a language within which to think a more elastic relation between the information in a network and the topology of that network itself. It isn’t always the case that, as with Shannon’s sender and receiver, that the nodes are fixed and pre-constituted. “A piece of information spreading throughout the open space of the network is not only a vector in search of a target, it is also a potential transformation of the space crossed that always leaves something behind.” (51)

This more elastic space, incidentally, is how I had proposed thinking the category of vector in Virtual Geography (1995). In geometry, a vector is a line of fixed length but of no fixed position. Thus one could think it as a channel that has certain affordances, but which could actually be deployed not only to connect different nodes, but sometimes to even call those nodes into being. Hence I thought vector as part of a vector-field, which might have a certain malleable geometry, where what might matter is not some elusive ‘virtual’ dimension, but the tactics and experiments of finding what it actually affords.

Terranova stresses the way the internet became a more open system, with distributed command functions. It was in this sense not quite the same as the attempts to build closed systems of an early generation of communication engineers: “resilience needs decentralization; decentralization brings localization and autonomy; localization and autonomy produce differentiation and divergence.” (57) The network, like empire, is tolerant of differences, and inclusive (up to a point), but also expansionist. As Terranova notes, rather presciently, “There is nothing to stop every object from being given an internet address that makes it locatable in electronic space.” (62)

Since 1995, the internet started acquiring the properties of a fully-realized vector-field, one striated into distinct organization levels, what Benjamin Bratton calls The Stack – a useful counter-image to the network, drawing attention to planetary computation’s geopolitical and infrastructural qualities. Terranova was a pioneer in understanding that the build-out of this infrastructure, of which information theory was the concept, had significant implications for rethinking the work of culture and politics. “There is no cultural experimentation with aesthetic forms or political organization, no building of alliances or elaboration of tactics that does not have to confront the turbulence of electronic space. The politics of network culture are thus not only about competing viewpoints, anarchistic self-regulation and barriers to access, but also about the pragmatic production of viable topological formations able to persist within an open and fluid milieu.” (68)

She notes in passing some of the experiments of the late twentieth century in “network hydrodynamics” (69) such as the Communitree BBS, Andreas Broeckmann’s Syndicate list-serv, Amsterdam’s Digital City, the rhizome list-serv, to which I would add the latter’s sister-list Some of these fell apart, even if many others lived and mutated. Much of the functionality of today’s social media derives from these early experiments.

Terranova was also prescient in asking questions about the ‘free labor’ that was just starting to become a visible feature of stack-life at the time she was writing. She reads this through the Autonomist-Marxist figure of the shift of work processes from the factory to society, or ‘the social factory.’ I sometimes wonder if this image might be a bit too limiting. It might be more helpful to think of a dismantling and repartitioning of all institutionalized divisions of labor under the impact of networked communication, more a social boudoir than social factory.

Still, it was useful to insist on the category of labor, at a time when it was tending towards invisibility. One has to remember that in cyberculture times there was a lot more celebration of ‘playful’ fan cultures to the net. Henry Jenkins’ repurposing of something like the Birmingham school’s insistence on popular decoding and recoding agency would be a signal instance of this. Terranova: “The internet does not automatically turn every user into an active producer, and every worker into a creative subject.” (75) It also makes plenty of alt-right trolls.

In a 1998 post, Richard Barbrook suggested that the cyberculture era internet had become the site for a kind of post-situationist practice of détournement, of which itself might not have been a bad example. Before anybody had figured out how to really commodify the internet, it was a space for a “high tech gift economy.” Terranova thinks Barbrook put too much emphasis on the difference between this high tech gift economy and old fashioned capitalism. But perhaps it might be helpful to ask whether, at its commanding heights, this still is old fashioned capitalism, or whether the ruling class itself may not have mutated, and draws its power now from informatics control, based in part on capturing the value of information gifted by various forms of non-labor.

