Blog Post

No f8 But What We Make, or, the Agenbite of Inwit

(x-posted from my blog, Aporia, and with thanks to Annette Markham for the metaphor)

Massive changes to Facebook announced at their f8 conference. The launch of Amazon's Kindle Fire. Lots and lots of great commentary on those events, the platforms, and their privacy implications. This isn't one of those posts.

What it is, I hope, is a morning-after, aspirins-and-remorse look at some social changes Facebook and Amazon are accelerating, and why the Stephen Dedalus/Sarah Connor mashup title I think encompasses the next age.

For most of us, Facebook, Amazon, Google and a variety of games services will be tracking our every keystroke (forget the online/offline distinction and count on needing an enabled connection to do anything but using your laptop as a food processor).

Likewise, if we drive or walk, we can expect to be tracked, in real time and retroactively, potentially for our entire lives.

Jeremy Bentham envisioned a prison in which one couldn't tell if one was being watched by guards in a central tower. The Panopticon works because it's not force or authority that keeps us obedient, it's the internalized voice of authority (Bruno Latour's "Where are the Missing Masses?" is a charming exploration of this key bit of political theory, and James Joyce called it "the agenbite of inwit").

Michel Foucault glossed the concept as a tool of broader social control, but it was back in 2005 that futurist Jamais Cascio noticed how social media and portable communications technologies had enabled the creation of something new: the Participatory Panopticon.

In the Panopticon, there's a distinction between Us, the imprisoned, and Them, our jailers. They built the Panopticon, and somehow dragged (enrolled?) us all into it. It's an XXth Century vision of the totalitarian state, of 1984. But, to paraphrase Pogo, in our world of the Participatory Panopticon, we've met our jailers, and they is us.

In The Future of Reputation, Daniel Solove documented how we use new media to enforce conformity on each other.  From HR google-bombing to cyberbullying  to griefing, social media tools are used to impose the blandest norms of behavior, often with violent, even lethal, consequences for those of different races, religions or means of gender and sexual expression.

One of the implicit principles of social control in XXth Century totalitarian societies was the rejection of the principle that one could only be convicted of violating laws of which one had the capability of determining what they prohibited (no ex post facto laws and the doctrine of "void for vagueness" in American constitutional law).

That principle's been rejected in the Participatory Panopticon: young people are being denied jobs for documented behavior before entering the job market; politicians are being held to standards developed after their behavior comes to light; new contexts are being applied to old behaviors; and juvenalia is dredged up to discredit mature thinkers.

The bottom line? We're all guilty of something, and there's a good chance we can't, now, figure out what it is, what to do about it, or when it'll come back to grab us.

This is, of course, paradise for prosecutors, authoritarians and busybodies.

It leaves us very few options: a level of impression management likely to induce dissociative disorder (and still likely to fail, when you drive through the same zip code as a "terror suspect" or anti-capitalist protest); trust to blind luck that your number won't come up, or -

What would the Stephen Dedalus route, "silence, exile and cunning?" look like? Not going off the grid and living in a medieval hovel in Idaho: one, that'll probably be criminalized soon, and two, there's no guarantee at all that you won't get a sunrise visit from the ATF, on general principles.

No, it means hiding within the net, something like the Maoist vision of cadres invisible among the masses. Don't look at me: look to the old cyberpunks. They knew this stuff.

It also means armoring against the agenbite of inwit, putting our internal Chekist up against the wall, freeing ourselves from the fear of being different, of being the tall weed that gets clipped.

Anybody who's ever come out, as anything, knows that one.

Being out and proud, rejecting our f8, saying a loud no to the voices of corporate conformity, internal and external - it's our only way out of the Participatory Panopticon.

That, or going back in time to blow up Facebook Google Amazon SkyNet.

Though, I'd much rather the company of spinny killbots than the judgment of HR drones.

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