(...) we have to develop a deep vocabulary for terms like collaboration, cooperation, delegation, and outsourcing.

We exchanged words with Silvio Lorusso on pad.riseup in April 2020. Silvio is a writer, artist and researcher investigating territories of design, publishing, labour and digital technologies. He is the author of Entreprecariat: Everyone is an Entrepreneur Nobody is Safe and the founder of Post Digital Publishing Archive (P—DPA) which he has been curating since 2014.

During this conversation we discussed Silvio's methods, approach and use of humour in his work as well as expanding on the concept of the Entreprecariat. He assured us that he will be advertising this on Instagram strictly for promotional purposes.

Silvio Lorusso, <em>Shouldn’t you be working?</em>, Aksioma, 2019
Silvio Lorusso, Shouldn’t you be working?, Aksioma, 2019

Scripted Space In 1989, Emigre launched their famous #11 issue dedicated to the relation between designers and the Macintosh Computer. (Its last full-page depicts an Apple ad.) Emigre #11 published more than 10 interviews revolving around the integration of this technological development into the designer's daily practices, discussing the opportunities provided by computer technology and the different aesthetics that emerge from analog and digital processes. 30 years later, laptops assure a compact and mobile office space, interconnected with smartphones and tablets. Can you describe your day-to-day relationship with technologies that form your environment?

Silvio Lorusso Let me start by saying that I was reading just yesterday a 1998 essay by Mr. Keedy on Emigre #47 and the parts on tech caught my attention. In particular this one: ‘Now graphic designers love the new Internet. But maybe this time we should stop and ask: Does the Internet love graphic design? Perhaps the Internet will simply co-opt graphic design, incorporating it into its operating system. Maybe graphic design will cease to exist as a discreet practice and just become another set of options on the menu.’

It was quite a shock for me to read this, as I ended up making a similar point a few years ago where I spoke of graphic design expertise as ‘fixed capital’ incorporated in design software. One has to reinvent the wheel I suppose :)

But to turn to your question, I’d characterise my day-to-day relationship with computer technology as an ascetic one. Most of the thoughts that cross my mind while I'm doing work are about self-discipline: ‘Am I doing what I am really supposed to do?’ I think of myself as a ‘sinner’ somehow and I deploy systems of punishment and reward.

SS Could you elaborate on what you mean by systems of punishment and reward?

SL I’d say: when I finish reading this paper I can finally check Twitter or Mastodon. It's what people call gamification. I also have plugins installed to limit time on platforms. Some of those I described in my book Entreprecariat. But this is only to speak of the laptop and mobile, a discussion about other technologies forming my environment, such as the record player, might take a full day.

Silvio Lorusso, <em>Entreprecariat: Siamo tutti imprenditori. Nessuno e al sicuro</em>, 2018 (italian edition, Krisis Publishing)
Silvio Lorusso, Entreprecariat: Siamo tutti imprenditori. Nessuno e al sicuro, 2018 (italian edition, Krisis Publishing)

SS Silvio Lorusso is a designer witouth qualities, an artst without a gallery and a writer without spell cheker. Get his first book, entitled Entreprecariat, here! This bio seems to quite effectively embody the concept of hyperemployment that you have been scrutinising throughout your research, and suggests you may frequently be operating from a perspective of personal experience.

SL This is the not-so-serious bio I use on the blog. On my website you would find an articulate one which is maybe too serious and standard. And that's exactly the point. The bio is a rhetorical device. I even wrote a blog post about bio-writing as a form of business diversification.

I like to operate in a Brechtian mode: trying to foreground how things are constructed and why they are constructed in a certain way. The not-so-serious bio is little joke about the construction of the artist persona. This strategic diversification, which I’d say is partly a product of labour instability, has been theorised and called in different ways, the last of which is the multi-hyphenate condition.

Silvio Lorusso, <em>Entreprecariat: everyone is an entrepreneur nobody is safe</em>, 2019
Silvio Lorusso, Entreprecariat: everyone is an entrepreneur nobody is safe, 2019

SS I guess that ties into the fact you're also a tutor, programmer, etc… In many of your texts you describe a participative process of researching: the process of raising a campaign on Kickstarter/Kickended or get a job done on Fiverr. What are the advantages of looking from within to the context and not from outside or above? How relevant is the visual literacy and systems literacy you have developed from these other disciplines to analyse and utilise the languages of tech companies and services?

SL I like this characterisation, but the truth is that in most cases my work has happened from above or outside. On Fiverr, as client, and not as worker. On Kickstarter, working on ‘big data’ (collecting thousands of campaigns on Kickended). I haven't been an insider. This is not to say that kind of situated/embedded work is not valuable. On the contrary! But it also brings us to a fundamental question: does one need to look at things from the inside in order to say something relevant about them? I'm interrogating myself a lot on this question.

