Issue 13.3 - 14.1 | 2016 / Guest edited by Patrick Keilty and Leslie Regan Shade

User be Used: Leveraging the Play in the System

This article is reprinted with permission from New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, ed. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Anna Watkins Fisher with Thomas Keenan (New York: Routledge, 2015).

What does radical politics look like in the era of networks? In a moment of unprecedented connectivity, what room for maneuver remains in a system from which there appears to be no way out? I’ll argue in this essay that networks have crystallized the limits of resistance in a digital age, manifesting the accelerated speed of appropriation today. Activists have not merely employed the Internet as a tool but, crucially, as Geert Lovink observes, the Internet has begun to shape the form of political struggle itself.[1] Far from benign, this has given rise to modes of scholarly and artistic resistance that have appeared to mirror their neoliberal context, making it more and more difficult to tell the difference between political action and that which it seeks to work against.

In a post-2008 Global Financial Crisis moment marked by a waning sense of political agency, scholars and artists have looked to theories of new media (and indeed to cybernetics, information systems, and non-human ecologies) in search of serviceable models for conceiving renewed modes of intervention and resistance able to accommodate a sense of feeling implicated in, and even dependent on, a neoliberal system whose survival they nevertheless seek to challenge. That new media theory has been taken up as a means for working through this double bind of political action today is perhaps unsurprising. With the “revolutionary promise” of social media widely hyped in the wake of the Arab Spring and Occupy movements—a fervor that largely dissipated in the aftermath of violent police crackdowns—new media have in recent years signified at once the euphoric potential of Internet activism and the corporate co-option of radical politics in an increasingly militarized climate of governmentality largely hostile to frontal modes of organizing.[2]

Social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter have manifested the entanglements of technological buy-in with the protocols of state and corporate power, whether in the appropriation of personal data by such proprietary social media websites or the high-cost labor of the latest, “must-have” mobile gadgetry used to access them. Materializing the privatized economy of transnational telecommunications that makes online participation possible, “the network” has thus consolidated and emblematized the very tangles of complicit action in contemporary life as it has represented both the theoretical abstraction and physical substrate of the immanent ecology of global capitalism.[3]

Heralding a brave new world of viral circulation and exchange, characterized by the boundless reach of digital technologies and the hyperconnected character of social life, networks have nonetheless been used to overstate the equalizing effects of circulation and the reciprocal capacities of exchange, as if speed could lubricate democracy or level socio-economic disparity. Wary of media theory’s enthusiastic embrace of the discourse of virality in our neoliberal moment, this essay introduces an alternative genealogy of the viral through the prehistory of parasitism in order to advance a theory of social systems able to account for the political economy of networks today.

So while networks have been embraced as the answer to the problem of mapping complex systems, in fetishizing connectivity and exchange while neglecting their asymmetries, they have proven an impoverished model for capturing a system of gross inequity.[4] Now more than ever, digital networks amplify what Astra Taylor has called a picture of real-world inequity: “Online, just as off-line, attention and influence largely accrue to those who already have plenty of both,” she writes, and thus big media has given way “not [to] a revolution but a rearrangement” in which “giants like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook remain the gatekeepers” and “the new order looks suspiciously like the old one.”[5] Sold as an open system of exchange, they have promoted the lie of reciprocity in a neoliberal system[6] constituted by accelerating processes of uneven precarization.[7]

New media’s much-touted virtue of “openness,” by which the digital has been defined from its inception—its collapsing of hierarchy, its exploding of secrecy, its democratization of knowledge—has thereby contributed to blurring the picture of the political economy of networks. Yet as Andrew L. Russell has shown, the constitutive “openness” of the network is deeply ideological insofar as it appropriates the perception that generosity is an absolute good for commercial ends: “For individuals, ‘open’ is shorthand for transparent, welcoming, participatory, and entrepreneurial; for society at large, ‘open’ signifies a vast increase in the flow of goods and information through a global, market-oriented system of exchange. In the most general sense, it conveys independence from the threats of arbitrary power and centralized control.”[8]

Ubiquitous and seemingly innocuous, the term “user” perhaps best illustrates the seductive fiction that the network is a hospitable platform. In it are inscribed the agential capacities vested in participation (i.e. being a producer rather mere consumer, an actor rather than mere spectator); however, this empowerment also traffics a concealed form of disempowerment, as companies such as Facebook and Google, by selling themselves as free services, falsely position online subjects as their equals, counterparts able to use and be used equally, while the companies transform the content of this participation into data sold for enormous profit. Such entities selectively perform their agency: presenting themselves as a service in some moments and a mere platform in others. Facebook boasts, “It’s free and always will be,” and Google, as Siva Vaidhyanathan points out, accepts no money for the algorithmic labor of making the messy work of sorting and ranking search results appear clean and simple.[9] Disavowing their monetization of site-based advertising, such corporations insist on their role as hosts rather than users in their own right. The manner by which Facebook and Google position themselves vis-à-vis the user is instructive for how corporations, institutions, and systems at large selectively and strategically dramatize and dissimulate their role within an economy of use.

