The hype machine
By: Tommaso Guariento
Hype governs art, financial markets, reputational economics, digital platforms. Is it a simple exasperation of late capitalism, or the announcement of a much more serious phenomenon?
In Cesare Ripa’s Iconology there are two personifications of "reputation": under the heading "fame" we find a young woman dressed in a succinct way, portrayed while moving precipitously; with wings and a body studded with eyes, mouths and ears, in her right hand she holds a golden trumpet. On the other hand, under the heading "glory", the girl is wearing a golden crown, also with a trumpet in her hand, "an indication of the prize that every famous man deserves." The symbolism of the reputation synthesized by Ripa selects iconographic elements taken from Virgil and Ovid, and indicates the confidence in a future survival of the reputation of emperors and nobles (and also of the poets themselves, who glorify in their poetry the mythical and historical deeds of Rome). It is therefore understood that glory is a promise and a hope: today we affirm what we would like to be reminded of us in the future.
A much less pompous and definitely more venal version of glory is the hype, an American slang term that in the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century indicated a scam, or a surge in prices, or a story with exaggerated features, while in the 1950s it became a synonym for exaggerated publicity.
I take these definitions from the second “room” of the online exhibition of the collective Clusterduck, called Hype and Fame, which collects some works that ponder upon the relationship between Internet culture, the reputational economy and the attractiveness of digital capitalism. In the introduction to the exhibition it is stated that hype is no longer a secondary product of capitalism, but has become its specific difference, governing the art system as much as financial markets and digital platforms. The hype mechanism would be so ingrained that it would be difficult to decrypt the differences between ideologies and subcultures or between inclusion and exclusion. The following will therefore be a theoretical-political analysis of this thesis, developed by Clusterduck in the artistic field; personally it is also a continuation of an analysis of the contemporary function of the concept of "hyperstitions" that I have begun some time ago on Prismo.
Starting from the last definition of hype, that of "excessive publicity", one cannot but refer to the concept of aura, of which Leon Daudet speaks in Melancholia (1928), indicating with this term an atmospheric manifestation of the psychic state. The term aura is also used by Jean-Martin Charcot, the psychologist who was mentor of Freud at the Salpêtriére in Paris. In this case the aura was the atmospheric alteration that preceded a hysterical attack. Finally, as is known, the aura indicates for Walter Benjamin that uniqueness and unapproachability that was typical of the work of art before the invention of serialization techniques. Of course, Benjamin asserts, the instruments of reproduction (lithography, photography, phonograph, cinema) would have made possible the revolutionary chance to create a truly proletarian collective work, a work that was not religious, initiatic, bourgeois, fascist. Yet, phenomena such as the star system attest the impermeability of American cinema to the Bolshevik spirit: the crystallization of the aura around a single person is, in fact, a reactionary symptom. The other aspect that Benjamin notes with interest is that the viewer's participation in the haptic image of cinema destroys the free wandering of thoughts in associative chains and, as it were, allows «thoughts [to be] replaced by moving images». The "artificial aura" of the star and the «distraction» of the viewer captured by shockwaves identified by Benjamin in the mid-thirties now take on a prophetic meaning.
In the early years of 2000, with an accelerated pace in the last ten years, the capitalism of the platforms has been modulated in a stack composed of various levels, all linked by a common reference to the hype.
PornHub, YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, JustEat, Steam, Instagram, PageRank and the Facebook Newsfeed are devices for capturing and governing the economy of attention and emotions. In Psychopolitik: Neoliberalismus und die neuen Machttechniken, the Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han spoke about the destruction of freedom and subjectivity: «Neoliberal psychopolitics is the technique of domination which, through programming and psychological control, stabilizes and perpetuates the dominant system». If we replace the names of the platforms with those of the dispositions to which they refer, we will have: libido, sociality, imagination, nutrition, sleep, personal pride, curiosity. Hype is then duplicated in reputation and attention economy.
About reputation economy, the sociologist Gloria Origgi diagnoses the emergence of a homo comparativus, a secularized substitute for the homo hierarchicus of premodern societies. The fact that work and communication relationships between people are mediated by networks that they do not own, has significant economic-political consequences. In a reputation economy, people and goods are embedded in mechanisms of comparison and competition. The phenomenon is not foreign to anthropologists who have studied the effectiveness of gossiping practices, but the fundamental data concerning late-capitalist societies is that fame becomes the object of a complex management system which includes not just objective information, but also opinion chains, rumors, statistical indices, variable rankings, market fluctuations: «Value is not in things or in people themselves [...] value is created in the relationship between people or things, it is the autonomous product of comparative exchange and has no other purpose».
