Lumbersexuals, objectification, and the awfulness of consumer society.

Let me start by saying two things: First, if I get riled up enough to post something while in the throes of the end-semester, you know it might be worth paying attention to.  Second, I really hate the fact that I am empowering the language of “lumbersexuals” by having added it to my Google dictionary.  Apparently my hypocrisy is boundless, because seeing the red squiggly line under a word that Google doesn’t (and by all rights, in this case, fucking shouldn’t) understand outweighs my apparent disdain for the word itself.

There are so many directions I can go with this, so I’m going to close my eyes and point to a random space on my little yellow legal pad.  Ah, here we go: objectification and how two wrongs most certainly do not make a right.  Thankfully, I’ve arrived at a space in my life where I have someone who cares for me that is a) smart enough to get that I have a value beyond my looks, and b) is old enough not to care about whatever trend is evolving to provide a signal for consumers.  That’s all this is, by the way, a consumer signal meant to sell clothes and haircuts and skinny jeans and (if there’s any justice in the world) Thorogood boots to people that are desperately searching, as all young people do, for meaning and validation.  It’s exploitative capitalism at its finest, and I won’t pretend that I don’t still participate in it.  Shit, I’ve steadfastly refused to buy a Kindle so that I can fill my space up with books so people will come into my house and say, “my, I’m clearly in the presence of an academic!”  The joke’s on me, of course, because I never have people over.

I want to avoid comparative victimology here, because the objectification of one sex and the other should not necessarily be compared.  I won’t pretend that the grim specter of lumbersexuality (*vomit*) compares to what women, particularly American women have had to endure over the years.  On top of that, there is no unified feminist theory on the male gaze.  Some feminists – Audre Lorde comes to mind – have found power in eroticism, using the art of the female body to hold sway over us Y-chromosome types.  I digress; objectification is a two-way street, and here I sit at age 33 and think “Jesus Christ, that’s unfair.”

Objectification is a horrible thing, especially combined with the convincing power of marketing.  We are sold the idea that, to be desirable, you require a beard (which isn’t anything terribly new) and a flannel shirt.  It goes beyond simple desirability, however; by tying in classic male tropes like beards and lumberjacks, what we have is a new definition of what is acceptable masculinity.  This is my fucking problem with every “scene” that’s come along since I aged out of the target demographic.  First off, let’s look at the lumbersexual archetype:

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Look at these fucking hipst–I mean lumberjacks!

Oh aren’t they so cute?  The beards, the shirts, the jeans, the boots, all helping to construct the trope of masculinity that is lumberjacks.  The jeans, however, are skinny and pegged.  The shirts are slim cut, and holy shit, that sweater on Contestant #4.  In passing, this look identifies with the idea of “lumberjack” that we have in our heads, but something different is being represented in the fashion.  The slimming of clothes de-emphasizes the essential bulk of the male body, creating almost feminizing lines.  What is on display here is not the toughness characterized by the notion of a lumberjack – the strapping brute who fells trees with an axe and lives in the forest for months at a time, but instead a literal shadow of that idea.  These are not people who are adopting the culture of timber cutting (and the manly appeal thereof), but are simply putting on a feminized costume.  The result is creature whose natural physicality is de-emphasized in lieu of clothing that conjures up a rugged image, except…the very clothing is in fact betraying that image.

That’s a long way of saying that I question what image is being sold here.  My favorite ladies at Jezebel provide an excellent analysis of the empty vessel that is the “lumbersexual” and how the look itself is merely a perpetuation of the “metrosexual.”  At least the metrosexual fashion revolution was up front about itself; the colors and slim features of the clothing were brazenly feminizing, but it never hid its candle under a beardy, flannel-wearing bushel.  This new revolution is as much a lie as anything else, but it speaks to how society wants to consume masculinity.  It boils down to this: we want you to look a certain way, but act another.  You can keep the beards and the clothes, but the physicality (and mass inherent to said physicality) has to go.

Look again at those poor bastards in the picture above.  I don’t see handsome models who are being pitched as the epitome of manliness; I see hollow men.  Lumbersexuality doesn’t require you to pick up an axe and fell a tree (which I’ve done, and as a result I am thankful every day for the invention of the chainsaw) or tap into your own raw masculinity to be found manly or appealing – you just have to wear the costume.

And for those of us who can’t or won’t wear the costume?  Well, we find ourselves on the outside of the mainstream, which isn’t so bad at the age of 33.  But it could be crippling to someone (and I was that someone) at 23 who can’t grow a beard, doesn’t fit into slim-cut clothing or has the god damn common sense not to wear skinny jeans.  That person might have the actual trappings of manliness that lumbersexuality seems to value, but because our consumer-driven society demands only the facade, they remain on the outside.

For the handful of female readers who made it this far, I want to just reiterate that I know, I know his happens to women all the time, and it is horribly unfair.  Instead of reaching for your torches and pitchforks and seeking to educate me on how much worse off you have it, instead, consider this a cry of solidarity.  Objectification and consumer culture makes fools of us all.

This rant is horribly incomplete and I may revisit it someday to further flesh out my thoughts.  Until then, I’ll continue to enjoy my flannel shirts without irony.  Inshallah.

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I did a Marxist Critique of Facebook and Big Data

“This is our world now… The world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud. We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt cheap if it wasn’t run by profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals. We explore… And you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias… And you call us criminals. You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, you cheat, and lie to us and try to make us believe it’s for our own good, yet we’re the criminals.” – Lloyd Blankenship, The Conscience of a Hacker[1]

                Within the multitudinous body of contemporary works dealing with the surveillance society, Mark Andrejevic’s 2007 book iSpy seemed to stand out the most.  While it was not necessarily the most up-to-date work of the bunch, we (myself and Jesse) were interested by some of the ideas he presented on the capitalist side of the surveillance society.  The book deals with the work of being watched, and how our voluntary participation in the surveillance state is also our voluntary donation of labor.  Our goal with the overall project was to pare down some of Andrejevic’s ideas (namely his Marxist bent toward the way we’re employed by the surveillance society) and use them as a lens through which to view the increasingly complex private surveillance assemblages.  This paper will be built around a Marxist critique of Facebook, which might be the least patriotic sentence I’ve ever written.  I chose this direction after working through some of the major points of Marxist economics and realizing how truly exploitative and asymmetrical the relationship between Facebook and its users has become.  Ultimately we seek to update iSpy and direct the focus toward Big Data and see how Andrejevic’s ideas apply in the new world of infinitely vast voluntary surveillance.

                As requested, this paper isn’t going to be incredibly formal, and in some places might read like a checklist of our (okay, my) thought process as the idea of a Marxist critique of the surveillance system emerged.  This isn’t breaking new ground, obviously; we’re heavily indebted to Andrejevic’s book and his thinking, we just wanted to go further into left field and see how his ideas fit the new model.

A Brief History of the Internet

The initial notion we began to work from was that privacy had become a form of currency.  In cases like Facebook and Google, they often provide extensive services for free; Facebook is still the preeminent provider of social networking and has practically created its own market, while Google has (especially in the case of Yours Truly) muscled into Microsoft’s territory by providing online document editing comparable to Microsoft’s Office Suite, cloud storage, and its Gmail is one of the most popular email service worldwide, packing in almost 290 million users.[2]  All of these services are regularly improved and updated, have near-as-makes-no-difference 100% uptime and, most importantly, cost no money.  As someone who came of age with the Internet, I have seen the rise of the information economy and lived within it.  To wax nostalgic, I do recall the time when there was no money in the Internet (except, of course, for adult entertainment – it’s the world’s second oldest profession); practically from the dawn of the World Wide Web, which is essentially the forward-facing aspect of the Internet as we understand it, free services like Geocities were available to create and host your own websites[3].  These were days when perhaps an entire site could fit on a floppy disk (the old 1.44 MB variety) and was hand-coded using knowledge that had been made freely available – if you knew where to look.  The early 90’s saw an Internet that was, if only for a brief period, a realm free of capitalism and government intervention.  As it became more and more accessible and people tied up their phone lines for hours on end (only to realize that the pace of connectivity had lagged behind that of interesting content generation), the Internet swiftly became monetized.  While large companies like Microsoft and Yahoo offered email and other services for free, the Internet had come out of its Rousseau-like state of nature and become a place of commerce, initially to buy and sell goods that were not immediately available in the physical realm.  Government and corporations moved quickly to create a more secure Internet to facilitate this process; it was a depressing moment when my friends and I realized that our hand-built payphone modems (that operated at a whopping 2600 Hz) would no longer function after the phone company upgraded to a digital network. 