Certainly, the internet became a vector along which the desires that were not recognizable under old-style capitalism chose to flee. Terranova: “Is the end of Marxist alienation wished for by the management gurus the same thing as the gift economy heralded by leftist discourse?” (79) Not so much. Those desires were recaptured again. I don’t know who exactly is supposed to have fallen for “naïve technological utopianism” (80) back in the nineties – apart from the Accelerationists, and even there, Black Accelerationism was a quite canny negotiation between the cramped spaces of both the political and the technical. In the main I think a kind of radical pragmatism of the kind advocated by Geert Lovink prevailed. We were on the internet to do with it what we wanted, for as long as we could make it last, before somebody shut the party down.

I’m not sure that producers of difference in information are quite the same thing as producers of sameness in material objects. Perhaps the worker and the hacker belong to different classes. I think the hacker class is composed of all those whose creations of difference can be captured as intellectual property and commodified. It’s a class with no necessary common culture at all, other than what it might make in struggling against the appropriation of its time. But it is not the case that the hacker prefigures new kinds of labor. Rather, both the hacker and worker experience a bifurcation into a secure well-paid elite and a casualized and hyper-exploited – and now global – mass.

For me this is a perspective from which to attain some critical perspective on attempts to expand the category of labor, to the point where to me it stops making much sense. Terranova’s Network Culture provided an early introduction in the Anglopohone world to the work of Mauritzio Lazzarato, but I always thought that his category of immaterial labor was less than helpful. Since I agree with Terranova’s earlier dismissal of the notion of information as immaterial, I am surprised to see her reintroduce the term to refer to labor, which if anything becoming ever more embedded in the material systems of the stack.

For Lazzarato and Terranova, immaterial labor refers to two aspects of labor: the rise of the information content of the commodity, and the activity that produces its affective and cultural content. Terranova: “immaterial labor involves a series of activities that are not normally recognized as ‘work’ – in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions tastes, consumer norms, and more strategically, public opinion.” (82) It is the form of activity of “every productive subject within postindustrial societies.” (83)

Knowledge is inherently collaborative, hence there are tensions in immaterial labor (but other kinds of labor are collaborative too). “The internet highlights the existence of networks of immaterial labor and speeds up their accretion into a collective entity.” (84) An observation that would prove to be quite prescient. Immaterial labor includes activities that fall outside the concept of abstract labor, meaning time used for the production of exchange value, or socially necessary labor time. Immaterial labor imbues the production process with desire.  “Capital wants to retain control over the unfolding of these vitualities.” (84) But at that point one has to wonder if the terms in play here are still capital and labor, or if exploitation might not have new territories and new forms.

Terranova follows those autonomist Marxists who have been interested in the mutations of labor after the classic factory form, and like them her central text is Marx’s ‘Fragment on Machines’ from the Grundrisse. The autonomists base themselves on the idea that the general intellect, or ensemble of knowledge, constitutes the center of social production, but with some modification. “They claim that Marx completely identified the general intellect (or knowledge as the principle productive force) with fixed capital (the machine) and thus neglected to account for the fact that the general intellect cannot exist independently of the concrete subjects who mediate the articulation of the machines with each other.” (87) For the autonomists (Bifo, for example), living labor is always the determining factor, here recast as a mass intellectuality.

The autonomists think that taking the labor point of view means to think labor as subjectivity. Living labor alone acts as a kind of vitalist essence, of vast and virtual capacities, against which capital is always a reactive and recuperative force. This is in contrast to what the labor point of view meant, for example, to Bogdanov, which is that labor’s task is not just to think its collective self-interest, but to think about how to acquire the means to manage the totality of the social and natural world, but using the forms of organizing specific to it as a class.

From that point of view, it might be instructive to look, as Angela McRobbie does, for baby steps toward self-organization in Terranova calls free labor, and of how it was recuperated in quite novel ways. “Free labor is a desire of labor immanent to late capitalism, and late capitalism is the field which both sustains free labor and exhausts it. It exhausts it by undermining the means through which that labor can sustain itself: from the burn-out syndromes of internet start-ups to under-compensation and exploitation in the cultural economy at large.” (94)

Let’s not to just assume that this is a ‘late’ iteration of the same ‘capitalism’ as in Marx’s era. The internet was the most public aspect of a whole modification of the forces of production, which enabled users to break with private property in information, to start creating both new code and new culture outside such constraints. I think those forces of production drove not just popular cyberculture strategies from below, but also enabled the formation of a new kind of ruling class from above. One based on extracting not so much surplus labor as surplus information: extracted as content from both labor and non-labor; extracted as form the hacker class – creator of new forms. I call this new ruling class the vectoralist class – owner and controller not of the means of production but the vector of information, its stocks and flows.

