With Incredible Machines, the Iranian-born, Canadian curator Mohammad Salemy produced what I believe was the first international conference conducted almost entirely through social media platforms. Although the conference took place in Vancouver most of the participants (including myself) took part via Google+, and much of the audience streamed the event live via YouTube. Salemy organized the conference to reflect upon the impact of digital technologies and ‘machine intelligence’ in the realms of art and politics, topics engaged by an interdisciplinary ‘gathering’ of artists, curators, media- and political-theorists, philosophers and others. Hence, the conference sought to engage digital technologies not simply as an object of discussion but the medium through which such discussions would be staged, in a perverse materialization of a McLuhanian soundbite replete with the expected communication breakdowns and technical failures. The contradictions involved in using a single corporate social media platform to host serious reflections on the current aesthetic and political impacts of digital technologies, and speculation on their future development, were of course not lost on Salemy or other participants who discussed this during the conference (although little attention was given to the host institution, the University of British Columbia as a state platform – the university being a politically important ‘technology’ in its own right). The conference was not only host to a number of interesting speakers but experimented with the format and medium of the conference in ways that others can be expected to follow in future, although perhaps in more streamlined fashion as technologies develop and affective resistance to online communication declines (although I’d bet Google will still be in the room).
“Tinder is how people meet. It’s like real life, but better.”
Its everywhere evident that digital communication technologies are shaping how individuals see and present themselves and the forms of relationships they establish with each other. Of course sexual relations have hardly been exempt and social media platforms are playing a leading role in shaping new conceptions of romantic and sexual relationships. The degree to which these changes might be considered to have facilitated new freedoms – for example, the emergence of new sexual identities and new sexual practices – should not be exaggerated, especially in light of the ways that the mainstreaming of porn has increasingly normalised certain images, body types and behaviours, in many instances tightening the grip that gendered conceptions of power relations have on the minds of many. However, the manner in which sexual relations are being reworked by social media is perhaps most evident in the mundane world of online dating and hook-up apps like Grindr and Tinder. These apps have thrived with the spread of smart phones and the gradual withering of the stigma against relationships formed online. For the moment at least it seems like Tinder is dominant in the UK, although its not quite clear if it has struck on the winning formula that Grindr had established before it. Tinder – its name evoking a hetero, and supposedly more tender (?), version of Grinder – seems unsure if its for fielding dates or just getting laid (although, of course the dirty secret of Grindr is that its not all about the latter, as many imagine, but has in fact been instrumental in establishing many long-term relationships). In the short term this ambiguity is likely an asset even if it might mean a lot of people getting dick pics instead of dinner invitations, but in the long run it might go the way of Friendster, replaced with a more effective competitor or a more diverse market catering to more discerning users. Its unclear what effects, if any, might result from the fact that many people now spend every spare minute swiping through potential suitors like the pages of the Argos catalogue, a process that seems as likely to dull the senses as excite desire. It would of course be all too easy to see Tinder, Grindr and similar apps as pushing the tentacles of neoliberal subjectification into more intimate frontiers (others as commodities; the breakdown of older social and affective relationships, etc), and this is doubtless one element at play. However, they also have the potential to liberate many from the constraints of established social networks, localized mores and having to awkwardly clear the usual, initial hurdles of ‘being normal’, as limited as this freedom may be and as unsuited to the temperament or situation of all. Conservative voices have been quick to see in these platforms the death of romance, the death of seduction, the death of sex, the death of good old, well rounded social relations – but one size does not fit all and not everyone finds their sense of self confirmed (nevermind partners) through principled alienation, or the traditional paths of water cooler courtship or drunkenly snogging some friend’s ex on the dancefloor. It’s probably even better than real life for some.