Against Efficiency Machines

by mimi thi nguyen

The following is a short piece I wrote for a special collection co-edited by Adeline Koh and Roopika Risam on postcolonial digital humanities. Though I don’t “do” digital humanities, Koh had asked me to contribute to a message board discussion and elaborate upon some comments I had made in a Facebook update about social media and academic labor. Koh and Risam then brought together a handful of those commenters and invited us to revise our posts for publication in The Journal of Digital Humanities. That went horribly awry, as Koh chronicles here and as is discussed here. In the aftermath, we are moving forward with another digital humanities journal (one that also accepts post-publication pieces), but I thought to post mine here as a work-in-progress after some friends and colleagues read initial drafts.

Please note: I do not hate blogs. I am blogging right now. I still have a LiveJournal full of feels in addition to a collaborative research blog Threadbared. I do believe that blogs can intervene in emerging discourses (about “native appropriations,” for instance), and facilitate intellectual and political inquiry (see Tressie McMillan Cottom’s dust up with The Chronicle of Higher Education). I also follow a lot of Tumblrs filled with unimpressed cats and street style. This piece is about the neoliberal rationale that commands that we must blog or tweet to be better entrepreneurial selves and how this imperative unfolds in the academy.

More P.S.: Alan Liu who is actually a digital humanities scholar wrote a brilliant essay called, “Where is Cultural Criticism in Digital Humanities?”, which includes the following insights I will have to incorporate into this essay. All I can say is, “BOOM.”

It is as if, when the order comes down from the funding agencies, university administrations, and other bodies mediating today’s dominant socioeconomic and political beliefs, digital humanists just concentrate on pushing the “execute” button on projects that amass the most data for the greatest number, process that data most efficiently and flexibly (flexible efficiency being the hallmark of postindustrialism), and manage the whole through ever “smarter” standards, protocols, schema, templates, and databases uplifting Frederick Winslow Taylor’s original scientific industrialism into ultraflexible postindustrial content management systems camouflaged as digital editions, libraries, and archives – all without pausing to reflect on the relation of the whole digital juggernaut to the new world order.  

I began blogging in 1998, before the coinage of “blog.” I was a graduate student at the time, but I already had a long history with writing in public, and it didn’t occur to me that I wrote for anyone besides a handful of other junior scholars and punks – in other words, others like me. But in the ever more saturated digital age, blogging has changed, at least for me. My experience of writing online is less informal experimentation and wild theorizing, and more multitudinous, increasingly professionalizing “interaction,” or what feels like immaterial labor, with electronic media and other never-sleeping machines. While I once enjoyed the conversations made possible through long-distance forms, I now find that I want more time apart from the imperative for continuous production and volitional surveillance. I link my now ambivalent response to blogging, coding, and its other cousins as imperative for scholarly relevance to neoliberalism and its demands for flexible subjects, immaterial labor, round-the-clock consumption, and the commodification of the self.

In circulation for some years now are essays and articles encouraging junior and other scholars to blog and tweet in order to raise their profile as “public intellectuals,” and demonstrate their “public relevance.” Some essayists champion digital platforms less to create a commons than to efficiently brand the entrepreneurial self. A typical article in this regard might be titled, “8 reasons why online reputation building can give academics a competitive advantage.” Blogging, it is argued, yields instrumental value, useful inasmuch as it can translate into quantifiable goods (posts can be turned into essays, clicks can be counted as audience reach) as well as more ephemeral ones, such as reputation and recognition. These observations are true in part for some, but I am more concerned about the deep structures that underlie these claims. After all, such advice is offered in an increasingly precarious market. Our corporatizing universities (whether public or private) rely on poorly-compensated adjunct and graduate teaching labor while at the same time pressuring tenure-track and tenured faculty to generate “practical,” financially viable research (whether in the form of grants, patents, and so forth), even to fundraise for their departments or colleges. University strategic plans call for more public engagement and interdisciplinary research – not within the interdisciplines of gender and women’s studies or ethnic studies for whom these are their historical foundations, but between the liberal arts and the STEM disciplines (in a troubling relationship that seems to imagine the humanities as handmaiden), and in partnerships with corporate entities and venture-capital behemoths such as Coursera and Udacity. To remain relevant, we are told we must blog, tweet, and code (whether this means learning genetic and neurobiological chemical formulas or computing languages). But it is important to ask, To what end? Or as Sarah T. Roberts of The Illusion of Volition put it, “What’s more important? Knowing how to code, or understanding the political and economic implications of a mandate to code?” Indeed, neoliberalism’s reach into the academy requires that we become more flexible subjects (even more than we are presently), willing to enjoin our personal brands to the university while capable of working more for less compensation, or the same — or none at all.

