I’ve been thinking a bit recently about the relationship between form and content. Is the triumph of extrinsic design elements over intrinsic creative ones — the kind of thing Brendan Vance describes in ‘The Cult of the Peacock‘ — something like the triumph of the quantitative (Marx’s ‘exchange value’, or market value) over the qualitative (‘use-value’ or intrinsic value)?
Exchange value could arise only as an agent of use value, but its victory by means of its own weapons created the conditions for its autonomous domination. Mobilizing all human use and establishing a monopoly over its satisfaction, exchange value has ended up by directing use. The process of exchange became identified with all possible use and reduced use to the mercy of exchange. Exchange value is the condottiere of use value who ends up waging the war for himself.
In a sense, then, trends in design, UX and what-have-you are just business as usual, the obverse whose reverse is ‘metrics’. What interests me is the way in which this all mirrors the obfuscation of politics under the contemporary capitalism of developed countries. In place of moral or ideological intent, there must only be preferences. In the same way that the prescribed neoliberal polity is content-free, a ‘neutral’ set of laws which can (in theory) tolerate disparate life preferences, the content of a product is whatever is behind the design, something on which we are to remain agnostic, except to the extent that it mirrors our personal pathologies. Do you like games about stealth, adventure and murder? You’ll love this game about stealth, adventure and murder that offers a superb interface for murdering, adventuring and stealthing!
Indeed, one of the striking things about The Hashtag That Must Not Be Named has been the way its warriors insist that they are being oppressed by the intrusion of universal values into the content of their preferred commodities. Like so many miniature Lyotards, reactionary culture warriors present Anita Sarkeesian’s (rather mild) criticism of the ideological content of videogames as a tyrannical, homogenising form of colonisation. (check some of the comments on this blog if you don’t believe me)
I don’t think it’s enough to accuse the poor dears of being clueless or disingenuous, though some doubtless are. Anatole France’s old quip about the law forbidding rich and poor alike from stealing firewood and sleeping under bridges still holds true — liberal equality before the law never was or is neutral, and hypocrisy is nothing new. Instead, I think hashtag was a manifestation of (neo)liberal ideology. To even cast judgment (in an impersonal sense) on someone else’s preferred entertainment (so long as it doesn’t break the law) is an infringement upon the neoliberal conception of a content-free society. Content is to be arbitrated by individuals via the market, not the tyranny of politics and collective action.
This approach has the added bonus (for capitalists and their ideologues) of switching emphasis away from production and toward consumption. Whenever someone criticises human trafficking and other forms of abuse and coercion in the pornography industry, the kneejerk response from many commentators will be ‘censorship!’ Untrammeled access to entertainment must take precedence over the consideration of human life.
When it comes to videogames, one could speak of the long, long hours and bad working conditions in many game studios, or the relationship between game developers and the US military, or, yes, the Frankenstein’s monster of conservative tropes that passes for content throughout the industry. But to do so would be to introduce politics, and thus to oppress and exclude. Better to discuss mechanics and technology.