Vladan Joler, New extractivism, (segment) 2020.


The narrative of the individual is one of the most significant products of the Cartesian world model. In such a narrative cognitive capacities are exclusively linked to mental thought processes, isolated from the body, society and the space of participatory knowing. But the moment we decenter the narrative space of the individual user from the Cartesian epistemological postulates of humanism into the corporeal realm, such narratives lose their power. The user is therefore neither an individual nor a dividual , but an entire dynamic agentic assemblage in practice. Correspondingly, processes of user interaction and decision-making are not only rational, but deeply affective and relational.

Extractivism as -ism

Among the key words we ingest on a daily basis few describe the conditions of knowledge, experience and cultural production in today’s global neoliberal context as thoroughly as the notion of extractivism. Whether consciously or unconsciously, targeted or incidental, the pulse of extractivism echoes around the world as one of the spirits of our times, ominous, persistent, many would even say unscrupulous. This concept, primarily used to explain the practices of exploitation and depletion of natural resources specifically in South America, has expanded its application as a symbol of large monopolistic multinational corporation value systems which make the contemporary market-oriented world go round. As an example of its use, in 2022 the organization Berliner Gazzette held its annual conference on the most important contemporary global issues of the day focusing on this term with the title “After Extractivism”[1]. We also see this notion in the title of Vladan Joler’s recent exhibition “New Extractivism”, which toured many venues across Europe, starting with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Vojvodina in Novi Sad, Serbia and AKSIOMA in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The source of extraction in his project are not natural resources, but another type of valuables which sustain the engine of the attention economy – behavioral, personalized data, otherwise known as “the new fuel of today”. Already with these few examples it is apparent that contemporary extractivism blends the space of natural resources and that of human personal experience into a unified, inexhaustible source of raw material for the neoliberal market. Following this logic is crucial for addressing the question of what is actually ‘new’ in this new form of extractivism.

One of the assumptions that this text puts forward as a thought experiment is the idea that extractivism as a principle provides tools for a more precise understanding of contemporary global capitalism through its key material practices. In a time of saturated vocabularies inflating language, overused phrases become practically devoid of their meaning with each new use. Rather than using words such as capitalism, the following lines consider how the concept of extractivism can provide tools for a more accurate understanding of contemporary global capitalism through honing in on its key material practices. Considering that “New Extractivism” deals with scaling at the level of perception through fractal assemblage structures, this text will try to approach the concept of extractivism in a fractal manner. In order to do so, it will explore the conceptual framework of the agentic assemblage[2] and its different mutually complementary dimensions in contemporary society.

The effort to paint a complete media ecology of contemporary extractivism is an unthankful task because traps of intertwined simultaneous and non-causal phenomena are lurking at every step of technoculture. Unsurprisingly, it comes easy to see contemporary phenomena as opaque hyperobjects when almost anything in the 21st century can act like one. The new materialist posthumanist school of thought offers the concept of agentic assemblage[3] for approaching complex phenomena as those we see in “New Extractivism”. What characterizes this concept is that it is grounded in the materiality of processes and actors, their multiplicity, embodied subjectivity and connectedness. Within this text, the integral parts of today’s affective extraction within algorithmic ecosystems will be explored through the material underpinnings of its agentic assemblage.

Extraction as Material Expansion

Although crucial for the context of late neoliberalism, the logic of extraction extends beyond a purely economic and political one. This logic combines the legacy of humanism, its instruments of colonization and the Cartesian conception of the world as precursors upon which the global neoliberal economy stands firm. Although a relatively young term, it relies on the long-standing and historically well-known paradigm of colonization, which extends further into new territorial dimensions of immaterial labor, affect, and other intimate layers of human experience. As such, it carries all the features of territorializing through confiscation, theft and force. Looking back into history, what were the Crusades other than a territorial and affective form of extractivism?

Considering that the type of extractivism we are currently interested in belongs to late neoliberalism, we want to look into the characteristics particular to this context. As the next stage of the mechanization, standardization and automation assembly line, extractivism optimizes and accelerates these processes. One of its differentiating specifics is that crucial processes of extraction remain invisible until they cross the horizon of acceptability. Such is the case of Agbogbloshie in Ghana, where consequences of the global market have been disproportionately accumulating through material toxic residue, becoming a contemporary life dystopia. This example is a clear geopolitical indicator of the discrepancy between the scale of globalized harmful extraction versus how localized and displaced its consequences are. The location of this e-waste dump is by no accident in Africa. Slave trade and extractive colonization of the African continent still present the economic pillar of several Western countries where capital is increasingly being reconfigured from national into multinational conglomerates. The project of colonization and especially the transatlantic slave trade also laid the economic and social foundations for today’s market driven instrumentalization of life. We can quickly see how such a utilitarian legacy in effect translates to policies of data regulation through data colonialism.

