Mark Andrejevic: We Are All “Lab Rats” Online


February 18, 2014

An associate professor at the University of Queensland in Australia, Mark Andrejevic writes about surveillance, new media and popular culture. He spoke with FRONTLINE about whether kids — and adults — really understand what happens to the data they share online. “All of that information, the reason it’s collected, is because of the potential to putting it to use. And how that information can be used, I think we are just at the very beginnings of sorting that out.” This is the edited transcript of that interview, conducted on June 27, 2013.

[With social media, are] kids in a reality show and they are not aware that they are in a reality show?

… On reality TV, in general the terms of production are available, and there you see what’s happening, whereas [in the] online and social media context, there is a huge apparatus that’s collecting information, but it’s largely opaque and invisible. You don’t see it. You can see traces of it when you look for airplane tickets to go to Las Vegas, and then all of a sudden ads for hotels in Las Vegas are popping up on the websites that you visit. …

The opacity of the mechanism that tracks, sorts and mines all the data that you provide is very high. People just aren’t aware it’s going on. You can tell them so they know intellectually, but it’s just not there in the process when you’re online and doing things. It seems to fade into the background.

Google, there was a time when they would say that they’ve kept a record of every search that’s been entered in Google, and if you had that in the foreground of your brain every time you went to Google, it might impact some of the things that you typed into the window. But even if somebody told you that, after a while you’d kind of forget because it’s just not present in the environment.

Nobody goes on a reality TV show to make friends, but people go on these social media sites thinking that they are doing one thing, and they are in fact doing another.

… In some respect, what’s happening in the online digital environment — it’s the platform for reality, for communication, for interaction — has all become part of this information-gathering apparatus. So we start to live in environments where maintaining certain types of social connections — networking professionally, finding information that we need for work or for leisure or for sociality — all of those infrastructures become commercialized and take place on private platforms in ways that are new and unique that didn’t exist before.

In the not-too-long-ago old days, when you wrote somebody a letter, you didn’t have any expectation that the contents of that letter would be scanned and that data would be entered into a profile that could be used to more effectively sort you and manipulate you for marketing purposes or other purposes. …

But we’re moving into an environment where so many of the, I guess you just call them the memes of socialization and communication are actually privately owned commercial enterprises, and we become increasingly reliant upon them for our social lives, our professional lives, our personal lives, without really thinking about what it means that those are commercial, privately owned platforms.

What does it mean?

What it means is that as we go through the course of our lives, the types of interactions, the behavior we engage in, the things that we do, our expectations and understanding, … the information about them in the past faded away into obscurity. That doesn’t happen anymore.

Now the fashionable term is “data exhaust.” Throughout the course of our lives we are always shedding a certain type of data exhaust. If someone walks down the street, you see them walk down the street, but in 15 minutes I am going to completely forget that, and so is 99 percent of everyone else who saw that person walking down the street. But the database infrastructure won’t forget.

What it means, I think, is a need for a changing level of expectations about the way in which the imprint that we make on the world persists. We got used [to] — at least I did growing up — that the imprint that I made on the world, with certain exceptions, tended to fade away, most of it. My movements around the street, the things that I looked at in the shop window, the newspaper that I picked up and read on the subway, all of those things were ephemeral; they faded away.

But in the online world, in which so much of our communication and social life takes place, that expectation has changed. Those things are not ephemeral. The things that I look at in the shop window fade away; the things that I look at when I search the Web don’t. They enter into the database. The stories that I read on the newspaper that I picked up on the subway are ephemeral. The fact that I look at a news story on an online news site or aggregator, that stays in the database somewhere.

“Those who have access to and control the platforms have the largest, most powerful source of information about human behavior that anyone has ever had in human history.”

My casual interactions with friends, the notes that I send them — in the old days, when I wrote a note on somebody’s door and stuck it on, that’s ephemera; it fades away for the most part. But everything I do on Facebook can be preserved in the database.

