[Deleuze & Internet] Google: the image of search, non rhizomatic !

As many know, in the A/V Journal site of Deleuze Studies we can find a good lot of video-lectures about Deleuze’s philosophy and its applications [here]. While most of them are worth to take a look, in this occasion, and in reason of the recent entries we have posted about the theme of blogs and blogging [here, here and here], we want to draw attention to the lecture given by Ian Buchanan entitled Deleuze and the Internet. As many also know, Ian conducts an interesting project that he calls Practical Deleuzism, so his presentation is about applying a Deleuzian look at various aspects of the Internet by emphasizing the info-monopolistic dominance of Google. For anyone interested, you can also get the transcription of the lecture and read it directly from this link [here]. Buchanan begins his presentation by reminding how the details of our lives are segmented by social conventions that penetrate our body and pass even as natural: segmentations of the order of gender, race, social class, work, family, etc. Following Deleuze and Guattari, Buchanan notes that these segmentations are incorporeal transformations that have now been surveyed by a digital profile: the hallmarks of our bodies have been diluted by the bank or institutional segmentations, i.e, for the data that shed our credit cards or our social security number. Therefore, it appears that our body has been replaced by the digital profile that government agencies or banks have about us: the segmentations of gender, race and class have been supplanted by the segmentations related to debt and credit. Buchanan explains that this does not mean that the era of the body has been replaced by the era of the disciplined soul, and points out the differences in this respect between the disciplining of the soul in the Foucaultian sense of the word, and the Deleuzo-Guattarian concept of body without organs (BwO).

Thus, Buchanan objects the presumption that takes the Internet as an agent of an unquestionable freedom. The fact that the exercise of unlawful practices (such as child pornography) cannot be stopped by the government reinforces the idea that the internet is the bastion of postmodern freedom, which leads to the assumption that it is an anti-socialist space that accepts no dirigisme and thus that is an area of imminent freedom. For Buchanan, there is an assumption that this freedom is the Internet’s BwO. However, Buchanan considers that the implications of the rhetoric of freedom on the Internet were exposed exemplarily by the reaction of the press to the story about how Google came into the Chinese market. In this regard, Buchanan calls attention to the fact that Google agreed to adhere itself to the policies of the Chinese government and to the regulation and control of information on the Internet, excluding its access to Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen, as well as restricting search categories related to human rights, International Amnesty, pornography, and the radical doctrine of Falun Gong. For Buchanan, despite that it is not the first time that Google agrees with this type of controls and regulation of information (especially considering that in Germany it also restricts references to sites that deny the Holocaust, and in France, of sites that incite racial violence) the complicity that Google held with the censorship of Chinese government exceeded all precedents, to the extent that many considered this complicity as a betrayal of the values of freedom that Google supposedly emblematizes.

“What this case demonstrated is that Google isn’t really concerned about our access to content at all. All the blustery talk about compromised values was really just a verbal smokescreen trying to cover up this one glaring truth: Google’s priority is its access to new markets and it will not hesitate to compromise its putative ethic of ‘do no evil’ in order to achieve that goal. It is only if we continue to buy into the fantasy that it and somehow the Internet as a whole is a bastion of freedom that we find these events dismaying. If the Internet was ever a ‘commons’, then there can be no doubt that it is rapidly being ‘enclosed’, the implication being that Amazon, Google and eBay are still only the ‘primitive accumulation’ stage. Information is in effect a natural resource like oil that Google exploits without regard for the environment.”

Buchanan considers that the negative response that Google gave to the U.S. government when it was asked for assistance to track users who consumed child pornography, is simply a sign that Google thinks the government should not have any permission to intervene and affect their market. For Buchanan, this does not mean that Google actually respects the privacy of its users, or that it does not have us under vigilance: on the contrary, Google is constantly collecting data from users, individually and collectively, publishing it under the rubric of Google Trends, so to provide maps of topics to search depending on the region where the user is. With this respect, to stress his point of view regarding to the surveillance and empowerment that Google seems to make of the information that is accessible to Internet, Buchanan debunks the idea that refers to the structure of the net as rhizomatic. For this purpose, he follows some of the basic criteria that constitutes a rhizome and wonders how much do it fits with the Internet. In this sense, although the Internet seems to connect a point of the net with any other, that is, any computer with any other, Buchanan considers that in practice is not so easy for those who have experienced the frustration of wanting to access to important sites or to sites with a lot of traffic, using only a dial up connection. Buchanan notes that the phrase ‘surfing the Internet’ reflects the fact that it was not until the advent of Google search engines, that finding information was not like looking for a needle in a haystack anymore. Buchanan argues that the practical reality of the Internet is nothing like the multi-dimensional sensorium anticipated by William Gibson in his Neuromancer, and though this view has influenced to think the Internet as the realization of the Deleuzian ideal of multiplicity, the proliferation and expansion of websites does not mean that the Internet can be classified as a multiplicity in strict Deleuzian sense. In the same hue, Buchanan makes clear that a website is not a compositional dimension of a rhizome but of a tree-structure unit:


“Are websites dimensions or units of the web? There is a simple way to answer this question – what happens when we add or subtract a site? The answer is that it isn’t clear that the addition or the subtraction of any one site actually affects the whole. If several million sites were to vanish then that would clearly make a difference, but the loss of a few hundred or even several thousand might not. If sites were dimensions then according to Deleuze and Guattari’s definition of the rhizome their removal would alter the whole, so we have to conclude that individual websites are units of the Internet, not dimensions… Google searches are conducted on a ‘stable’ electronic snapshot of the Internet, not the living breathing thing itself, which it indexes very precisely; the search engine is patently a centring system, de facto and de jure, and what could be more hierarchical than PageRank?”

Among the many criteria that he expounds about the rhizome, Buchanan believes that the Internet does not have any a-centered non-significant nor acephalous structure, despite its appearance. While it exhibits arborescent tendencies (and to some extent, even rhizomatic) it is not but in the sense that we let Google be our “Internet User Guide”, that this Internet that Google presents to us is stable, centered and hierarchical. As Buchanan implies, the Internet seemed to refer to connectivity in its early years, but that idea is now presented as necessary but not forcibly affordable. Although one of the main features of the cultural role of the Internet is to connect people, today that role is referred much more to the search for objects or specific amenities, and much less to social connectivity. In sum, for Buchanan: the Internet has become a model of achievement destined to extract the surplus value of a given economy.

“Google is effectively the commonsense understanding of what using the Internet actually means, both practically and theoretically. It is at once our abstract ideal of searching and our cumulatively acquired empirical understanding of it. But more importantly, searching is what we think of as the proper practice associated with the Internet – one writes with a pen, makes calls with a phone, and searches the Internet. When our searches don’t yield the results we’re after we tell ourselves it is because we don’t properly understand Google, that we don’t have enough practical experience with it, or sufficient competence to use it fully, rather than dismiss the search engine itself as fundamentally flawed. It is in this precise sense that Google has become, in noological terms, the ‘image of the search’.”

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