Agbogbloshie, Ghana, Source: Wikipedia

Extraction as Action. Drilling, Separation, Suction of Resources

When we hear the word extraction, we may imagine a structure similar to an oil refinery. In other words, in order to extract, we visualize a mechanism which distills resources from their organic environment into profitable aggregates. Thus “New Extractivism” provides tools to interpret the mechanism of behavioral extraction. In it we see a conversation between mass scale elements that could function as hyperobjects and elements that seem like they represent the everyday user experience of interacting with modern algorithmic interfaces. This conversation serves to identify the resources across both registers that are extracted and transformed.

In his assemblage Joler is mapping the connection between infrastructural, economic and experiential resources. This connection makes evident that the same economic logic which brings about the issue of conflict minerals also incentivizes culture wars within the attention economy. Translated to our daily life, we can often hear the phrase that if we are not paying for a service with money, we are paying with something else, that is the digital footprints we leave through personal behavioral data. Based on an extractivist model, this transaction process functions through buying attention and stealing intimate experiences in order to create a behavioral surplus. This space which Zuboff[4] calls the market of behavioral futures systematizes our experiences in order to offer a model of our selves to ourselves, shaping and mobilizing user behavior [5]. The paradigm of extractivism has therefore discovered new frontiers within people’s intimate landscapes which have shown to be eternally self-renewing resources in an age when it has become quite obvious that a system relying on expendable resources is doomed to collapse. So we see that the new extractivism paradigm adapted its locus and method from its old counterpart, but the logic of the system remains the same.

Extraction as Loss of (Embodied) Context

Back in 1950 in his book “The Human Use of Human Beings”, Norbert Wiener described a scenario in which a device learns from human behavior and constantly adapts to it. Positioning the story as science fiction he warned the reader that such a system would have cataclysmic consequences for humanity if it ever were to become reality and go in the wrong direction. He clearly saw that direction as an ‘inhuman use of human beings’, in which roles in society would be inevitably fixed without the possibility of choice. Expanding on his concerns, Wiener criticized the computational approach of instrumentalizing and modeling according to principles of probability. Seventy years later and “New Extractivism” is showing us Wiener’s depiction of science fiction as an analysis of the present. But how did users end up in everyday Skinner boxes as lab specimens in the first place?

Machine learning functions on an extractivist logic based on principles of probability. But machine learning alone is not enough to create laboratory conditions as effective as we see in “New Extractivism”. Behavioral science , developed from the principles of behavioral economy , is what plays the key role here.[6] This image fits right into the postulates of user experience design, where the user is studied and classified as a templated persona, an individual and a dividual [7]. User experience design grew out of the academic realm of HCI (Human Computer Interaction), which is an interdisciplinary bridge between computer, cognitive and behavioral science. Already the early years of the field show a clear tendency toward creating ‘user personas’ which are analytical models that target the needs and predict the behavior of potential user types.

User personas quickly became and still are the basis upon which entire interfaces are designed and developed. Behavioral design abstracts people’s actual behaviors and steals experiences, as personal interactions become part of further interaction pattern generators. The extraction method thus becomes one which depends on mental and emotional attention. In the dense competitive market of digital services, such a system requires overpowering rivals in designing services to which users will react as much as possible. Paradoxically, although oriented toward intangible resources, extraction based on behavioral science is always materialized in a physiological sense. In order to be competitive, user experience interaction patterns within the attention economy are explicitly designed to trigger attention mechanisms in the oldest unconscious part of the brain. Often called reptilian , this segment of the brain is responsible for reacting in a state of danger, which is also when it becomes more sensitive to dopamine processing. In return, dopamine is one of the key neurotransmitters that makes endless scrolling, quantifying likes and anger engagement addictive.

The very term “user” indicates an obvious distancing in terms of ownership regarding technology; in other words technology is “given for use to the user”[8] . Observed from the perspective of design, its meaning carries a dose of dehumanization for the sake of pragmatism. On the other hand, today’s technology is highly personalized for each particular user, responding in real time to their concrete current needs. The concept of the individual is crucial for the history of personal computers to picture how the dominant narrative of interaction design shifted from the position of the programmer to the position of the user [9], and how the computer shifted from the general, impersonal to the ultrapersonal.