And not only that. All of that information, the reason it’s collected is because of the potential to putting it to use. And how that information can be used, I think we are just at the very beginnings of sorting that out.

But what it means is that those who have access to and control the platforms have the largest, most powerful source of information about human behavior that anyone has ever had in human history. And that’s information that they are going to use for their ends, whatever those might be.

The extent to how powerful that’s going to be I think we have yet to see. But the notion that it’s going to be powerful is something that all of these companies who collect this information are betting upon. That’s why they are investing huge amounts of money in developing infrastructures to capture that information, and huge amounts of money and infrastructure for storing the information, and resources for sorting it and mining it and putting it to use.

And by powerful you mean money. This is business. There is money in this.

Yes, by power I mean money. … For the most part, the information that’s being collected is being collected by commercial entities with commercial purposes in mind. And those commercial purposes are basically to sell us more stuff all the time at every opportunity and to find those moments when we are the most susceptible to the strategies that they use for influencing us. …

The rallying cry of the online economy — it’s a little bit of blackmail, but [it’s]: Wouldn’t you rather be saturated with ads that are relevant to you than ads that aren’t? That’s assuming that we are going to be saturated with ads and take that as a given.

But once you take that as a given, I think you could ask the following set of questions. First, is it limited to targeted advertising? And I would say the uses of this information are not limited just to customizing advertisements for us. There are all kinds of other economically productive uses for data.

So, for example, Xerox, I saw recently, has created an algorithm that searches through the profiles of potential employees — these are generally for low-paid jobs — in order to figure out whether somebody fits the data profile of the ideal employee. So here we’re talking about an economic use of data, but it’s for profiling and making decisions about who gets hired.

So if you imagine that generalized, you can imagine a whole range of other applications besides targeted advertising, economic applications, ways in which people who collect this data can sell it and provide a service. Do you want to figure out who is the best person to hire? What about who is the best person to admit to a particular school? What about who is the best person to sell health insurance to, or to deny coverage if you can?

There are a whole variety of ways in which data-driven decisions could potentially be used to influence quite important aspects of our life far beyond what advertisements we are exposed to. …

But even if you just go back to the question of ads, I think it’s worth asking the question, is there a point that we get creeped out by the use of data to target advertising to us? …

If, through some conjunction of data and information that’s collected about you online, some marketer is able to figure out that some romantic relationship ended and that you are at a particularly emotionally vulnerable spot, and that’s a good time to try to engage in particular types of influence. We notice that your pants size has expanded over the past several months, and at the same time we have indications that a relationship just broke up and you’re going on online dating sites. Maybe we can start target marketing diet supplements to you of some kind.

Or getting even creepier, there are ways to figure out certain very private medical conditions that you may have based on the type of information that you may enter into search engines or other online fora, and then finding yourself targeted for medial conditions that you thought only your doctor knew but it turns out the Internet knows, that would start to creep you out.

“We’re little lab rats in this online forum, where because the digital environment is so easy to modulate and customize, we can find ourselves exposed to customized experiments as well as customized advertising.”

But you can imagine even further technological developments. One thing that’s important to understand is that the way that digital online environment works is that it’s not simply a data collection environment in which the things that you do can generate data that can be captured and stored and sorted. It’s also a site of ongoing controlled experimentation.

What commercial websites do is they constantly engage in trying out different combinations of ads and contexts and experimenting with controlled groups to figure out which ads generates a higher rate of return. …

We’re little lab rats in this online forum, where because the digital environment is so easy to modulate and customize, we can find ourselves exposed to customized experiments as well as customized advertising.

So take that notion of ongoing experimentation and push it just a little bit farther in terms of this dystopian future I’m envisioning for you, but one in which the data can figure out at what times of the day or in what moods you are most susceptible to the type of advertising appeal and what type of advertising appeal you might be most susceptible to, certain life circumstances combined with the weather and the type of day, you’re more likely to be taken in by a particular type of emotional appeal than another. Then it starts to get into that strange realm of how much do you know about me, and how creepy is it that you can use this understanding to influence me in ways that go far beyond conscious influence? …

Do kids get this?