For those of us for whom Internet access is a given, network culture is not a privilege of which we can simply and fully opt out. To participate online is to find oneself tacitly or automatically conscripted within a larger matrix of control. In The Googlization of Everything, Vaidhyanathan nicely captures the dynamic by which users are given a false sense of agency:

Our blind faith in Google has allowed the company to claim that it gives users substantial control over how their actions and preferences are collected and used. Google pulls this off by telling the truth: at any time, we may opt out of the system that Google uses to perfect its search engine and its revenue generation. But as long as control over our personal information and profiles is granted at the pleasure of Google and similar companies, such choices mean very little. There is simply no consistency, reciprocity, or accountability in the system. We must constantly monitor fast-changing “privacy policies.” We must be willing to walk away from a valuable service if its practices cause us concern. (2011, 83–84, my emphasis)

By accepting the invitation to participate, the user finds him- or herself implicitly engaged in a contract that is subject to ongoing modification without warning and whose terms can only ever be accepted or declined. “The demand to participate can become coercive, exhausting the very collective faculties that it officially celebrates,” Jonathan Sterne writes. “While interactivity can be imagined as the ‘like’ or ‘retweet,’ it also encompasses the ‘agree to terms’ button.”[10] Such is the coercive hospitality of new media, whereby the very terms of participation (as use) are premised on accepting an invitation that can be declined only at significant cost, if at all. The rhetoric of the “user” therefore presents the guest in the guise of an active agent by overstating the individual’s volition within the online space. “In order to operate . . . the Internet turns every spectator into a spectacle,” argues Wendy Hui Kyong Chun. “Users are used as they use.”[11]

In this essay, I argue that neoliberal logics find in the coercive hospitality of networks a perfect alibi for concealing the system’s own disavowed interestedness, and it is in this context that scholars and artists have sought modes of intervention—often makeshift and stopgap in character—for using the very system of use in which they have found themselves embedded. I begin by showing how hospitality is the founding logic of networking protocol, on which the Internet is built. The very work of protocol, which claims to be nondiscriminating and welcoming to all, is to dissimulate the potential hostility of the network. I sketch how this performance of openness is a predominant mode by which neoliberalism operates today, enacted by corporate and state interests alike. Finally, I turn to a trilogy of “conceptual hacks” by the tactical media group Ubermorgen, in collaboration with Alessandro Ludovico and Paolo Cirio, that model parasitism as a tactic for leveraging this coercive hospitality as the vulnerability in the system. Whether trying to take down Google using Google’s advertising revenue or trying to buy Kickstarter using Kickstarter, the works I explore in this essay ask if modes of exaggerated complicity might enable new political scripts. Bringing the fields of new media studies and performance studies into overdue dialogue, I read a series of “system errors” to argue that systems perform protocol as a masquerade of logic.

Codes of Conduct

“The language of the RFC was warm and welcoming.”
—Kate Hafner and Matthew Lyon, Where Wizards Stay Up Late[12]

Networking is inconceivable outside of the logics of hospitality. The idiom of host domains, servers, clients, and feeds, far from arbitrary, lifts into view the semantic armature of new media. Indeed, the paradigm of hospitality has resided at the heart of communications protocol since the early days of networking. Still struggling over how to map the network of computers that would lay the foundations for the Internet, in 1967 a small group of Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) researchers gathered in Ann Arbor to discuss plans for resource-sharing that would not rely on a centralized computer and would thus be less vulnerable to attack. It was at this meeting that Lawrence “Larry” Roberts first put forward the idea of a national network of “host computers” connected to each other over dial-up telephone lines (Hafner and Lyon 1998, 71).

Anna Watkins Fisher, Figure 1

Figure 1. “The Subnet and Hosts,” early ARPAnet sketch.

Networking functions, Roberts proposed, could be handled by “hosts” that would act as both research computers and communications routers. After the meeting, in a cab on the way to the airport, Roberts’ former colleague Wes Clark would suggest an ingenious modification to Roberts’ design: insert smaller computers between the host computers to map a subnetwork of interconnected nodes. These separate computers, dubbed “Interface Message Processors” or “IMPs,” would act as packet-switching nodes (what we call routers today), serving as messengers between the host computers (72–73). This “Host-IMP” topology would serve as an early blueprint for the infrastructure of ARPAnet (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) protocols, on which the Internet was built (see Figure 1 above).[13]

As this history evidences, hospitality—as the semantic bedrock of early network protocol—is the implicit structure that makes the very idea of the Internet thinkable. As such it constitutes the proto-language of protocol and the paradigm of political economy in which the system insistently, and unreflexively, traffics. Attributed as if by default, the language of the “host” appears self-evident and ideologically null. And yet how deeply strange, and ultimately symptomatic, it is that a medium premised on exchange—on the sending and receiving of messages—would be imagined as a network made up only of hosts.

Protocol, as Alexander Galloway has observed, is the “set of recommendations and rules that outlines the computational standards or procedures by which technologies function” (2004, 7). Protocol’s ambition is to be a good host: “It must accept everything, no matter what source, sender, or destination” (243). A term associated with performances of social etiquette—particularly in diplomatic and military contexts—protocol is a “proscription for structure”: “a method of correct behavior under a given chain of command” (29). Like protocols that govern social or political practices, networking protocols establish the common rules of ceremony or formality that enable systems to function effectively (11). Galloway reminds us of this, while insisting on the limits of this analogy; he argues that with the advent of digital computing, social or political protocol is replaced by the technological: “instead of governing social or political practices as did their diplomatic predecessors, computer protocols govern how specific technologies are agreed to, adopted, implemented, and ultimately used by people around the world. What was once a question of consideration and sense is now a question of logic and physics” (7).

