Illustration: Hazel Laing
Progress - historically this is indicated by the socio-economic and political changes a society undergoes over a period of time. However, often the notion of ‘progress’ and the social changes that come with it are directly paralleled with the development of new technologies. To follow the canon of globalisation is to observe a linear trajectory from the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg to today’s globalised community. The globalised world that we operate within today is both a product of, and concurrently dependent on, the technological communications platform commonly known as ‘the Internet’. And from this paradigm of technological dependency we now enter the era of surveillance – where one is cast in the role of an exchangeable commodity within the algorithmic landscape, and the once familiar characters of ‘privacy’ and ‘choice’ now slowly morph into notions of the past. So, when denied a full understanding of the Terms of Conditions, how does one know how to progress from here?
In parallel with the birth of the public sphere and its development into the ever growing and interconnected communications network of the Internet, comes a shadow on the periphery of our screens. If you were to look at the internet through the same lenses of idealism and optimism as those at the time of its birth in the 90s, then sadly I’d have to tell you to ‘get your head out of the clouds’. Predictably, with the pairing of the economic and social benefits of a more interconnected world, the inevitable influence on their meddling triplet is never far behind – politics. The internet is not a rhizome space but a goldmine for data mining and surveillance. It is driven by an industrialised digital culture that runs on the fumes of vindication and validation.
When it comes to the interpersonal, or in this instance, inter virtual relationships between people vs politics, the concept of monitorisation is key. Within the context of a globalised world, ‘the Internet’ as a basis for high speed communication networks is a cornerstone for the global distribution and consumption of goods. This is relevant for the economy on both the macro and micro level: the state and the corporation. The Internet is an indiscriminate tool for both democratic and authoritarian governments. This creates the capacity to effectively control the dissemination of any provocative or detrimental information that could negatively undermine them.
The pendulum hangs in the balance when in negotiation with monitorisation. The governing body in question may utilise the medium of the Internet to control the dissemination of information over digital platforms, balancing this with the promotion of economic growth and avoiding social unrest. For example, China’s technological and institutional measures of control work to encourage both economic growth based upon technocratic industries, whilst deterring citizens from social unrest.
It is impossible, or at least impossible to date, for any state or governing body to have perfect control over the dissemination of information or the posting of public opinions online. This is due to the nature of the Internet itself as it was originally developed- without centralized control. To explain this lack of centralization one must look to the socio-political context of its birth. Originally, the early Internet was developed in line with military objectives; with the US Department of Defence being the dominant funding body in its’ development. Therefore, initially this non-centralized communication network was developed on a packet switching technology, acting to protect itself from communication cut-off at any point by an enemy attack. It is this continued lack of centralization that acts to frustrate both democratic and authoritarian governing bodies.
An example of how a state can try to invoke a certain amount of control through the use of surveillance technology is China’s national computer network. It is through the digital infrastructure and architectural modification of the national computer network itself that the state may control the dissemination of sensitive information. This is achieved through the act of blocking web pages by IP address and highlighting keywords in URLs to stop certain search requests. However, without complete centralisation there are always loopholes. An individual can manoeuvre around these digital architectural obstructions, be that through James Bond-esque hacking techniques or expressing oneself politically in a coded non-political format. So the main question is how do governing bodies, democratic or authoritarian, successfully cast their control over the net?
There are 4 main aspects of online control: law, social norms, economics and architecture. We are already aware that one can try to modify the architecture of the Internet in the format of a national computer network. As discussed above, this can be achieved through advanced algorithms to block certain sensitive content. However, this is not a fully effective means of control. It is at this point that the use of alternative tactics, such as psychological strategies, become necessary. It is through the invisible institutional pressures that are so embedded into our society that we become blind to the blurred line between the illusionary or the authentic being of freedom.