Speeds increased, storage became cheaper, and somewhere around 2005 the Internet reached a critical mass, and the notion of “Web 2.0” was born.[4]  People associate that phrase with a variety of things, among them are the Web’s ability to support a true multimedia environment.  Before 2004, services like YouTube were not available, and streaming videos was something the average user (see Lopez, Patrick J) could not envision.  Early HTML and bandwidth restrictions limited the capability to rapidly upload and download complex data sets, so streaming videos or music (other than 8-bit or MIDI, which was the bane of many a late-night web surfer) were very limited commodities.  In addition to greater quantities of storage and bandwidth, the mad rush to modernize the nation’s telecommunications law in the 1990’s[5]had the effect of heavily deregulating the market, helping to drop prices and increase access.[6]  The time was right for a company with vision and capital to find a way to profit from this changing situation.

The Birth of Big Data

Enter Google, who by 1999 had entered the web search market with an algorithm that positively devastated the stale competition.  Overnight they had driven AltaVista, WebCrawler and Lycos into obscurity.  Beyond simply providing accurately weighted search results, Sergey Brin and Larry Page came up with a non-intrusive strategy to profit from their new search engine, and the Internet would truly never be the same.  There is no general consensus on when “Big Data” was born, but as Google progressed and starting ranking pages in 2001 based on search results, I believe the game was properly afoot.  Their PageRank[7] system provided a wealth of data to advertisers looking to piggyback on the popularity of certain searches and sites; their storehouse of data (provided by users at no cost to Google other than simply owning the equipment and paying the bills to keep it running) and advanced tracking algorithms allowed for targeted advertisements on a scale never before seen.  Since the October, 2000 launch of AdWords, the customer-facing aspect has changed very little since Google has wisely kept their advertisements (and sponsored page results) unobtrusive.[8] 

Google has gone on to create a variety of services, as mentioned earlier, that include a whole host of productivity apps, from word processing to spreadsheets to email.  All of this is stored for you, accessible anywhere, always available – and every last shred of information from your web searches to your emails to your lousy budgeting spreadsheets exists somewhere on a Google-owned server.  If you use Google Chrome, the web browser that, like its search engine forebear, lays waste to the competition, then every last bit of data produced by your use of Chrome is the property of one Google, Inc.  Like every other company with skin in the Big Data game, Google has a Byzantine end user license agreement (EULA) that no one outside of privacy watchdog groups has time to read.  As a user who has moved almost entirely to Google for his everyday tasks (like writing this essay), I simply trust that Google is keeping our interests in mind; they are after all the company whose motto is “Don’t be evil.”

Yes, Virginia, that is Surveillance

To the average person, the business of Big Data does not translate to surveillance; while it would be hard for them to define exactly what surveillance is (or better yet, to describe privacy), the imagery is pervasive.  Closed-circuit cameras, wiretaps, the NSA, spy satellites and the Eye of Sauron all come to mind when asked what the nature of surveillance is.  While all of these things are well and good, Andrejevic insists that we think beyond the visible assemblages of surveillance and assess the end goal.  Haggerty and Ericson write that surveillance assemblages are, by their nature, robust and redundant – the eye of surveillance in the modern society is on us at all times, and that robust series of discrete sources creates a flow of information that terminates…where?  In the day and age of cheap storage and bandwidth, data is profitable to store, and that goes as much for security complexes as it does for Big Data privateers like Google and Facebook.  The terminus for these information flows is what Andrejevic terms the digital enclosure, the sum total of all data accumulated about a person’s activities, whereabouts, curiosities, photos, private conversations, financial information, buying habits, even how much you walk in a month can now be tracked (the latter was discovered, much to my chagrin, when looking at my Google Now information on my phone).  All of this creates a data double, which Haggerty and Ericson claims to be a confluence created by “…abstracting human bodies from their territorial settings and separating them into a distinct series of discrete flows.”[9]  These flows are then aggregated into a single entity that stands ready for multiple interpretation, or, in the case of Andrejevic via Karl Marx, to do work. 

The Work of Being Watched

It would seem that if the surveillance assemblages are constantly in action, the very motions of our daily life seem to be producing vast reams of data.  This data is an inert commodity, like iron ore, ready to be refined, shaped into whatever materials are needed for the industries reliant on Big Data.  As we produce data within the information system (by our participation in the surveillance society), we provide corporations like Facebook the raw materials with which to build their products.  And like any good capitalist industry, Facebook reinvest some of our raw material back into its own ecosystem to improve efficiency.  The rest of it can be packaged and sold in an inconceivable number of ways.  Meanwhile, the workers continue to toil away, generating new raw materials for the machine to grind up and spit out.  

We are voluntary workers in this system, and our work does not cease at any point.  Even while we sleep, the data we have created is a resource with unlimited potential use and can be put into motion at any time.  Perhaps that wouldn’t some people’s definition of work, but fear not – there are now applications for your Android or iPhone that track you while you sleep.  Programs like Sleepbot engage the accelerometer on your phone to determine when you move and shift in your sleep.  Theoretically, the app learns your sleeping patterns in order to determine when your periods of lightest and heaviest sleep occur.  You set a time before which you’d like to awaken, and voila – the app will awaken you when it determines you’re least likely to wake up groggy.[10] 

Apps like Sleepbot represent a new generation of surveillant assemblages – passive data collectors that have the possibility of adding real world value to the user’s life.  Haggerty and Ericson (and Andrejevic) are often hesitant to note the value-added benefits of participation in the surveillance society; many of the new generation of assemblages belong to the “Internet of things” and offer novel, sometimes life-changing benefits.  One has only to scan the reviews of apps like Sleepbot on the Google Play Store to realize that, while it is most certainly a device that monitors your movements while you sleep (and it sounds downright terrifying in that context), it has worked wonders for people, especially college student types who need to make the best of the handful of hours of sleep they leave themselves after procrastinating on a major semester-long project.

This is the frightening beauty of the new generation of surveillance tools – we willingly participate in the system and work furiously to increase the size and scope of our digital enclosures.  The corporate (and governmental) need for total information has found a perfect marriage with the life-enhancing wonders of the digital age.  In the possibly apocryphal anecdote, Benjamin Franklin foresaw, with concern, a time when citizens of the world’s first constitutional democracy would give up too much liberty for their security.  One wonders what he would have to say about our willingness to give up our privacy for a little convenience.  When we began this project, Jesse and I talked in the language of privacy as currency, but ultimately our analogy was flawed; privacy is simply a commodity, an item to be traded, but ultimately not by us.  Our data, despite the benefits we reap in the process of generating it, is not our own.  The data double that follows is a monster that we can only barely control, and in Andrejevic’s view, we are nearly slaves to the process.