Here I want to probe Galloway’s sharp distinction between the sociopolitical and the technological for what it can tell us about the affect of systems. When Galloway argues that protocols “encapsulate information inside a technically defined wrapper, while remaining relatively indifferent to the content of information contained within” (7–8), he appears to leave the fiction of hospitality intact. Describing protocol as non-ideological and ideal receptivity obfuscates the system’s interestedness. There would appear to be a slippage, then, between protocol as logic and protocol as rules in Galloway’s account. Posing as logical becomes a means by which to dodge justifying what really drives it: the rules or agreed upon conventions, which most benefit those who make and host them. Protocol might instead be defined as the terms by which systems perform logicality as a means for disavowing their agency.

We must thus be wary of the supposed unconditionality of hospitality as a neoliberal facade by which networks have trafficked in protocols that instrumentally impose and regulate a distinction between the so-called hosts and guests of the system.

Performing Protocol

Let us now consider a practical example of how systems masquerade by looking at how, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, what is presented as a “glitch” by networking protocol is shown to be integral to the liberal-capitalist agenda. In November 2013, a news story broke about a Walmart in northeastern Ohio that had decided to hold a holiday canned-food drive for its own underpaid employees. “Please donate food items here, so associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner,” read the sign accompanying plastic bins at the Canton-area superstore.[14] This scenario consolidates the typically more-protracted feedback loop of “corporate responsibility,” betraying the hypocrisy of a system in which the working poor are made into charity cases by their own employer. The added twist here is that rather than Walmart itself engaging in one-off “bonus” holiday giving, the company instead asked its low-wage employees to provide bonuses for its other low-wage employees (“associate,” the name Walmart gives to those employees that don’t receive benefits, used here in such a way that enables the corporation to keep its hierarchy intact and, at the same time, disavow it). Defended by a company spokesperson as “evidence that employees care about each other,”[15] the request is nonetheless made in the name of Walmart, which, at the same time, positions itself as a surrogate supplicant for its employees. The company not merely asks its employees, in a smug update on the neoliberal imperative, to “take responsibility” for themselves but perversely also takes credit for the generosity of the care that those most in need are asked to give themselves. Suggesting its benevolence through a proximity to giving (by hosting or making space for the gifts of others), the gesture instead takes. And it takes twice over: first in the original gifts it never gave that made the giving necessary (i.e. withheld wages and benefits) and, second, in the good public relations that it siphons off the “event” of its supposed charity. (Or, perhaps it takes in three ways, considering the likelihood that employees would shop at Walmart for merchandise to give to each other, making this performance of charity an all-out, profit-making scheme to increase sales by co-opting the gift exchanges that it prompted in the first place.)

This scenario manifests the accelerated speed of appropriation under neoliberalism: the collapsed duration between Walmart’s refusal to remunerate its employees and its appropriation of their poverty as instrumentalized charity. It reveals that the speed by which the so-called parasite or “glitch” is reintegrated into the functioning of the system—and dissensus is reintegrated as consensus—has accelerated to the point of appearing nearly instantaneous.

Around the time Walmart was kicking off its canned-food drive, McDonald’s updated its “McResource Line,” a website run by the world’s largest fast-food chain to provide its 1.8 million employees with financial and health-related tips, including offering advice for “Digging Out from Holiday Debt.” Among its holiday tips for its U.S. workers, who make on average $7.75 an hour, is “Selling some of your unwanted possessions on eBay or Craigslist could bring in some quick cash.” The company also encouraged its employees to break apart food when they eat, writing that “breaking food into pieces often results in eating less and still feeling full.” Elsewhere the website offered workers (or, as McDonald’s refers to them, “team members”) assistance in applying for food stamps.[16] After weeks of public outcry, McDonald’s “Digging Out from Holiday Debt” page was taken down. Instead, the website redirected to a company-branded error message that read: “Hmmm. We couldn’t locate the content you were looking for. It’s possible that it doesn’t exist anymore, or has simply been moved to another location” (which now redirects to a standard “Not Found” Error 404 message and no longer appears in a Google search). We find in this “error message” an instance whereby the corporation seizes upon the alibi of a technological protocol, performed here as a cute irregularity, to avoid having to admit to the inhospitality of an exploitative system.

Anna Watkins Fisher, Figure 2

Figure 2. McDonald’s McResource Line “Digging Out From Holiday Debt” website error message (screenshot), December 2013.

By making social responsibility, as a strategy for attracting investors, into mere theater, corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s perform hospitality (or play host) as a marketing tool in order to maintain an appearance of openness to the world that, rather than ameliorating poverty as a force of circumstance, instrumentally sustains and reproduces it. In a March 2014 piece published in Jacobin, Noam Chomsky suggests that technological standardization is a widely accepted mode of corporate performance within a digital service economy that works to “transfer costs to the people”:

So, for example, suppose you find a mistake in your checking account and you call the bank to try and fix it. Well, you know what happens. You call them up, and you get a recorded message saying “We love you, here’s a menu.” Maybe the menu has what you’re looking for, maybe it doesn’t. If you happen to find the right option, you listen to some music, and every once and a while a voice comes in and says “Please stand by, we really appreciate your business,” and so on. Finally, after some period of time, you may get a human being, who you can ask a short question to. That’s what economists call “efficiency.” By economic measures, that system reduces labor costs to the bank; of course, it imposes costs on you, and those costs are multiplied by the number of users, which can be enormous—but that’s not counted as a cost in economic calculation. And if you look over the way the society works, you find this everywhere (my emphasis).[17]