Regarding the visual literacy; maybe I can say that I have been very driven by this idea of rhetorics, that goes beyond static visuality but it's also incorporated in forms of interaction and data organisation. The most obvious case for me was the LinkedIn ranking, where you could see yourself ranked in a completely artificial chart.

Silvio Lorusso, <em>Kickended</em>, 2018
Silvio Lorusso, Kickended, 2018

SS Do you think you would be compromised by taking on the role of the insider?

SL I simply think that that would be a very different kind of work. Nowadays in the design field, I notice an insistence on positioning oneself within a subject, a topic or an issue. I believe this insistence is valuable and fundamentally correct. But this shouldn't lead us to fetishise the insider take. A certain distance can also be a valuable research tool. However, such distance should be declared and clarified.

SS I guess that also refers to the desire for authenticity. You mentioned LinkedIn and you've just clarified your blog bio for us.

SL Yes, exactly! If we are to consider the LinkedIn profile as a strategic construction meant to position oneself in the field of work, we are also pushed to do the same for other kinds of self-narratives: the activist designer, the critical practitioner, the progressive institution. This goes beyond the adherence to such narratives in line with one’s beliefs (what we call authenticity) but it's about the function that these self-narratives perform in a milieu.

Silvio Lorusso & Sebastian Schmieg, <em>Lifelong Learning</em>, Drugo More, 2018
Silvio Lorusso & Sebastian Schmieg, <em>Lifelong Learning</em>, Drugo More, 2018
Silvio Lorusso & Sebastian Schmieg, Lifelong Learning, Drugo More, 2018

SS Looking at the contemporary designer’s CV, there seems to have been a shift in the point of access to a designer’s archive, portfolio or visible set of works in progress. From solidified and closed monographs format, termed as memoir-ographs by Hannah Ellis, to websites functioning as online archives of slick finished projects and Instagram accounts capable of being constantly shared and updated. How do you see platforms such as Behance and Instagram shaping the way designers work? What are the effects of having to appear ‘always online’ or ‘always working’ in these contexts?

SL I would say that there have been three steps in this progression: 1) what you call memoir-ographs (reserved of course to recognised designers-author); 2) the age of the website-portfolio (html, artisanal, custom, Indexhibit etc.); and now 3) we are back to memoir-ographs in miniature: on Instagram there is a blend of biography and portfolio where more attention is given to the construction of identity than to that of the coherence of the work let's say. Or better, one is diluted into the other. Honestly, I despise Instagram. I think it killed the designer’s personal website. The personal website wasn't just a technical artefact, it was a social practice able to relate a community of practice through code, copy-paste and the ‘friends’ page. On Instagram you can’t even include links!

Now you might wonder: why do I use Instagram? The answer is simple and crude: to promote my book. This is the only coherent use of the platform I can envision. After all, if one out of three posts is a sponsored post anyway, then why not turn every post into an advert? I reserve all the thinking and the social interaction with peers for other contexts, especially Mastodon. I'm not a purist, and I said before I'm a sinner :) so my own social media use is flawed.

Silvio Lorusso, <em>Shouldn’t you be working?</em>, 2016
Silvio Lorusso, Shouldn’t you be working?, 2016

SS Throughout your broader body of work you often exhibit an ironic/humorous tone. Would you acknowledge this voice? Is the irony part of the critique, and if so, what role does it perform?

SL I can't resist a certain sense of humour, but I grew to feel very uncomfortable with the notion of irony as critique. The work I've been doing in the last years might have some puns and jokes in it but it's deadly serious. The problem with irony is that it is often a form of detachment, it is a way to always come clean, to unload accountability and responsibility.

SS Is this a coping mechanism to operate under the current socio-economic system? Is irony a substitute for meaningful change?

SL Let me revisit what I wrote a couple of years ago on this:

‘Can irony still be countercultural? Are there ways to develop an ironic attitude that doesn’t lead to immobilisation? Is it possible to forge an irony that produces proximity and becomes action? ‘Ironic attachment’ would need to counter the dominant detached attitude characterising ironic statements. Given the ironic contradictions we are surrounded with, ironic attachment should be a sort of meta-irony, which involves the capability and willingness to find ironic detachment ironic in itself by contextualising it within societal and structural conditions.’

Irony is indeed a coping mechanism, but not one that should be cherished. There is something perverse about this ironic dissociation as a means to stabilise one's identity, as well as using irony to point to contradictions and just replicate them. That is a very sad irony.

SS Is the visual language you employ in your work for gallery contexts an extension of the same tone you employ while writing? I.e. you tend to use icons such as office carpets, desks and water coolers. Are these aimed at accentuating that tone? Are they intended as a cypher for a broader conversation around employment and working?

SL Maybe what I can say is this: the office desks, water coolers used in gallery contexts are to me a bit a symptom of a sort of nostalgia for an idealised time. The opposite of that is the aesthetic of the dirty home-office à la Jon Rafman. Aseptic nostalgia versus a dusty present. In the Italian edition of Entreprecariat, Studio Frames played a bit with a clash of these ideas.

