by Mark Andrejevic
The promise of dis-alienation thrives on the reproduction of what it claims to surpass. Thus the appeal of the equation of interactivity with participation, empowerment, and recognition retains its Utopian appeal not least because its realization has been thwarted. It is above all in that hybrid realm between the workplace proper and productive forms of consumption and expression that the promise retains its purchase. The de-differentiated character of this realm is marked by the various neologisms that have been used to describe it, including “prosumption” and “produsage.”50 It is a realm that includes various forms of customized consumption in which consumers are invited to participate in the design and creation of the products and services they consume—and thereby to recognize their own contribution in the products they consume. It also includes the range of activities associated with the rise of the so-called “social Web” —including blogging, Tweeting, and social networking.
After arguing for the enduring salience of the critique of alienation in an era in which both the technology and the economy may have changed dramatically (but not the fundamentals of private ownership and wage labor that undergird capitalism), this essay concludes with a consideration of how such a critique might apply even to a realm of seemingly free productive activity: “Web 2.0.” In part, the goal of the preceding analysis has been to situate Web 2.0 within its larger social and economic context; in part it has been to highlight the persistent symptoms of alienation that underwrite the appeal of its promise. What unites these various accounts is the shared logic whereby the forms of separation specific to capital—private control over productive resources exploited for profit—result in the symptoms of fetishization associated with Marx’s account of alienation. Perhaps this is why, despite the attempts by theorists to relegate the notion of alienation along with its metaphysical, “essentializing” baggage to the dustbin of history, it retains its salience in popular accounts hyping the promise of digital media. In this regard, the popular response has something to tell us about what the theoretical accounts have missed. The wages of contemporary exploitation include the misrecognition of the social character of production and its products. The obverse of this misrecognition is the return of a suppressed sociality that takes the form of fetishized forces that appear to pose an external threat, whether in the form of the demands of others, the untamed marketplace, or an uncannily autonomous technology.
Against this background, the realm of user-generated content promises to realize the promise of dis-alienation by facilitating collaborative forms of production in which users can recognize the character of their own contributions in the content they produce. Much can be said in favor of this description—particularly in the realm of collaborative and open-source production facilitated by digital media technology. However, there is a commercial side to the story—one that is often overlooked—and it is on this side that the critique of alienation has something to tell us about emerging models for exploiting Web 2.0, and the implications these have for relations of power and control over information in the interactive economy. Piece by piece we are building a commercial culture based on an unprecedented level of monitoring, data collection, and information manipulation.
Namely, the development of increasingly customized and personalized interactive technologies and applications has enabled an unprecedented level of commercial monitoring—one that only accelerates with the uptake of portable mobile devices. Smart phones can gather information about usage, time-space paths of users throughout the course of the day and so on, while the applications that run on them gather detailed information about which locations users visit, about their reading and viewing habits, their recreational and business interests, and so on. The range of information collected is as broad as the hundreds of thousands of available applications. As one marketer observed, “In the world of mobile, there is no anonymity,” since a cell phone is “always with us. It’s always on.”51 Suffice it to say that we are moving rapidly toward what Bill Gates once described as the “fully documented life.”52 He was imagining this as a reflexive phenomenon: people keeping information about themselves. However, the world we are assembling is one in which lives are fully monitored, but individuals have little control over the documentation process or the archive.
The primary collector of this information is the commercial sector (at times in collaboration with or in the service of the state), and one of its main objectives is customized marketing. This entails much more than simply targeting messages; it means conducting large-scale controlled experiments that shape the information environments to which users are exposed. It entails developing models to determine when consumers are most vulnerable to particular types of marketing appeals. The goal is not just to determine what information might be useful to consumers, but how best to trigger the anxieties and concerns that might motivate them to buy; how best to use information about their hopes, dreams, and desires, their moods and their health, as well as their romantic and family histories to figure out how to bend consumer behavior to the priorities of marketers. We will find, in short, that all of our activities, to the extent that they can be redoubled in the form of data harvested by interactive networks, return to us in unrecognizable, perhaps even unremarked form.
When data-driven, customized marketing algorithms are clumsy, we might recognize them as a form of intrusion or manipulation. More likely, though, the targeting will come in less detectable form. We might be targeted at times when we’re more likely to purchase, based on past behavior. We might be exposed to design elements that have been shown to subconsciously influence our behavior, trigger our anxieties, or otherwise lower our resistance. We will be sorted and selected for exposure to particular types of information and appeals and excluded from others. There is no guarantee that the commercial digital environment will be a standardized, equitable one. On the contrary, we may find that our online experiences vary greatly and that the variance can be explained solely in terms of marketing imperatives. We may come to learn that we are provided with only particular types of news and information because these are more conducive to our responding to advertising appeals.
It is tempting to dismiss the promise of monitoring-based marketing as largely overblown: one more instance of techno-hype. To do so, interestingly, would be to suggest that the economic model supporting the commercial development of digital media is, ultimately, a fatally flawed one. This may turn out to be the case, but it will mean fundamentally rethinking the economic model we are developing for access to interactive services and digital content. Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other cornerstones of the Web 2.0 world will have to find alternative economic models, as will the burgeoning data collection and mining industries.
For the present, however, the commercialization of digital media and platforms relies upon the value generated by the private ownership and control of the interactive infrastructure. Privatization is a form of separation, insofar as it strips control over the infrastructure from users, who must then submit to the terms of access dictated by commercial entities, including submission to increasingly comprehensive forms of monitoring. To the extent that our social and professional lives move onto commercially controlled, digital, interactive platforms, they move into a space that is explicitly being built to manipulate us. Admittedly, this is increasingly true of the physical environments that surround us, but without a digital overlay, these spaces were limited in their ability to monitor, track, and customize marketing appeals. Interactive applications add this overlay and may turn both our physical and virtual environments into interfaces that capture information about us in order to turn it back upon us. These spaces will be both more participatory and interactive and, in the sense described here, more alienated. The task, then, is to think these two developments together.
On the one hand, there is a certain appeal to the Tofflerian claim of the “overthrow of matter”—at least insofar as it suggests that we turn our glance away from questions of physical infrastructure and ownership of the means of communication and interaction.53 What does it matter who owns the internet backbone or YouTube or Google, as long as these facilitate original, unique, and unfettered forms of individual and collaborative creativity?54 On the other hand—the one that has grown a bit too invisible—the critique of exploitation directs us back to these questions. It urges us to consider the ways in which the commercialization of the platform turns our own activity back upon ourselves in the service of priorities that are not our own, and it reminds us of the double duty done by the privately controlled interactive infrastructure. This infrastructure might serve as a platform for new forms of creativity, deliberation, communication, interaction, and consumption. At the same time, though, it works to assemble the most comprehensive system for mass monitoring in human history. The accusation associated with the critique of exploitation reminds us of the ways in which new forms of marketing driven surveillance help turn our own productive activity back upon ourselves in the service of ends that are not our own. In so doing, to borrow Smith’s formulation, it “separates a mode of existence from its power of acting.”55 Countering alienation, then, would not be the same thing as restoring value by compensating users. It would entail rethinking and transforming relations of control over and access to the communicative infrastructure. Such transformations would, in turn, mean radically altering the economic strategies we have adopted for supporting this interactive infrastructure. The profound difficulty we have in even imaging possible alternatives to these strategies is perhaps one more symptom of the system they would replace. In an era of digitization and emergent data clouds, it would mean recognizing that matter still matters, and the ostensibly outdated concerns regarding relations of private ownership and the imperatives these reinforce stubbornly persist.
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