What is apparent in Chomsky’s example is how little corporations often try to convince us of their performance of customer service, and yet, however half-heartedly, they try nonetheless. By enabling corporations to take advantage of the perception of a hard line between the sociopolitical and the technological (a perception that protocol functions to maintain), we risk not only failing to see how systems act in their own self-interest but also what forms of intervention such a recognition makes possible: if systems are neither neutral nor consistent, but rather dynamic and improvisational, they too can be played. The question we must then ask is how can we exploit the system’s performance of openness in order to force it to be more open? In order to answer this question, I’ll now briefly sketch how hospitality has emerged as a paradigm for conceptualizing the political economy of neoliberal systems in a post-crisis era by way of a look at the broader social movements that erupted in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

A Parasitical System

As the revolutions and uprisings of the Arab Spring and the mass protests of the Spanish Indignant Movement and the U.S. Occupy Movement played out across the world in 2011 and beyond, a tactics of seizing a “host” territory has undergone serious trial. Whereas popular and scholarly treatments of Occupy, in particular, have coded the movement in the discourse of imperialism, I want to suggest that the movement appropriated instead a politics of parasitism. Parasitism should be understood here as an anti-strategy for contesting the protocols of neoliberal hospitality from the inside. By exposing the limits of the system’s performance of hospitality, Occupy has mobilized parasitism as a means for mirroring back the parasitical character of the system itself—wherein certain parasites get called out, while others do not.

In this sense, Occupy has captured a certain mimetic standoff at the heart of the performance of parasitism, as both sides of the barricade have decried the other as being the “real users” of the system. For example, in October 2011, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said of the Occupy Movement: “What, exactly, are the contributions to society these protesters have made? . . . These protesters, who are actually few in number, have contributed nothing. They’re parasites. They’re pure, genuine parasites. Much of them are bored, trust-fund kids, obsessed with being something, being somebody. Meaningless lives, they want to matter.”[18]

By January 2012, an image began to circulate on Facebook and Tumblr. In it Marxist scholar Jason Read is pictured alongside this quotation: “People who dismiss the unemployed and dependent as ‘parasites’ fail to understand economics and parasitism. A successful parasite is one that is not recognized by its host, one that can make its host work for it without appearing as a burden. Such is the ruling class in a capitalist society.” By flipping the frame of Limbaugh’s illocution, Read exposes the ideology that subtends his use of the term “parasite” and, in so doing, shows how Limbaugh is himself a parasitical “host”—as a “radio host” who serves as a mouthpiece for the interests of the ruling class.

The lie of the parasite is that it is the Other of politics. As soon as something is identified as a parasite, it runs the risk of eradication, as Read explains. The parasite with the greatest chance at surviving and flourishing is thus never labeled “parasite” in the first place—passing instead as “host.” For his part, Limbaugh also deploys the rhetoric of parasitism for his own ends: by calling them parasites, he attempts to excise the protestors from the functional body politic (casting them as decadent and self-serving actors who interrupt of the flow of healthy circulation) so that he can deny their citizenship and thus the legitimacy of their claims. Read’s reading, on the other hand, affirms parasitism as issuing from a discourse of the host. With the epithet “parasite” often deployed from a position of privilege, the moniker functions to obscure and naturalize the operations of dominance. In Where We Stand: Class Matters, bell hooks writes:

Many greedy upper- and middle-class citizens share with their wealthy counterparts a hatred and disdain for the poor that is so intense it borders on pathological hysteria. It has served their class interests to perpetuate the notion that the poor are mere parasites and predators. And, of course, their greed has set up a situation where many people must act in a parasitic manner in order to meet basic needs—the need for food, clothing, and shelter.[19]

Occupy has therefore used mass demonstrations to spectacularize the alienation of the common from the commons as a result of the neoliberal privatization of the state. By imposing themselves on city centers—spaces emblematic of the collusion of corporate and state interests—the protestors have denounced the absurdity of a world system that exploits its workers while calling them parasites. With the battle cry “We Are the 99%!” they have insisted on their rightful place, rather than at the periphery, at the center of politics.

What the movement has made evident, then—in its putting on display of police brutality and the eventual forced eviction of the protestors from the camps—is just how easily the state that likes to think itself hospitable is revealed to be capable of hostility. A similar structure of hypocrisy can be found in the endlessly looping promotional video made by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State, in partnership with Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, to play in the arrivals hall at international airports as foreign visitors wait to be questioned, fingerprinted, and searched. The video, “Welcome: Portraits of America,” commissioned as part of the “Model Ports Initiative,” is described on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website as part of an effort “to secure America’s borders while welcoming legitimate visitors to the United States.”[20]

So how is it, we might ask, that the parasite has come to figure the very ground on which contemporary politics is waged? The neoconservative epithet’s recent revival in post-crisis popular and political discourse—from representations of “resource-draining” housewives, “welfare queens” and “illegal aliens,” to the language of “takers versus makers” and the “dependent 47%”—has proven especially pernicious for women and minorities, whose contributions to society—whether domestic work, dependent care, or undocumented labor—have been kept off the official record.

