The popular notion that computers are “transparency machines” stems from an illogical leap from information to transparency, according to Wendy Chun’s argument in “On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge.” To believe that the relationship between people and computers is a one-way street, in which users have total control over the screens in front of them, is to forget that computers, as the name suggests, compute; “that they generate text and images rather than merely represent or reproduce what exist elsewhere” (27, italics hers).
Furthermore, digital technology—and the economic and ideological systems behind it—benefit from the illusion that the Internet and other digital programs run primarily on the agency of ordinary people sitting at home at their desktops, rather than programmers, corporations, or the machines themselves. In response to the notion that users control their software, Chun posits that, on the contrary, “software produces ‘users’ . . . . Each [operating system], through its advertisements, interpellates a ‘user’: calls it and offers it a name or image with which to identify” (43). This observation refers both to the stereotypes with which software companies define their customers and to computer programs themselves, which require users to obey a set of predetermined rules. To interpellate users, or to bring them into a preset subject position by defining what it means to be a user, requires them to adhere to and perpetuate a widely accepted, unacknowledged cultural logic—ideology. Programmers are drawn into this ideological power structure too because they necessarily are removed from the history of the programs they use.
Interactivity between media and consumers is not a one-sided process with users in an omnipotent subject position, manipulating and funneling their interests into a computer’s self-contained universe. Rather, it is a mutualism between these users and the scientific, commercial, and cultural forces that have created and continue to construct this universe—a dichotomy with limited applications in the digital age, since programmers necessarily are users of already existing programs. In short, each interacting party thrives off of its ability to cater to the other.
Paradoxically, the sense of control users—and programmers, which are users—gain from interactivity derives from their alienation from the processes by which the machine operates. By providing users with an already-established coding system and a limited inventory of software and actions to choose from, digital media exerts its own form of control. In addition, software’s first-person pronouns prevent users from recognizing their alienation from the processes between their actions and the computer’s output. There is an item labeled “My iDisk” on my desktop menu; meanwhile, I have no clue what an iDisk is. Chun argues that the visible and relatively stable cause-effect relationship of software gives users, especially programmers, ostensible command over it.
Still, “to enjoy this absolute power, the programmer must follow the rules of a programming language” they did not invent. In creating their own trajectories, programmers and users reiterate and thus reaffirm a pattern with a long and unfamiliar history, involving “ a gendered system of command and control” (27). Because the earliest computers were human workers, usually women following the orders of male bosses, there was a clear distinction between a command, or program, and its execution, or computation. The transition from woman to machine, however, concealed this distance between order and action by eliminating a visible intermediary. Computer signification, consisting solely of electrical currents as signifiers, became known as hardware. Software, the set of images representing a computer’s operative codes, yet far removed from them, creates “an invisible system of visibility” (28). Software gives the illusion of transparency when it really is just the tip of the iceberg; it is hardware in accessible form, refusing to acknowledge and thus naturalizing its derivation from mere voltage differences.
The machine covers these abstractions and limitations by establishing a universe of reliable cause and effect, where programmers’ and users’ actions alike “produce visible and largely predictable results”—unless the technology fails, but even malfunctions conveniently fit under the alibi of excessive or incorrect usage. People depend on and even become addicted to the “causal pleasure” of knowing that their computers’ activities reciprocally depend on them (39).
The ideologies not just of the medium itself, but also of the political and commercial interests that exploit it, operate through this mythical impression of absolute agency. One example can be found on Facebook, where people of all ages eagerly share their activities and interests with other users, often unaware that they’re also revealing this information to businesses that pay Facebook to advertise their products to target audiences. According to Thomas Levin’s “Rhetoric of the Temporal Index,” it is fairly easy for cyber entrepreneurs, especially in the United States, to “track one’s online activity and sell such data to potential advertisers” (581).
As a result of this symbiotic relationship (and fuzzy distinction) between producers and consumers, media criticism often is simultaneously complacency, and vice versa. Satire and counter-culture can promote what they allegedly reject or seek to make fun of, whether subliminally or obviously, intentionally or inadvertently. According to Chun’s lecture, television shows, Web sites, products, films, brand names, trends, and celebrities can benefit from being trashed. Oscar Wilde’s philosophy that “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about” could easily apply to the entertainment industry. Whether a YouTube video, fan fiction site, TV spoiler blog, or Facebook link trashes or lauds its subject is less significant than the mere fact that it publicizes the name.
Furthermore, according to Tiziana Terranova’s “Free Labor,” anyone who contributes to the Internet freely is sustaining the medium itself, providing work “voluntarily given and unwaged, enjoyed and exploited” (33). This type of activity is known as free labor: free because users choose to engage in it, and labor because the more the users, the richer and more diverse the content, the greater the benefit for digital media and the industries that rely on it for promotion and transaction.
