“Commodities often finish their lives in salvage operations for the making of other commodities to be recouped again for capitalism through salvage accumulation. If we want our theories of the ‘economic system’ to have anything to do with livelihood practices, we had better take note of such salvage rhythms.” – Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World
On the Commodification of Private Property
Early in April 2017, President Donald Trump, in an ongoing effort to delegitimize, and repeal former president Barack Obama’s legislation on an array of regulative measures, signed a bill which lets Internet Service Providers, ISPs, sell private, user-owned browser history to advertising companies. Customers of ISPs, really anyone who uses the Internet, are now paying to have their property – their private information – sold to advertisement agencies. Now, more than ever, Internet users must seek to actively notice the insidious effects this decision will have on both the economy and systems of poverty already in place.
Free sites like Google and Facebook already sell their users’ browsing history to advertisement companies, and the effects of this release of information is already working towards perpetuating cycles of poverty; yet journalist Olivia Solon from The Guardian makes a valid point that individuals can choose not to use their “search engine[s], and there are lots of tools you can use to block their tracking on other parts of the web.” However, in this modern day of technology, individuals don’t have the option to opt out of using an ISP, and blocking an ISP from tracking you is often a burden financially.
This new bill legalizes an invasion of privacy, which is supposed to be protected to a certain extent as a civil liberty under the Fifth Amendment of the Bill of Rights. However, due to the expanding use of the Internet, the boundary line of what is considered to be private is constantly being negotiated, and pushed back. Individuals today have nowhere near the amount of privacy they did in an era pre-Internet, because the majority of Internet usage, which requires filling out forms with personal data, is vital in order to engage in modern life in a meaningful way.
Both Wendy Brown and Lauren Berlant provide useful insight on how this massive invasion of privacy is legitimized by higher sources of power. They do this by depicting how the current neoliberal structure permeates through ordinary life, and by illustrating how a market rationality has become the cornerstone of all types of decision making.
There are almost no aspects of modern American life which are free from the ideologies of neoliberalism. In Wendy Brown’s essay, End of Liberal Democracy, she begins her analysis of neoliberalism by noting that one of the its most definitive aspects is “a range of monetary and social policies favorable to businesses and indifferent towards poverty” (Brown, 38). Brown characterizes neoliberalism as a set of rules interacting in both the economic and political spheres, but her analysis goes even further, considering the effects of neoliberalism on individuals subject to its power. When she asserts that “all dimensions of human life are cast in terms of a market rationality,” she is claiming that neoliberalism also functions within the personal sphere as well. Individuals are expected to act as autonomous, entrepreneurial subjects, whose goal is to yield the most utility from every action by subjecting all decisions to a cost-benefit-analysis. This rational way of thinking has gone from being a general regularity to a widespread convention of the population.
Tackling neoliberalism from the viewpoint of the day-to-day ordinariness of life in her essay Slow Death, Lauren Berlant illustrates similar effects of neoliberalism on the average modern subject, drawing heavily from Foucault’s writings of biopower and the sovereign. Berlant suggests that modes of power, like the neoliberal framework “afford a militaristic and melodramatic view of individual agency by casting the human as most fully itself when assuming the spectacular posture of performative action.” (Berlant, 96, my emphasis). The Internet is a prime example of an environment where performative action is validated through a system of positive feedback. Internet usage has arguably become a social ritual of validation, and when agents receive the validation they desire, they feel as if their choice to use the Internet is justified – the cost-benefit analysis has yielded positive results.
However, as Berlant articulates in her essay, a cost benefit analysis is more complex than simply picking the better choice. She allows that perceived maximum utility comes in all shapes and sizes, and while hustling, meeting deadlines, and getting ahead of the curve all seem like the most efficient and productive choices, quite often, the most immediate and maximal benefits come from slowing down, taking time off from the multitudes of responsibilities that individuals face, and simply relaxing. Berlant introduces the term interruptive agency, to describe the set of actions whose greatest benefit is just checking out from the high demand pressures of the modern world, and relaxing. Slow Death was about the obesity endemic in the United States, so Berlant uses the lens of food as “one of the few spaces of controllable, reliable pleasures people have,” (Berlant, 115) yet this characterization is very similar to how modern day subjects view the Internet.
Using the Internet is an effective, consistent ritual for social validation because it is reliable, controllable, and pleasurable. In a society where the Internet is hyper-accessible – from the use of smart phones, to tablets and laptops – the Internet has become a controllable source. Users have the ability to decide which websites or phone applications they use, how long they spend on them, and what sort of content they want to see. Additionally, the Internet is perpetually open for use, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The cases in which the Internet is unreliable are few and far between. Even phone companies extend data packages for consumers to access the Internet with there is no Wi-Fi available. In other words, the Internet is always on, waiting to be used. The Internet is also pleasurable, literally. In his article from the Atlantic, Exploiting the Neuroscience of Internet Addiction, journalist Bill Davidow writes that “Much of what we do online releases dopamine into the brain’s pleasure centers, resulting in obsessive pleasure-seeking behavior.” So when people receive messages, status likes, or comments on the things they post, small amounts of dopamine are released in their brains, one of the “feel good” chemicals actually associated with addiction. Indeed, similar to eating food, the Internet is a controllable, reliable, and pleasurable arena to exercise interruptive agency.
