I had a recent run in with the public eye because of an op-ed article I wrote for the Queen’s Journal on a controversial exploration of the limits of free speech in terms of the ability of the (in)famous Queen’s Alive (anti-abortion) group to table and canvass for supporters on campus.
This lead to a public debate and lots of discussion. It also lead to a ton of mudslinging and attempts at public smearing.
I had also experienced this in the past when myself and another advocate for queer rights filed a human rights complaint against a magazine for a publishing an unsavory article illustrating a scathing hatred for queer folk (they referred to us as evil and pagan). I was waist deep in understandably complex, multidimensional and very contested discourse. These discourses led to unpleasant hate messages and full transparency in the provincial (and to some degree, international) media.
That is not the topic of this blog post. What I would like to discuss isn’t the status of free speech or the unpalatable existence of hate speech. Rather I am interested in the intense visibility that activists (and others) are exposed to through unpredictable new media interactions. These interactions are typically escalated and amplified by the Internet. This is a dimension of contemporary surveillance not conventionally covered by many academics. It is the subjects of surveillance that I would like to explore.
I find myself constantly confronted by a mentality that artifacts of popular culture are inferior to those strong pillars of Western intellectual culture (Shakespeare and Gatsby). I’ve encountered this from peers and mentors, classwork and coffee shop discussions. In this blog post, I’m going to challenge these common assumptions that position popular culture as something less than intellectually stimulating—or worse yet, mere entertainment. I am not trying to say that other forms of art and creation (“high culture”) are bad, I quite enjoy Shakespeare and Gatsby. But I also love Star Wars, Rick and Morty and the Hunger Games. The Internet, and other developments in digital technology, has allowed for the proliferation of popular culture. The Internet and computer software has provided affordable mediums and methods for all kinds of people to create “things”. All kinds of “things”! Memes, amateur YouTube videos, blogs, creepypasta (amateur scary stories), and enormous catalogues of emotional responses in the form of animated GIFs.
“Folklorists, unlike literature scholars, or art historians, or music scholars, we don’t look to the productions of the rare geniuses of human kind as the only cultural products worth paying attention too. We look to other kinds of cultural productions, productions that I think make the state of our digital lives seem a little less dire… The problem is with the assumption that the collective works of Shakespeare is the only valid cultural output…”
Through studying, interpreting and understanding folklore, or the stuff and knowledge of everyday life, we get a pretty good illustration of how people interpret and understand the world around them. This is important for all kinds of reasons.
Brenda Brasher (1996), in her work titled, ‘Thoughts on the Status of the Cyborg: On Technological Socialization and its link to the religious function of popular culture’, observed that people are shifting from using religion to generate an understanding of ethics in everyday life to that of popular culture. In this sense, there are more and more people who are interpreting ethics through the Jedi philosophy of the Force than that of the bible. People construct complicated pastiches (or collages) of raw pop cultural data to construct their belief systems. Snippets of ethics and norms taken from Hollywood blockbusters, 4chan, YouTube series, and an ungodly number of video games.
To ignore popular culture is to ignore this massive shift in how people understand the world around them. A great example of the power of vernacular popular culture and folklore is video games. To be frank, though there are amazing and powerful pillars of literature—I find myself struck with an overwhelming sense of catharsis when I play through a well-constructed video game. I’ve had oodles of discussions with friends who are willing to bracket off video games as an intellectual waste of time. However, such cultural artifacts are important to the aspiring digital folklorist just because so many people play them. Furthermore, so many people code them as well. Gamer culture becomes a myriad of professional and independent games.
Just to demonstrate this, here are some statistics presented by the Entertainment Software Association at E3 (a big gaming conference) in 2015. 42% of Americans play video games regularly (at least 3 hours a week). The average age of a gamer is above the age of 35 (so video games cross generations). Gamers consume more games than they do TV and movies. Consumers spent a grand total of 22.41 billion dollars in America in 2015. Video games are big! Lots of people use them, identify with them, and generate cultural groups around them. This is an eye opener for a folklorist, it should certainly be an eye opener for other social scientists.
Trevor Blank, a digital folklorist, observed in his introduction to digital folklore that “It bears noting that the fear of cultural displacement via mass culture is mothering new” (3). He demonstrates that following the innovation of some new form of media, cultural pundits criticized emerging technology as destroying traditions and communication. They accused technological innovations of destroying the folk. However, another perspective of framing the changes brought about with these new forms of media is that they entailed new forms of folk. A problem with framing the media in overtly dystopic ways is that you create a technological determinism that takes agency (choice) from those who participate in everyday life. These critics actually ignore the “folk” (and their practices) in their criticism. The vernacular has not disappeared into the heterogenous mess of “mass” culture—it has changed form.
Blank explains, “New media technology has become so ubiquitous and integrated into users’ communication practices that it is now a viable instrument and conduit of folkloric transmission…” (4).
Folklore is the study of everyday life. The digital has become a realm of everyday life. Cyberspace is just as important as actual space to the emerging generations of humans in consumer societies. From the rich and poor, men and women (and trans* and queer), and all races and ethnicity use the Internet in their everyday lives for all kinds of reasons. Popular culture in this context provides us with valuable new social contexts to study. New gateways into understanding human culture, society, and communication.