While the scripts of the “welfare queen” and “illegal alien” have long circulated as coded references to Black and Hispanic indolence and criminality designed to appeal to working-class whites, with the 2012 U.S. Presidential election, these types saw a resurgence as they have been transformed into populist myths of mass dependency. Figuring prominently in fundraising speeches, this myth was leveraged in repeated sound-bites by Paul Ryan in which he contended that “more Americans are ‘Takers’ than ‘Makers’” while arguing for his plan to replace Medicare with a voucher system as well as Mitt Romney’s so-called gaffe at being secretly recorded confiding to donors that half of Americans are “dependent on government,” believe they’re “victims,” and are “entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

In its popular usage as an epithet, “parasite” must be understood as a deeply ideological, majoritarian construction—a caricature of the minoritarian class, whose lifestyle is financed by crippling taxes on the rich that threaten to suck the lifeblood out of the economy. This construction has been wielded mightily in the post-crisis moment as a scapegoating mechanism and rationale for austerity measures that furthers the multi-decade dismantling of civil society through the systematic under-funding of public universities, non-profits, trade unions, and so forth. Figuring a growing underclass (or “precariat”) as interlopers on the workings of capital has been an increasingly recognizable neoliberal strategy for disavowing the necessity of the so-called users on which the system most depends. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, this has perpetrated a double violence: it not only withdraws the support of the social safety net, but it holds people responsible for their need for one in the first place.

An essential feature of the commodification of hospitality, as it transitions from a gift economy to a money economy, is the birth of a sense of ownership on the part of the host that is bound up with an almost-existential resentment toward the guest.[21] Tracy McNulty has suggested that the transfiguration of the once-divine subject of hospitality into the construction of the stranger represented as a hostile invader or interloper is a consequence of the rise of an economy of hospitality.[22] In his inexhaustible and elusive book The Parasite, French philosopher Michel Serres also suggests that parasitism indexes a logic of private property. He offers the parable of a snake,

stretched out on the snow one winter’s day. It asked for nothing; it was hibernating perhaps. A villager walking by, on his own land (note this well), gathers up the snake, brings it inside, stretches it out by the fire, where it immediately begins to awaken. From the outside to the inside, from numbness to life, from sleep to anger, from indifference to hatred: from cold to hot. The serpent is not a lessee; he was not looking for a haven; he was answered without having called. . . . Someone made himself the serpent’s benefactor, savior, father. You are sleeping quite peacefully, and when you wake you find yourself in debt.[23]

To be a parasite, then, is to be made a stranger in one’s own home, as the host that presents itself as welcoming is shown to be capable of administering rent. To be a parasite is to find oneself held hostage to another’s imposed hospitality. The rhetoric of parasitism, then, has served to install a socio-juridical framework of hospitality through the backdoor, proving a powerful rhetorical device for neoliberal policies of privatization, market liberalization, and governmental stabilization intended to secure private property relations. Employee benefits are repackaged as “entitlements” for the undeserving, and charity is instrumentalized in the guise of “corporate responsibility”—inscribing contemporary life in the logics of imposition: rent and taxation, credit and debt. Hospitality, far from being “warm and fuzzy,” has been used to reframe the terms of neoliberal citizenship as those of patronage.

Playing the Parasite

It is in this context that I have argued a new generation of digital and performance artists have embraced this debt relation as the conceptual structure on which to impose new economies of value and, in so doing, have recovered a long-forgotten performative potential at the heart of parasitism.[24] Despite popular perceptions, parasitism, rather than a biological paradigm, was originally a social one. The language of parasitism only crossed over into biology relatively recently: when scientists borrowed it in the 17th century to describe forms of life that depend on others for survival, draining nutrients or gaining shelter at the expense of others (such as viruses or certain plants). The parasite was, in fact, initially an ancient religious figure. A priest or temple assistant, the parasite was permitted to dine at the table of superior officers and enjoy meals at the public expense as a reward for his specialized knowledge and religious consultation.

A consummate dinner guest, the parasite earned his name, para sitos (meaning “next to” the “food”), by offering compliments in exchange for the hospitality of a higher order. The defining feature of parasitism for the Ancients was thus not the parasite’s unsavory or exploitative nature but rather its self-conscious “playing” of a patronage economy. The parasite thus performs a social short game: it agrees to play by the rules of its host in exchange for having its immediate needs met. It performs its consent, and in return it eats, signing in its acquiescence a tacit contract with its host. Perceived as trading in a currency without value or substance, the parasite puts into circulation that which is both perceived as not having value and yet dangerously passes as valuable.

Indeed, these are the parameters by which I have suggested that while companies such as Facebook, Google, Walmart, and McDonald’s try to pass as hosts, they act as parasites. We can think of Walmart’s dependence on corporate welfare or how Google, as Vaidhyanathan notes, “makes money because it harvests, copies, aggregates, and ranks billions of Web contributions by millions of authors who tacitly grant Google the right to capitalize, or ‘free ride,’ on their work” (2011, 83). When issued from the discourse of “the host”—whose “rightful place,” as McNulty has observed, is never up for discussion and whose papers are never demanded—the epithet “parasite” functions to naturalize and obscure the operations of dominance. The normative language of social parasitism should thus be understood as a deictic maneuver by which certain subjects get called out, while others don’t.

That this maneuver has made precarious social classes (young people, women, immigrants, and minorities) disproportionately at risk in the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis (e.g. those predominately Black and Latino populations subject to foreclosure), even as executives received golden parachutes after Wall Street’s billion-dollar bail-out, is an all-too-familiar narrative. What the financial crisis has laid bare is who is exposed to risk and who isn’t. The host’s and the parasite’s asymmetrical relationship to risk reveals a hypocrisy at work in the non-accountability of the host, who, insulated from actual risk, withdraws from the social relation and disappears back into the machine when it is asked to settle its accounts.