Lest I be accused of ignoring their potential, blogging as a creative testing grounds has been a part of my intellectual and political life for fifteen years. Some years ago, I and friend and colleague Minh-Ha Pham launched a research blog on fashion and beauty because it seemed the easiest format for our unfolding conversations. Threadbared became a placeholder for materials we gathered for our research projects and, as a side effect, it did also build our academic profiles. (I had already benefited from my early adoption of digital media; at least two of my graduate school-era publications and numerous citations in academic publications are due to my online presence.) But increasingly blogging requires more and more immaterial labor, first in terms of regular maintenance (answering emails, approving and responding to comments or mentions, freshening up the design, reading other blogs in dialogue), and second in terms of the actual writing. Blogging calls for concentrated bursts of writing and revising condensed into short increments of time, often in response to a news item that has caught “public attention” (however that is defined) for a brief moment. To lag behind, as my collaborator observes, is to feel like one has failed to keep pace with capital’s now-internalized rhythms.

After all, the tempo of public attention also calls for continuous blogging or tweeting in order to maintain one’s online presence, and retain relevance. That is, the temporal forms of the blog and tweet are twofold: singular and also serial, the retort and the anticipation of another to follow, and another. The individual post or tweet is not the point of the blog or feed after all. It is the accumulation of a searchable archive and a reliable feed, without any one object in that archive or feed being more important than any other, in and of itself. To put it another way, it might be less the content of particular posts or tweets than their form as comment, by virtue of its serial (and hoped-for viral) nature, that acts as evidence of relevance. As Rob Horning writes of social media platforms and its aesthetic categories in “Experiments in Inertia,” “The point of this is to secure social recognition and validation of the self, as a dynamic but socially real thing, a coherent concept that takes its stable form as an open-ended progression over time. The self is legitimate as format.”

Of course, as anyone of us who has learned HTML or WordPress can attest, format demands adherence to templates – their codes, conventions, and constraints. Blogging and tweeting are often touted as compositional forms that require from the writer such qualities as clarity and simplicity, both presumed to lend themselves further to legibility and usefulness. Sometimes from the university strategic plan we are told that these qualities enhance our public relevance, and sometimes from the politicos we are also told that these qualities fulfill our responsibilities to that same public. With both prizing disciplined craftsmanship and technical mastery, writing becomes a “functional” or instrumental vehicle for delivering information, or commands. (These and other prescriptions for academic prose and format are of course commonplace, and I am also critical of them elsewhere.) Composition forms that impose constraints can and do inspire creative adaptions – the haiku is often compared to the Tweet. Author Teju Cole’s much-remarked seven (very) short stories about drones is one brilliant and devastating example. But the commitment to public relevance as a regulative ideal, once it operates at the level of form as well as content, might well reduce our creative and imaginative possibilities to the performance of claims to relevance. (Hence the often-repeated claim about Twitter, “If you can’t explain all of your research in 140 characters, you probably don’t understand it at all.”) I am further reminded of Trinh T. Minh-Ha, who notes in her incredibly dense essay, “Writing From the Mirror-Box,” that such prescriptions are steeped in discourses of authority and arrogance. What is more conventional and deadening, she wonders aloud, than the directive that requires of the writer that she follow rules and regulations for being “clear,” “useful,” or otherwise transparent to the (electronic) eye? What then of the writer who wishes to obstruct or obscure, to disorient a reader and stop them short? What then of those creative and intellectual labors that are slow to unfurl, or otherwise appear to the efficacious eye as useless, obscurantist, impractical, marginal, or wholly unproductive? And what of critique that requires more time, for both writer and reader?

The demand for clarity and simplicity that might be best fulfilled in the format of the blog or the tweet is also a demand not to waste time. Time is a scarce quantity – you have only seconds or at best minutes to capture another’s attention, and it behooves you to ease them from one sentence to another. Time moves too quickly – you cannot tweet articles from three weeks ago, one academic tweeter scoffs, and be imagined relevant. The future is always now. There is value in being able to respond quickly to an object or event that (to evoke Walter Benjamin) flashes before you in a moment of controversy or crisis. Such an emphasis captures the transience of consciousness under capital, but does it also apprehend its deep structures? What of archival research or genealogical inquiry, wrestling with an object or event over time and allowing it to change your mind, or to change you? In the immediate aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder, I thought to comment in the ensuing fray. But I hesitated, not sure I wanted to let go those inchoate murmurings quite yet. What I wanted to say was uncertain, requiring from me stillness and withdrawal. The essay I wrote a year later about the hoodie as a sign, screen, expectation and force in considering Martin’s untimely murder, racial profiling and preemptive violence, is much thicker with the experience of sitting with the horrifying evidence.

Immersion in social media requires immaterial labor that might thus forestall other forms of temporal consciousness – such as sitting with, contemplation, untimeliness. One essay proselytizing on behalf of the academic blog scoffed at the notion that a person might not have “free” time to read blogs or tweets, suggesting that you could easily read an RSS feed during bus rides, or solitary lunches. More, continuous social media consumption is often less about interaction than familiarizing oneself with its conventions (as the above essay argued). That is, how it looks, and how best to replicate its format for yourself. Such consumption then acclimates all our activities –eating, reading, and other stolen moments for leisure– as imminent and immaterial labor. In his polemic on sleep as an affront to capitalism, Jonathan Crary observes how the eyeball is remade as an efficiency machine in an attention economy. “The term ‘eyeballs’ for the site of control,” Crary writes, “repositions human vision as a motor activity that can be subjected to external direction or stimuli . . . The eye is dislodged from the realm of optics and made into an intermediary element of a circuit whose end result is always a motor response of the body to electronic solicitation.” I find chastising another for refusing to expand their capacities for more labor perverse, but this is the neoliberal spirit of the age: all our time and activities are redirected toward transforming us into more flexible workers willing to perform more transient labor.