In general, the research that I’ve done shows a low level of background knowledge about the type of background-information tracking that takes place and almost no knowledge about the types of experimentation that takes place online, and very little knowledge about the sophistication of emerging forms of data mining. So on the whole I’d say that the background knowledge is quite low.

On some intuitive level, I do think that we’re reaching a point where more and more Internet users understand that they are participating in a monitored environment about which they have little knowledge and over which they have very little control. … I don’t think they’ve got a well-developed understanding of what the potential implications of that are down the road. …

I do think that one of the things that we need to do now is not so much ask what is it that the people who collect this data can do with it now, but what is it that they are working on being able to do in the not too distant future?

And I think the time to ask those questions is now, because if we want to shape what happens to our information environment, if we wait until those consequences become already palpable and direct and in place, it’s going to be a lot harder to change them or respond to them, because the data is already going to be out there. It’s already going to be stored in the databases, and once the applications are developed to put it to use, I don’t think there’s a way to put the genie back in the bottle. So that’s one difference. …

I think one of the problems is we really don’t know the consequences. We are being told what they are — all kinds of consequences are imagined, and we have to do the work of imagining them — but it’s not clear to me that we have yet seen what those consequences are. And I’m not sure whether that puts us in a transitional point so much as creates a question mark over our relationship between culture and technology. …

These platforms in this culture, this isn’t a neutral thing. These are created environments. There are people behind this. People are doing things; they are enticing kids. It’s not passive. …

One of the ways in which we tend to think about these online platforms and applications like Google and Facebook, we tend to treat them as utilities and — I’m not sure why — libraries or encyclopedias. They are just stuff that’s out there for us to use, and isn’t it cool that it’s free, and now we can use all these things that generations that came before us cannot? I think that’s because they do a good job of presenting themselves that way.

I was at a meeting at the university where I work, and there was a question of what to do with some library books that nobody had checked out for a long time. The library said it was too expensive to keep the books, so they said they were going to pulp them, destroy them. I asked, what about the potential of digitally scanning so if down the road some historian wanted that digital archive, even though nobody wants to check it out now, it would still be available?

The response I got from the library was, “Oh, we’ll just let Google Books do that.” And that’s a very interesting response, because it’s imagining that Google is a kind of utility that can take on the role of a public servant. And of course Google is not, although it likes to portray itself that way. Google is a for-profit commercial company that may or may not endure and doesn’t have any particular public service commitment beyond the goal of serving consumers and making money off of them. …

I think that’s a structural thing that’s built into our interaction with online environments, because there is so much that goes on behind the scenes that we don’t see. We just see the face that’s available to us.

Because we don’t see how these things are constructed, we don’t see the algorithms that generate if we search for something online, how it generates what would be the top search. That’s completely opaque to us. But all of those things are constructs that have imperative behind them, imperatives of those who developed the technologies. …

For the most part, the imperatives that are baked into the background use for the search engines that we use are commercial. Their goal is to get us to stay on the site as long as possible, to use it as much as possible, to provide as much information about us as possible and to get as many people involved and engaged as possible. …

The commercial model that underlines these online environments tends to reinforce what we already know about this person: Find a way to sort them into a particular category and sell them based on that category that we have. That to me doesn’t look like a particularly productive way of creating well-rounded citizens or well-educated participants in a democratic society. …

I like to imagine a hypothetical scenario in which somebody came to a town and said, “Hey, look, we can build an amazing new type of high-tech road system for your community that will improve commerce and give people new ways to communicate with each other and see each other and interact, but you have to understand that we are going to own that road, and the condition for you using it is that we’re going to track you and monitor everything you do, and we are going to use that information to try and influence you according to our priorities.”