X Marx the Spot

If we want to start looking at things from a Marxist perspective – and who doesn’t? – then we’re on the right track.  The Internet’s history has a feel of economic determinism to it, which makes sense given its genesis within the American capitalist system.  The Internet did not develop freely, but has been shaped both in ways both subtle and overt by the institutions that were either threatened by it, stood to profit from it, or both.  The language of Marx has existed in regards to the Internet since its very earliest days.  I opened this paper with a quote from The Conscience of a Hacker, which served as an unofficial manifesto to the young Internet leftists, and it contains a number of criticisms aimed at the “profiteering gluttons” who control a system that could, if left unchecked, become the place some envisioned the Internet would evolve into: a place without names, racial identities, backgrounds – none of the markers that bind us to our caste or class in society.  We would simply be bits of information, free to inhabit the nationless space of the Internet, a true paradise where the rules of capitalism would not apply.  There are, of course, strains of this still in existence, but by and large the capitalist machine has snuffed out the dream of the digital commune.

The time has come to level the Marxist gaze at the surveillance society and its best capitalist friend, Big Data.  The entire following section is taken from a variety of sources, but the University of Toronto’s Economics department has a great primer on the basic concepts of Marxist economics, and that was heavily utilized for creating the overall framework of this argument.[11]

At the center of it all is the worker, and true to Marx, the workers in the surveillance system have only their labor to sell.  Our labor, though, is beyond what Marx could have imagined.  We now labor in this system and produce by simply living our lives.  As I touched on earlier, there is practically no point in anyone’s lives where they are not producing data.  This data might just have potential uses (or criminally, none at all), but remains a potent product of everyday living.  An alternate interpretation, and one more fitting to our work this semester might be that instead of labor, privacyis the one thing the worker can sell.  In doing so, there is still the effect of producing information.  As we are not truly sitting in factories shelling peanuts or creating iron widgets, our work is passive, and thus the labor is passive.  Our exchange of privacy for goods (or wages) is, in fact, our method of labor.  As the quantity of socially necessary labor requires some kind of tangible input from the worker, simply walking around all day and doing human being kinds of things does not constitute said input.  We need something real, something at least vaguely quantifiable to input into the system in order to draw a wage and produce.  Privacy has thus morphed from a value or basic human right into something less liberating, a method of exploitation.  This is the very central notion of the work of being watched.

What then, is the commodity produced?  While Marx requires no specifics (as this applies to all capitalist systems of production), we specify that we produce, simply, data.  Data is possessed of myriad forms but is ultimately formless, and likened to the extraction of a raw material.  We have no control over what shapes our data takes once it is extracted/created.  Taking the raw material analogy further, we can define data as a material with unlimited potential uses.  Iron ore can be treated in countless ways to create products, but iron ore has one fundamental weakness that data lacks: scarcity.  Data is never scarce, and never will be so long as human beings do what they do and the technology increases in ubiquity.

How can we determine the labor value of our data?  This is an easy question to answer in a general sense, but as Facebook and other Big Data producers are not forthcoming with their actual numbers, I couldn’t get as specific as I’d have liked in this.  Frankly, it’s almost disgusting how little the value of our labor truly is.  If we calculate the “congealed” labor cost of each quanta of data produced, one has to fold in the wages per worker with the costs of running the business.  Estimates for building Facebook rarely exceed a million dollars, and the site itself can be viewed as the tool we use for production of data, but also as our wages.  I will explore the how and why of the wage in the next section, but for now consider that Facebook has, according to their 2013 annual report, over 700 million people reporting to work every day, and their only payment is doing the work.[12]  The infrastructure required to create this entity (the actual labor, data centers, bandwidth, building rental, etc.) is very expensive in terms of actual dollars – roughly $5 billion USD per year according to their 2013 annual report.  That number presents the numerator in our equation, but the denominator – the actual quantity of data produced, is almost a semantic choice.  Facebook claims it had 1.11 billion users as of March 2013 – for those keeping score at home, that’s 15% of the world’s population that were part of the data-generating business a year ago, and close to half of the 2.4 billion Internet users worldwide! 

There are rumblings that perhaps Facebook’s popularity has peaked, but this is only one convenient example of the kind of coverage Big Data has.  While 1.11 billion users is truly an impressive claim, it isn’t helpful in determining the kind of productive power that Facebook has.  We can get closer to a value calculation by averaging the number of unique visits Facebook gets per year.  727 million multiplied by 365 days per year is a staggering 265 billion hits, per year.  Each page hit, which generates data for Facebook, costs them a whopping 2 pennies.  While the true generative capability of each user is truly an unknown, and since there is zero information on how Facebook aggregates and packages the data we generate, we can never know exactly what the true cost of “Big Data” is, but suffice it to say, Facebook is getting its two cents worth.

We can actually use some metrics to further determine how productive each user is.  The beautiful website Kissmetrics determined (how else, by using the data we produced for them) that the average Facebook user creates 90 unique objects per month within the system.[13]  The average user spends 700 minutes per month performing their self-determined socially necessary labor, a Marxist term that takes on an ironic flavor, given the apparent social necessity of using Facebook!  We create one new object for every 8 minutes that we work on Facebook, and given the averages, that’s 99 billion new objects per month, or over a trillion objects created per year.  Viewed that way, the cost per object created is down to $.004 USD per object.  I just want to remind you that we do this voluntarily.  What we cannot accurately quantify is the value of each object to Facebook; my posting status updates about the rabbit I saw on my lawn can only have so much worth in fiscal terms…probably.  It wouldn’t take the world’s most complex algorithm to aggregate my status updates, identify certain nouns (I could write this in Python in an afternoon, and I’m a terrible programmer) and the frequency with which they are used, then sell that kind of data to advertisers and oh, wait, we’re talking about exactly the function of Google’s AdWords, a system that Facebook rejected for a homegrown version.  Why did Facebook reject Google’s excellent, established system in favor of their own?  Profit.  Why let another company feast on their data when they could develop their own targeted tools?  If I didn’t actively resist Facebook’s advertising machine, there would no doubt be rabbit-oriented ads waiting for me the next time I opened the site.

I want to return briefly to the concept of scarcity.  In the physical realm, physical capital is in finite supply; raw materials become exhausted or more expensive to generate (as they say will eventually happen to oil), work stoppages occur, sunk costs exist in the form of wages, and so forth.  In the generative system that is Big Data, none of this occurs.  Data cannot be exhausted, and once sold, it does not disappear.  Nowhere else in the world does such a commodity exist, and that has the remarkable effect of making each quanta of data infinitely valuable.  The ultimate worth of any given unit of the commodity is determined only by the creativity of human beings, and that might be the only other inexhaustible resource on Planet Earth.  Short of nuclear annihilation or an extremely pervasive worldwide Luddite movement, this train is not stopping any time soon.

The Marxist critique breaks down, at least by technical definitions, when we come to the ideas of surplus value.  The traditional view requires a ratio of capital expenditure that, at least in theory, really doesn’t exist in the world of Big Data.  Since participation in the surveillance society is nearly constant, entities like Facebook have practically no expenditure to show for the volume of production that its workers put forth.  It’s insane – if we think purely in terms of the data production system, Facebook’s only capital expenditure is the maintenance of Facebook itself in order to provide workers with the tools they need to exchange privacy for the commodity of data, and that basically only comes from the pool of data itself!  A small percentage of our labor power goes toward improving the tool – by filling out surveys, clicking in certain areas and not others, complaining on Facebook about new features or bugs, all of these things are still data collected by the machine to improve itself.  Very elegantly, Facebook (and others in the social networking surveillance industry) has created a near-perfect system that requires the barest amount of external influence to propagate.  The beauty of these new mechanisms of social surveillance lies in the ability to exploit the workers to continue making their work more and more efficient.  This is Taylorism come home to roost, only now those who control production have refined the process so much that the workers regulate themselves, because participation in improving the tools also improves the perceived wage.

Within the sphere of Big Data, surplus value is nearly infinite.  So little external investment or energy is required that the workers will continue to produce and improve the system on their own, meaning that the cost or inefficiency index of the system itself is so low, it’s practically negligible.  If the advanced capital is nearly nothing, the expanded capital and value of the commodities produces a ratio that gives almost 100% profitability.  We maintain that nowhere in the world can you find such a perfect system for exploiting surplus labor; if your system costs you nothing to have your workers produce, then the ratio of exploitation is infinitely high.