The question of the personal and the individual relates to Shoshana Zuboff’s writing on the semantics of the individual in neoliberal times. In her book “Surveillance Capitalism” she points out that individualization is the key product of what she calls the second period of modernization. She distinguishes individualization from individuation, the process of personal becoming and independence, as well as from individualism, the neoliberal concept of transferring responsibility to the individual isolated from society. Although different, all these terms play a role in enabling the idea of an extracted user persona as an individual. Zuboff points out that the concept of the individual as the tailor of their own destiny is the protagonist of our age .[10]. Individualization sees making one’s own decisions as a right but also an obligation, while extractivism generates its profit on this same postulate. It is precisely individual originality and autonomy that feed the extractivist model, creating a feedback system of behavioral training in return, gradually but constantly, similar to the boiled frog syndrome.

The narrative of the individual is one of the most significant products of the Cartesian world model. In such a narrative one’s capacities are exclusively linked to mental thought processes, isolated from the body, society and the space of participatory knowing. But the moment we decenter the narrative space of the individual user from Cartesian epistemological postulates of humanism into the corporeal realm, such narratives lose their power. This is where the concept of agentic assemblage[11] can prove significant, as it sees the source of both cognition and social processes to be distributed among human and more-than-human agents. The user is therefore neither an individual nor a dividual ,[12] but an entire dynamic agentic assemblage in practice. Correspondingly, processes of user interaction and decision making are not only rational, but deeply affective and relational. The work of Jennifer Lyn Morone “Jennifer Lyn Morone Inc” deals with this complex delineation of agency, in which the author turns all of her quantifiable bodily resources into a corporation which she also somewhat manages, to the extent that it is possible .[13].

Jennifer Lyn Morone Inc (2014–2018), https://jenniferlynmorone.com/

Data Visualization and the Paradigm of Extraction

Vladan Joler’s work belongs to the field of critical making, which largely grew out of the legacy of hacker practices in the seventies and eighties, and later net art of the 2000s in Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Germany, England, and Slovenia, most notably. Within this field, design is an autonomous critical practice, which has the means to address power relations. In Joler’s work elements such as maps and icons serve to trace the extractive machinery for processing human generated data . Observing “New Extractivism” through a critical new materialist prism, we can ask what does such an abstract setting bring, versus what does it remove and erase?

The politics of representation have acquired a new axis of discursive weight in the 21st century, and that axis is the politics of data, analyzed by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein in their book “Data Feminism”[14] . Data visualization is a method which corresponds to this axis through the desire to map terms and geometric patterns that translate the complexity of the world into analytical relations, i.e. to the brain’s need to connect with cause-and-effect models. Psychologist and sociologist Brené Brown claims that creating stories is one of the basic mechanisms in obtaining a sense of security, and that this need only increases when in a state of chronic insecurity . It therefore makes good sense that visualizing complex phenomena through recognizable models calms overburdened disoriented cognitive systems, but it also brings new concerns to the table. One of the main issues we face in such an approach stems from believing in the map as an objective medium of representation. Each effort to document, structure and display reality represents a particular perspective stemming from a position of access and subsequently, angle of view. As a result, no matter how much one seeks to deliver a truly objective depiction, it can only ever be partial. The second related issue is that each specific perspective requires reducing and curating elements in order to convey said perspective.

How can we see these risks playing out in the example of “New Extractivism”?

One of the immediate apparent dangers within its visual assemblage is the ease with which the viewer can read the narrative through a techno-deterministic lens, understood as a complete, accurate and uniform totality. Why is that? The mechanism presented in “New Extractivism” paints a clear black and white picture, literally and metaphorically. The image of simplified patterns without colors and decorations speaks the language of charts, in other words that of science. Likewise, the visual aesthetics in which we see Joler’s (unmarked) protagonist, user indicates a sterile, lonely, laboratory environment. Its simplicity serves to refine aesthetic as well as conceptual representation and that clarity signals legitimacy to the viewer.