Blank, Trevor. 2012. “Introduction.” Pp. 1-24 in Folk Culture in the Digital Age: The Emergent Dynamics of Human Interaction, edited by Trevor Blank. Logan: Utah State University Press.
Brasher, Brenda. 1996. “Thoughts on the Status of the Cyborg: On Technological Socialization and Its Link to the Religious Function of Popular Culture”. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64(4). Retrievieved December 28, 2015 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/1465623?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents) .
Social media is neither good nor bad, though this doesn’t mean it’s necessarily neutral as it certainly has the potential to exploit and empower. Nicole Costa’s rendition of her experiences and tribulations with Facebook in her recent article My online obsessions: How social media can be a harmful form of communication were incredibly touching. Her refusal and resistance to appearing and contributing to the Facebook community is empowering. However, I believe it is also misleading. Social media and digital exchange and interaction are here to stay (save for some cataclysmic event that knocks out the electrical infrastructure) and because of this I believe that we need to learn how to engage with it productively and ethically. We need to engage with social media in a way that doesn’t jump straight into a moralizing agenda. By this I mean illustrating social media as the savior of humanity or a dystopian wasteland where people’s communication collapses into self-absorbed decadence.
How do we maneuver this politically charged land mine addled cyberspace? First we need to recognize that a great number (in the billions) of the human race use social media (of all sorts) for many reasons. However, this is far too broad, let’s focus on Facebook. Facebook is among the most popular of social media with over 1.5 billion users and growing. It is built into the very infrastructure of communication in the Western world. If you have a mobile phone, you very likely have Facebook. You might even use Facebook’s messenger service more than your text messaging. Facebook allows us to share information, build social movements, rally people together in all sorts of grassroots wonders. As an activist, I’ve used Facebook to run successful campaigns. Why? Everyone uses it, and because of this, it has the power (if used correctly) to amplify your voice. Facebook, and most social media, can be very empowering.
But hold your horses! Facebook is still terrifyingly exploitative. Their access to your personal and meta data is unprecedented. Furthermore, they actively use the data that you give them to haul in billions of dollars. Issues of big data and capitalism are finally coming to the forefront of academic and popular discussion, but the nature of such complicated structures are still shrouded in obscurity. The user sees the interface on their computer monitor. But Facebook sees electronic data points that represent every aspect of the Facebook user(s) in aggregate. Through elaborate surveillance techniques, these data points are collected, organized, stored, and traded on an opaque big data marketplace. Furthermore, the user is not paid for their (large) contribution to the product being sold. They are exploited for their data and their labour—as everything you do on Facebook is a part of the data that is commodified and sold.
At the same time Facebook (and other prominent social media platforms) allow for an unprecedented freedom and speed of communication. They have been embedded into our everyday ways of socializing with each other. New social media have become an invaluable and ubiquitous social resource that we engage in from the time we wake to the time we sleep. It has been used to organize events, rallies and protests. It is used to keep in touch with distant family and friends. It is used for romance, hatred, companionship, and debate. Facebook is playful and empowering.
So if you are like me than you may be absolutely confounded on how to resolve the tensions between Facebook (and other social media) being at the same time exploitative and empowering. We have gone too far down the rabbit hole of social media and digital communication to merely refuse to use it. It is now a intimate part of our social infrastructure. Those who resist through refusal may find themselves at multiple disadvantages in how they engage with the world. My own ethnographic research into why users refused Facebook illustrated that those who abandoned Facebook may have felt empowered by overcoming the “addiction” of social media, however, they also felt excluded and alone. And it must be noted that mostly everyone I talked to who had quit Facebook are now using it again. So clearly, refusal to use these services is not enough to meaningfully challenge problematics in social media.
The Luddites historically were textile workers who were opposed to the invasion of machines into their workplace. Machines that they figured would gouge away at their wages. Today, it is a term used for those who refuse to use certain technologies. In the realm of social media, a Luddite resistance has proved to be incredibly ineffective. It is also important to note that this sort of refusal obscures ways of meaningfully resisting mass surveillance and the exploitation of user data.
I propose the complete opposite. I propose the path of knowledge. We need to learn how to maneuver through social media and the Internet in ways that allow us access to anonymity. Ways of asserting our right to anonymity. This is critical. We need to mobilize and teach and learn through workshops. We need to scour the Internet for free resources on the technical perspectives of social media. We need to also spread awareness of this double edged nature of social media. It is no use to take a stance of refusal, to ignore the importance of social media, and thus remain ignorant to how it all works. When we do this, we actually empower these large capitalist corporations to exploit us that much more. The less we know about the calculus of social media and how it works on a level of algorithm, code and protocol, the more able the capitalists are at disguising and hiding exploitation.
For those of us who have been reading science fiction for some time now—it becomes clear that SF has a strange propensity to becoming prophetic. Many of the themes in science fiction classics are now used as overarching metaphors in mainstream surveillance. Most notably among these is: Orwell’s Big Brother, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Kafka’s Trail. Other common tropes we might refer to is Minority Report, Ender’s Game, and Gattaca.