My wager, then, is that the parasite is abhorred not so much for its claimed inability or refusal to “contribute” to its host economy but for the manner in which it signals the threat of passing host. Recognized as such, the parasite represents a “glitch” or breach that threatens to expose the contradictions of the values of its host system. It is in the spirit of potentiating this breach that the tactical media collective Carbon Defense League argued in a 2003 manifesto for a new form of digital intervention: “we need to feed and grow inside existing . . . systems while contributing nothing to their survival . . . we need to become parasites.”[25]

Parasitism, then, is an “anti-strategy” for using the conditions by which one is used, performing back the very thing that one is already given to be. Characterizing the world as a system of parasitical relations, Serres’ study offers what I perceive to be three extraordinary insights for elucidation of the performative politics of the parasite that his work lays the foundations of but does not itself undertake. (1) Like parasites, systems work because they do not work. In other words, failures, flaws, and nonfunctioning—rather than excessive—are fully integral to a system. (2) For Serres, “abuse”—following the Latin—is not to be understood in purely negative terms since it is the very condition for the existence of the system itself; we use one another, and there is nothing essentially tragic about that.[26] (3) The parasite is not an ontological entity but a position held in a field of shifting asymmetries. In other words, it is a position to be taken up and played.[27]

All three of these insights present parasitism as an exemplary paradigm for rethinking our relationship to use through performance or performative value—use not merely as exploitation but also as what work a thing does. The parasite is not an ontological but a relational entity (hence its performative potential: the possibility to “play the position” as a pragmatic doing). Recognizing someone or something as a parasite amounts to situating them within an ecology of power relations: if the resignificatory performance of parasitism is a form of ideology critique, it is one that insists on seeing power dynamics as relational. What the parasite offers is never simply a picture of dependence but always one of co-dependence.

Thus, in performing the parasite, we find one possible answer to the question of how we might exploit the hospitality of the system to use the user. As Chun observes, the web’s “constitutive vulnerability [is] the fact that in order to use, one is used, and that one’s online interactions are fundamentally open” (2008, 130). The pervasive rhetoric of the “online user,” wherein to be an online citizen is to participate as a user in a community of users, has compelled a reappraisal of the value of use in a system of use-value.

User Unfriendly

By way of conclusion, I want to gesture toward a series of tactical media artworks that outsource their artistic practice to corporate digital platforms, making the system’s coercive hospitality work for them and against itself. Self-styled big-media hacktivists Ubermorgen (artistic duo Hans Bernhard and Lizvlx [real name Maria Haas]) joined forces with Italian net-artists Alessandro Ludovico and Paolo Cirio on what the group calls its “Hacking Monopolism Trilogy”: a series of “conceptual hacks” for which the group claims to have “generate[d] unexpected holes in [the] well-oiled marketing and economic systems” of three of the biggest online corporations—Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

For “Amazon Noir” (2006–07), the group gained access to Amazon’s digital library, downloading complete volumes of copyright-protected books sold on the site by manipulating the website’s “Search Inside the Book” feature, sending 5,000–10,000 requests per book and reassembling them into PDF formats. After Amazon threatened legal action, the case was settled out of court, with Amazon buying “Amazon Noir” for an undisclosed sum in return for both parties signing a non-disclosure agreement and thus reintegrating their parasite back into their host system. Not only does Ubermorgen find a “loophole” in Amazon’s marketing strategy but by forcing the company to settle in secrecy, it reveals that the parasite, rather than eliminated outright, is kept at a distance, put in a black box so to speak; its mode of access is thus simultaneously recognized and disavowed by the corporation.

The artists expose the structural contradictions of neoliberal capitalism’s ostensible hospitality by interfering in processes that are, strategically or not, left somewhat open by a logic of purportedly free and unlimited accessibility. They take their host’s invitation too literally, refusing the tacit expectations of the contract imposed by fair use. Exploiting the modicum of access granted to them, they hold the system hostage to its own performance of hospitality.

For the web-based collaboration “Google Will Eat Itself,” the group claims to have tried to take down Google, using the mechanisms built into its own advertising scheme. Calling the project an “auto-cannibalistic system,” the collaborators ran approximately 50 hidden websites packed with Google ads that regularly generate clicks using an army of online bots. “This isn’t that hard to do if you have the technical skills,” Bernhard explains. “Google’s system is not perfect.” The trick, he adds, is to keep each bot below Google’s click fraud threshold. At the end of each month, Google pays the group for these clicks, which they then move to a Swiss bank account. Having accrued 819 shares of Google stock valued at over $405,000 by the conclusion of the project, they estimate that, at that rate, they would fully own Google in roughly 202 million years. In a 2005 press release for the project entitled “Hack the Google Self-Referentialism,” the group writes: “The greatest enemy of such a giant is not another giant. It’s the parasite. If enough parasites would suck small amount[s] of money in this self-referentialism embodiment, they will empty this artificial mountain of data and its inner risk of digital totalitarianism.”[28]

The project, which ran from 2005 to 2008, turns the tables on the manner by which Google has made an estimated $36.5 billion in advertising revenue in one year alone by using algorithms to analyze and sell what users search and send over Gmail and then by using the data to sell targeted ad space.[29] Over the course of the project, the amount of time until the artists would own Google didn’t decrease but rather increased by 345,117 years. Google has hardly eaten itself. With its stock price valued at $495.01 a share in 2012, the project, rather than exposing the effectiveness of a tactical micropolitics, instead calculates the limitations of its own parasitical response.