Thus I am wary of the promise of recognition (which is also the premise of legibility, and as mentioned, this is a disturbing metric) as just compensation. Visibility is no incontrovertible social good. (As Peggy Phelan put so well, “If representational visibility equals power, then almost-naked young white women should be running Western culture.”) Social media has transformed and enhanced our capitulation to surveillance, recast as “sharing.” How then do we recognize evidence of being a person in late capitalism? Evidence of being a person is often the product you create, sometimes of yourself.

I am especially concerned where recognition coincides with a will to institutionality (to call forth Roderick Ferguson). Often remarked is the failure of universities and colleges to acknowledge, let alone assess, social media labor as intellectual productivity whether for hiring or for tenure. (As it stands, these forms are only permissible and desirable as evidence of one’s elective self-extension as flexible labor.) And yet, there is plenty of reason to be suspicious of the processes and metrics we can anticipate our universities ossifying. (We well know that existing standards for research “excellence” are already specious and arbitrary, especially applicable to gender nonnormative persons, women of color, and scholarship from the interdisciplines.) As observed in “Slow Scholarship: A Manifesto,” we publish “in a scholarly world where citation indices which count how many times an article is cited, not whether it is cited as a good or bad example.” So too do our present metrics for public relevance in the digital world count how many times a blog post is viewed, or linked – and it is not content, but circulation, that matters. These metrics are concerned with virality (the utterance worthy for the retweet, the reblog) and with its scale. Consider this from an article called, “Why Academics Should Blog,” delivered in the form of an economic imperative: “In blogging links are currency: your reputation is made by who links to you and how often. It’s a built in, and more-or-less democratic system of reputation as defined by interest. By having your ideas online, the value of your ideas (as reflected by who is interested in them) becomes immediately apparent.” Here, the vague nature of the more-or-less hides the erroneous presumption that the web acts as a democracy, or a “free” marketplace of ideas, and that those “ideas” are assessed with perfect transparency. (See any comment thread ever for evidence otherwise.) In which the most privileged metric for the recognition of one’s writing is through virality, the quantification of the self is solidified as a distributed quality of commodity capitalism. If evidence of being a person is becoming a brand, evidence of becoming a good brand is your willingness to sell your labor for free, and to more consumers. How many units of yourself can you move?

And yet one more scene regarding compensation (or its absence) and precarity presents itself. Transformed into contingent labor under neoliberalism, writers and journalists are hard-pressed in this moment to receive fair compensation. (I know at least a dozen writers who used to blog and have since quit, because it seemed an uneconomical expenditure, or because conditions do not favor idle speculation or wild prose.) Increasingly, big-name digital platforms insist writers and journalists labor in exchange for nothing more than a byline. And increasingly, scholars are targeted as an untapped vein of cheap copy, whether for regular columns or occasional editorials. Both writers and scholars then are told that experience and exposure (clicks) on a national or even global scale should be compensation enough. However, as Sarah Kendzior argues, these institutions that promise public recognition and prestige in exchange for poorly compensated or uncompensated labor are rotting, even as they revalue exploitation as a virtue. Look at the adjunctification of the academy under neoliberalism. Under such material conditions and their political and economic rationality, scholars and students are treated as (terribly indebted) efficiency machines, to the detriment of all our creative and intellectual labors.

What does it mean then to encourage especially junior scholars to participate in this same troubling and troubled economy for reasons of public relevance? It is not just a question of uncompensated labor, as scholars already are not compensated for most of our academic publications. Yet these are at least presently (hopefully, nominally) recognized as bearing value for annual reviews and tenure cases. But as writers and journalists increasingly refuse to write for these platforms for no compensation, we would do well not to further grease that wheel. “Solidarity” may seem an old-fashioned concept, but it is one we need if we are to refuse to concede to what neoliberalism would make of us (entrepreneurial, exceptional, exploitable). Thus to recommend we also brand ourselves as writers willing to write for free on behalf of those same platforms that have shaped these conditions of precarity seems quite sinister to me. We should consider carefully what we do beyond what we claim to do when we create a commons (as blogging is often imagined to do) without common cause.

This is not to say, don’t blog, or tweet. Blogs such as The New Inquiry, Prison Photography, Jadaliyya, and The Feminist Wire inform an incredibly rich digital commons. These and other countless blogs can and do inform and proliferate research and inquiry, even create cohorts. But the neoliberal imperative that would push more and more scholars to brand themselves as efficiency machines, to borrow from Lauren Berlant, might prove to be a cruel optimism. Professionalization comes at a cost, including that of your own uncompensated labor. And, you might not distinguish yourself after all, but instead become just another click in a continuous feed.