Silvio Lorusso, <em>Fake it till you make it</em>, 2016
Silvio Lorusso, <em>Fake it till you make it</em>, 2016
Silvio Lorusso, Fake it till you make it, 2016

SS You introduce the idea of the entreprecariat through the name itself, which functions as a portmanteau of ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘precariat’. The ‘precariat’, in of itself, was a portmanteau of ‘precarity’ and ‘proletariat’ meaning your choice of name, the entreprecariat, is loaded with prior meaning and could be seen as either continuing a lineage, or as being very meta.

Where does the entreprecariat sit as part of a wider class structure? Is it useful to think of the entreprecariat in class terms? Do the implications of being a ‘precariat’ shift in the context in which you use it as you state: ‘everyone is an entrepreneur’?

  • SL Sorry, some chocolate went on my keyboard haha
  • SS Hahaha, I hope not hot chocolate
  • SL Should be fine, still works

SL The Entreprecariat signals the crisis of traditional class structure as it inherits features of both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat: like the former is aspirational and somehow individualised, and the latter is expendable and tied to labour. The limit of class systems has been pointed out by several authors. My favourite one is André Gorz, who speaks of a ‘labour aristocracy’. His class system involves both a class of professionals that have good, prestigious jobs, as might be for instance the art director and another service class, which is too busy serving the professional class to participate in the social mobility game. On one side, the art director, on the other, the gig rider. Designers are often in between, as one might be a rider in order to gain entry to the labour aristocracy of professionals.

Silvio Lorusso, <em>User Proletarianization</em>, 2020
Silvio Lorusso, User Proletarianization, 2020

SS Most of the research you have conducted links to individualism, neoliberalism and the optimistic narrative of entrepreneurship that is frequently witnessed in tech startups and companies (simultaneously free from everything yet on the verge of free fall). You have dedicated a piece to the interaction feature — the infinite scroll — describing it metaphorically as jumping into the abyss. If you scroll down you are performing an endless free-fall experience, a bit like Hito Steyerl has described. Similarly, you break down some of the common interactions and experiences of being on the web or on an app into Post-Fordist terms of the factory.

Do you think there are any other examples of user interface elements, design patterns or experiences that allude to a wider creed? Where do you place certain ideas of web-based best practice ideologically?

SL To put it broadly, the hegemony of the smartphone can be seen in toto as an expression of a certain ideology. I just wrote yesterday that if we want to be realistic and inclusive we have to think of computer users mainly as mobile users. That's where most time is spent. I wonder what kind of agency the mobile affords, and by agency I mean interruption of behaviour. Surely, one could say that intrinsically the smartphone produces a stronger imbalance between user and developer, since mobile phones apps and interfaces are programmed on laptop or desktop computers.

Silvio Lorusso, <em>Do or Delegate: Entrepreneurial Means and Precarious Ends</em>, 2019
Silvio Lorusso, Do or Delegate: Entrepreneurial Means and Precarious Ends, 2019

SS You discuss the symptoms of an invisible neoliberal ideology within the landscape of the design field by looking at modes of survival within work; hyperemployment etc. One of the first projects you included on P—DPA was a collective publishing exercise conducted within the context of the London Design Festival (2013), engaging with new forms of digital collaboration that could be facilitated by networks. More recently, through your exhibition Do or Delegate: Entrepreneurial Means and Precarious Ends (2019) you criticise the idea of utilising the collective and look at it in terms of work and value.

What are your thoughts on collective modes of designing in relation to individualism? At what point does collaboration across a network become delegation? Do the platforms on which this takes place dictate this relationship?

SL I think we have to develop a deep vocabulary for terms like collaboration, cooperation, delegation, and outsourcing. I think that while delegation suggests some trust, outsourcing is characterised by the subalternity of the person who does the work. If we take online marketplaces we can see how this subalternity is many-folded. First, subalternity to the client, who might reject the work without a proper explanation. Second, to the platform itself, that can ban or downgrade the gig worker without their possibility to appeal. The sharing economy has been predicated on ideas of collaboration and equality between the parties involved. This is an instance of what I started to call ‘fauxtonomy’ (on the basis of Astra Taylor's ‘fauxtomation’), the use of a rhetoric of independence to obfuscate power asymmetries.

SS The present crisis of the pandemic has atomised us, leaving each of us sat in our computer rooms, wholly reliant on networked communications. Beyond any personal reality, this collective experience, this common ground, is changing us. Are there any alternatives that can be hoped for beyond this?

SL I think it really depends on how long this will last. In my personal experience, the business-as-usual mindset has definitely prevailed. Not only that, I'd say that I'm experiencing a form of ‘business as usual’ on steroids. If the so-called return to normality takes quite some time to happen, maybe the perception of the meaninglessness of routine, which is now still a background noise, will become deafening.

Silvio Lorusso labour research humour