Because of the efficiency of the system, Big Data does not suffer from falling rates of profit.  Certainly, there might be a drop in the overall value of the commodities produced due to the vagaries of the marketplace (and the fact that everyone is getting in on the game, producing reams of data, and no one is exactly sure what to do with it all), but if we examine Marx’s suggestions for stemming the traditional decline in profits, you’ll see the system has in place the safeguards needed to guarantee an excess of profit and production.

  1. Increase the intensity of the exploitation of labor: Until such a day arrives that we have our brain activity actively mined to produce computing power and electricity (i.e. The Matrix) it will be very difficult to top the current rate of exploitation.  As the commodity of data is being produced constantly (and voluntarily), the quantity of socially necessary labor nears 100%, and our wages are the use of the tools themselves.  We are always working to build our digital enclosure, thus we are constantly producing the commodity.  Short of coercion or the aforementioned rise of the machines, I cannot envision a way in which we could be further exploited.  That’s why I’m not in marketing.
  2. Find means of cheapening the cost of labor in order to depress the wage level: Once again, the Big Data gods have thought of everything.  Literally the only way to depress the wage level further would be to open source Facebook or to make us starting paying them for it.  Considering that music services like Spotify have a monthly fee that enables the listener to chew through hours upon hours of music (without advertisements, of course) means that you are paying someone to provide them with copious amounts of free market research on the latest listening trends.   On top of that, services like Spotify (and many others) now have Facebook logins enabled, which means you’re paying Spotify to send your data to Facebook if you link the two together (which, for a while there, was mandatory.)  Facebook and Spotify aren’t alone in getting in on the music game; a few years ago Google launched its own streaming music service, with a twist; you could now upload your collections to the cloud, voluntarily sharing your music tastes with Google.  For the record, Patrick J Lopez has now listened to the Season 2 Battlestar Galactica soundtrack in its entirety over 150 times.  That’s shameful to me, valuable to Google.  Not long after Google Music launched, they too offered a pay radio service.  Not even your listening habits are safe.
  3. Reduce the costs of the elements of constant capital by technological change and increasing the scale of production: This might as well be the byline for this whole project.  Big Data is the perfect blend of surveillance technology, psychology, rapid technology growth and scale.  When we talk of asymmetries of power, the breadth and scope of the gaze is indescribably vast compared to those who are being watched.  The absolute ubiquity of surveillance technology and the dendritic nature of its integration into every aspect of American (and increasingly, world) culture means that technological change is already occurring at breakneck speeds.  We have found the perfect fusion of consumer-driven and institutional demand; we want it faster, we want it cheaper, we want less hassles and less demands on our dwindling attention spans, and they are giving it to us.  In return, we are giving them everything they require and more; the surveillance assemblages are truly gluttons, unable to sate themselves on the already vast amount of data being produced.  The very byproducts of our society ensure that the already low capital costs will continue to crash as technology marches on.
  4. Expand and widen foreign trade: Sorry Marx, the internet is a truly global society (not counting North Korea and maybe Iran), so foreign trade is as wide as it can possibly be.  There are, of course, ways of further breaking down barriers, but that requires acts of government, not corporations.  Still, as it is in the interest for all parties in power to increase their surveillance utilization, perhaps the day is not far off when a globalized system of Internet regulations comes into being.
  5. Cheapen the cost of necessities: Marx intended this as a critique of supply chains, both internal and external.  If laborers no longer need a high wage to sustain their livelihood, then profit margins can of course be increased.  Internally, shoring up inefficiencies in production and finding cheaper sources of raw materials were methods for suppressing liabilities.  In terms of Big Data, the system is nearly perfect, only with time and iterations of the tools can they increase efficiency, but given what was discussed in the previous bullet point, it is certain that operations like Facebook and Google will continue to streamline their production methods to ensure their “supply chain” is strong an uninterrupted.

It’s remarkable how efficient the system truly is, and it starts (and this section ends) with the question of wages – what is the motivation for the worker in this scenario?  This is exploitation on a scale that should rightly make Marx rise from the dead and die all over again; the perfect capitalist system for capturing every last ounce of surplus labor from, in the case of Facebook, 15 percent of the world’s population.  We receive no tangible benefit from our labor, but clearly we are motivated at ever-increasing levels to participate, and now we need to determine why.

There is a staggering amount of material, most of it very recent, about the psychological drivers for the use of social networking.  If you’re interested in an extremely thorough review of the study of Facebook, in 2008 MSU grad students Steinfield et al wrote a tremendous overview in the “Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.”  A large of body of research aimed at determining why people are so involved in Facebook (I might read this all again for my own mental health at some point), and it seemed to fall into a few different categories.  Chiefly, people participate in social networking to maintain or increase social capital, either by maintaining existing relationships or adding to their stable of contacts via the passive forms of “friendship” that products like Facebook offer.  The second point of examination, which in my book is a bit more sinister, involves the use of social networking (and the Internet in general) to promote self-worth and various other types of psychosocial development.  There is direct evidence that links the amount of one’s social capital with behaviors that “…lead to better health, academic success, and emotional development.”[14] The accumulation of social capital requires cultivation and maintenance of relationships, and Facebook gives one the perfect tool for doing that.  There have been mixed results in the research determining the psychosocial effects of heavy Internet usage, including indicators that strong “offline” ties can and have been replaced in many instances by weaker online ties, and this erosion of traditional human ties may have an overall negative effect.

Still, one has only to look around the Albion campus to see the scramble for social capital at work.  While Facebook may be on the decline with the younger crowd, Twitter, Pinterest, Snap Chat and Instagram are going strong, all of which are tools used to see and be seen.  While this essay has largely focused on the corporate aspects of surveillance vis-à-vis Big Data, the idea of “seeing and being seen” is the heart of these tools usefulness in the surveillance society.  We have been empowered, as users, to surveil one another ad nauseum.  The strong link between psychosocial well-being and social capital accumulation is really just a re-branding of the teenage (and, let’s face it, adult) need to be popular, to be well-known, and to be loved. 

Facebook (and other tools) have given the average human being ways of creating and maintaining social capital far beyond what has ever been available in the past.  When it debuted 10 years ago, Myspace was still the king of the hill, but its helter-skelter design and generally negative image kept it from being truly accessible.  Before Myspace, email lists were the best way of keeping tabs on people, replacing the phone call as a way to communicate information instantly.  Before phones, it was hand-written letters, and before letters people actually had to visit one another – perish the thought.

If you were to graph out the effort required to communicate with each of these methods, there would be a linear drop over time and technological development.  Face to face is suboptimal – why bother when you can just Facebook message your friend?

 Image

Cheeky graphs aside, what has occurred with time and technology is a method of making friendship and relationships more convenient.  This is not necessarily a bad thing!  People keep in touch with family members via Skype and other video telephony products, and things like Facebook are great ways to share good news or just remind people that it’s your birthday.  No one likes to feel forgotten or left out, and social media tools are a lot more convenient for reminding people of important events than by self-consciously pestering them.  The ability to obtain and maintain social capital (and psychological health!) is perhaps the dominant reason for Facebook and social networking usage.

How does this translate into our wages for the work of being watched?  Our most direct form of payment is the use of the tool – Facebook, Twitter, what have you.  But the motivation for the tool’s use is to simply be part of society; Facebook in particular has created a market for this kind of social capitalization by appealing to our ever-shortening attention spans (and ever-increasing laziness) and harnessing our need for social capital.  To that end, Facebook pays us in social capital; the surveillance state has now positioned itself to be a necessity for the most basic and fundamental human task: building relationships.  The exploitative relationship between Big Data and its workers exists because the institutional desire for information has been matched with the personal desires of human contact. 