Though I am not trying to claim that these classics aren’t good pieces of SF literature, they may not do a superb job of covering issues implicit in contemporary surveillance. Imagine George Orwell coming to the realization that the Internet is one humungous surveillance machine with the power of mass, dragnet surveillance. Or imagine Huxley’s reaction to the lulling of consumer affect through branding and advertisement. The power of surveillance tools to control and shape large populations has become a prominent and dangerous feature of the 21st century.
As Richard Hoggart says,
“Things can never quite be the same after we have read—really read—a really good book.”
So let’s stop recycling old metaphors (if I read another surveillance book that references Big Brother or the Panopticon I’m going to switch fields). Let’s look at the work of our own generation of writers and storytellers. What I think we might find is a rich stock of knowledge and cultural data that could illuminate some optics into our (post)human relationship with advance technology.
The reason why I am using mixed media, as opposed to focusing on a singular medium, is that I believe that our relationship with media is not limited to one or the other. Novels, movies, video games, graphic novels and YouTube videos all offer us something in terms of storytelling. Part entertainment, part catharsis premised and constructed through the engagement with the story. Our generation of storytelling has shifted into the realm of mixed media engagement. What follows are some stories that I think are critically important to understanding the human condition in our own generational context.
P.S. They are in no particular order.
Disclaimer: Though I tried to be cautious not to forfeit any critical plot or character points, be careful for spoilers:
SOMA is a survival horror video game released by the developers of Amnesia (another terrifying game), Frictional Games. It is a 2015 science fiction story that both frightens you and an imparts an existential crisis as you struggle to find “human” meaning between the fusion of life and machine. After engaging in a neurological experiment, the main protagonist Simon Jarrett, wakes up in an abandoned underwater facility called PATHOS-II. As opposed to people, Jarrett finds himself trapped with the company of both malicious and benevolent robots—some who believe they are human. The interesting overlap with surveillance here is the focus on neurological surveillance. Scientists (in and out of game) transform the biological brain into a series of data points that represent the original. From this, scientists hope to predict or instill behavior. Or in the case of this game, transform human into machine. This is done by literally uploading the data points of the brain in aggregate to a computer. The game instills a constant question: is there any difference between human consciousness and a copy of human consciousness? SOMA is more than just a scary game—it is a philosophical treatise on the post-human illustrated through an interactive story.
Ready Player One
Ready Player One, is a novel written by Ernest Cline, which covers a wide breath of themes: notably the uneasy relationship between surveillance and anonymity, visibility and hiding. Cline constructs a world that doesn’t seem very far off from our own. A world where people begin to embrace simulation through virtual reality (VR) as environmental disaster plagues the actual world. People hide in the sublime. The VR game, OASIS, a world of many worlds, is the home of many clever pop culture references. Mostly music, video games and movies. With an extra emphasis on science fiction. Embedded in this world of worlds is several “Easter Eggs” (surprises hidden in videogames) that act as a treasure trail to the OSASIS late founder’s fortune and ultimate control over the virtual world. Anonymity is the norm of OASIS—a utopian world where the original, democratic ideal of the Internet is realized. A place where anyone can be anybody—without reference to their actual identity. However, this world is jeopardized as a the corporation Innovative Online Industries is also searching for the Easter Eggs to take over OASIS and remake it to generate capital. The theme of anonymity vs. mass surveillance for profit is arguably a major fuel for global debate as all “places” of the Internet are surveilled in increasingly invasive ways. Anonymity has almost disappeared from the Internet, to be replaced with quasi-public profiles (Facebook and Goggle+) that exist to make billions of dollars off of people’s identities and user-generated content. The original dream of the Internet, sadly has failed.
Nexus is a science fiction novel written by Ramez Naam following characters who are engaged with a new type of “nano-drug” that restructures the human brain so that people can connect mind to mind. There are those who support the drug and those who are against it. This conflict is followed by a slurry of espionage that exposes the characters to incredible dangers. The theme of surveillance in Nexus follows a new fixation on neuroscience. The ability to surveil the very essential, bio-chemical features of the human mind. As well as exposing mind and memory to others participating in this new psychedelic (psychosocial) drug. This is a level of exposure that far supercedes our experiences with the Internet and social media. Imagine being hardwired into a computer network. The book also follows traditional surveillance themes as the main character Kaden Lane becomes entangled in the conflict of private corporations and state government.
Social media in the 21st century has positioned Western society within the context of visibility and exposure. Most people are simultaneously engaged in self-exposure and participatory surveillance—as we post content about our lives and browse and read content about the lives of our friends and family. The Circle by Dave Eggers works this theme through a character, named Mae Holland, who has just been hired by the world’s largest IT company located in a place called the Circle. The Circle is a place, much like a University campus, with literally everything on it. This place boarders utopia—a place where work and play blends. However, following the mantra “All that happens must be known”, social media penetrates the lives of those who exist in the Circle in pervasive and exposing ways. Very quickly, the utopic illusion slips away into dystopia.