The most interesting part of Network Culture is where Terranova extends the Deleuzian style of conceptual constructivism to scientific (and other) languages that are interested in theories and practices of soft control, emergent phenomena and bottom-up organization. Her examples range from artificial life to mobile robotics to neural networks. All of these turned out to be intimations of new kinds of productive machines.

There is a certain ideological side to such of this discourse, and yet “… the processes studied and replicated by biological computation are more than just a techno-ideological expression of market fundamentalism.” (100) They really were and are forms of a techno-science of rethinking life, and not least through new metaphors. No longer is the organism seen as one machine. It becomes a population of machines. “You start more humbly and modestly, at the bottom, with a multitude of interactions in a liquid and open milieu.” (101)

For example, in connectionist approaches to mind, “the brain and the mind are dissolved into the dynamics of emergence.” (102) Mind is immanent, and memories are Bergsonian events rather than stored images. These can be powerful and illuminating figures to think with. But maybe they are still organized around what Bogdanov would call a basic metaphor that owes a bit too much to the unreflected experience of bourgeois culture. It just isn’t actually true that Silicon Valley is an “ecosystem for the development of ‘disruptive technologies’ whose growth and success can be attributed to the incessant formation of a multitude of specialized, diverse entities that feed off, support and interact with one another,” to borrow a rather breathless quote from some starry-eyed urban researchers that Terranova mentions. (103) On the contrary, Silicon Valley is a product of American military-socialism, massively pump-primed by Pentagon money.

Terranova connects the language of biological computing to the Spinozist inclinations of autonomist theory: “A multitude of simple bodies in an open system is by definition acentered and leaderless.” (104) And “A multitude can always veer off somewhere unexpected under the spell of some strange attractor.” (105) But I am not sure this works as a method. Rather than treat scientific fields as distinct and complex entities, embedded in turn in ideological fields in particular ways, Terranova selects aspects of a scientific language that appear to fit with a certain metaphysics adhered to in advance.

It can be quite fascinating and illuminating to look at the “diagonal and transversal dynamics” (105) of cellular automata, and admire at a distance how “a bottom-up system, in fact, seems to appear almost spontaneously….” (105) But perhaps a more critical and radical information theory approach might be the necessary compliment. What role does stack infrastructure play in such systems? What role does an external energy source play? It is quite possible to make a fetish of a bunch of tiny things, such that one does not see the special conditions under which they might appear ‘self’ organizing.

As much as I revere Lucretius and the Epicurians, it seems to me to draw altogether the wrong lesson from him to say that “In this sense, the biological turn entails a rediscovery, that of the ancient clinamen.” (106) What is remarkable in Lucretius is how much he could get right by way of a basic materialist theory derived from the careful grouping and analysis of sense-impressions. One really can move from appearances, not to Plato’s eternal forms, but to a viable theory that what appears is most likely made of a small number of elements in various combinations. But here the least useful part of the Epicurean worldview is probably the famous swerve, or clinamen, which does break with too strict a determinism, but at the expense of positing a metaphysical principle that is not testable.  Hence, contra Terranova, there can be no “sciences of the clinamen.” (107)

This is also why I am a bit skeptical about the overuse of the term emergence, which plays something of a similar ideological role to clinamen. It becomes a too-broad term with too much room for smuggling in old baggage, such as some form of vitalism. Deleuze, in his Bergsonian moments, was certainly not free of this defect. A vague form of romantic spiritualism is smuggled in through the back door, and held to be forever out of reach of empirical study.