If somebody came and said that to you as a proposition, you’d probably say, “No, that sounds a little creepy.” But in effect, that is happening but without anybody presenting that choice to us. I heard somebody describe it — and I like this term — through the “tyranny of convenience” we are moving into that town with those roads but without ever having to confront the proposition. …

Surely in that transaction you get something? In real life, the kids get something out of it, right? So are they being exploited?

Exploitation is a tricky concept, but the basic premise behind exploitation is not that you don’t get anything. … Just because one gets something doesn’t mean that one isn’t engaged in exploitative relations.

Alexander Furnas said something that I think is a good way of formulating it. We are handing out the largest, most powerful trove of information to advertisers ever in human history, and in exchange we get free email.

Yeah, it’s an exchange, but whether or not it’s an exchange that if we really stood back and took a look at the consequences we would describe as a fair one or even a desirable one looks to me like still an open question.

People get freaked out about how much all the databases know about us. [Is the information they have accurate?]

Here’s [where] I think we enter a qualitative shift that we are not culturally prepared for. The world of data mining does a couple of things. One thing it does is develop so-called emergent patterns of correlation, which means it develops correlations that we wouldn’t have anticipated and we wouldn’t even have seen without running the data mining process itself.

And what that means is that it can find correlations that might not even be explainable or understandable or reverse-engineerable but upon which decisions can be made.

So it’s possible to imagine that certain facts of one’s life — where one was born, what type of food one eats, one’s patterns of exercise, who knows, even what books one reads — might yield through process of correlation some high percentage of a particular type of risk, that this is a person who is likely to quit a particular job or contract a particular type of long-term illness, without even understanding how those variables contributed to that explanation, just that they do. …

What it does is it sorts individuals into categories. Oh, you share these attributes with a certain group of people, and those attributes lead to 95 percent probability that you will respond the way those other people did. That doesn’t mean you are going to.

What it means is that you’ve entered a probability group, and what it means is a decision will be made about you as an individual based on a probability that was derived from data about groups, which means that the decision may not capture who you are as an individual. And that becomes concerning when you imagine things like, what if data mining is going to decide whether or not you will be hired by a certain company for a particular job?

You may be the exception to the 95 percent or the 90 percent, but on aggregate for the company that’s hiring you, they don’t care, because they are hiring lots of people, and what they care about is the long-term results of the 90 percent over time, not whether they may have discarded one individual because that person was in the 10 percent that doesn’t fit the profile. …

“On the one hand you are always trying to assert your individuality, but there is a data-collection machine behind that is always trying to predict what you do and put you in a category and sort you.”

I’m a kid, and there are all these great tools that empower me to express my individuality, and you are telling me is what this stuff actually does is that it strips me of that individuality and puts me in a bubble with other people?

… I don’t want to downplay or diminish the potentials that those platforms make available to young people. I think that’s real and we’ve got to hold on to that. …

But there is another angle to it and another side, and it’s that other side that I think we need to take a look at, which is yes, the tools that these kids get to express themselves and share information with each other does provide them with all kinds of unique and interesting opportunities, although it probably remains a question about how much their own creative activities are channeled by the own imperatives of the platforms.

Some of them are more free and open than others. Some of them have quite a few restrictions in terms of what you can do, and they channel how it is you’re going to interact with other people. The example people like to note is that on Facebook, up until very recently all you could do was “like” things.

So yes, you are free to express yourself and your individuality as long as you like stuff, so there is a certain way your expressions can get channeled. But there’s another side. There is a way in which your creative activities are harnessed to imperatives that aren’t your own.

So when you go on these websites and you engage on the various affordances that they make available to communicate, educate yourself, create things, also what’s happening in the background is a machine that’s always collecting information and processing it and figuring out how everything that you do can be turned back upon you.

So you might imagine a kind of double motion where on the one hand you are always trying to assert your individuality, but there is a data-collection machine behind that is always trying to predict what you do and put you in a category and sort you, and I think those two things are going on at the same time.