The series Arrested Development, whose popularity and cult-like following skyrocketed after its transition from television to the Internet, exemplifies Internet users’ simultaneous enjoyment and exploitation. Once Fox cancelled the show and viewers could watch it for free on Hulu, spectators didn’t have to be available at a specific date and time to keep up with the complex and absurdist storyline interweaving the episodes. A program known from the start for cultural references, allusions to other TV shows, and reflexivity, Arrested Development now has a network of exchanges among fanatics, impersonators, critics, news coverage, political groups, businesses, and followers of affiliated actors and programs. With the enthusiastic complicity of its ever-growing fan base, Arrested Development has interpellated viewers into its own ideological subject position: well-versed in the series’ references to other television shows and cultural phenomena, in accordance with its political underpinnings, indignant about its cancellation, and tireless in its recruitment of supporters.
Since August 2009 an image of a young protestor during Obama’s town hall meeting in Portsmouth, NH, carrying a sign reading “OBAMA BRING BACK ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT” has circulated throughout Flickr, Democratic Underground, and various social networking sites. Through a link at elephantjournal.com, enthusiasts can share this image with friends on sites like Facebook and Twitter— not only getting a good laugh amongst themselves, but also providing free labor by using social networking sites, popularizing Elephant Journal and Arrested Development, and maybe even perpetuating Obama’s youth-friendly image.
Another way fans contribute to the commercial goals of the show is by soliciting support for the Arrested Development movie through fan sites such as the show’s “official” fan site (the-op.com), the site for fans of the character Tobias (tobiasfunke.com), and the Facebook group “Arrested Development Movie” (to whose members Facebook advertises Arrested Development T-shirts). A New York Magazine columnist wrote an article on the publication’s Web site asking the screenwriter to “Pack the ‘Arrested Development’ Movie With Jokes Only We Understand,” empowering the group “we”—subjects with the knowledge sought out by the industry of how to appeal to loyal followers. At the same time, the article freely offers the production team ideas about what to include to make the movie a commercial success.
Hulu’s viewing policies demonstrate the balance between fulfilling sponsors’ requests and providing causal pleasure for the viewer. When one selects an episode to watch, the screen presents a notice that the season the episode is from is “available for purchase on DVD or electronic download.” Ironically, this message discourages viewers from using Hulu, yet increases Hulu’s success by maintaining its legal credibility and financial support. The predictable causal pleasure on this site comes in the form of choosing the commercial format—one long one in the beginning, or several short ones during planned commercial breaks— and each show’s discussion board. Participants who write on Hulu’s discussion forum use it for their own entertainment, but also give the Web site what it wants by providing it with content.
Whether merely by coincidence or because the show foresaw its potential place in the digital age, the structure of Arrested Development is remarkably fitting for the interactivity of the Internet. Each time somebody watches an episode, he or she can pick up on new references, search the Web for explanations of these references, and look up blogs and discussions for anything left unexplained. For diehard aficionados, Wikipedia provides an Arrested Development trivia article for each episode. The people who write these articles benefit fans, Wikipedia, the show itself, and the guest stars and companies with links on that page.
Arrested Development also has secured a spot for itself in digital media by apologizing in advance for product placements and other strategies to increase commercial success, which information on the Internet and repeated viewing online and on DVD were bound to reveal. Each episode reiterates in a new way that, though the series is not above using the typically hidden operations of modern capitalist ideology, at least it is above obscuring them. When fans read on Wikipedia that Burger King paid Fox to set one of the show’s scenes in one of their restaurants, they can laugh at the flagrant promotion in Tobias’ announcement to Carl Weathers that “it’s a wonderful restaurant!” followed by the narrator’s “it is.”
This technique of self-satire highlights the contradiction in using the very practice that one is critiquing. Within the show’s diegesis, Carl Weathers is producing a show with the help of Burger King’s sponsorship, which Tobias deems acceptable “so long as you don’t draw attention to it”—the way Arrested Development is drawing attention to its own endorsement of Burger King. By laying bare its hypocrisy and satirizing itself to no end, Arrested Development repeatedly saves itself; it earns forgiveness for its ideological operations by making fun of them.
This often indirect (although, in the aforementioned case, quite overt) promotion is characteristic of free labor: in order to criticize a brand name, cultural trend, film, book, celebrity, or basically anything, one inevitably must mention and thus publicize it. On a larger scale, the Internet is replete with criticism of Internet fads, a contradiction in of itself. Popular Youtube videos, for instance, generally have at least a few associated parody videos or angrily written comments, all by users who found these videos ridiculous and consequently created more pages linking to them and expanded their audience.
This is the paradox of digital media: it allows many subcultures to coexist, yet ties them together with an unseen numerical code, perpetuating hegemonic reasoning in general and notions of computer transparency, “of seeing as knowing, of reading and readability,” in particular (27). There is slippage between the ideologies of digital media itself and that which operates through it, and the two work together. Digital media upholds itself by concealing its hardware, while social conventions and assumptions inevitably factor into decisions of what becomes software and what doesn’t, which workings are shown and which are hidden, which options are offered and which are not. In order for computers to be transparent, users would have to be aware of all that went into their making. But it is impossible to surmount this hidden signification, as long as one is using it. Even computer programmers have much of the work done for them already, and their job is simply to apply codes created by other people who had their own preconceptions. As a result, users become participants in the mediums, belief systems, and economic interests that they themselves condemn, sometimes without even realizing it.