Thus ends the basic Marxist examination of the economics of Big Data, which is merely a component of the surveillance society.  The work of being watched is perhaps the most exploitative labor that has ever existed.  The wage for our labor is simply the tool to interact with other human beings, to gain the necessary social capital to form and build relationships.  The constitutive effect of participation in the surveillance society – with regards to Facebook – is that a kind of critical mass in your social circle can be quickly reached where, if you choose not to participate, you face a kind of passive ostracization.  After all, if everyone in your social circle is enjoying the fruits of their labor (pun intended), it becomes more difficult to go back to old ways of communication.  A perfect example is text messaging – today it almost seems like a novelty that our phones can call at all, when most communication is done in small bites via texting.  The broad acceptance of tools like Facebook creates that critical mass where so many people are using it that they cannot afford to stop.  A 2013 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that, by and large, teenagers cannot stand Facebook; they cited “an increasing adult presence, high-pressure or otherwise negative social interactions (‘drama’), or feeling overwhelmed by others who share too much.”[15]  The report also found that 94% of teenagers are using Facebook.  If the majority of teenagers who make up the majority of teenagers are sick and tired of Facebook, why hasn’t it seen a large scale abandonment?  Simply put, it’s because it has become socially necessary; if 94% of your peers are using it, you are immediately cut out of a massive amount of social capital if you decide to join the 6% who have already foregone Facebook.  It’s clear then, that as much as the factory worker requires wages to survive, the Big Data worker requires the use of the tools of surveillance in order to attain their social capital and foment human relationships in this digital age.

                In summary, we’ve basically concluded that participation in the Big Data aspect of the surveillance society is quickly becoming a social necessity.  This leads to a practical enslavement by the corporations and entities that control the tools of social necessity – the Facebooks and Googles of today, and who knows what is coming down the pipe.  We are always being watched because we submit to watching ourselves, to doing the work of building the digital enclosure, to empowering those that buy and sell these shadows of ourselves.  This is the smartest and most exploitative system of labor ever devised, and we participate willingly.

[1] http://www.phrack.org/archives/issues/7/3.txt

[2] http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/06/whoa-its-2012-and-the-worlds-most-popular-email-service-is-hotmail/259054/

[3] http://content.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1936645,00.html

[4] http://oreilly.com/web2/archive/what-is-web-20.html

[5] http://transition.fcc.gov/telecom.html

[6] http://www.galbithink.org/bandwidth.htm

[7] http://www.sirgroane.net/google-page-rank/

[8] https://www.google.com/about/company/history/

[9] http://www.englweb.umd.edu/englfac/KChuh/Haggerty%20Kevin%20and%20Ericson%20Richard%20The%20SurveillantAssemblage.pdf

[10] http://phandroid.com/2013/09/07/sleepbot-helps-you-track-your-sleep-promising-a-better-morning/

[11] http://www.economics.utoronto.ca/wwwfiles/archives/munro5/MARXECON.htm

[12] https://materials.proxyvote.com/Approved/30303M/20140324/AR_200747/#/1/

 [13] http://blog.kissmetrics.com/facebook-statistics/

[14] https://www.msu.edu/~nellison/Steinfield_Ellison_Lampe(2008).pdf

[15] http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/05/21/teens-social-media-and-privacy/

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Notes on: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism

(These are notes I did for a class, but I found it to be an AWESOME read and wanted discussion.  Also, hi.)

Maybe it’s a touch macabre, but I dug this piece.  It’s easy to think that the act of strapping a vest full of C4 and ball bearings to yourself, then wandering into a crowded marketplace before hitting the detonator is an act of pure insanity.  True, the individual action might be insane, but the use of suicide terror tactics is purely rational; it is David’s sling to Goliath’s club, the underdog’s counter to the overwhelming military might of successful first-world democracies.

Pape goes through an extensive deconstruction of the rationale, tactics, successes and limitations of suicide terror.  I know Andy doesn’t want pre-exam styled notes, but I felt compelled to make a few remarks.  First, let’s define suicide terrorism, and who perpetrates it. 

The hard data: in the sample period of 1980-2001, specifically barring the September 11 attacks (it was far too successful and would have skewed the bejeezus out of the data), there were 188 suicide terror attacks resulting in 2,444 deaths, or 13 deaths per attack.  It ain’t the 8th Air Army over Germany in 1944, but still damned effective.  By contrast, there were 4155 total “other” terrorist attacks in that timeframe that resulted in only 3207 people, far less than 1 death per attack.  Amateurs.

What is a terrorist attack?  While the word “terror” gets tossed around an awful lot in the post-9/11 world, Pape borrows from the State Department’s terminology and defines terror as “[involving] the use of violence by an organization other than a national government to cause intimidation or fear among a target audience” (emphasis mine).  From a methodological standpoint, that’s  a pretty smart move toward restricting the data set.  The purpose of a terrorist attack is twofold; to gain supporters and to coerce opponents.  Personally, I absolutely agree with this, and Pape goes on to show that various forms of terrorism strike a balance in effectiveness between these two agendas.  Demonstration attacks work best for recruiting – they are the kind of IRA “call in the bomb threat, make sure the area is evacuated, then detonate” kind of attacks that occurred in England in the 90’s and 00’s.  Destruction attacks are specific hits that are intended to kill and maim and destroy – the Baader-Meinhoff terrorist group in Germany was known for killing rich industrial capitalist schweinhunde in specific attacks, then fade away.  Finally, there are the suicide terror attacks, the most violent and seemingly insane of them all.  Intended to cause maximum destruction, they are successful because someone willing to die has the willpower to carry out the mission regardless of cost, and when you don’t have to plan an escape route, your tactical infiltration options become as simple as driving a truck full of RDX and TNT up to the Marriot in Islamabad and pushing a button.

Who perpetrates them?  The average American immediately equates suicide bombing with Islamofascists (god I love that word) and while that is increasingly correct (see: Iraq), there are some surprises in Pape’s dataset.  The most common user of suicide terrorism is NOT, in fact, an Islamic group, but the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka.  Among the Islamist groups using suicide terrorism, a third of those attacks were perpetrated by secular groups.  So it’s not as tied to fundamentalism as we might have otherwise thought.

Who are the targets?  I’ll get into that momentarily, but here’s a list of the countries that have been hit by suicide attacks: Israel (duh), the United States (also duh), France, Sri Lanka, Turkey, India, and Russia.

Suicide terrorism is logical, and is used by groups as part of an organized campaign to reach a goal.

It is designed to coerce, in particular, modern democracies into policy changes, such as giving up territory or removing their forces/citizens (settlers in the case of the West Bank) from said territory.  It’s worth noting that every single suicide terrorist attack since 1980 has been against a democratic nation!  Why, you might ask?  Because part of being an effective terrorist organization is knowing how to pick your battles.  Sounds awfully rational, right?   “…terrorists often view democracies as “soft,” usually on the grounds that their publics have low thresholds of cost tolerance and high ability to affect state policy.”  While I doubt anyone thinks the United State is “soft” on terrorism – a 10 year war in Iraq that was at least peripherally related to the attacks of 9/11 is pretty hardcore, the gamble is that we are not going to use the biggest clubs in our Goliath’s arsenal to deal with the problem.  Another good example that Pape mentions is the Kurds – they targeted Turkey over Iraq, even though Saddam Hussein was a complete butcher of the Kurdish people.  Terrorists aren’t idiots (not always, anyway); they think strategically and will not bite off more than they can reasonably chew.  This is the crux of Pape’s argument in a nutshell; suicide bombing campaigns are brutally effective, but they are not to be wielded indiscriminately.

Gauging success: the aim of a suicide terrorist attack, in Pape’s estimation (and I agree) is not necessarily the destruction of a target.  Rather, they are to cause fear of future attacks, and the suicide bombing is brutally effective in that degree.  The average person sees it as an irrational act, and wonder (rightfully) how such a mentality can be countered.  Therein lies the ultimate strategy of suicide terrorism; you hit a target, something that is considered taboo and would be off limits to traditional military (the US isn’t going to drop a 2000 pound bomb into a crowded marketplace on purpose), exceed the norms of violence, and instill fear that it’s going to happen again.

