Blog Post

How The Machine Sees "You"--Part One

What follows is the first part of a short series regarding what I will term the “data subject,” in which I hope to piece apart the ontological claims made by “big data” analysis and subsequently imposed on each internet user.  More specifically, the subjecthoods created and utilized by social media services such as Facebook and Google--which, of the two, often falls outside of the purview of social media critique--will be problematized.  It is my hope to make strange these services so that we can reinterpret our positioning within them.


Because of the fact that the term “ontological” appears in the first paragraph of my blog post, you wouldn’t be wrong to assume that I am partial to critical theory jargon, for better or for worse.  To break from my verbiage, or at least to couch it, here’s the story of how I (we) arrived here:


You may be familiar with this feeling--although, parenthetically, I think that smokers might know it best.  


It’s ten minutes until the end of the work day on a Friday afternoon.  If you could see one of the productivity-increasing tinted windows that bridge the expanse between linoleum and tiled ceiling from the fluorescent depths of your desk, you would be gazing listfully through it.  You would be enthralled by the world beneath you, a world just a thin pane away.  You can’t see that place, even in its dampered state, from the center of the Kubrickian monolith that retains you.  


The nape of your neck crawls.  You are painfully aware of the places where the crimped folds of your shirt meet the protrusions of your body.  First, a sweat as you feel your back adhering to the ergonomic desk chair that you have been provisioned.  Then, a tantalizing chill as the industrial A/C vent overhead whirs up for the day’s final push, drowning out the rattle of well-kempt fingernails on anti-fatigue, anti-Carpal Tunnel Syndrome keyboards.  The fan’s regimented breeze feels almost like the tumultuous wind that you imagine must buffet that window, if you close your eyes momentarily, lean back, and allow it to caress your weary face.


Reaching towards your pocket, your fingers quiver.  Excess caffeine and the frustrated anticipation that comes with it make every part of your body feel just a touch out of place.  Each inch of skin squirms independently to find comfort, losing it as quickly as it is attained.  


The rectangular box is still there, where you left it all those hours ago at the beginning of the day.  Although you had no reason to believe that it wouldn’t be, the feeling of its familiar lines through smooth fabric on your clammy fingertips, the fullness that it provides to your otherwise achingly empty pocket, momentarily soothes your somatic revolt.  It takes all the remaining will that you can muster not to remove it from its rightful place, not to hold it longingly until the day finally grinds to a halt.  


As you walk through the revolving doors, into the air that you craved so desperately just moments ago, you pull the box from your pocket.  You open it with a thoroughly habituated flick of your thumb and raise its contents to your face.  Now unfettered by the cell-blockers so helpfully installed in your building, it buzzes to life.  Like the pull of a lever on a slot machine, like the moment before the river falls from the hand of the dealer in a game of Hold’em, those pings, vibrations and notification symbols suspend you in the ecstasy of possibility.  You select an innocuous but prominently displayed blue square brandished with a lowercase “f.”  The rotary loading indicator seems to take eons to disappear.  Then, as if it has been lying in wait just for you, a world opens up and you fall headfirst into its closure, into its embrace.  People and places fly by as you scroll lackadaisically through them.  You feel connected in an incomprehensible fashion--you don’t personally appear in any of the images that now bathe your mind.  


Co-workers young and old do the same, our heads tilted downward at our phones just steps from our place of work. Our eyes are livelier than they had been all day.  This is the window that we had truly desired.  The other was silmply a retro substitute for the space we really wished to inhabit--the realm of social media.  You update your status to some mundanity about the possibilities for the incipient weekend and you glance up.  None of the passing faces are familiar.  You look down again.  


A post catches your eye as it spins past.  You make an unprecedented move and scroll back up to view it, wasting seconds of your invaluable time as you do.  It’s one of your best friend’s posts.  Phe is usually level-headed amidst the chaos.  It reads “HOLY SHIT. CHECK THIS OUT.”