According to Berlant, the most immediate and recognizable benefit from exercising interruptive agency is a way “to lubricate the body’s movement through capitalized time” (Berlant, 115-116). When responsibilities start to pile up, and the daily stresses of everyday life begin to challenge peoples’ sanity, a two-minute video of a cat chasing a laser pointer, for example, can be the micro-therapy session needed to recalibrate, take a deep breath, and help someone forget about the stresses in their life, even just for a moment.
Brown and Berlant’s similar ideas can be synthesized together under an analysis of when the diminishing marginal benefits of interruptive agency begin to accumulate, and reveal themselves as costs to society. According to Brown, neoliberalism presupposes that individuals are “rational, calculating creatures whose moral autonomy is measured by their capacity for ‘self-care’ – the ability to provide for their own needs and service their own ambitions.” (Brown, 42). One way in which people care for themselves in this modern day, technological society, is by exercising modes of interruptive agency. Yet, under a neoliberal lens, the consequences of exercising too much interruptive agency is perceived as “a manifest lack of self-cultivating attention [which] can easily become recast as irresponsibility” (Berlant, 99). Just like Berlant talks about how using food as a form of interruptive agency has led to the endemic of obesity in this country, there are surely an array of negative consequences that using the Internet as a means of escape from the high pressures of modern society has on those who use it.
One major difference between modes of interruptive agency from the pre-Internet neoliberal era, and the modern, post-Internet era of today is evidence of what sort of leisurely activities people engage in. With the rise of the Internet, and its ubiquitous presence into nearly all spheres of our daily lives, a mass amount of data has accumulated – like which websites people use, what information they inputted on those websites, and what they are using websites for – and this data is stored deep in ISP archives. Yet, when someone uses an Internet Service Provider, they are paying them not only to be able to access the Internet, but to keep their personal, private information – their accumulated browser history – private.
So how do the people who are negotiating against privacy – against civil liberty – rationalize their position? Viewed through a frame of neoliberalism, in which economy and politics are intertwined now more than ever, justification of this restriction of privacy is quite simple to understand. Wendy Brown introduces a term, neoliberal rationality which “involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action.”(Brown, 39-40) Unsurprisingly, the decision to allow Internet Service Providers to commodify private, user-owned browser history was justified by its potential economic benefits. In an article about the bill, journalist Andrew Griffin from Independent News wrote “White House press secretary Sean Spicer said last week that the president’s support for the bill was part of a larger effort “to fight Washington red tape that stifles American innovation, job creation and economic growth”.” In other words, through neoliberal rationality, keeping a customer’s personal information private isn’t viewed as protecting a civil liberty, but rather, is considered a hindrance for economic growth. Exploitation of private information is then justifiable because it will allegedly lead to ‘innovation’, and ‘more jobs’. Really, under the market rationality, allowing private information to stay private is seen as a waste of potentially valuable resources. Indeed, “there is no morality, no faith, no heroism, indeed no meaning outside the market” (Brown, 45).
Yet, shouldn’t privacy be protected? The fifth Amendment of the Constitution states that “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation,” so what exactly is the compensation America’s new amateur president assumes its people will receive? In this modern-day society, Internet users have access to things that used to be completely inaccessible, and that access is at the tip of their fingertips, ready to be used whenever they desire. Yet, accessibility to the rest of the world is only possible because of the personal, private information people feed sites and applications they desire to use. However, with this new bill coming into law, every time someone inputs their personal data onto a site in order to participate with the modern world, they implicitly agree to sacrifice more of their privacy than they probably realize. Now, more than ever, connection comes at the cost of privacy.
Internet Service Providers are now legally allowed to commodify private user data and sell it to an array of companies, whose goals are to perpetuate individual consumerist ideologies that fuel the capitalist machine. Personal data is used to categorize people into synthetically formed groups, and exploit arbitrary, algorithmically determined patterns for capital gain. The companies this bill benefits are eager to get their hands on personalized user data because the more user-data they have, the better they can ‘understand’ consumers, categorize them based on a list of predetermined labels, and exploit any arbitrary trends they choose to focus on.
Using concepts like accumulation, assemblages, and scalability in her novel The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, feminist scholar Anna Tsing provides helpful tools which can be used to better understand the harmful effects of categorization methods implemented by companies hungry for user data. Further, her concepts help expose just how the supposedly-beneficial elements of the hyper-personalized technological sphere are really laced with contradicting, and insidious factors which do more to separate us than unify.