Slenderman was, in its bare skeleton form, introduced to the Internet by Eric Knudson on the (in)famous Something Aweful forum board for a paranormal photo editing contest. However, within a year, Slenderman was sucked into a collective narrative construction across all media platforms. People blogged about it, tweeted about it, YouTubed about it. A massive and ever changing (and unstable) urban legend (or Fakelore) was constructed in the chaos of cyberspace. Slenderman, the paranormal creature, can be described as a tall man with unnaturally long arms and legs (and sometimes tentacles), wearing a black suit, with no face. It is usually depicted as a creature who watches, in other words surveils. It watches from obscure areas, slowly driving its victim to paranoia and insanity. Than the victim disappears, without a trace. Slenderman is the contemporary boogieman. But it also shares a narrative with dangerous, obscure, and mysterious secret police and intelligence agencies. As Snowden revealed to the public, governments, through mass surveillance techniques, watch everyone and everything. Could the slenderman narrative be telling of a deep seeded cultural fear of government surveillance in the 21st century? There are many ways to tap into this story—google blogs, tumblr accounts, and twitter accounts. But also, YouTube series’ like Marble Hornets, EverymanHYBRID, and Tribe Twelve. Also check out the genre called Creepypasta for an extra home brewed thrill.
Originally appeared in the Queen’s Journal on November 13th, 2015.
“I am just a citizen. I was the mechanism of disclosure. It’s not up to me to say what the future should be — it’s up to you,” NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden told a packed house in Grant Hall.
Snowden — a polarizing figure globally — was invited as the keynote speaker for Queen’s Model United Nations Invitational (QMUNi) for the Queen’s International Affairs Association’s (QIAA).
As the talk commenced at 6:30 p.m., Snowden was met with applause.
The buzz surrounding Snowden’s Google Hangout talk on Thursday at Grant Hall started early, as crowds started lined up to enter the Grant Hall. The building quickly hit capacity.
Snowden began with a discussion of his motivations to disclose countless NSA confidential documents. He told the audience that he once believed wholeheartedly that mass surveillance was for the public good.
He came from a “federal family”, he said, with relations to both politics and military. He said once he reached the peak of his career in government intelligence — when he received the highest security clearance — he saw the depth of the problem.
After that realization came the release of classified documents to journalists in 2013, his defection from the NSA and his indefinite stay in Russia.
“Progress often begins as an outright challenge to the law. Progress in many cases is illegal,” he said.
However, he has made himself into more than just a whistleblower. Snowden has continued to push for and encourage discussion about mass surveillance.
“Justice has to be seen to be done,” he said.
“I don’t live in Russia, I live on the Internet,” he said at another point during the talk.
When asked about Bill C-51 — the controversial terror bill in Canada — Snowden said “terrorism is often the public justification, but it’s not the actual motivation” for the bill.
He continued to say that if you strip the bill of the word “terrorism”, you can see the extent to which the bill makes fundamental changes that affect civil rights.
Snowden’s talk was intended to encourage discussion about mass surveillance. QIAA had initially contacted Snowden’s lawyer and publishers, who handle Snowden’s public affairs, and after a long process of back-and-forth negotiations they secured Snowden as a keynote speaker.
Dr. David Lyon, director of the Surveillance Studies Center and author of the recent publication Surveillance After Snowden, acted as the moderator for the talk.
There were mixed opinions among audience members about Edward Snowden and his mass disclosures of National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence documents to journalists in 2013.
Some students, like Mackenzie Schroeder, Nurs ’17, say Snowden’s actions were gutsy, but had good intentions.
Another guest, Akif Hasni, a PhD student in political studies, said he thought Snowden’s actions were important, despite the problems associated with publishing that information.
Other guests at the event didn’t completely agree with Snowden’s whistleblowing.
“It’s a dangerous thing to tell newspapers about. The thing about guys like Edward Snowden is that no one is going to know if what he did was good, while the action itself may be,” Sam Kary, ArtSci ’15, said.
Kary referred to John Oliver’s Snowden interview, where Oliver highlighted damages to national security caused by careless redacting of leaked documents by TheNew York Times.
The failure to properly redact leaked documents revealed the name of an NSA agent along with information on how the US government was targeting al-Qaeda operatives in Mosul in 2010.
It was recently announced that YouTube, owned and operated by Google, is planning on releasing a paid subscription service. This would entail a prioritizing of services to those who are able to afford it and creating exclusive content for those who are willing to pay. This is all kinds of messed up—but the most nefarious aspect of this is that they are already making money off of you. Google uses you much like an employee (though unpaid). All of the content you generate, use, or provide “free” to Google, they organize and trade through complicated surveillance systems to swing a profit off of surplus value. This is why services like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are free. They are funded (and make ludicrous profits off of) your personal information.
“When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.”
They use complicated and automated means of surveillance in order to collect, organize, and monetize your data. They also are free to make use of your user-generated content—things you created with your time and effort, though you are not paid for this. Regardless of how you understand your relationship with Google, you should understand that the relationship is framed in a Capitalistic system. You are a Google piggy bank.
The concept of the cyber prosumer is discussed by many political economists and surveillance theorists. Cohen (2008) introduces the concept of prosumer into her work on surveillance and Facebook. This concept can be used for any Web 2.0 social media application (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.). It is most certainly a part of Google’s political economic structure. Cohen observes, “Business models based on a notion of the consumer as producer have allowed Web 2.0 applications to capitalize on the time spent participating in communicative activity and information sharing” (7). To call a social media user a prosumer is to say that they both produce and consume simultaneously while using Google services. They produce the user-generated content that is then sold to advertisers and used to target advertisements back at the prosumer.
