Questioning "The Cloud": Andrejevic's "Surveillance in the Digital Enclosure"

In his article, "Surveillance in the Digital Enclosure," author and scholar Mark Andrejevic takes on the task of questioning the often-idyllic and largely positive rhetoric frequently used to describe the variety types of ubiquitous, cloud and always-on computing. In so doing, he invokes the sci-fi visionary of the 1980s, William Gibson, who imagined many characteristics of the modern networked computing environment before it actually existed, and reminds us that that vision was hardly idyllic. Rather, it was a dystopian near future that Gibson portrayed, characterized by surveillance and control.

Early depictions of a jacked-in, always on networked future included images of virtual reality prosthetics and cyborg body modification, often against a backdrop of a dystopian and depressed world.

Which narrative is more realistic, in the context of the brave new world of cloud computing? Andrejevic suggests that, despite the rhetoric of convenience and untetheredness, the Faustian bargain into which users enter in order to gain the convenience of access to their information and the suite of applications cloud and ubiquitous computing provisioners offer comes at a great, yet unseen cost: the profound recentralization, consolidation and subsequent commodification and control over both the content users upload to the cloud and their habits and behaviors that can be turned into valuable data, mined, extracted and sold.

Andrejevic rejects the very metaphor, the "cloud," upon which these services stake their appeal, preferring a more pessimistic turn of phrase, that of "digital enclosure," purposely invoking the great land enclosure movements of the 17th century, when the commons gave over to private land ownership (a favorite view of Duke's Jamie Boyle). Not just a simple semantic quibble, the difference between the two visions is actually profound; one suggests limitless potential space and the other, the very inverse, characterized by boundaries and control.

The ease with which this control Andrejevic asserts is being perpetuated seems perplexing, at first. How could so many smart and tech-savvy people be so easily either misled or rendered docile in the face of the enclosures to which they voluntarily submit?  The first answer is "through the power of seduction": being located in the cloud provides immediacy, tangibility and convenience; devices interact and data are shared over them all in real time and irrespective of the constraints of physical location. The interoperability of the suite of ubiquitous computing functions, from basic wireless connectivity to specific apps and tools provided to users free of upfront charge, is alluring.  Further, Andrejevic points out that the cloud-based platforms and products frequently heavily tout their primary user-directed functionalities, but mask the advertising, data gathering and information commodification that is often at the core of the revenue-generation side of their business.  But even when the overt functionalities do not fully mask the behind-the-scenes data-gathering or surveillance processes, the ease-of-use and benefits of succumbing to the cloud or to the ubiquitous computing environment are highly seductive and distracting, such that most users will never question where and how the limits surrounding them are imposed. The limits are often designed to be imperceptible to users, purposely.

 

A recent Microsoft ad campaign implores us to go "to the cloud!"

The second is through the sheer and overwhelming amount of rhetoric that blindly champions the new control and commodification paradigm. Many smart people have made many bold claims about the liberating nature of computing, often focusing, as was the intent, on the sort of in-the-weeds functions relating to mobility, access and ease of use. The rhetoric of this sort is popular, uncritical and ultimately confusing to those who seek to question the behaviors or philosophy of the data-gatherers.

Andrejevic foresees nothing short of the tracking of everything for purposes of commodification of the data generated, a regime of contracts superseding that of law, and the transformation of the notion of "freedom" taking on a new and nuanced hue; the act of doing anything freely begins to transpire within the confines of the new digital enclosures, and freedom of choice is a choice among a narrowly defined set of acts pre-selected by those in control. In this way, the digital enclosure is a fundamental process of the accumulation and consolidation of power and control - and with it, capital, given the new value that the gathered data takes on in a society driven by data analysis and the commodification of information for use or resale. How better to gather this data than to construct the very arenas in which it is generated, make them appealing for their overt benefits, employ a regime of complicated contracts that determine the rules of engagement while obfuscating the true value of what is being surrendered by users (i.e. their free labor), and then sit back to collect and monetize the valuable information generated and volunteered? As Andrejevic points out, once all critical services engage in the practices he critiques, "the 'freedom' to avoid monitoring becomes, in practice, a theoretical one" (314).

The logical extent of this new surveillance culture is implicated, too, when considering the new hunger for which the government seeks information under the auspices of its "national security" mandate. Concern for the collection and handling of commodified information, gathered in the digital enclosure, is heightened in light of the recent report by the Washington Post, which revealed that over 2000 private companies contract with the government for the purposes of national security-related data analysis and security work. Are we to assume that these private companies, acting on behalf of the government, are not attracted to the massive data volunteered in the cloud? Could they be building digital enclosures of their own (through the Facebook platform, for example) and inviting users to volunteer information directly to them for analysis and digestion by the for-profit national security apparatus? This one-time Orwellian vision seems thoroughly plausible in our current environment.

