[iDC] Introduction: Social media & Stakhanovites

Elliot Vredenburg elliot.vredenburg at gmail.com
Sun Jun 15 19:38:21 UTC 2014

Dear co-conspirators,

Please excuse the untimeliness of this introductory email—it only occurred
to me today to check and make sure I wasn't missing any deadlines.
Thankfully, I believe I'm squeaking in at the last moment.

I'm currently an MA candidate in Aesthetics & Politics (A&P) at the
California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), in Los Angeles. In Toronto,
where I'm from, I was trained as a graphic designer at the Ontario College
of Art & Design University (OCADU) *[sic]*, and have considerable
experience working in the online advertising world. My current work began
as an investigation of the practices common in advertising I found
ethically contentious—namely the use of commercial data collection for
targeted marketing—but has since expanded into a broader consideration of
data surveillance for both commercial and governmental purposes.

Though my thesis work is largely oscillating around developing suitable
metaphors for critically investigating the contemporary surveillance
apparatus, the project I will be presenting at Digital Labor 2014 is a bit

When visiting friends working in the tech industry in San Francisco this
past December, I was surprised to find a preponderance of Soviet imagery in
bars, cafés, and apartments. Though this initial observation was admittedly
superficial, I realized later that there may actually be helpful
comparisons to be made between labour practices in both Soviet Russia and
today's social web. The figure of the Stakhanovite—the heroic Taylorist
labourer; the New Soviet Man—is eerily akin to the ideal algorithmic search
subject, in their encouragement of over-achievement and efficiency in the
interests of the collective.

Of course, I'm not equating living conditions in the Soviet Union under
Stalin to the rampant narcissus of contemporary social networks, but some
parallels are too pronounced to deny. The exploitation of farm labourers of
the Soviet Union can be easily compared to their contemporary
equivalent: digital
farmworkers are paid for their bare humanity, per thousand clicks of the
“like” button. Just as the valuation of symbols of achievement over actual
achievement in the Soviet Union (the White Sea Canal project, for example)
led to the use of forced labour to realize Stalin’s inflated aspirations,
positive affirmation in the social media economy has generated exploitative
labour practices, in the fields of the digital labour-farms that are
proliferating in developing countries (often those of the former Soviet

Through this lens, I will be narrativizing both of these scenes, and my
paper, tentatively titled "Steps Towards Social Media Surrealism," suggests
that the “zones of indistinguishability” sought by Soviet “unofficial
artists,” present ways of looking at online marketing that can highlight
the shortcomings of traditional modes of protest (“you can’t shame the
shameless”—thanks Finn Brunton), and overexpose the financialized attention
economies that underlie the social web.

In the months leading up to the conference, I'm excited to get to know
everyone through their digital facsimiles—I can be found on FB as "Every
Day Burger," on Twitter as @vredenburger, and my research blog can be found
at blog.elliotvredenburg.com.

I think that about covers it. See you in November!

In cahoots,
Elliot Vredenburg

Elliot Vredenburg
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