Another Brick in the Wall

Invited by the Center for Democratic Deliberation at Penn State, Evegeny Morozov spoke on “An Internet for the 21 st century” to the small audience gathered in Forster Auditorium. Per usual, despite the blandishments of extra credit, barely a tenth of one percent of Penn state students attended the lecture, though the speaker was well-known and the topic of the first moment. 

Mr. Morozov spent most of his hour-long talk emphasizing the fact that Google (and other private corporations) profits from the data created by its users. He convincingly argued that the ever-increasing troves of data such companies as Google owns forge very high walls that bar or deter entry. Few competitors can hope to match the effectiveness with which Google can personalize its ads and sales pitches. No wonder that the exit strategy envisioned by most start-ups is to be bought off by a Google or Facebook!! The so-called “internet of things” will only make the already big corporations bigger argued Morozov, the walls of data from which they rule rising unassailably higher still. Google’s tag line is “Do no evil.” Mr. Morozov talk reminds us that in its voracious acquisition and storage of data, its tag line should actually be understood as what Google does not intend. Or, perhaps more charitably, that “do no evil” is an ironic reference to how facts can make propaganda out of good intentions. Thus Mr. Morozov argued for an Internet of the 21 st century in which personal data is owned by individuals but not saleable by anyone. 

The earnest discussion that followed his talk focused on the question of the relative merits of government versus private ownership of data. Perhaps this is a reflex of us Americans who are so deeply schooled in the supposed struggle between big bad government and the minions of free enterprise. A more sterile discussion cannot be imagined in the post-Snowden age. At the margin it does matter, of course. There is a difference between Google using the data it owns on you to profit from your eyeballs as it were, and the government using the data it owns on you to put you in jail. But the routine and eager capitulation by the likes of Google and AT&T to government demands for data makes a mockery of the debate between private and government ownership of data. Moreover, the fixation on government v corporation misses Morozov’s point: he wants personal data to be owned by neither corporations nor the government.

Ivan Illich, whose writings Mr. Morozov knows, already warned years ago that the so-called ‘postmodern,’ ‘post-industrial,’ or ‘sharing’ economy would take the precise form that it does. Consider Facebook or Google who profit from data. But they don’t pay for the production and consumption of this profit making resource. You write an email and then consume the ad that is displayed on the side of your screen. You engage in shadow work (this is Illich’s term) as both producer and consumer. The company profits because you get zilch for your efforts. Now, who gets to keep the resulting profit, whether it is Google or you, occupies much bandwidth among the twittering class. But that is irrelevant to the point Morozov 2 insightfully wanted to make. He spoke of the datafication of life, of how ordinary life is being captured in a cloud like layer of data made possible by the information architecture of sensors and satellites and screens. The datafication of life produces the conditions for surveillance, whether for the purposes of profits or patriotism. Monetizing the data for individuals would fuel the worst kind of surveillance, which is auto-surveillance or reflexive self-monitoring. It is to avoid this internalizing of the surveillance now conducted by corporations and governments that Morozov wants the data to be owned by individuals but not saleable by them. In the world according to Morozov, personal data would be inalienable personal property. But this seems a decidedly inferior solution to the threat that datafication poses for democracy. If datafication is the source of the threat then surely that and not its resulting ownership is the problem to be addressed. 

Mr. Morozov contrasted Uber and the city of Helsinki, in explaining how data ownership without sale can be beneficial to a more vibrant public life. Apparently, in Helsinki, citizens can see who and how many want to travel along a given route and send for a minivan paying a lot less than a individual cab, as in the Uber-world. But perhaps, Mr. Morozov could re-read his Illich, who with a colleague-Jean Robert- once wrote a short piece titled Auto-Stop. In it, he suggested a model of sharing that is neither private nor public and does not necessarily contribute to increasing datafication. In Beirut, as in many other cities east of Europe, you can flag down a passing taxi (but this could also be a private car) and hop in even though it has other passengers. You pay a fixed fee and you go the distance you want. You hop in and out at the discretion of the driver.

Auto-stop is not a private taxi service as Uber, not a spontaneously app generated public bus service as in Helsinki, not even a bike-sharing scheme sponsored by Citbank and its credit cards. No data is produced that outlives the time of life as and when it is lived, no permanent clouds hang over and follow the activities of all citizens, which is the hallmark of the surveillance society. That sounds pretty democratic to me. 

Sajay Samuel 
State College, PA 
March 21, 2015

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