In the process of Google capitalizing off this user-genreated content the prosumer is involved in ‘immaterial labour’. This is a concept devised by Lazzorato (1996) to talk about the informational and cultural aspects of labour exploitation. Though the Internet looked far different in the 90s, his concept has become even more valuable with the advent of social media. Lazzorato (1996) elaborates that immaterial labour is “the labour that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity” (1). He breaks this concept down to two components: informational content and cultural content (ibid 1). Informational content refers to the shift from physical labour to labour organized by computer and digital technology (ibid 1). Cultural content refers to the production of creative and artistic artifacts that were never (and still aren’t) considered in the realm of labour (ibid 1).
This concept is incredibly useful for understanding the role of social media in capitalism—as immaterial labour, often expressed as the realm of fun and social, becomes the unrecognized exploitation of users as corporations utilize their creative potential for capital gain. Bauman and Lyon (2013) express, “The arousing of desires—is thereby written out of the marketing budget and transferred on to the shoulders of prospective consumers” (125). Though it is to be noted that this use of immaterial labour can be said to be a fair trade-off for free use of Google’s services.
The troublesome part of all of this is that if they begin to charge for subscription fees for better services (preferred services) it will take on a doubling effect of exploitation. First, the prosumer engages in immaterial labour through the creation of user-generated content that Google consolidates to produce surplus value from thus generating profit. And then, the prosumer is charged a subscription fee for use. In terms of labour, you will essentially have to pay to provide Google with the fruits of your labour.
What may be even more troubling is if Google is allowed to succeed with the implementation of YouTube Red than it will likely provide incentive for other social media sites, such as Facebook, to do similar things. This is a conversation we should not take lightly. Surveillance might have its benefits to society, but when used by social media sites through the capitalist framework, two issues come to mind: exploitation and control. We need to take a critical stance on this or we might slip down the slippery slope of subscription social media.
Bauman, Zygmunt and David Lyon. 2013. Liquid Surveillance. Cambridge: Polity.
Cohen, Nicole S. 2008. “The Valorization of Surveillance: Towards a Political Economy of Facebook.” Democratic Communique 22(1):5-22.
Lazzarato, M. 1996. ‘Immaterial Labour.’ Generation Online. Retrieved November 5, 2015 (http://www.generation-online.org/c/fcimmateriallabour3.htm).
I suppose I should begin with a (very) brief introduction to the study of political economy (from the novice perspective) and then draw out its many connections to how we exchange and produce (big)data through our use of social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.). As far as the development of poliecon in the social sciences is concerned—we begin with Hegel and Marx/Engels. So prepare your head for a quick review of the history of humanity. Ready? Go!
Hegel developed the philosophical concept of dialectics in history. He idealized history as the production of knowledge (thesis) that was then challenged by another form of knowledge (antithesis) and through conflict and debate formed a new body of knowledge (thesis). Dialectics would continue to cycle like this in a back and forth tension between bodies of knowledge until we reached the pinnacle of all knowledge—the perfect society. The notion of a “perfect society” is very well challenged in our era of academic thought. However, this inspired Karl Marx to (dialectically) approach the development of historical materialist methodology which featured dialectic thought in a more empirical fashion (the development of these thoughts led to a fissure in academic thought between the idealists (Hegelian) and the materialists (Marxist).
Karl Marx grounded his research into the development and history of capital (and capitalism). Through his empirical studies he theorized that the mode of production was the foundation of (just about) everything in society. This was the material base from which the superstructure arises. The superstructure is the heterogeneous masses of ideological thought (politics, law, social relations, etc.). It is from the superstructure, which is coordinated by the mode of production (and some argue, mode of exchange), that we get the (unstable and constantly changing) understanding of value. Furthermore, if the mode of production were to change (as it is certainly done in this case), the superstructure would change, along with the meaning of social relations and formations. It is from this conception of value, as understood by political economy, that I want to spring from to understand how we exchange (big)data through the use of social media. I will use Facebook as the overarching example, because at this point, we all have an intimate knowledge of Facebook. Also, Facebook owns other social media platforms (such as Instagram). It is certainly the current largest social network site.
In order for the entire architecture (both physically and digitally) of Facebook (and other forms of social media) to exist there needs to be value generated for information (big data). Facebook is a capitalistic enterprise that seeks to generate profit from such information. Because of this, Facebook works to proliferate and expand its user base. The more Facebook’s user base proliferates, the more data they have to draw from. I am going to highlight that Facebook achieves all of this through two fundamental forms of surveillance: participatory surveillance and capital surveillance.
First value must be generated. Value is generated for big data through its production and consumption. Before we can understand how value is created we need to talk about the prosumer. In the context of Facebook, the user produces and consumes the user-generated content and metadata that is then used as big data in aggregate. So essentially, producer and consumer are collapsed into the user prosumer (Cohen 2008:7). Value is generated because the fruits of the prosumer—data through biography, interaction, and Internet usage—are sold to advertisers who then feed it back into the system as targeted advertisements. According to Fuchs (2012), the prosumer is packaged, commodified and sold (146).