So what solutions are at our avail? Dismally few, notes Andrejevic, although the picture is not hopeless. The first step in reversing this tide is to raise awareness about the ways in which commonplace digital tools actually function. There must also be new alternatives formulated, particularly as the "preprivatization" communication systems once commonplace in universities and government environments are increasingly and rapidly disappearing (reference the University of Illinois' process underway to turn over its undergraduate email infrastructure to Gmail). Another avenue through which pressure must be exerted is in the policy arena, where telecom and other digital giants are quite adept at creating legislation favorable to reification of their control and consolidation. A cynic might suggest that there is little hope in pursuing this avenue, at least without the component of direct and highly visible resistance on the ground. The bottom line is that the contemporary dominant iteration of the Internet as commercial space is only one vision. That it has been so successful points to the vast financial and technological resources backing the digital enclosure efforts, on the one hand, and to the selling of tools based on their convenience, accessibility, ease of use and functionality while downplaying their data-gathering and surveillance activities. Ask a person on the street, for example, what Google's primary business is, and the answer will undoubtedly be, "search engine," and not the more accurate, "advertising," or perhaps "data-mining."

We must, therefore, begin to combat this problem of obfuscation by unveiling and understanding the business practices, functionality and technological underpinnings of the ubiquitous computing platforms and tools. We must identify alternate models, past and present, and offer them to users interested in maintaining greater autonomy and transparency in their networked computing environments (the Diaspora project, http://www.joindiaspora.com/index.html, might be one such alternative deserving of attention). We must continue to uncover the true costs and value of information gathered and collected from users, showing how it is commodified and used. Likely most challenging of all, we must resist egregious abuses of our own digital autonomy and refuse to engage and enrich systems that abuse us with our own personal and creative material. With apologies to "War Games," it may just be that the only way to win is not to play.

 


References

 

 Andrejevic, Mark. Surveillance in the Digital Enclosure. The Communication Review 10, no. 4: 295, 2007.

 

Zuofu

This is an interesting

This is an interesting article, but I think it attributes too much blame to cloud computing. One thing to sort of remember is that cloud computing is in fact a very old concept in a way. Before the PC revolution, most computing was done on mainframes and minicomputers through connected terminals, and many of the fundamental issues of data security and privacy were addressed back then. It sort of makes sense that many distopian portrayals of computers (including the two that you used in your post, Neuromancer and Wargames came out of this era of centralized computing.

Ultimately I think the solution is simply to adopt parallel paradigms for computing. Keep the notion of the personal computer for data which is strictly local and think of the cloud as one would approach a mainframe. It's a computer "far away" that lets you do things you can't on your PC or terminal. In the old days, the mainframe had more memory and more computing power than your terminal, now perhaps the advantage is in easy access and sharing. Perhaps the problem is that many computer users are too young to have used a shared system until Facebook, but ultimately I feel like these problems can be solved by looking at the past.

sarahr

Great Points

Zuofu, great points all around and I certainly appreciate your appeal to computing history and the nature of mainframe computing.  But how does the nature of computing, which has research and relatively restricted activity confined to particular realms of life into an everyday and often obligatory mode of interaction, change the way in which we ought to think about data transfer, transparency and our own individual control over it?  Maybe the answer is that it shouldn't, or, more to the point, that we ought to simply get over it, particularly in light of what can be gained by convenience, interoperability with systems, access and speed (just to start a quick list).  Andrejevic clearly takes a different position on that issue.  Whatever the case, while I agree with your reminder to look to the past and the architecture of mainframe computing, yet perhaps what constitutes the difference between past "cloud-like" analogues (terminal-to-mainframe arrangements) and today's propositions isn't so much the architecture of the computer systems and networks themselves, but the social context in which the computing takes place.

Zuofu

I suppose it ultimately comes

I suppose it ultimately comes down to choice and education. For me personally it is clear that an Android based smartphone is in fact a terminal to some larger system (the Google "universe") which may have privacy and security vulnerabilities. But you are (and Andrejevic) are right in that it is not sold as such. Technologically there is nothing new about having a remotely stored address book or doing word processing where the application is running remotely. However, if this was 1983 and you have to log into a school or business mainframe to send an email, you are probably aware of the potential privacy and security issues - whereas today you are doing essentially the same thing every time you send an email on your phone or through Gmail, but you may not realize it. 

I think the answer for individuals is just a better awareness of different 'contexts' of computing. Certainly in normal speech, people will say different things to depending on the setting, think a bar vs. a family dinner. Ultimately I don't think the personal computer (in terms of having your own physical hard drive) will not go away any time soon. A useful model then is just to treat everything else (no matter how innocent) as the outside, one way or another. You may give Google information you would not give Facebook based on trust (and you may say things to a friend you would not say at a family dinner), but ultimately there are things you wouldn't say in either context. I think inevitably people will need to develop some kind of contexts for computing as well, what systems work in what way, what kinds of data do you want to share (or at least would not result in ruin/divorce/death/bad things if it were shared).

But really humans are very adaptive. We already have treat text messages differently from IMs and differently from emails, which are then very different from Facebook messages - even though these are ultimately all ways to send text to another person. These differences develop through our percieved trust of a system as well as social conventions. I think perhaps Andrejevic's conclusion is not giving people enough credit for in fact having very good intuition about these systems. Ultimately Facebook, Gmail, etc are really tools that can be used to achieve a purpose - and they can be used well or poorly. It seems from histoic evidence that people adapt to use tools very well.