Blog Post

The importance of critical informaiton studies and the digital enclosure

When I think of doing critical information studies and scholarship, I think of it in the way that information, communication, technology & society scholars like Christian Fuchs do, which is to examine the way that power and systems of oppression are perpectuated with ICTs.

So to that end, I'd like to offer up Mark Andrejevic's work as a framework for thinking about the broader impact of code, and its certain lack of neutrality. Andrejevic offers and important critique of surveillance and monitoring in networked spaces on the Internet, and suggests a more critical look at ownership and control of information in "free" online spaces. Cloud computing and Wi-Fi networks are increasing the ways we access our information -- tending toward ubiquitous access through a matrix of devices. Words like "cyberspace" and the "cloud" obscure the processes at play in the storage of data on the Internet, as well as the control and recentralization of information that is taking place on the network.

Conservative proponents of cloud computing see it as a model for "separating users from information communications resources in order to restructure the terms of access to these resources (p. 296)." In other words, the business of accessing information will become more streamlined and less chaotic and distributed as it currently is on the Internet. 

Acculturating strategies and tools like Gmail, Google Docs and others serve as a means of securing personal information, email, documents, etc. in exchange for the ability to mine such information and sell it for a profit/commercial purposes.

In the current scheme, Google retains the right to search our data in exchange for "free" tools and services. An important, defining characteristic of the cloud is that it enables the collection and commodification of user information and behavior. The precision and refinement of the ability to identify and commodify "patterns of interaction, movement, transaction and communication" (p. 296) serves as a vital resource and profit center for cloud computing companies like Google.

These processes make the correlation of user data and behavior with communication and advertising exposure a likely and inevitable end. Examples of this include the attempt by Google & Earthlink to bring a city wide Wi-Fi network to San Francisco, and the use of interactive technologies to reinforce intellectual property schemes and unprecedented data centralization and control by companies like Google. Previously nonproprietary data becomes commercialized and controlled.

Andrejevic argues that the "digital enclosure" is a more appropriate way to name the Internet cloud, as a way of theorizing about the "forms of productivity and monitoring facilitated by ubiquitous interactivity (p. 297)." He cites Schiller (2007), Boyle (2003) and Lessig (2004) who map and critique the current expropriation of data by private corporations -- counter to the liberatory, freeing ideas of the Internet, popularized by the MIT Media Lab and Mosco (2004).

Furthermore, the limits of freedom can be tested by the use and control of data (like a HD DVD purchased in the U.S. but not allowed to be played in another country) because constant contact with a network allows control over our own private devices like laptops and other networked devices. Control over proper usage is being built into the technology itself and enforced through the network. Schiller (2007, p. 56) argues against such "digital enclosures of non-proprietary information."

These arguments underscore how networks are not essentially empowering, per se, in that they can be constituted in different ways, but are increasingly controlled by commerical media conglomerates.

Digital enclosures are also physical enclosures that also interact with other networks and enclosures (e.g., cellular, RFID, GPS, etc.). What is problematic is the ways in which most people do not understand how they are being tracked and monitored through these processes. Andrejevic details the land enclosure movement and its correlation to digital information enclosure and the move from "violent expropriation into a freely agreed-upon contractual arrangement (p. 302)." He critiques the notion of "freedom" to give up the control over the means of production and labor, replicated in the server-client model of digital spatial enclosures. Free labor is always inherent in online activities under this model of data mining and the cloud based on the users' psychographic profile.

Public, non-profit attempts for universal Wi-Fi have been attempted as a counter proposal to private ownership. Yet, the resources available to build infrastructure (e.g., Googleplexes) is difficult competition. The ability for the public to engage so deeply in these technologies is correlated to its affordances. Alternatives that allow affordances without such sacrifice of privacy, surveillance and loss of data control is what Andrejevic argues should prevail. Digital enclosures are regimes of power and control over users, rather than sources of freedom and autonomy and continue to be contested.

Certainly customized advertising is shattering any illusion that we are not under surveillance and data collectors will increasingly use our "demographic, psychographic and biometric information (pg. 314) to create and monitor our digital profiles -- profiles which will be inescapable, and for the most part, outside our realm of awareness or ability to match and reclaim. He frames this as "asymmetrical" power relations between companies and individuals, wherein consumer behavior accrues power to the companies.

Because we do not own these Internet-based/cloud technologies, we do not have access to the information accrued about ourselves. We submit to turning over our rights to such information on the terms of our engagement, and in the process, our "immaterial" activities became material commodities that lead to greater accumulations of commercial interest and control.

Blog post: Andrejevic, Mark(2007) 'Surveillance in the Digital Enclosure', The Communication Review, 10: 4, 295 — 317

Keywords: Google, Apple, Amazon, Earthlink, Murdoch, Marx, video games, digital capital, Microsoft, MSN Spaces, Yahoo, privacy, surveillance, Homeland Security, Acxiom, ChoicePoint, China, United States, AOL,


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