- The Participatory Condition in the Digital Age ed. by Darin Barney et al.
edited by Darin Barney, Gabriella Coleman, Christine Ross, Jonathan Sterne and Tamar Tembeck. The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, U.S.A., 2016. 352pp., illus., 33 b/w. Trade, $94.50; paper, $27.00. ISBN: 978-0-8166-9770-0; ISBN: 978-0-8166-9771-7.
The Participatory Condition in the Digital Age is a compilation of articles that tackles the issue of what participation means in an age of pervasive digital media. The editors state in their introduction that “the participatory condition names a situation in which participation—being involved in doing something and taking part in something with others—has become both environmental (a state of affairs) and normative (a binding principle of right action)” (p. vii). They advance that participation has always existed in social life, but what is new of the present condition is the level up to which participation has and is being thematized in every order of society. Thus this sort of generalization of participation seems to be bonded to the extensive diffusion of digital media. In fact, digital media can foster the sensation that one now interacts and participates in a greater measure than before in social, economic and political life—although participating implies some sort of power in decision-making, and thus what actually seems to happen is closer to “sharing” than to actually participating, at least for a great part of the actors/users.
In this context, the aim of the book is to unveil some of the mechanisms through which a rhetoric of participation may act as a counterfeit of actual participation. To do so, in the introduction the editors briefly explore participation as interpellation, historical participation, art histories of participation and media histories of participation, and then define four main axes according to which the articles are classified: Politics, Openness, Surveillance and Aisthesis.
Nico Carpentier’s text “Power as Participation’s Master Signifier” (p. 3) links participation to power through considering the former as a “political-ideological concept” from which social power struggles cannot be detached, subsequently delineating two strategies to cope with it.
In “Think Outside the Boss: Cooperative Alternatives for the Post-Internet Age” (p. 59), Trebor Scholz deals with participation, digital labor, automation and the future of work. After describing Amazon’s Mechanical Turk—an online crowdsourcing system founded by Amazon in 2005—the author reflects on digital labor as a new kind of oppression. Consequently, he proposes to think of new kinds of solidarity and workers’ mobilization through new platform cooperatives and in this way try to revert the use of digital technologies for labor exploitation to a tool of social mobilization.
In the summer of 2012, Salvatore Iaconesi, a well-known “Italian designer, open source activist, and digital artist” (p. 123), was diagnosed with brain cancer (which after some studies, fortunately turned up to be a benign tumor). Following some preliminary check-ups, he decided to make his disease open source. La cura (the cure) is both an artwork and the means Iaconesi conceived to cope with his disease. At the same time, he considers it what ultimately led him to the disease’s cure. “Open Source Cancer: Brain Scans and the Rituality of Biodigital Data Sharing” (p. 123) is authored by Alessandro Delfanti and Iaconesi himself. In the article, the authors analyze the potential use of hacking—understood as “performing [End Page 547] technological alternatives in the public sphere in order to convey its emancipatory potential” (p. 124)—to understand and possibly create new ways of being a patient and to relate to one’s body and disease in an age of pervasive digital technologies.
Julie E. Cohen investigates the relationship between participation and surveillance (p. 207), arguing that the participatory turn is clearing the way of legal and social control for a pervasive exercise of surveillance, from commercial to institutional forms of surveillance. The text is revelatory in the ways in which individuals are pushed into voluntarily and sometimes even unwittingly providing personal data, mainly through gamified surveillance environments, and quantified self movement logic (p. 208).