“Facebook prosumers are double objects of commodification. They are first commodified by corporate platform operators, who sell them to advertising clients, and this results, second, in an intensified exposure to commodity logic. They are permanently exposed to commodity propaganda presented by advertisements while they are online. Most online time is advertisement time” (146).
This is obviously problematic. I think it is also pretty important that we acknowledge that the role of prosumer positions the Facebook user as a free labour commodity. Cohen (2008) asserts, “Web 2.0 models depend on the audience producing the content, thus requiring an approach that can account for the labour involved in the production of 2.0 content, which can be understood as information, social networks, relationships, and affect” (8). In this process of production, Facebook repackages user-generated content and sells the data to generate intense profits (in the billions range). The user prosumer remains unpaid in this exchange. Interestingly enough, through my own work in qualitative research, those who participated in my research believed that use of Facebook’s services qualified as a fair exchange for their data. I think an apt thread of thinking that could resolve these problems, van Djick (2012) observes, “Connectivity is premised on a double logic of empowerment and exploitation” (144). With this noted, I would like to focus on the production, consumption and monetization of user-generated content.
The content produced and consumed by the user prosumer is organized through two layers of surveillance. The first layer of surveillance, is participatory surveillance. Albrechtslund (2008), in trying to address the overwhelming dystopic metaphors implicit in the discourse and study of surveillance, he explains that use of hierarchical models of surveillance (like the big brother and panopticon) obscures important sociological processes that occur through the mediation of social media (8). Furthermore, it treats users as passive agents, unable to resist the oppressive and repressive forces of the Big Brother. He attempts to frame surveillance as a mutual, horizontal process that empowers users through the sharing of information and creation of elaborate autobiographies. Albrechtslund elaborates that social media offer, “new ways of constructing identity, meeting friends and colleagues, as well as socializing with strangers” (8). In this understanding of social media, the subject is not a passive agent under the oppressive gaze of big brother, but an active subject pursuing empowerment. Furthermore, Albrechtslund frames user-generated content specifically as sharing, not trading. However, in doing this, he ignores that these social media platforms are constructed, shaped and owned by capitalist corporations seeking profit. This is where the second layer of surveillance becomes important—capital surveillance.
During the process of the user prosumer engaging in participatory surveillance, or in other words producing and consuming user-generated content that they share with others, the capitalist captures that data and repackages it to be sold to advertisers. They do this through complicated algorithmic computer software which than stores the data in a large architecture of computer hardware, optic wires, and servers. The fruits that become available through participatory surveillance are commodified (along with the prosumers) and then traded to produce capital. This layer, the hierarchical and oppressive model of surveillance, organizes and shapes how user prosumers generate content. Thus van Djick’s concept of the double logic of connectivity is realized. What is problematic here is that much of capital surveillance is rendered opaque or invisible to the user—who only sees the participatory aspects and the advertisements (repackaged user-generated content). Also problematic, is that this entire process is automated–though this note will not be taken up in this article.
It is important to note that participatory surveillance is not typically a capitalist endeavour. Cohen writes, “The labour performed on sites like Facebook is not produced by capitalism in any direct, cause and effect fashion… (it is) simply an answer to the economic needs of capital” (17). So where the user prosumer “shares” their production of user-generated content, the capitalist “trades” it. These are two interconnected, though fundamentally different, processes. We, the user prosumers, don’t often recognized the capital forms of surveillance occurring, because we are so intimately involved in the participatory forms of surveillance. This, I believe, is the root to our apathy about the surveillance issues surrounding social media like Facebook. What needs to be devised next is how we can package these theories in a popular form and export them to those who are shaped by these forms of exploitative commodification. It is the work of social scientists to understand, and then to shape, the world around them.
Another lesson we should take from this is that not all surveillance is evil. We do not live in an inescapable dystopian society. To say this, we obscure a lot of actual practices of surveillance that are beneficial. We also render the notion of resistance as a practice in futility. Surveillance is a neutral phenomenon that is used for better or worse by a plethora of different corporations, governments, non-governmental organizations, activists, and regular everyday people. But in saying this, we can’t ignore the potential abuse and exploitation that may come from the use of surveillance practices to increase the flow of Capital.
Albrechtslund, Anders. 2008. “Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance.” First Monday 13(3). Retrieved Oct 9, 2015 (http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2142/1949).
Cohen, Nicole S. 2008. “The Valorization of Surveillance: Towards a Political Economy of Facebook.” Democratic Communique 22(1):5-22.
van Dijck, José. 2012. “Facebook and the engineering of connectivity: A multi-layered approach to social media platforms.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 19(2):141-155.
Fuchs, Christian. 2012. “The Political Economy of Privacy on Facebook”. Television & New Media 13(2):139-159.