Limitations: Suicide terrorism (thankfully) is not the end-all of tactics; it works best in moderate amounts with moderate goals.  The goals of Osama Bin Laden and Friends in hijacking four commercial airliners and ending thousands of American lives was to convince the US to get the hell off the Arabian Peninsula and stop being friends with Israel.  To that end, it failed spectacularly.  Further proof that terrorist organizations are rational, strategic actors lies within the ebb and flow of their suicide campaigns.  Hamas has been known to honor cease-fires, but then engage a campaign of death when talks stall or they feel Israel is dragging its feet.

My lame-duck analysis:  I think Pape is spot on with this paper.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve come of age in the era of Al Qaeda, but organized terror with motivations, planning, and above all rational goals seems commonplace.  The only thing that I think is missing from Pape’s analysis is the sectarian violence we’ve seen in Iraq, but Shiites and Sunnis have been at it for a long time, and the bulk of those attacks fall outside of the scope of his dataset.  While the individual action might be insane, the campaign of suicide terror is effective, strategic, and seemingly quite successful.

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Yes, there is a race problem in the United States, Part 1.

I know, I know, I roadmapped out some philosophical posts, and trust me – I’m working on those.  But the whole hubbub around the Zimmerman case has brought some other thoughts to mind, and it’s time to commit them to paper (or whatever).

There is an inequality problem in the United States – but it’s not a question of “race,” I suspect.  I know people who admit to being “racist,” but what it comes down to isn’t a race issue in the classical definition.  What people fear is the “other,” but more specifically the culture of the other.  I had a discussion not long ago with a genuinely good guy who claims to have deep-seated issues with Mexican-Americans.  Upon digging into his issues, however, I find that his issue isn’t with Mexicans as a people, but rather the representation of their culture in his part of the world.  What he sees and what I see (in a different part of the country), are very different things.  What we learned in the discussion was that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with a Mexican-American, but the way they were representing themselves was an issue.  It’s xenophobia, fear of the other, not racism.  Classical racism, the kind that was is absolutely inherent to the American character, caters more to the exceptionalism of the white man and the inferiority of others.  Inferiority.  That’s racism, a feeling that the other is, by virtue of birth or skin color, inferior to you.  I think that we have, by and large, moved past this – holdouts of course exist, but we look down on those people as throwbacks to a less genteel time.

So what’s our deal, then?  What are we really afraid of when it comes to the Trayvon Martins and Rodney Kings of the world?  And why does it seem that this particular problem is, if not unique, constantly in the limelight in the United States?  The answer is culture.

To understand it, we’d have to start with an honest understanding of black history in the United States.  I don’t know that as of this point, I have access to the resources (namely time) to fully encompass the black experience, but it boils down to this: they came here as slaves, the ultimate underclass.  They were barely better than pack animals, a subhuman creature that existed to serve a white master.  Constructivist notions of racial character notwithstanding, what you created was the nee plus ultra of classism – even the poorest white farmer was still miles ahead of the chief house nigger (uh oh, he’s using those words!) at a fine plantation.  And boy howdy, they weren’t allowed to forget it.  Read “Roots” sometime, or shit, ready ANYTHING pertaining to the black experience before the Civil War.  As most of us have lived the entirety of our lives in a post Civil Rights Movement world, we don’t really have an ingrained understanding of just how different blacks were from whites in the older days.  We’ve all been raised with a certain amount of political correctness in our world, enforced by school and media and leadership who want to banish racism as an ugly stain on our past.  Fact is, (almost) no one batted an eyelash 150 years ago at the idea of humans treating other humans as pure means to an end.  These days, we talk about “using someone” in an ugly fashion, even if we’re using them for sex or hell, even for a free meal, there’s an air of disdain to the idea of using someone purely as means, rather than viewing them as an ends to themselves.  Go back in time a mere 150 years, and we treated everyone with a different skin color exactly as this.  Wasn’t just blacks, either – we didn’t use native Americans (think Latin America) for slave labor because they weren’t hardy enough, but don’t think that didn’t stop us from trying!

Fast forward to the end of the Civil War – blacks are emancipated, but given that they’re viewed as property in the South, there are legal questions as to whether or not emancipation was even legal!  But the North wins the war, destroys the Southern economy that was based on the backs of human cattle and suddenly gives the blacks…what?  What did we give them?  Freedom?  I wouldn’t go that far…I’d say we gave them the legal status of “human being.”  That’s right, only 150 years ago did we grant the status of human-fucking-being to other human beings.  Not so noble, are we?

So, great!  Way to go America, you’ve done a great and noble thing in suddenly expanding the population of your country to include all these free blacks.  Now what?  This is still the 1860’s, and even though certain legal equalities were granted to the blacks, did that suddenly change a hundred years of social directive on their status?  Nope.  Suddenly, you had the equivalent of pack horses asking to charge by the mile for their services.  You had competition for jobs, living space, land, everything.  You don’t think the social and demographic strain of adding hundreds of thousands of people with NOTHING wasn’t a big deal?  You can read Wikipedia for the lists of various ways the South worked to keep the blacks in their place (legally human subhumans, I suppose).  The point is fairly simple – we said “they’re legally people,” but that wasn’t about to start changing minds.  Human beings are ridiculously stubborn when it comes to holding on to their perceptions.

Of course, the legal protections and recognition that came with the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments only went so far.  You can write all the laws you want, but enforcement is required, and when your “enforcers” come from the same stock as those who would seek to violate the legal protections of a newly liberated people, the laws become paper tigers.  Even Constitutional protection could only go so far, especially when it came to a people who were uneducated and largely isolated from the government that sought to incorporate them.  From the executive level, we made it clear that race could no longer be a delineating factor in legal protection, but on the ground, things were of course considerably different – that’s why it took us another hundred years to get rid of ideas like “separate but equal,” and establish proper legal parity for people other than whites.

One of the great strengths of the United States (and something that makes us VERY different from a lot of the world, especially homogeneous places like Finland) is our melting pot of cultures – where other peoples might be a pure strain, we’re an alloy.  That said, it’s very difficult to exploit the strengths and advantages that integrated cultures represent when you work to keep every separate from one another.  We have always claimed to be the land of the free, but by nature, we have worked to keep some people “more free” than others.  It’s part and parcel of the American character, thanks in large part to one of the pillars of Americana, capitalism.

Enough of that for today.  To summarize, I haven’t done shit other than explain a small patch of American history.  The TL;DR version is that while we worked to extend legal protection to other races, we didn’t work to integrate them.  We kept them separate, we kept them as “other” – and I don’t know that we could have avoided it.  The social and demographic strain of ending slavery guaranteed a separate existence and culture within our own.  The black experience in the United States didn’t allow for proper integration until now, and the point I’ll eventually arrive at in the next post or two is that we may NEVER reach the ideal of a fully integrated society, where the “other” doesn’t exist.

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Road map for coming posts…

I’m putting this down not for the sake of you, dear reader, but for my own.  I’m starting to assemble a grand idea under which my thoughts are being assembled.  I am starting to become personally fascinated with ideas of perfection and completeness, and not on an entirely academic level, either.  It’s a person fixation that I’m struggling with, regularly.  So I’m gonna try to lay these out in no particular order, but it’ll force me to address things as they come.

The Lie of the Hero – with all the focus on making heroes more gritty and realistic during my life, why am I still fixated on the idea of the Mary Sue hero?  What are the heroic ideals that are possible and impossible to live up to?

The Finite Supply – dealing with the emotional quantification of life.  I know I’m mortal.  I know people die.  But how do I deal with the idea that I can only do SO MUCH in this this cosmological microsecond called my life?  Why do I have difficulty embracing the limited notion of mortal life?  That might not seem like it relates, but one of my difficulties is understanding the passage of time as it relates to my actions.  It seems I’m always planning.

