Roberto Simanowski, Data Love: The Seduction and Betrayal of Digital Technologies

Roberto Simanowski, Data Love: The Seduction and Betrayal of Digital Technologies, trans. Brigitte Pichon, John Cayley and Dorian Rydnystsky (New York: Columbia University Press 2016) 176 pp. $30.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780231177269

A notable feature of many recent science fiction novels is that they imagine a future for social media which is very much like its present. In both Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora and Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, for example, public discourse is mediated through platforms which resemble Facebook or Twitter, with seriously deleterious consequences in each case. Of course science fiction projects the world of today into the future, but it is striking how little hope there is of the development of digital media forms which would allow for media forms which are not characterised by harassment, the domination of mob-thinking, and monopoly control. Even projections forwards cannot escape a pervading sense that digitally mediated communication has gone awry and cannot be set right.

Against this background, the media theorist Roberto Simanowski’s 2014 book Data Love: The Seduction and Betrayal of Digital Technologies offers some helpful and provocative suggestions. The book was written in the immediate aftermath of an earlier data scandal – Edward Snowden’s revelation of the extent of NSA surveillance. Simanowski argues that the problem is less in what governments and rogue actors decide to do, and more in the ways in which belief in the promises of data restructures and limits our sense of social, aesthetic, and political possibility.

In brief, sometimes terse, chapters Simanowski begins by drawing on the work of digital critics such as Evgeny Morozov to suggest the problems of the digital age. This part of the book critiques these existing arguments, by suggesting that they fail to take account of the structural problems underlying policies relating to data, and so offer solutions which fail to acknowledge how intractable such problems are. For example, Simanowski notes Morozov’s claim that 'consumerism and surveillance dominate the net because modernity itself is dominated by consumerism and surveillance, thereby proclaiming the fate of the net to be dependent on the fate of society' (47). Against Morozov, he then goes on to argue that:

The imperative of efficiency – as the chief principle of capitalist development – has shifted from the productivity of work to the productivity of consumption. This manifests itself in the customization of offers and the classification of consumers in order to address them selectively and to exclude unprofitable transactions more effectively. To expect a sustained intervention into such practices by politicians would mean – and this is what Morozov fails to understand – committing the state to a social-utopian role in terms of educational policy. […] Taking Morozov’s statement one step further, big data is neither a socio-political nor a simple technological problem but a historical and philosophical one. (47-48)

Simanowski suggests that in order to think through the implications of a data-loving culture, we should return to insights from critical media theory. This is welcome because it is a way of using media theory to think beyond the specific challenges of the current digital dispensation in order to resume longer debates about the political potentials and limits of aesthetic forms and different varieties of media. It is also a (sometimes quite witty) reminder of earlier moments when new media forms appeared to have transformative scholarly potential, such as the 'euphoric' reception accorded to hypertext in the 1990s. Simanowski draws on Novalis’s discussions of sublimity and Adorno’s suggestions about the form of the essay as allowing for 'the irritating and dangerous aspects of the things that live in [abstract] concepts' (84, quoting Adorno1). He does not claim that we can simply return to these earlier thinkers, but does outline how their concerns continue into a digital age.

The final chapters of the book note with some wistfulness that when it was first published in Germany, there seemed some prospect of an informed public debate which would have allowed for a more critical attitude towards the promises of big data. This debate hasn’t happened, Simanowski suggests; he doesn’t indicate why he thinks this is, beyond the fact that people will continue willingly to accept the convenience of the services provided by large digital corporations, while ignoring their costs by handing over data, privacy, and the possibility of inhabiting the world in ways which cannot be converted to data.

At this somewhat lordly level, the book offers numerous insights. Its few lapses into the practicalities of academic and media production are, however, vague and frustrating. In a discussion of online newspapers, for example, Simanowski repeats the familiar criticism that editors and journalists are increasingly inclined to go after 'click-bait' attention-grabbing headlines. Where in newspapers of the past, minority interest content could free-ride on the popularity of other pieces, 'the individualized counting of online views discloses the true interests of reader-consumers and exposes concealed subsidies'; 'statistics, as the incorruptible seismography of society, become the tireless advocate of the majority' (75). This fits with some well known problems in present-day newspapers, but does not acknowledge any of the strategies which readers and journalists adopt to continue to produce and engage with minority-interest content. Examples might include academic sub-communities on Twitter and Facebook; publications like the British satirical magazine Private Eye which refuse to publish much of their content online; the use of targeted mailing lists by authors who have withdrawn from other social media platforms; and subscription services of various kinds which continue to produce alternatives. Simanowski is also entirely uninterested in the role which advertising revenue plays in the difficulties faced by modern media.

Although these questions have risen to the fore in the time since the book was published, they were already basic to the question of what kind of media digital technologies would be able to sustain when it was written. Their absence gives the book’s critique an unnecessarily abstract character: as though the world contained Google and Adorno, with little in between.

Matthew Paskins, Aberystwyth University


1Theodor Adorno, 'The Essay as Form' in Notes to Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 2 vols, 1: 3-24