Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Self-surveillance, economism, the flux of embedded values in markets

I have been reading a few papers lately about online social networking and surveillance. One of which, "Web 2.0, Prosumption, and Surveillance" by Christian Fuchs (pdf), was the impetus for the Arvidsson paper I wrote about before (a critique of Fuchs that I found convincing a priori).

Fuchs's paper spends a great deal of space rehashing doctrinaire Marxist positions on the labor theory of value and includes one of the most confusing charts I have ever seen outside a Lacan text.

The main things I took away from the paper was a useful tech-jargon phrase ("architecture of participation") and a tangential point about Marx's "critique of value" consisting in part of the forms value takes within a capitalist system. Ideology, practices, institutions, etc. combine to make value appear and become measurable only in certain ways, regardless of what the transcendental source of value qua value happens to be (which may ultimately be a theological question). You could read Marx as arguing that capitalism makes value appear only in commodity forms, which leads to the commercialization of everything, the subsumption of all forms of labor to capital, to the cash nexus absorbing and dictating more and more forms of human interaction. Value may be other than utility, but our social structure is such that we understand it mainly as a quantity to be maximized rather than, say, a condition or a set of harmonious and stable relations or whatever. It requires an increasing amount of active resistance on the part of individual subjects to think of value in alternative ways.

This is ultimately an ideological rather than an economic point, though mainstream economics is a discourse that rationalizes and supports the ideology, enshrines it as essential common sense and an infallible guide to policy. It becomes difficult to think "validly" outside of economism.

Fuchs also cites Mark Andrejevic's idea of the "digital enclosure" and his point about interactive technologies "generating feedback about the transactions themselves" -- which is to say the context and conditions of market practices are captured as a new kind of commodity even as the exchange is being facilitated. I find that extremely relevant but am still trying to figure out the arguments to express why. (Fuchs, alas, was not helpful on this front.) Technology becomes an engine for generating data about exchanges, which reshape the conditions of exchange themselves and the underlying social values embedded there. They change the bases of markets and the expectations market actors have about fairness, timeliness, credit, exploitation, boundaries to what can be commercialized, the way personal/private life should factor into economic decisions, etc. I guess that is why the word feedback jumped out at me; perhaps this is obvious, but the internet and data-driven commerce is reshaping the conditions of exchange in ways that ripple out into moral values (or alter the contours of subjectivity generally in a market-saturated society), and the process gains more momentum as it feeds on itself. It's not automatically bad (nor automatically good). But some reflexivity and feedback that can come from sustained critical attention seems like a good idea to counterbalance the uncritical embrace of the commercialized "social layer" that tech enthusiasts and business interests advocate.

But the main thrust of Fuchs's paper has to do with "prosumerism" -- an awful term dervied from futurist Alvin Toffler and which should be 86'd -- as a form of exploitation. I suppose I take that as sort of given, and don't especially want it translated opaquely into Marxist terms, where the critique seems to serve the agenda of "proving Marx right" rather than curbing the exploitation by changing people's minds about it. There is an important case to be made about the online medium being no less one-way that earlier mass mediums; that social media is, as Thomas Mathiesen (whom Fuchs cites) argued,
characterised by a one-way flow, from the relatively few in control of economic capital, symbolic capital and technical know-how, to the many who are entertained or who buy the products” and are thereby silenced.
The internet is a "system of silencing" no less than it is a prompt for a cacophonous babble of data and information. The power inheres not simply in the ability to broadcast but in controlling the means of filtering, of aggregating, of implementing huge data sets and integrating their implications with other lines of business outside media.

"Surveillance" is this context is basically another way of describing corporate data capture and attention brokering. Fuchs makes the point that users of Facebook, etc., "are double objects of commodification: they are commodities themselves, and through this commodification their consciousness becomes permanently exposed to commodity logic while they are online in the form of advertisements." I read that as getting at how online presence shapes self-consciousness, saturating us with awareness of the commercial potential of our activities. We become fatally aware of how we can sell ourselves, and thus intensify self-marketing practices. This leads to "self-surveillance" -- a grimmer way of describing online self-fashioning, or identity construction within social networks' interfaces.

More on that to come --

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