review

Towards an avant-garde of the commons

Reviewing Geert Lovink’s Sad By Design

Last year, the creator of the retweet – Chris Wetherell – told news channel Buzzfeed that designing the retweet was a design failure. He compared his effort with handing over a loaded weapon to a four-year-old. Could he have thought through all of the consequences of his design work? Certainly not, but most designers do not usually think enough about the long-term implications of their work. Internet professor Geert Lovink has been campaigning for more inter-disciplinarity in design education for years. As Professor of Interactive Media at the University of Applied Science Amsterdam (HvA), his Institute of Network Cultures endeavours to provide the practical attitude and tools for a much-needed reflection. Although parts of the HvA, like for example Digital Society School, are quite successful in incorporating the ‘message of design’ into their courses, there is still a lot of work to be done. Design education, in general, has a job to do when it comes to being more focussed on responsible design.

According to Lovink, design and media practices need more critical perspectives. He has been writing books about that for years, but mostly reaches other critical thinkers that agree with his points of view. His Institute of Network Cultures is trying to bridge the gap between critical thinking and doing, by engaging in all kinds of exciting projects on the brink of theory, art and practice.

Sad by Design is his sixth book in a series on internet culture. Lovink knows how to influence once mood. Halfway through the book, the belief in a positive future for the internet has dropped to zero. Lovink quotes so many sources that it makes you dizzy. He uses ideas by Andrew Keen, Jarett Kobek, Cathy O’Neil and Evgeny Morozov, among others, to paint a dark picture of the effects that algorithms, social media and echo chambers have on us.

Each chapter, he examines a different topic. For example, about sadness as an essential part of social media. We click, swipe and scroll through an endless stream of messages and we don’t get any happier. Still, we want to continue. Lovink calls this phenomenon platform nihilism. Social media are deliberately designed that way. Designed to make us sad. It doesn’t get any worse. Not even in this book. When confidence in a good outcome has vanished, Lovink takes the reader by the hand and shows an alternative future. In the last chapter, this culminates in a fair argument for a network of avant-garde commons.

Lovink maps out some promising alternatives in advance. In the chapter on platforms, he unites the ideas of Benjamin Bratton (the stack) and Bernard Stiegler as a different way to approach platforms. A strong alternative to the solution that Nick Srnicek proposes in his Platform Capitalism (2016), which mainly builds on the already existing platforms. Lovink, one of the founders of critical and activist internet culture in Amsterdam, does not believe in a future that is shaped top-down by companies or governments. His ideal internet is organized and maintained by autonomous individuals, leading to a place where everyone feels at home, including discussions and disagreements.

To prevent encapsulation, Lovink only sees opportunities for an invisible avant-garde that builds its own autonomous networks and connects them together. The continuously changing networks that are created in this way will ultimately take over control of governments and companies: a kind of avant-garde of the commons. However, Lovink warns that these attempts should not lead to works of art and discussions, but actually to new practices. In short, the internet has to be redesigned by critical designers that understand and the long-term effects of their design decisions. Sad by Design is compulsory literature for every designer and design course.

Sad by Design: On Platform Nihilism (2019) by Geert Lovink is published by Pluto Press.