The sociology of reputations allows us to evaluate the kind of fame that can be obtained. In Capitalisme et Djihadisme, the French philosopher Michel Surya spoke of a dialectical relationship between asceticism and narcissism in the current Islamic terrorism. The most interesting aspect of this reasoning is the fact that the hype in this case is tripled: it is at the same time linked to the visibility, the apocalypse and the “economy of the promise”. As Bifo Berardi states in Heroes: «Crime is an amplifier and a consolidator of fame. Only if you do something really gruesome will your narcissism find a lasting confirmation». However, as we were saying, hype also means prophecy, a promise to realize a wonderful future. In the same text Bifo alludes to the apocalyptic matrix of the Islamic State propaganda. Of course, we should not think that all terrorists believe in the return of the Hidden Imam, or that they are convinced of living in an eschatological time - the sociology of radicalization teaches that social and psychological causes are more often leading to a conversion.
As in a seventeenth-century allegory, fame and death are combined in an economy of the visible, governed by the pursuit of glory, regardless of any moralistic limitation. The American youtuber Logan Paul posted a video in December 31, 2017 showing the body of a suicidal. The global rejection of his gesture led him first to cancel the video, then to apologize publicly, and finally to spread a video interview with a suicide prevention association. This is a case of complication of the fame complex: the "creators" of YouTube earn in proportion to the number of views, and to retain their spectators, they are induced to create content that can engage and amaze them continuously. The videos of this young American prankster have two disturbing characteristics: first of all, they are repeatedly interrupted by short advertisements of self-produced clothing and accessories; secondly, they are aimed at a very young audience.
These are more or less the same characteristics of the Italian trap music group Dark Polo Gang’s Instagram stories: a very young and somehow childish audience, a concatenation of divism and fetishism of goods, invention of a common lexicon, an exasperated loyalty to the "imaginary communities" of followers. In a certain sense, the presence of human figures in these videos is purely optional. This is demonstrated by the fact that it is possible to think of an inhuman and hyper-additive automation of viral contents aimed at a very young audience, as James Bridle has shown in his article Something is wrong with the internet. We are talking about content broadcasted on a variety of YouTube channels. Short videos for kids, created by algorithms that mix the most searched words and beloved cartoon characters and deliver them to an engine that can automatically build countless versions of narrative patterns with a cheesy and rudimental motion graphic design. Or we can think of ASMR videos, which aim to induce a sense of relaxation and well-being in their audience through subtle whispering of the speaker or the visual and sonorous representation of semi-fluid substances moving slowly. Also in this case we are dealing with addictive contents that generate an effect of infantilization and dependence on spectators and viewers.
But let’s get back to the reputation economy: evidently the dark hype mechanics not only involve terrorists and influencers, but innervate the whole labor market.
When Silvio Lorusso discusses on Not about crowdfunding related to the financing of medical care, he is talking about a transition from a welfare-oriented economy to a hype-oriented economy. To start an entrepreneurial activity, to finance studies and receive health care, the creation of inflationary micro-bubbles is required: a sort of self-speculation aimed at brandishing any element of life (work and recreation).
At the same time, post-workerists research on the contemporary labor market identifies in the economy of the promise one of the most effective strategies to govern the economic-social abyss triggered by the economic crisis.
Federico Chicchi, Emanuele Leonardi and Stefano Lucarelli affirmed in a review of Francesca Coin's “Salari Rubati”: «This form of self-financing already involves a participation in the expected financial gains from workers who do not perceive themselves as salaried workers, but as business partners: it is here that the rhetoric of human capital and of the self-made entrepreneur begin to take hold. To this, a form of non-monetary remuneration is added that still seems able to satisfy a part of the demand necessary to absorb what the capitalist system produces. It’s what in Logics of exploitation we represented as a symbolic value that is not monetizable in the immediate, but imaginable as an opportunity for future gain. It seems to us that the expression "economy of the promise", used by Marco Bascetta in Salari Rubati, goes in this direction».
The hype machine functions as a temporal condenser and as a gestalt: it flattens the unpredictable potentialities inscribed in the present and prevents their future development. Precisely for this reason the hype is a secularized form of divination, a chronocracy; or rather, an attempt to cover up the uncertainty of events and to enclose the emergency of the future. Time ago Nick Land had already defined the financial markets in hyperstional terms, highlighting the positive feedback dynamics underway in speculation on the future. It is interesting to note that a text on the reputational economy like that of Origgi mentions the famous tulip bubble of the seventeenth century: what produced the collective hysteria that in a few years increased the price of tulip bulbs, up to the point when it corresponded to the annual income of a wealthy family, multiplied tenfold?
