Review of The Participatory Condition in the Digital Age | Leonardo

Review of The Participatory Condition in the Digital Age

The Participatory Condition in the Digital Age
edited by Darin Barney, Gabriella Coleman, Christine Ross, Jonathan Sterne and Tamar Tembeck

The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2016
352 pp., illus., 33 b/w. Trade, $94.50; paper, $27.00
ISBN: 978–0–8166–9770–0; ISBN: 978–0–8166–9771–7

Reviewed by: 
Gabriela Galati
April 2017

The Participatory Condition in the Digital Age is a compilation of articles that tackles the issue of what does participation mean 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)' (pp. vii). They advance that participation has always existed in social life, but what is new of the present condition is level up to which participation has and is being thematised in every order of society. Thus this sort of generalisation of participation seems to be bond 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 of social, economical, and political life—though participating implies some sort of power in decisionmaking, 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' of 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 labour, automation, and the future of work. After describing Amazon Mechanical Turk—an online crowdsourcing system founded by Amazon in 2005—the author reflects on digital labour as a new kind of oppression. Consequently, he proposes to think of new kinds of solidarity and workers mobilisation through new platform cooperatives and in this way try to revert the use of digital technologies for labour exploitation to a tool of social mobilisation.

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 tumour). Following some preliminary check ups, he decided to make his disease open source: La cura (the cure) is both an artwork and the way Iaconesi conceived to cope with his disease, at the same that he considers it what ultimately lead him to its 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 analyse the potential use of hacking—understood as 'performing 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 of the ways in which individuals are pushed into voluntarily and sometimes even unwittingly providing personal data, mainly through gamified surveillance environments, and the Quantified Self movement logic (p. 208).

In the series of chapters dedicated to Aisthesis, Bernard Stiegler advances in turn seven proposals to rethink the university In the Participatory Condition moment (p. 280).

Although the strength of The Participatory Condition both as a theoretical tool and as an actual social situation is not completely convincing—mainly because participation is too broad and general a term to have enough explicative power—the ensemble of the contributions in the book offer a solid critical base on the diverse topics developed; and it can hopefully become a point of departure to further deepen and expand these issues elsewhere soon.