In March 2012, a project similar to “Google Will Eat Itself ” appeared on Kickstarter, a website that offers artists a platform that facilitates backers for capital investments for various projects, collecting a small fee of 5% on the money raised, no matter the outcome, and thus crowdsourcing’s answer to the privatization of arts funding in a post–National Endowment for the Arts era. Los Angeles–based comedian Eric Moneypenny advertised that he would like to buy Kickstarter by raising money on Kickstarter, which at the time was valued at $18.6 million. The ad was soon removed with an “Error 404” message appearing instead that reads: “Oh my goodness. We apologize but something’s gone wrong—an old link, a bad link, or some little glitch.”

Anna Watkins Fisher, Figure 3

Figure 3. Kickstarter error message (screenshot), March 2012.

Much as Keith Obadike’s 2001 digital performance Blackness for Sale, in which the artist attempted to sell his “blackness” on eBay (promising the buyer a “certificate of authenticity”) was deemed “inappropriate” by the site, Moneypenny’s prank compels a system, ostensibly without limitation, to expose its limits. While these artists and media activists merely follow the very protocols established by media corporations such as Google, Amazon, and Kickstarter, they are nevertheless treated as parasites. These projects compel the network to address them as parasites—as “bad links” or “little glitches”—within a much larger machine, treating as exception the protocols that it itself has imposed. They claim an affinity with what Slavoj Žižek and others have described, in the concept of overidentification, as a manic maneuver by which one pretends to take the system at its word—performing sincerity at a fevered pitch—and plays so close to it that the system ultimately cannot bear the intensity of one’s participation. They stage interference within their host systems, not through direct, open, or straightforward critique, but through exaggerated adoptions of their scripts.

These works are particularly instructive for how they show up the legalistic and moralistic pretenses of their hosts—and moreover their recourse to technological protocol as a means to find protection from their parasites. The parasite is thus interesting pragmatically and heuristically: First, it offers ways to envision how to engage a form of politics when the traditional modes of action no longer seem available—in a situation in which there seems to be no way out, but only a way in. Second, it makes manifest the system’s role in hosting the parasites that it itself creates (through a form of enablement disavowed by the language of tolerance).

And yet while the parasite may hold pragmatic and heuristic value, it is also a dangerous figure on which to base a politics. There are no guarantees against the parasite’s mechanisms, no insurance of political correctness (to borrow a phrase from Avital Ronell). Indeed rather than subverting or even siphoning the power of their hosts, these works can just as easily be said to fortify them—denying writers and artists the protections of copyright and padding Google’s stock portfolio. Far from the answer to the ends of frontal protest and activist politics, the parasite is a last resort politics—a compromised and complicit imaginary forged by the system itself. And precisely because it mimics the system, it cannot be easily identified, whereas tactical media and performance artists such as the Critical Art Ensemble and the Yes Men suggest practices where the mask is eventually taken off; this is not the case with the parasite. There is no revelatory epiphany, no happy ending. Yet it is not a despairing or nihilistic figure either.

Finding old moral and ethical standards of judgment inadequate, the parasite hardly offers easy answers but perhaps only more questions. It demands a more diligent metrics: a finer attention to questions of scale, a determination to attend to non-reciprocal exchange. But for all its limitations, the parasite cannot be judged in isolation, because it always carries the system that makes possible along with it.

These works are not radical; they’re parasitical. As forms of systemic mimicry, they open themselves up to a ceaseless feedback loop of appropriation. Leveraging the parasitical substrate of digital media, the artists take advantage of the infrastructural vulnerabilities of their host systems. But more significantly, they compel big media conglomerates to expose that while they are designed to be “user friendly,” they cannot easily be used in return.