You select it.  Hundreds of disjointed notions fall into place as a coherent system.  The advertisement bar along the right side of the page now blinks red like a rolling camera.  You opt out of every “preference” that you can but you fear that it’s already too late.  The “+you” indicator on the top right of the page now reminds you of the bodily locus to which all the impersonal, immaterial bliss of the internet is tethered.  What’s worse--you knew it was happening all along.  It had been so devilishly easy, for all this time, to ignore the fact that this particular type of window stares right back through “you.”  Worst of all?  After your nerves regain a modicum of stability and you make your way, exposed, back to Facebook, you press the small thumbs-up underneath your friend’s post.  You watch more ads flutter in and out of view like the time tables in an old train station.  You put your phone in your pocket and look to the sky.  There’s nothing there, but the knot in your stomach tightens regardless.  You almost wish that there was a camera, floating high above the thousands of scalps that surround you.  Then you could hide from it.  The box sears your leg as you head home, alone.  You are not, by any means, alone.  




In keeping with Tiziana Terranova’s excellent article entitled Free Labor, this series will treat the creation of “personal” data as labor, and the data that has been created as a commodity.  “Personal” is found in quotation marks above because if you’ve ever said yes on one of these, then you should already know that your data is anything but “personal.”  Additionally, I believe that personal data is a prime modern exemplar of what Karl Polyani coined as the “fictitious commodity”--a commodity that is intrinsically not “produced for sale” but which is traded in a market economy as if it were.  His examples were land, labor and coinage, while mine take the form of “likes,” status updates, and user profiles.  The assumptions that he unearthed were those that were pertinent to the instantiation of the capitalist subject, while the assumptions that I will track are those that represent the creation of the capitalist “data subject.”  


Most discourse on the matter of “internet-age subjectivity” is taking place from opposite ends of the room.  On the one hand, we find appeals to the “endless possibilities” for marketing, experience personalization, re-presentation (of self and business), and statistical analysis of the mass of internet users for the benefit of all.  On the other hand, the now-ubiquitous heralding of the dawn of a new, all-encompassing surveillance state.  This is the Big Brother logic brought to its logical terminus.  The more fearful of these claims revolves around an understanding of constant outside monitoring of internet activity and an adherence to the somewhat essentialist notion that the data we create is, for all intents and purposes, who we are.  


Most of the recent writings on the subject of surveillance critique (or bolster) the NSA’s efforts in the post-9/11 social and political climate, stemming from the liberties granted to the NSA by the Patriot Act.  Yet, for most individuals, fear of the NSA’s power is akin to fear of being struck by lightning.  Odds are that the vast majority of internet users haven’t done anything “bad” enough to pop up in Keith B. Alexander’s inbox.  Barring the terrible Foucauldian “docility” that the power of the NSA has disciplined in users of the internet from my present critique, most users feel that as long as they don’t hold up a metal rod during an electrical storm, drawing attention to their online activities (nefarious or otherwise), they will get through life unhindered by surveilling forces. They may be right, but it is much more likely that the true etiology of their fears simply resides elsewhere.


Because fear of, or support for, the NSA is inevitably tied to a vast number of political, social, philosophical and personal beliefs, I have instead elected to study a type of personal surveillance and data analysis that emanates from the corporate sector.  Facebook and Google are two of the largest stockpiles of individualized, freely released data in the world.  Users undervalue their own data in exchange for perceived sociality and ease of use.  This personal data is, in reality, the only reason that these services exist and the sole reason that they are valued at $212 Billion and $373 Billion, respectively.

I will delve into the story of a single user and the ways in which this person interacts with, and is made subject to, data analysis.  That user is “me,” and the machine sees “me” clearly. Yet, for all its power, it does not see me.  Where does this distinction lie?  When will it cease to exist?  In the rest of this series, I will posit my hypothesis on the imminent collapse of this divide as well as the means by which individual users can rend open this bifurcation of “self” and self for their own benefit.  


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