In her chapter “Salvage Rhythms: Business in Disturbance,” Tsing analyzes the inner workings of the market-rational economy. “The economic system is presented to us as a set of abstractions requiring assumptions about participants that take us right into twentieth-century notions of scalability and expansion as progress” (Tsing, 132). These abstractions assume that humans form closed, definable, and predictable communities, and that the tendencies of the few will reveal how the masses will act. Yet, people don’t usually form closed-off communities, and humans are not always predictable. Tsing introduces the term assemblages, defining them as “open-ended gatherings” which “allow us to ask about communal effects without assuming them.” (Tsing, 23) By defining this key word like this, Tsing effectively disentangles the ideas of assemblages from communities. Heterogeneous in nature, there is no way to unify assemblages under a single label, and trying to do so cannot run smoothly. Yet, this is exactly what advertising agencies aim to do: synthetically unify assemblages of people by categorizing them based on what they do on the Internet.
Yet, “[s]educed by the elegance of these abstractions,” Tsing notes, “few think it important to take a closer look at the world the economic system supposedly organizes” (Tsing, 132). But look closer, we must, for this ‘organized’ economic system now runs in large part on personal data from the Internet. Harmful practices which continue to assume that people fit in scalable categories will lead to serious economic instability on a massive scale – the practices currently in place already have contributed to prior disastrous economic events.
Thoughtfully and powerfully articulated in their article, “How Companies Turn your Facebook Activity into a Credit Score,” Astra Taylor and Jathan Sadowski did just what Anna Tsing is telling us to: they looked beneath the surface, and exposed the practices of companies who buy user data, and exploit it to perpetuate existing socio-economic inequalities. “Today, we all swim in murky waters in which we’re constantly tracked, analyzed, and scored, without knowing what information is being collected about us, how it’s being weighted, or why it matters.” The Internet is used in a multitude of ways, and our Internet history becomes who we are in the eyes of the algorithms. Taylor and Sadowski provide an example of how our user-data is used when they say “lenders, employers, and landlords rely on credit-scoring systems like the widely used FICO score, which take data from an individual’s consumer report and derive a metric of his or her risk. These scores allow for automated decision-making, yet there’s evidence that such systems have not eliminated bias, but rather enshrine socioeconomic disparities in a technical process.” According to companies who use engage in these practices, any and all data, whether that data come from our use of the Internet as a tool for school, or business, or as a site for exercising interruptive agency, is fair game to categorize who individuals are. A neoliberal rationality prioritizes the benefit of the market over the benefit of the customers involved.
The issue that Taylor and Sadowski outline in their article, is a phenomenon called digital redlining. Digital redlining is the modern, technological version of the redlining practices from the 1960s. These older practices limited certain socioeconomically disadvantaged groups’ ability to apply for loans, when in need of money. Digital Redlining is the modern version of this practice, but instead of loans, companies are treating the personal information received from sites like Facebook as means to differentiate not only who has access to premium services, but which advertisements are shown to certain people. The polarizing effect this practice is having on the socioeconomic spectrum is too malignant not to take notice. For example, Taylor and Sadowski point out that “these personalized predatory practiced played a role in the subprime-mortgage bubble and subsequent financial crisis.” They go onto cite Mierzwinski and Jeff Chester, who claimed “From 2005 to 2007, the height of the boom in the United States, mortgage and financial-services companies were among the top spenders for online ads.” Connections between advertising targeting practices, and this very concrete example of economic instability are too powerful not to take notice.
The bill that President Trump has signed into law will do nothing but release even more personalized, private user data, and will undoubtedly exacerbate these unethical targeting practices, and eventually cause more disastrous economic instability. Data has become a new form of capital amongst many companies, and by acquiring and exploiting user data, these companies are doing work to unravel the ‘communities’ they claim to be serving. Without a doubt, the companies who own our private data are now more powerful than ever before. Almost Orwellian in nature, these companies now have access to know, and track all of our activities online; and the more information about us they accumulate, the more power they have. Tsing draws our attention to this sort of power when she says “accumulation is important because it converts ownership into power. Those with capital can overturn communities and ecologies” (Tsing, 133). In other words, the reason people are powerful is because they own, and have accumulated a lot of something very valuable; what companies who own our valuable data do with that power will shape and define landscapes into something very precarious.
In conclusion, through a lens of neoliberalism, exploiting the privacy of Internet users is totally justified because it will lead to economic growth, even though the majority of the Internet serves as a place to exercise interruptive agency – a mindless act where people online window shop, watch satisfying YouTube videos, or interact on online forums – all for the validation and positive feedback that the Internet offers. However, the bulk of what we do on the Internet now goes into to sculpting our online presence, which continues to be exploited for capital gain. Indeed, Wendy Brown’s characterization of neoliberal rationality, which justifies actions which are beneficial to business, but indifferent towards poverty, is a perfect characterization of Trump’s choice to commodify personal and private user data.
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