After being apart much of the spring and summer season myself and my friend Rachelle met up in Southern Ontario to on a mission to check out Wayhome Music and Arts Festival in Oro-Medonte. If you have never heard of Wayhome (or similar festivals: Osheaga, Shambala, Bass Coast, etc.), it is a large three-day long music festival on a large strip of farmland just outside of Barrie, Ontario. For some this means a weekend snorting crystals, guzzling beer and dropping M. For others, an ecstatic rhythmic dance experience with thousands of sweaty, scantily clad bodies. For the locals Wayhome was a “misuse of agricultural land and a disturbance”. For us, it was a reunion and a bunch of musical fun. Having gone through the parts of life where dropping copious quantities of drugs was fun and cool, and no longer being prone to getting blackout drunk—we had a brilliant opportunity to observe what we had thought was going to be a colourful hippy dippy experience. However, what we experienced was a far (distant) cry from what our expectations had been. It was nothing like the life changing and spiritually ecstatic festival culture we read about in magazines or experienced over documentaries.
Though it was phenomenal to be able to move our bodies to the live playing Alt-J and Modest Mouse—we fell prey to an overt money-making, capitalist fiasco. Everything was heavily clad in sponsorship and advertisement logos. Even many of the attractions were just public relation campaigns made to hi-jack festival goer’s social media in order expand corporate advertisement reach. A slurry of beer companies, water companies, phone companies and fast food branches had set up booths amid the five main stages. Everything was expensive—especially if it was under the category of a ‘need’. Food damn well set us broke and god forbid you buy a drink from the bar.
Capitalist exploits aside, what caught me as most interesting was the festival’s surveillance infrastructure: RFID bracelets, security check points, cameras (everywhere), and even drones filming the dance pits from above. I need to note here that I am not trying to paint up an illustration of dark, mysterious festival conspiracy theories. Nor am I talking about Big Brother. But I would like to demonstrate just how surveillance is used at Wayhome to socially sort and position festival goers into different socio-economic classes. Being sorted this way—Wayhome uses various strategies to open and close doors of opportunity and shape the very experience of those who are attending and spending large sums of cash to be there. Let’s expose the mundane surveilling structures that comprise the everyday life of festival goers.
According to “The New Transparency“, an interdisciplinary team studying surveillance issues in Canada, we live in a culture that has normalized surveillance—we track, record and analyze just about any data that we can mine or scrape from people’s actions, online identities, and opinions. For better or worse we exist in a time and place that has come to rely on the use of large amounts of personal and interpersonal data. This sort of surveillance has many faces. From the bloated intelligent agencies (NSA) and whistle blowers (Snowden) to street cameras and Facebook. These technologies and strategies of surveillance are so embedded in our everyday life we take them for granted. They are in the realm of common sense. And when something falls into the realm of common sense we are less likely to notice it, let alone look at it with a critical lens.
Using smart phones to snap images and share them on social media such as Instagram or Facebook (with a sweet filter of course) is an example of what sociologist’s call “participatory surveillance“. This sort of surveillance, which may have a whole plethora of social benefits, is something we conduct together physically and digitally. Another form of surveillance, the form that relates to Wayhome, is how people are grouped together and sorted through some form of technological mediation. The technology in this case is the RFID bracelet that everyone at the festival must wear.
These bracelets were little strips of synthetic cloth, with a small RFID chip placed inside, and a locking mechanism so that you can’t take it off your wrist. According to Dr. David Lyon (2007), “These devices (RFID) rely on small tags that may be read wirelessly from a tiny antenna as the tag passes near the sensor” (113). He further elaborates that they perform categorization based on geo-locational data (ibid 113). These bracelets came in many different colours. Each colour represents a social position at the festival. Yellow bracelets were for general admissions—the lowest rung of the social ladder, the proletariat of Wayhome. Red bracelets were for VIP—which just about cost you your left kidney and child’s university savings. This was the bourgeois. There was also a diversity of bracelets for staff, artists, stage crews, media and volunteers. The whole rainbow was covered. Because these bracelets lock when they are put on it freezes any chance of social mobility, in other words, movement between different classes of people. Another important thing to note is that all festival goers were asked to preregister their RFID bracelets to their Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts for social media and security purposes. This linked the physical bracelets to individual, digital information about the festival goer.
According to Lyons (2007), “playspaces” or places of leisure, such as shopping malls or music festivals, have some of the most intensive surveillance (108). Much of this surveillance categorizes and sorts those who are welcome (those with bracelets) and those who are not (those who sneak in). There is an assemblage of surveillance technologies that are not quite connected, but can be drawn together in various forms to create profiles on individuals and gaze over populations in aggregate. I will write on the assemblage in another future post, but for now, you may want to read The Surveillant Assemblage by Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson. On another note, it would be interesting to know how much data Wayhome mines from the RFID bracelet and Facebook, Twitter, Instagram connections. Likely, it is very profitable for them.
Surveillance is everywhere. Many sociologists our heralding us a surveillance society. It is certainly about time we bring this often hidden aspect of our lives under some critical, public scrutiny. Many of the technologies are still very cryptic and mysterious in their ways of watching, categorizing, and sorting people. But the power for them to mediate our life choices is vast. From music festivals to social media to surfing the web and walking the streets. We are always watched and watching.
Kyle Curlew (@curlewKJ)
The New Transparency – Interdisciplinary report on surveillance issues and trends in Canada – http://www.sscqueens.org/projects/the-new-transparency/about
The Surveillance Studies Center – Interdisciplinary center for studies of surveillance at Queen’s University – http://www.sscqueens.org/ The Varsity – Festival report card:
WayHome – critique of Wayhome written by a critic at The Varsity newspaper – http://thevarsity.ca/2015/08/06/festival-report-card-wayhome/
Bennett, Colin J., Kevin D. Haggerty, David Lyon, and Valerie Steeves, eds. Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada. Au Press: Athabasca University, 2014. Web. 24 Aug. 2015.