The Ruthless Pursuit of Perfection – will ask why I feel the need to be complete.  I need to really examine that issue for myself and, I assume, for anyone else who feels this way.  Death means I can never be complete, and the ever expanding borders of the universe (both physically and in an epistemological sense) means that one man cannot possibly kee up.  Why do I try?  How do I talk myself into being incomplete?

The Conundrum of Purpose –  am I meant for something?  Is that something defined by another force or just myself?  If it’s the latter, how do I convince myself of that?  How do I define my own purpose?  What are the rules to purpose?  IS THERE A PURPOSE?  There’s the possibility that we’re all just scattered objects in space, but nothing is purely chaotic.  Order imposes itself everywhere.

Consistently Inconsistent – why is that I can’t think the same thing every day?  Why are even my basic philosophical underpinnings so volatile and malleable even on a day-to-day basis?  Is that normal?

The Journey is the Destination – finally, for my own peace of mind, I need to work this one out in writing.  It’ll make more sense when it happens.  Meantime, I’m happy to read anything any of YOU have to say about this stuff – tell me what you think, what you feel about it.  

 

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Shine on you crazy PRISM.

The freak-out over the NSA’s PRISM program is almost comical in its proportions.  People seem to lack a proper understanding of how a society works, at its core; as such, things like PRISM become this evil, liberty-encroaching force because for whatever reason, we think we should be free as we like.

Wrong.  We aren’t free – we live in a society, and as such we entrust things like our security to others because we don’t want to bear the burden for ourselves.  That’s the social contract, people; you give up some autonomy and liberty in exchange for security and the chance to prosper.  Granted, Americans are very big on their conception of liberty; the soul of the American character is this vague notion of freedom, which to us is more of an emotional attachment than it is a logical one.  Because the United States is such a bizarre mix of democracy, capitalism and social progress, we are perpetually in a state of limited mobility.  Everything we do is hemmed in to some degree, but in that regard, it serves to (I think) enhance, rather than limit our freedom.  Go back to a few posts ago when I talked about Maslow and his Hierarchy of Needs.  A society exists to help provide some of the basic things we take for granted, and because we are limited by laws, it actually increases our net freedom by providing public safety and something of a fallback position for people if the bottom drops out.  People bitch and moan about having to pay taxes (our rates are among the lowest in the G20 nations), about our overly litigious attitude toward public safety and regulation (try living in an actual socialist state, please), and certainly bitch about the ever-encroaching creep of surveillance into our private little world.  Here’s the problem with that, my entitled American friends:

Like the proverbial drunken prom date, you gave it up for free.  Oh yes you did.  You entered into a contract with society that said “yes, please, give me all the comforts and connectivity of the modern world” and didn’t blink at the exchange rate.  We want smartphones, we want targeted marketing, we want Amazon and Facebook and Google.  We have WILLINGLY accepted these forces into our lives without looking back, because this is our modern world.  You sacrifice something for convenience, people, and remember – if you aren’t paying for a service (Google, Facebook), then you’re the product being sold.  We are such fucking hypocrites about it, too; we are perfectly willing to sell ourselves out for convenience, and then act shocked, SHOCKED (thanks, David Simon) when suddenly someone collates all the data we’ve given up.  It’s like sleeping with someone and then being surprised when they like you.

So where does that leave us?  What’s the new social contract for this modern, connected era?  You give up data on yourself by using services – it’s legally codified in any EULA/T&C you accept upon signing up for something – and now you expect these companies to sit on that?  Nope.  You have now modified the social contract to include giving up more of yourself in return for whatever services those companies provide.  You did this.  You did.  And you know what else you did?  You helped create PRISM.

First off, what is PRISM?  It sounds like some kind of dangerous, nefarious Bond-villain-esque organization with secret motives that will no doubt end up fucking us all for a percentage.  In reality, it’s a big-ass database, the likes of which already exist at any company that’s into Big Data.  In fact, one might say that it’s actually just an amalgamation of those existing databases, with some other perks, like your phone records.  Oh don’t get up in arms; who do you trust less?  Verizon (the profiteering goons) or the US Government, which has actual oversight and laws to follow?

Oh wait, you say – how can we trust the government to follow its laws?  That’s the point, friends – you have to trust them.  That’s your contract with your government.  You like things like subsidized corn, low gas prices and (mostly) functional roads and infrastructure?  You like your protection under the law?  You like your Constitutional rights?  You accept those, but you also accept what your government does on your behalf.  That’s the contract.

We’re willing participants in this process, imperfect as it might be.  Oh don’t get me wrong, I’m absolutely aware of the potential for horrible abuse that programs like PRISM have.  The same exists for anything, though.  A cop doesn’t like your face, and he could potentially ruin your life.  Piss me off in my time with the phone company and I could have done all manner of things to make you miserable, but guess what?  I didn’t.  The cop doesn’t.  We live in, believe it or not, a fairly responsible society!  We have OVERSIGHT FOR SHIT LIKE THIS.  The NSA isn’t some darkhorse, rogue agency ready to start feeding targeting information into Predator drones based on your phone calls (we have the CIA, who are mandated not to work on American soil, for that!).  No, what we have is an agency created solely for information warfare and defense, working to perform its duty, using information YOU ALREADY GAVE UP.  The best part?  What they’re doing is legal.  The framework has been created for this, thanks mostly to those companies to whom we’ve already whored out our data.  That’s right, folks.  The database exists because WE gave it up.  And frankly?  I’m okay with that.

I touched on this point in my post on drones, but I’ll say it again – the various law enforcement and security agencies in this country have a limited resource pool with which to work.  Do you think the NSA and FBI have millions of people working for them?  Do you think there’s someone assigned to watch your every move?  No.  There’s a computer system passively collecting data on you – which again, I have to point out, IS NOTHING NEW.  Big Data is nothing if not a perfect surveillance system.  When this suddenly gets used against you is if you commit a crime, or are suspected of one.  Then the apparatus can spring into action in order to build a case against you – but just like wiretapping, you have legal protections.  A judge has to say “you’ve fed me probable cause, go with my blessing.”  So if you’re into some nefarious shit, yeah, this will likely make you nervous – and good.  You deserve it.  You’re breaking the social contract and you’re gonna get what’s coming to you.

Joe Six Pack who buys beer and fried chicken at his grocery store (tracked by Big Data, thanks “rewards cards”), calls his mother to say hello (tracked by Verizon, if he uses them), surfs porn (duh) and buys a book on Amazon (also, duh) has a great profile in the PRISM database.  But…who gives a shit?  No one.  NO ONE.  NO ONE CARES WHAT YOU DO.  The government probably cares even less than your average company, because they can’t make money off of you!  But if Joe Six Pack lives in an area where some nefarious shit goes down, and Joe was spotted in the vicinity of the nefariousness (or whatever else would give the police/FBI/DHS a lead on him), PRISM can be used.  A judge says “okay, thanks for the PC, go ahead and start digging) then BAM – phone records and bank statements are subpoenaed (absolutely NOTHING NEW), and now we can add PRISM’s data into it.  Joe left the GPS armed on his phone and was in the vicinity of said nefarious shit when it went down?  Joe was looking at ignition points for ammonium nitrate fertilizer on the internet?  All we’re doing is closing the net faster on a suspect, or realizing that nope, he’s got nothing to do with it.  Where’s the problem, there?

Let’s face it, people.  We’ve given the government (and to me, even more terrifying – PRIVATE COMPANIES) a wealth of data on our thoughts and actions and interests, our shopping habits and even the places we go.  But that’s just completely banal information – no one gives a shit!  Unless the legal process fixes an eye on you, you’re never going to be any more interesting to the government than any other milquetoast citizen of these United States.  So chill the fuck out, and remember – you (and I) were complicit in this process.