Design is always a political act and therefore it chooses its own prejudices, as Constanza Chock outlines in “Design Justice” . “New Extractivism” is explicitly political in its analysis of behavioral extraction systems and as such it reinforces the image of power asymmetry in order to understand these relations. The fact is that actual reality has less defined contrasts and this is disturbing because, coming back to Brené Brown, as humans we need clear stories in order to orient. And yet, reality is less fatal than what a fixed narrative makes us believe. In other words, yes, the price of abandoning extractive platforms today is too high, but at the same time users are continuously leaving Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, in large waves. It is true that being able to step out of dominant platforms most often comes from a position of privilege, but there are various ways of not-participating. In many cases the user experience can easily resemble a Skinner’s box, but there are multiple movements of resistance and bypassing exploitative systems through (in)direct political actions, coalitions and solidarity in building alternative structures.

Stories make the world go round, and as we interact with them, they carry the power of affecting the oldest parts of our cognitive system. Perhaps in answering how to position ourselves in relation to today’s algorithmic interfaces we can uncover something from the deeply material aspect of our being. Approaching Joler’s work, the new materialist way of reading “New Extractivism” thus potentially offers a space for Decartesianization. In other words, we can practice shifting our focus to a narrative in which the patterned, isolated user persona does not have to be understood solely as a given. The image can rather function as an instructive fiction for the discursive material of everyday life. A fiction which helps us navigate the extractive forces of interacting with dominant algorithmic systems of the attention economy through the physiological basis of our own cognition.

[1]https://projekte.berlinergazette.de/after-extractivism/ U okviru žarišnih tačaka ekstraktivističkih eksploatacijskih praksi u svom primarnom značenju ovde se pominje i primer konteksta litijuma u Srbiji u tekstu Aleksandra Matkovića.

[2]Agentni asemblaž vidi diskurzivne artefakte kao već materijalne, a materijalno kao uvek diskurzivnu formaciju, Bennett, Jane. Vibrant matter. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. 2010

[3]Barad, Karen. Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham, NC: Duke university Press. 2007.

[4]Zuboff, Shoshana, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Profile Books, 2019.


[6]Džil Lepore je u knjizi o Simulmatiks korporaciji iscrtala fascinantnu i zastrašujuću istoriju bihejvioralne nauke i njenim paralelnim razvojem s razvojem kibernetike.

[7]Bruno F, Rodríguez PM. The Dividual: Digital Practices and Biotechnologies. Theory, Culture & Society. 2021

[8]Nije neobično što se korisnikom naziva i osoba koja upotrebljava supstance ili osoba koja koristi usluge.

[9]Za dublji pregled ideja o kompjuterskom korisniku, videti tekst Silvia Lorussa: The User Condition https://theusercondition.computer/

[10]Zuboff, Shoshana, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Profile Books, 2019.

[11]Bennett, Jane. Vibrant matter. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. 2010

[12]Bruno F, Rodríguez PM. The Dividual: Digital Practices and Biotechnologies. Theory, Culture & Society. 2021

[13]Rad takođe izveden u AKSIOMA galeriji 2017. godine https://aksioma.org/jlminc

[14]Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein. Data Feminism. MIT Press. 2020.

[15]Tako se može postaviti hipoteza da je dizajn koji budi adiktivne tendencije delotvorniji za nekoga ko se nalazi u stanju straha i nesigurnosti, pa u tim slučajevima i narativ o bespomoćnosti biva reprodukovan kao samoostvarujući.

[16]Dona Haravej u jednom od svojih ključnih tekstova Situated knowleges piše o samoj ideji objektivnog pogleda kao pogleda odozgo, tj božanskog pogleda, jer je svaka pozicija kreiranja narativa locirana u biološkom, društvenom, političkom, istorijskom i ekonomskom kontekstu

[17]O problemu neobeleženog korisnika kao reprezantacije dominantnog modela normalnosti pišu Kostanca Čak u Dizajn pravdi, kao i Rozi Braidoti kroz koncept feminističkog posthumanizma

[18]Costanza-Chock, Sasha. Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. Cambridge: MIT. 2020.

[19]U trenutku pisanja ovog teksta, u januaru 2023. godine, kada je nekoliko najvećih tehnoloških kompanija kao što su Gugl i Tviter masovno otpustili radnike (samo Gugl je otpustio 12.000 ljudi), veliki broj korisnika je napustio ove servise. Tokom 2022. desilo se isto, uz preko 150.000 ljudi otpuštenih iz nekoliko najvećih kompanija. U slučaju Tvitera to je u velikoj meri bio i jasan prelaz na platformu otvorenog koda Mastodon.

[20]Integrativni centar mozga za emocije, emotivno ponašanje i motivaciju često se vidi kao srž nervnog sistema za procesuiranje pretećih stimulusa.