The sociologist Elena Esposito talks about second-degree observations: meaning not empirical estimates of a commodity, but calculations on the evaluations imagined by other operators in the market. The hyperstitionality of financial markets is based on a vicious circle that collapses the forecast models on the observed phenomena: in order to avoid the risk of future unforeseen events, we try to pilot the imaginaries that announce their unfolding. “This circularity is the blind spot of finance and its logic, as shown by the crisis triggered by structured finance: financial models can predict all possible future courses of the markets, except the future of finance led by models—which is the only future that later actually comes about.”
There is something disturbing about the ubiquity of the hype economy: a vast anthropological mutation of the species homo towards a collective cyber-organism with decidedly inhuman characteristics. The processes of automatization of viral content broadcasting mentioned above could be defined, in benjaminian terms, "algorithmic reproducibility of the hype". Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, has been engaged for years in a campaign to raise the awareness on the deleterious effects that an illiterate use of digital technologies and social networks involves. Design choices such as infinite scrolling or video autoplay turn our devices into miniaturized slot machines, which take advantage of a sophisticated algorithmic calculation of intermittent and un-interrupted rewards whose goal is simply to increase the usage time of a platform. Through Big Data it is possible to generate an increasingly refined taxonomy of individual desires (for example, the PornHub tag grid). Similarly, to the ludopath, mesmerized by the luminous rolling of his slot, millions of users are hooked to an endlessly rotating cylinder, which contains exactly the contents that have been packaged to capture their attention.
Evidently this behavior has deleterious effects, measurable according to psychological tests that evaluate mnemonic retention, distraction or, simply, emotional tonality. The same could be said for the indiscriminate prescription of antidepressant drugs, the ludification and the tinderization of relationships. Layer over layer, the hype-capitalism stack is assembled as a set of roots conveyed towards a single trunk. If we therefore mean hype in the sense of the conjunction of reputational economics and generalized addictiveness, we can also note that starting from a single socioeconomic macro-system, compensatory micro-connections are unraveled.
The psychological discomfort produced by the economy of promise, born as a compensatory device for the economic crisis generated by financial speculation, is lightened or masked by the escapism exemplified by gamification and the narco-capitalism of the pharmaceutical industry that produces antidepressants.
The occult interpretation of these technosocial mutations comes (as was to be expected) from the neoreactionary galaxy, in the form of Roko's basilisk: an apocalyptic story that those familiar with Nick Land’s boutades will have no difficulty in recognizing. Initially spreading on the LessWrong discussion platform, the story imagines that a hypothetical future artificial superintelligence, having access to all information of our present age, would be able to punish and reward those who contributed or hindered its realization. A classic "nickland", in other words. And, of course, there are those who didn’t take it very well, terrified by the idea that the mere existence of such discussions on the moral nature of the future A.I. would have compromised their future cybernetic bliss, since, from the future, the Singularity could have read those posts. Finding these bizarre statements in a blog dedicated to the deepening of scientific and rational discourse covers this story with a veil of paranoia and conspiracy. And this brings us back to the theological-political component of the hype in its purest form, namely that of the apocalyptic discourse.
According to the conceptual historian Reinhardt Koselleck (one of the key authors for Hartmut Rosa), the eschatology of the first centuries of the Christian era has survived in a secularized way in the idea of the contraction of times caused by the perception of technological progress between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries : «The shortening of time, which previously posed an early end to history coming from the outside, now becomes an acceleration that is recorded in history itself and that is accessible to men. The novelty consists in the fact that it is not the “end of history” that arrives more quickly, but the current progress that, commensurate to the slow progress of the previous centuries, is occurring at an increasingly intense pace.
To conclude: the hype machine generates three vicious circles that, in each of their spires, relate the two polarities of the same problem. The first is the relationship between inclusion and exclusion in the hype economy: once its ubiquity is understood, does it make sense to oppose it? The second concerns the dialectic of hyperstition: if in the present I conjure for my future success, how can I be sure that the future of my desire and the unforeseen coincide? The third, finally, is an anthropological deepening of the first: having attested that there are psychological, economic and technological phenomena governed by the hype, how can I be sure that this hypothesis is not another hyperstition?
Tommaso Guariento was born in Padua in 1985. He holds a doctorate in Cultural Studies at the University of Palermo. He lives between Padua and Paris. He collaborated with Effimera and Il Lavoro culturale. He is interested in images, anthropology and political philosophy.
Clusterduck is an interdisciplinary collective working at the crossroads of research, art, networking, design and filmmaking, focusing on the processes and actors behind the creation of Internet related content.
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