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The unfair ideal – Happily ever after, part two.

Hmm, started this segue about a dozen times, because while I feel like I’m getting a bit away from my original thesis, the thoughts follow a pattern that makes sense in my head.  Which is not to say they’ll translate well to the written word, or make any sense to my dear readers, but hey – you don’t know til you try.

For starters, providence had it that an article showed up in The Atlantic this week that was very much in tune with some of the thoughts I’ve been having.  It stems from a different place – the idea of sexual ethics (I was hooked by seeing Immanuel Kant’s name), but it leads to some interesting conclusions.  If you have a few minutes, read that article, and if you have a few more (and a high blush-tolerance), read the excellent n+1 essay that’s embedded there – here’s a link to the essay itself, if you’d like.  The conversation more or less goes in a direction that questions the link between sex, love, and happiness.  With that in mind…

We talk about Happily Ever After, but we need to discuss the exact implications of the statement.  We need to define it, which I don’t think I accomplished in my first post.  Sure, we have this vague understanding of the emotional weight of HEA (yes, it’s an acronym, deal), but what are its components?  Clearly the “ever after” part is institutionalized by our conceptions of time.  Even if you do or don’t believe in an afterlife, you still know that death is a terminus of sorts, and “til death do us parts” is part of the traditional wedding vow.  Human beings know what time is, instinctively, so I don’t think “ever after” merits a technical discussion.  The implications, however, are astounding, and cannot be discussed without trying to break down happiness, vis-a-vis another person.

Let’s talk about “happily,” then.  Happiness is a bitch to define, so let’s narrow the scope a touch, and talk about the happiness that comes from other people; specifically, let’s talk about what you get from a romantic partner, since that’s what’s implied by HEA.  I can’t provide any categorical maxims about this, since it’s all very intensely personal, but I’m going to try and paint in broad strokes the idealized partnership.  Words like communication, intimacy, closeness, trust, and (let’s be honest here) fucking spring to mind.  After all, it seems the ideal partner is someone that is differentiated from a friend by a sense of close intimacy, which is utterly ineffable.  Trust is an expression of vulnerability; I am vulnerable, thus I trust you to care for that part of me and not abuse it.  And of course, there’s the physical expression of love -to wit, sex.  Now that to me seems like a bit of a leap from the other two.  I’m not going to go all Masters and Johnson about this; sex isn’t a conversational taboo so much as it’s the most intensely personal thing you can really do, but sex is a very different expression of connection than the others.  The other values are less tangible (literally), and yet in other ways they are more lasting hallmarks of a relationship.  The relationship built on sex is the house built on sand; the other stuff has got to exist in order to make it “work.”  This ain’t exactly groundbreaking, I know.

Most couples that have been together for a long time tend to de-emphasize sex in lieu of the other, more lasting aspects of their companionship.  This is the norm, I suppose, but somewhere along the way we got the idea in our heads that it was wrong.  Do the Disney HEA couples tap that ass on a nightly basis?  (If Jasmine stayed looking fine, I could see it)  

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I’d con the genie into a lamp full of Viagra, I won’t even lie.

Most married couples don’t stay freaky, because sensibility overpowers the hormones of youth, and here’s the dark, dirty secret:  I think people get used to one another.  I won’t say bored, because that’s not really fair, but most of us who slept around in our 20’s and 30’s (and yes, that’s me) did so because variety is the spice of life.  You settle with a partner because you find long term, endearing things about them that cannot be found in a one-night stand or casual fling.  That said, however, there seems to be some unwritten rule that sex must tie in to those other things, otherwise something is wrong.  Morality aside, somehow it’s wrong to want someone other than your own partner, to want the new, to want variety.  I’m not here to call that into question – everyone makes up their own minds about that shit, and it’s not a bag of cats I particularly want to put my hand into.  I think, however, this exposes of flaw in HEA (in a roundabout fashion) – can we reasonably expect to have our external happiness provided by one person forever?  

To quote a close friend, the idea that someone is supposed to provide for all your needs until you stop breathing is a “terrible burden,” and I completely agree with that idea.  Even if you’re a functional, independent adult, there are externalities that cannot be met by yourself.  Here’s a quick primer on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, if you don’t remember it:

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I think it’s important to note where “love and belonging” exist on that pyramid.  It’s right in the middle, and it’s an important base for future personal growth.  It isn’t wrong to need another person, to help them fulfill you.  We all need mirrors, we all need sounding boards. We need to share our intimacies and vulnerabilities with someone, because it’s fucking crazy inside our own heads.  People tend to rebel against the idea of coupling with someone because it makes us seem weak, but we are weak.  We are not islands, and we cannot make it through this life alone – not if you want anything more than just a robotic existence.  This is a large component of “happily ever after” – whether it means to or not, it acknowledges that personal growth absolutely relies on other people.  We do things on our own all the time, and no one can grow without their own self-actualization, but being the social animals we are, we certainly need friends and lovers to help us see things we can’t, to help us improve.  

That being said, it’s horseshit to rely utterly on someone else for everything, and it’s even more of a bag of baloney to think one person can handle all your externalities.  So often in the Disney “happily ever after” scenarios, it feels like the happy couple leaves behind those that help them, and their happiness is inherently an exclusionary thing; “thanks for your help, we’ll take it from here.”  The moral consequences of that are never examined, because you can only do so much in a 2 hour movie meant to delight children.  But in that delight, a void is created – critical thinking is denied and the implication that “each other is all we’ll ever need” is enforced.  

One person cannot possibly deliver everything another human beings needs, though I’d argue one person can do a lot for you.  The underpinnings of a great relationship that I mentioned above can all be done, reasonably, by another person ad infinitum if you’re both balanced, healthy adults who want to grow together.  That prospect is what a good, solid marriage (or whatever equivalent) is built from, and I don’t know if anyone can disagree.  The problem, then, is sex.  Sex is the one pillar that doesn’t hold up very well, because people get used to each other, and it lacks the firepower it once did.  Maybe I’m crazy, but that actually seems acceptable understandable.  Your body stays pretty much the same – your parts are your parts, mine are mine, and at some point you’re going to know me and vice versa.  Can we admit to ourselves that this is reality, and reality at some point should take precedent over fantasy?  The parts of us that can change and do change are the things that remain exciting and interesting!  If you let your mind grow, if you reach out to new experiences (which, ahem, requires other people), if you experience self-growth (which is greatly assisted by a stable, loving relationship), if you realize new things about yourself – that shit stays interesting!  The human MIND is separate from the BODY (hey there, Descartes!) and it’s the mind that grows, and grows, while the body eventually withers.  So why do we place this emphasis on the body’s minor role in the relationship?  It’s disproportionate in its importance, yet we tie SO MUCH to the corporeal.

If we’re to include sex as a necessary adjunct to happiness, then we’re bound for failure.  Disney princes and princesses remain forever young and beautiful on cellulose, so it’s easy to imagine Aladdin will hit that like the fist of an angry god on a nightly basis (who wouldn’t?!) because Jasmine will forever be how they drew her.  But guess what?  I’m going to get old.  I’m already getting old – I’ve lost my hair, and the salt and pepper is starting.  I have wrinkles on my baby face.  Parts will sag, my ears will grow hair!  I wasn’t a Disney prince to start with, and I’m not getting any better with age.  So why on earth do we make the physical portion of our relationships so important?  How can you be forever happy with another person when the inevitability of time and familiarity ensure that one of those pillars is bound to fail?

I’m not suggesting a new morality here – others have and will continue to debate the ethics of sex and relationships.  Instead, I think that an honest appraisal of what we can and do expect from a partner needs to happen.  I don’t expect that one person is always going to push my buttons, and the inverse will invariably be true!  What you needed one day may have changed by the next, and at the very least that needs to be accepted.  It’s an open secret, and the admission of which has got to be important for staying happy with another person.

More to come.

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