Douglass North (1990) defines institutional pressures as ‘the humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction.’ To analyse and focus on the institutional pressures surrounding that of law, social norms and economics and thus in turn recognise their influence over our own construction of self: The law threatens punishment, the breaking of social norms intimidates through ostracism and the economic threat of vulnerability looms overhead. If one cannot control the configuration of the Internet then they must control the one who uses it – be that through psychological manipulation, bribery or fear. The concept of ‘cost’, which may be based upon economic or metaphorical punishment, acts as the deciding factor between one’s decisions to self-censor or to ‘take a risk’. Many are satisfied with simply having access to the internet for their own entertainment, communication and personal research purposes – that being within the controlled dissemination sources. The cost of the risk of punishment plus one’s satisfaction with small luxuries, like the access to a favourite TV show online, acts to deter many from seeking to undermine government services to access illegal content.
The scholar, Manuel Castells, describes our contemporary state of awareness when it comes to surveillance technology as ‘informed bewilderment’. However, there is always a tipping point to which we can no longer stand content within our own passivity. At present, the algorithmic monitorisation is no longer the only factor we need to worry about. Indeed it is the total structural shift of the global market which threatens to push us into the Big Brother dystopian archetype: a new variant of capitalism - a mutant of the digital age - thriving off the sales of behavioural data. The philosopher, Soshana Zuboff, has coined this new variant as ‘Surveillance Capitalism’, highlighting its tendency to:
“unilaterally claim human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data…declared as proprietary behavioural surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later.” – Zuboff
This surveillance market is foundationally built on the commoditisation of the individual and on the bones of the fading concepts of ‘consent’ and ‘agency’. The discussion is no longer simply how we are monitored but how we may be sold. It is not a question of Politics vs People, but more of the dystopian Big Brother view of the Watchers vs The Watched.
The Hukou system in China is a frightening reality which only acts to emphasise the terrifying development of Surveillance Capitalism. In China the Hukou system can be understood as a government-issued household registration system. The system operates to store data on the individual and their current living situations. This in turn is used to restrict movement of the general population; aiding in consolidation of administrative control over China’s population, whilst directly institutionalising inequalities for those living in less developed areas. Additionally, China’s Social Credit System is the dystopian surveillance system that has recently been hitting the headlines. Through a system which acts to score and rank individuals, the Chinese government plans to issue a ‘unified social credit code’ to all businesses and an ‘identity number’ to all citizens by 2020. The surveillance network operates on the basis of a ‘points system’, where points may be deducted or added in accordance to one’s behaviour. Through the use of facial recognition systems one could be deducted a point for something as trivial as jaywalking. The point system – a hybrid and polished version of the already implemented Hukou – will affect where one may live, the availability of jobs and one’s access to public spaces. This is institutional pressure in its most public and profound form to date.
It’s true that the internet provides a platform that is simultaneously enabling, entertaining, educational, personal, detached and controlling in nature. However, it is no longer simply a black and white debate between the negatives and positives within the algorithmic monitorisation of the Internet. It is now about how we choose to progress from here. We are aware of the Terms and Conditions on a surface level, but it’s the unread ones that are filtered into our society – literally under our noses on our shiny screens – which we need to take agency over. We as countries, companies, citizens and customers need to write the rules of our own progression and demand the unveiling of the unread Terms and Conditions.
Naughton, J. (2019). 'The goal is to automate us': welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/jan/20/shoshana-zuboff-age-of-surveillance-capitalism-google-facebook [Accessed 9 Oct. 2019].
Lum, Thomas. Specialist in Asian Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Division. (February 10, 2006). ‘Internet Development and Information Control in the People’s Republic of China’. CRS Report for Congress. Congressional Research Service The Library of Congress 101 Independence Ave SE Washingston, DC 205040-7500.
Boas, Taylor C. (2006) ‘Weaving the Authoritarian Web: The Control of Internet Use in Nondemocratic Regimes’. In How Revolutionary Was the Digital Revolution? National Responses, Market Transitions, and Global Technology. Stanford, CA: Stanford Business Books.