Still, with that caveat, I think there are still ways in which Terranova’s readings in biological computing are enabling, in opening up new fields from which – in Bogdanovite style – metaphors can be found that can be tested in other fields. But the key word there is tested. For example, when tested against what we know of the history of the military entertainment complex, metaphors of emergence, complexity and self-organization do not really describe how this new kind of power evolved at all.

More interesting are Terranova’s use of such studies to understand Galloways’s great early theme: how control might work now. Here we find ways of thinking that actually can be adapted to explain social phenomena: “The control of acentered multitudes thus involves different levels: the production of rule tables determining the local relations between neighboring nodes; the selection of appropriate initial conditions; and the construction of aims and fitness functions that act like sieves within the liquid space, literally searching for the new and the useful.” (115) That might be a thought-image that leaves room for the deeper political-economic and military-technical aspects of how Silicon Valley, and the military entertainment complex more generally, came into being.

Terranova: “Cellular automata… model with a much greater degree of accuracy the chaotic fringes of the socius – zones of utmost mobility, such as fashions, trends, stock markets, and all distributed and acentered informational milieus.” (116) Read via Bogdanov rather than Deleuze, I think what is useful here is a kind of tektology, a process of borrowing (or détournement) of figures from one field that might then be set to work in another. But what distinguishes Bogdanov from Deleuze is that for him this is a practical question, a way of experimenting across the division of labor within knowledge production. It isn’t about the production of an underlying metaphysics held to have radicalizing properties in and of itself. Hence one need not subscribe either to the social metaphysics of a plural, chaotic, self-differentiating ‘multitude,’ upon which ‘capital’ is parasite and fetter, and which cellular automata might be taken to describe. The desire to affirm such a metaphysics leads to blind spots as to what exactly one is looking at when one looks at cellular automata.

There is a certain residual romanticism and vitalism at work here, in the figure of “the immense productivity of a multitude, its absolute capacity to deterritorialize itself and mutate.” (118) The metaphysical commitments of a Marx read through Spinoza become an interpretive key that predetermines what can be seen and not seen about the extraordinary transformations that took place in the mode of production.

Where I am in agreement with the path Terranova is following here is in rejecting the social constructionism that seemed a default setting in the late twentieth century, when technical questions could never be treated as anything but second order questions derived from social practices. Deleuzian pluralist-monism had the merit at least of flattening out the terrain, putting the social and the asocial on the same plane, drawing attention to the assemblage of machines made of all sorts of things and managing flows of all kinds, both animate and inanimate.

But the danger of that approach was that it was a paradoxical way of putting theory in command again, in that it treated its metaphorical substitutions between fields as more real than the fields of knowledge from whence they came. What was treated as real was the transversal flows of concepts, affects and percepts. The distinctive fields of knowledge production within which they arose were thus subordinated to the transversal production of flows between them. And thus theory remained king, even as it pretended to dethrone itself.

It seems crucial in the age of the Anthropocene that thought take “the biological turn.” (121) Never was it more obvious that the ‘social’ is not a distinct or coherent object of thought at all. One of the great struggles has been to simulate how this actual world works as a more or less closed totality, for that is what it is. The metaphorics of the virtual seem far from our current and most pressing concerns. The actual world is rather a thing of limits.

Terranova ends Network Culture with a rethinking of the space between media and politics, and here I find myself much more in agreement. Why did anyone imagine that the internet would somehow magically fix democracy? This seemed premised on a false understanding from the start: “Communication is not a space of reason that mediates between state and society, but is now a site of direct struggle between the state and different organizations representing the private interests of organized groups of individuals.” (134)

Of all the attempts to think ‘the political’ in the late twentieth century, the most sober was surely Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the silent majority. He had the wit and honesty to point out that the masses do not need or want a politics, and even less an intellectual class to explain politics to them. The masses prefer spectacle to reason, and their hyper-conformity is not passivity but even a kind of power. It is a refusal to be anything but inert and truculent. Hence the black hole of the masses, which absorbs everything without comment or response. Meaning and ideas lose their power there. As even liberal pundits found out in Trump’s America – proof of the most abject kind of a Terranovian critical and radical information theory (CRIT).


McKenzie Wark

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