Haggerty D., Kevin and Richard V. Ericson. “The Surveillant Assemblage.” British Journal of Sociology. 51.4 (2000): 605-622. Web. 2 Oct. 2015
One common misconception of surveillance studies is that by and large those who engage with this academic field study humongous and dangerous macro scale conspiracies and hierarchy based surveillance. Indeed, this is a sentiment I fell into until I became more familiar with the field (and subsequently fell deeply in love with the literature). Just the same, state and corporate surveillance is a major topic and theme in sociology—however, there is also a focus on the mundane.
In a folklore methods course I took in my undergraduate—the professor, Dr. John Bodner, lectured that common sense is a dangerous rhetoric. Common sense embodies the mundane. The mundane everyday things that we take for granted. This could be the various privileges we do or don’t enjoy. The shade of our gender. The colour of our skin. The tones of our voices and pronunciations. All of these common sense social things are vastly complicated and have real consequences on our life choices. Common sense is in fact a complex sense. Because this common sense is embedded in our social relations—it is of direct relevance to a sociologist. The mundane is actually quite interesting and when engaged through sociological methodology, we can learn an awful lot about human nature (and as relevant to this post, technology).
Surveillance as a value neutral activity is very much embedded in our everyday life. A very capturing report by The New Transparency titled Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canadaoffers an overview of how surveillance is embedded in the everyday lives of Canadians. This report is written in a capturing way that is accessible to those who are not familiar with heavy and dense academic jargon. We are surveiled by our digital technology for marketing and national security. But we also engage in surveiling each other through the use of social media. An example of this is when you “creep” or engaging in browsing a friends (or strangers) photos and status updates. Anyone with a social media connection (Facebook, Instagram or Twitter and many others) engages in this activity.
The point I really want to touch on is that surveillance isn’t always terrible, scary, invasive and big brother(ish). However, I am not proposing the opposite either. Surveillance is not inherently good or useful. Surveillance does not necessarily translate into safety. One of my favorite sociologists, José van Dijck (2012), maintains that, “connectivity is premised on a double logic of empowerment and exploitation” (144). I’d like to approach this topic with a curious excitement, as well as caution. Though we may use communication technology and social media in empowering ways—the Internet is run by powerful corporations who are mandated to swing (large) profits.
I would like to talk about one interesting piece of literature in particular—Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillancewritten by Anders Albrechtslund. It is an informative and fun read that sets out to address some of the more conspiracy driven surveillance theories. It can be found here for free published by First Monday. Albrechtslund, among other things, addresses the dystopian discourse of surveillance. So what is ‘participatory surveillance’? According to Albrechtslund, “The practice of online social networking can be seen as empowering, as it is a way to voluntarily engage with other people and construct identities, and it can thus be described as participatory”. Rather than surveillance in its original dystopic conception as destroying and rendering the subject as powerless and watched over, Albrechtslund suggests that surveillance in social media sites actually produces subjectivity (identity and community) and empowers users in a social realm that flattens (gets rid of) power relations. In other words, surveillance is not the work of Big Brother, but the interactions of people, strangers and friends, in producing and sharing content online.
In a short and sweet summary of Albrechslund’s conception of participatory surveillance—it galvanizes the user to participate in the construction of identity, through identity construction it empowers the user to grow as a human being, and allows a sense of interactive community through the sharing of user-generated content. We construct our identities through the use of user-generated content (posting photos, updating statuses and writing autobiographies), we engage in watching and surveiling other user’s content through our feeds or the act of ‘creeping’ while at the same time other users are engaged in surveiling us. And finally, we are building an information economy of shared content. All of this occurs through a horizontal power dynamic where instead of surveillance being situated in some state or corporate center—it is spread out in a complex collection of networks that are comprised of us.
I’d like to end this blog post with a thought about human nature (likely a thought that will charge the topic covered in my next post). Engaging in participatory surveillance and social networking sites are inherently ‘anarchistic’ interactions. I would like to proceed with caution with this word ‘anarchy’ as it is incredibly media saturated by negative latent meaning. By anarchistic I mean that the sharing of user-generated content occurs outside of the normalized capitalist ontology of profit (we only do things to make more cash). Think of all of those interest groups on Facebook where people share ideas with strangers and volunteer there time to generate content for free. The Internet offers us so many great examples of human nature as inherently cooperative, and not strictly competitive. Just a thought, but perhaps the Internet provides us with the context to shape human nature itself.
Albrechtslund, Anders. “Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance.” First Monday 13.3 (2008). Web. 24 Aug. 2015.
Bennett, Colin J., Kevin D. Haggerty, David Lyon, and Valerie Steeves, eds. Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada. Au Press: Athabasca University, 2014. Web. 24 Aug. 2015.
van Dijck, José. “Facebook and the engineering of connectivity: A multi-layered approach to social media platforms.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 19.2 (2012): 141-155. Web. 24 Aug. 2015.