Monday, 22 July 2013

Time for a Blue Pill

One perhaps unintended consequence of the NSA/Prism/GCHQ revelations is the grudging acceptance that the Internet is no longer "free, as in speech", even if parts of it remain "free, as in beer". This has emboldened governments. It is only a few short weeks from Barack Obama's comment that "You can't have 100% security, and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience" to David Cameron opining "What has changed … is that for too long we have taken the view that you can't do much about the Internet, that it is ungoverned", as he announces plans "to 'drain the market' of child sexual abuse images online". It obviously does not require much imagination to see how the Internet might also be "governed" for other purposes.

This initiative is presented as a tussle between the state and the service providers, even though we should by now have realised that theirs is a symbiotic relationship. What is noticeable is the appeal to the interests of that collective entity, society. In demanding Google's cooperation, Cameron insists: "If there are technical obstacles to acting on this, don't just stand by and say nothing can be done; use your great brains to help overcome them … you are part of our society and must play a responsible role in it". Given the tendency of Google to float free of society for tax purposes, with government connivance, the suggestion that they are part of it is pretty rich. The schoolboy flattery of "great brains" is just plain annoying.

This marks a shift from the earlier rhetoric about "The Big Society", with the quickly-dashed promise of autonomy and variety, towards a model of the state as a superior relationship manager, mediating between society and the market. This "relational state" is a pure neoliberal construct, emphasising the cooperation of government and business. As Will Davies says, "Neoliberalism was launched as an attack on socialism, as a state-centric project; it is now being subtly reinvented, in ways that take account of the social nature of the individual ... The ‘social’ is brought back in as a way of providing support, such that individuals can continue to live the self-reliant, risk-aware, healthy lifestyles that neoliberalism requires of them."

The continuity between the "high neoliberalism" of the millennium and this "neocommunitarian" style of Big Data and "nudging" is the assumption of a collective intelligence - a determinable consensus about what matters and what works. Where this was once thought to reside in the abstract market, i.e. the aggregate of utility-maximising individuals' decisions, it is now sought in the network of social relationships and personal preferences more concretely located online.

But there is a danger that we misinterpret the nature and value of online relationships: "It is in correlations and patterns where value lies in a 21st century Big Data society, and not in the properties or preference of individuals, as was the case in a 20th century statistical and market society. And it is in the identification of hitherto invisible relationships that networked digital media holds out promise for security agencies" [Davies ibid]. But these very relationships (who we like, follow or communicate with) are expressions of preference, and often self-consciously aspirational. They do not necessarily represent who we are so much as who would would like to be (or who we want others to think we are). Have we taken the blue pill, or have the security agencies?

Those who fear that the hounding of Edward Snowden is symptomatic of a wider corruption of liberty do themselves no favours by deploying the Stasi trope - i.e. the myth of state omniscience and a concern about the opinions of every individual. Apart from implying that the security services may actually know what they're doing, this perpetuates the confusion between content and meta-data, between privacy and association. The emerging security apparatus does not care what you think, but they do care what you do, and your associations are a good indicator of your possible intentions (this is the lesson of marketing at the heart of modern surveillance).

The US commentator Frank Rich pinpointed the start of the "devaluation of privacy" with the growth of reality TV and over-sharing celebrity around the millennium. This has conditioned us to accept the truth promulgated by Silicon Valley since the late 90s that "You have zero privacy anyway", and explains the underwhelming nature of the NSA/Prism revelations. Rich has been criticised for his "techno-determinist rhetoric of inevitability", which holds that this is the price we pay for free online services. The fear is that the acceptance of the social media quid pro quo has lulled us into a belief that privacy is conditional, in the same way that other rights have been eroded through the compromises demanded in the permanent wars on drugs and terror.

The relativism of privacy has led us to see surveillance as an intrinsic property of social media. "Most social media users are less concerned with governments or corporations watching their online activities than key members of their extended social network, such as bosses or parents. As a result, people self-monitor their online actions to maintain a desired balance between publicity and seclusion, while readily consuming the profiles and status updates of others". The Stasi has been replaced by cyber-stalking.

Popular reporting on social media usually focuses on "bad behaviour": the goofs, the over-sharing, the flames, the stalking, bullying and trolling. We pay less attention to "good behaviour", that is the construction of a social identity online and the extent to which this incorporates self-repression. We pay even less attention to the degree to which this self-repression is guided and encouraged by the service itself. Social media are normative and performative (consider the tyranny of the "like"). There is a general perception that you must master the netiquette or risk either social exclusion or outright derision. It seems obvious that anxiety should be heightened.

Alice E. Marwick has identified three "status-seeking techniques enabled by social media: micro-celebrity, self-branding, and life-streaming ... These status-seeking techniques constitute technologies of subjectivity which encourage people to apply free-market principles to the organization of social life. This means constructing a persona conditioned by the values of a network dominated by commercial interest". But these are also the techniques of the successful, the elite of the online world, beta programme participants for Google Glass. The great unstated truth of social media is its dependency on class, and its ability to create ever finer sub-divisions to mask this. The vast majority of us remain followers, without status, offering up our private lives to the void like propitiatory offerings to an unanswering deity.

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