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  1. Geert Lovink, “Organizing Networks in Culture and Politics,” Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media. (Polity Press, 2012), 158. [Return to text]
  2. For an incisive discussion of the frustrated possibilities of political organizing in the digital era, see Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter, “The Politics of Organized Networks: The Art of Collective Coordination and the Seriality of Demands,” in New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, ed. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Anna Watkins Fisher with Thomas Keenan (New York: Routledge, 2015). [Return to text]
  3. Jodi Dean has nicely captured this tangle: “The ideal of the public materializes an economy of transnational telecommunications corporations, media conglomerates, computer hardware, software and infrastructure developers, and content (information and entertainment) providers. . . . Our deepest commitments—to inclusion, equality and participation within a public—[therefore] bind us to practices whereby we submit to global capital.” Jodi Dean, Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy. (Cornell University Press, 2002), 151. [Return to text]
  4. Richard Florida argued in his 2005 Atlantic Monthly article that the world is not flat but “spiky.” This is but one possible model for capturing what I am here suggesting is the need for a third dimension that would be able to account for the political economy of the network (as opposed to the two-dimensionality of mostrepresentations of the network). Richard Florida, “The World Is Spiky,” The Atlantic Monthly. October 2005. Accessed 16 September 2014. [Return to text]
  5. Astra Taylor, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. (Metropolitan Books, 2014). [Return to text]
  6. Much attention has been paid to the co-emergence of neoliberalism and digital networks over the last four decades. “Frictions within or barriers to this spatial movement take time to negotiate and slow down circulation,” David Harvey writes. “Throughout the history of capitalismmuch effort has therefore been put into reducing the friction of distance and barriers to movement.” David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. (Oxford University Press, 2010), 42. [Return to text]
  7. “Precarity” is a provisional term that U.S. academics have borrowed from the European and Latin American Left to describe a state of being made dependent on an unstable system. [Return to text]
  8. Andrew L. Russell, Open Standards and the Digital Age: History, Ideology, and Networks. (University of Cambridge Press, 2014), 1–2. [Return to text]
  9. Siva Vaidhyanathan, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry). (University of California Press, 2011), 1 (subsequent references cited parenthetically). [Return to text]
  10. Sterne, Jonathan, “What If Interactivity Is the New Passivity?” Flow TV. 9 April 2012. Accessed 1 March 2014. [Return to text]
  11. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics. (MITPress, 2008), 28 (subsequent references cited parenthetically). As Chun has shown, since its inception the subject of digital media—the “user”—has been framed through the tropes of addiction and dependency, from William Gibson’s treatment of cyberspace as a drug-addled hallucination in Neuromancer to the aura of sex crimes and porn addiction surrounding the personal computer to the “inseparable” prostheses of mobile media. I argue, however, that parasitism offers a more resonant paradigm for the user in a neoliberal digital economy. [Return to text]
  12. Kate Hafner and Matthew Lyon, Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. (Simon and Schuster, 1998), 144 (subsequent references cited parenthetically). [Return to text]
  13. “A host computer, or simply ‘host,’ is the ultimate consumer of communication services,” reads a blueprint of early ARPAnet “RFC” protocol entitled “Requirements for Internet Hosts,” which defines the Internet as a system of hosts. Alexander R. Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. (MIT Press, 2004), 38 (subsequent references cited parenthetically). [Return to text]
  14. Scott Keyes, “Walmart Holding Canned Food Drive for Its Own Underpaid Employees,” Think Progress. 18 November 2013. Accessed 27 November 2013 2013/11/18/2960371/walmar t-food-drive/. [Return to text]
  15. Allison Kilkenny, “Ohio Walmart Holds Food Drive for Its Own Employees,” The Nation. 18 November 2013. Accessed 27 November 2013. [Return to text]
  16. Adam Peck, “McDonald’s Advice to Underpaid Employees: Sell Your Christmas Presents for Cash,” Think Progress. 19 November 2013. Accessed 4 December 2013. [Return to text]
  17. Noam Chomsky, “The Death of American Universities,” Jacobin. 3 March 2014. Accessed 28 August 2014. [Return to text]
  18. The Rush Limbaugh Show, Radio show. 10 October 2011. [Return to text]
  19. bell hooks, Where We Stand: Class Matters. (Routledge, 2000), 45. [Return to text]
  20. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “Disney Donates ‘Welcome: Portraits of America’ Video to CBP Model Airport Project.” Accessed on 11 July 2014. [Return to text]
  21. Anne Carson, “Alienation,” Economy of the Unlost (Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan). (Princeton University Press, 1999), 10–28. [Return to text]
  22. Tracy McNulty, The Hostess: Hospitality, Femininity, and the Expropriation of Identity. (University of Minnesota Press, 2006). [Return to text]
  23. Michel Serres, The Parasite. (University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 22. [Return to text]
  24. See Anna Watkins Fisher, “Manic Impositions: The Parasitical Art of Chris Kraus and Sophie Calle,” WSQ (Women’s Studies Quarterly), Special Issue: Viral, guest edited by Patricia Ticiento Clough and Jasbir Puar. (The Feminist Press at CUNY, Spring/Summer 2012); and “We Are Parasites: On the Politics of Imposition,” Art-forum and e-flux journal’s Art & Education. (July 2011). [Return to text]
  25. Nathan M. Martin for the Carbon Defense League, “Parasitic Media: Creating Invisible Slicing Parasites and Other Forms of Tactical Augmentation.” 2003. Accessed 15 December 2010. [Return to text]
  26. Distilling the performative value of Serres’ parasite, Cary Wolfe writes: “[P]erhaps we will do more justice to the peculiarity and specificity of The Parasite . . . by understanding the ‘abuse’ of ‘abuse value’ not in the common pejorative sense of ‘mistreatment’ but rather in light of the Latin prefix ab– meaning, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, ‘off or away from’: ‘abuse’ value at a tangent to use and exchange value, at a distance from it: a different vector, a different type of value.” Cary Wolfe, “Introduction to the New Edition: Bring the Noise: The Parasite and the Multiple Genealogies of Posthumanism,” The Parasite. (University of Minnesota Press, 2007), xx. [Return to text]
  27. Serres writes: “The producer plays the contents, the parasite, the position. The one who plays the position will always beat the one who plays the contents. The latter is simple and naïve; the former is complex and mediatized. . . . To play the position or to play the location is to dominate the relation.” Serres 2007, 38. [Return to text]
  28. Hans Bernhard and Lizvlx (, featuring Alessandro Ludovico and Paolo Cirio, “Hack the Google self.referentialism: Google Will Eat Itself,” press release. 18 December 2005. Accessed 24 August 2014. [Return to text]
  29. Lori Andrews, “Facebook Is Using You,” New York Times. 4 February 2012. Accessed 5 February 2012. [Return to text]