Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Commodification of the Self

We all enjoy the sense that we are somebody -- that our drab, dreary lives possess some greater meaning, that our hopes, dreams, and aspirations may some day take tangible form. But in the meantime, while we've been learning and laboring and dreaming, all of the droplets of our online lives are being constantly collected like Elvis's sweat, bottled and packaged, searched through, rented, and sold. Of course, we're told that all of our "identifying information" has been removed -- we're just part of a vast agglomeration of data, after all -- but if someone wants to know how many people who play World of Warcraft are also regular customers at McDonald's, watch pay-per-view sports, or make frequent visits to Dave & Buster's, then the Data Oracle can "mine" this information for answers.  And, to an extent, once "mined," this data can be used to send back targetted ads and offers, such as a Dave & Buster's coupon for anyone who buys a custom mount in Warcraft. The system won't "know" that you'll be interested in such a thing -- but it may know that you are more likely to take the bait than some random person, and that knowledge, my friends, is POWER.

What can one do?  Well, you can travel the web with cookies and scripts turned off; you can filter your internet connection through a bunch of remote hosts that "scrub" off your identifying information; you can use remote anonymous e-mail accounts and encrypt all your messages with PGP. But if you do all these things, a big part of the value that can be derived from the Internet will be missing; you won't be able to share content easily with more than a few friends, shop online at most retailers, or host your own publicly-accessible web content.

There is, however, another way. You can use the system that uses you, and (with luck) you can get more out of it than they system gets out of you. The key question was first asked way back in 1968 by Doug Engelbart, who with his team at Stanford developed the first mouse, the first graphical interface, first collapsible menus, and many other things we take for granted:
"If in your office you as an intellectual worker were supplied with a computer display backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly responsive to every action you have, how much value could you derive from that?"
Engelbart demonstrated some basic things: keeping track of shopping needs, simple word-processing, sharing documents, and mapping an efficient travel route. But he didn't see one thing coming: that all these things might eventually, become so all-consuming in and of themselves that his imaginary "intellectual worker" would be more distracted than augmented.

Still, we can budget our time -- which remains ours, after all. We can take breaks from Facebook, skip online shopping for a week, deactivate our Twitter feeds, or quit Goodreads.  And we can turn the tables, to some extent, on those who use our time and energies for free by making maximum, careful, deliberate use of the resources they give us in exchange. We may not be able to completely avoid our information being used by marketers -- but we can become very adept at marketing ourselves, and our own intellectual labors, in a way that we can fully control.


  1. I think Engelbart has the right attitude about technology. True, a lot of our information is now accessible by people we were not necessarily intending to have access to it, but with careful monitoring of what you do or do not sign up for online I think it can work to ones advantage.

  2. No matter how stealthy I feel restricting my most intimate personal settings on social media, I know my actions are always being recorded. Maybe not as creepily as one imagines, but documented as in every message, every picture I post, and every accidental click of an ad is feeding the ever-expanding universe that is the Internet. I am not the kind of person who posts their daily score of Flappy Bird or calorie-tracker to prove how healthy I am, but if you look up Ava Callery on Google, I know more than just my Facebook page pops up. And, everything that I have represented as myself on social media cites will trigger certain ad sequences to pop up accordingly. That is so unnerving to me!