A lot more attention gets paid to one side than the other, or at least until recently, and I think that’s because for the purposes of a consumer society, it makes a lot more sense to publicize and celebrate and highlight the cool creative uses of these consumer technologies than to look at the potential pathological or worrisome aspects.

Talk about the opacity of all this.

One of the things that’s true about the online economy is that a lot of the potential uses of the data remain speculative, so that people who are collecting it, they are not quite sure how it’s going to be used except to think that it will be valuable down the road.

Now, it might be the case that they are wrong, but if they are wrong, we are building an entire economy for supporting our communication infrastructure upon a failed bet.

But the bet is that this information is going to be useful, and it’s going to be useful because it’s going to enable commercial companies to more effectively sell, and it’s going to be able to turn us into more active and copious consumers. …

The irony is that the great value that’s being put onto this stuff, it’s all on the aggregate. My data is worthless. I have no leverage to withhold my data. Who cares about my data specifically?

One of the proposals that you’ll hear made over again when people say that they are concerned about how companies are collecting and using their data is, well, maybe one solution is to marketize that. If it’s your data, maybe you should just be able to sell it.

There are actually some businesses that crop up periodically saying: “We’re going to be your data locker. We’ll collect everything about you, and then if anybody wants to use that data, they’ll have to pay you some nominal tiny fee to get that data, but maybe, who knows, over time that will add up to something significant.”

That seems to me to be a failed way of thinking about how data collection works, because our individual data and information on its own is not particularly valuable. When it becomes valuable is when it’s aggregated, and we’re not in any bargaining position to command some piece of the pie when it comes to the aggregate use of that data. …

So the solution that we need has to be less a market solution and more collective policy solution, saying, look, there are certain uses of the data that we as a society don’t ascribe to, and we would like to prevent those uses of data, whether it be banning certain types of collection of information or the uses of certain types of information or even certain types of practices. …

I think there is a certain vested interest that these companies have in retaining the opacity and not opening up what they are doing to everyone. If their argument was “All we’re doing is serving you better,” then they wouldn’t have any particular vested interest in making what they are doing with our data opaque. They would be like: “Yeah, come on in. Let’s show you how we are serving you the ads that you need.”

But something more is going on. They believe they are gaining a certain type of power and influence that if we knew about it we might be concerned about it, and I think that’s probably with good reason, because they are imagining that this information gives them power over consumers, the ability to manipulate them, and that’s very different form serving the consumers.

That manipulation, when ad people talk to each other, they won’t talk about serving people better. It’s all “How do I prey on your hopes and fears?”

It’s very interesting to look at trade magazines, especially advertising and marketing trade magazines, and how they talk about consumers, because there are two fronts to how advertisers have for a long time talked about consumers. …

When they are talking to consumers they say: “You are king! We serve you.” But when they talk among each other, what they say is, “We are going to figure out what they want before they want it.” …

That’s the imperative for all this data collection. The goal is to gain more power over consumers, to gain more influence, to more effectively shape consumers’ response and behavior in accordance with their imperatives, which are not necessarily the consumers’ imperatives. That’s why you’ve got to shape them.

We may not want to buy all the time and be constantly exposed to advertisements that influence us in ways that we may not even understand or recognize. That’s not what we want, but that’s certainly what advertisers want. And their argument in the end is going to be, “Well, you bought the stuff, so you must have wanted it.” I think that’s highly debatable. …

… Marketing people are talking about how authenticity is what this generation wants. Talk about that. …

“Authenticity” is a real buzzword category in media and in marketing. …

The promise of authenticity aligns itself with the promise of democratization, because you’re not getting something that somebody has contrived for you, but you’re actually having real, direct experience for yourself.

So you’re not being somehow manipulated or deceived, but the authenticity actually allows you to participate in what’s really going on instead of having you removed from it and abstracted from it.

Again, the promise of websites like Facebook and Twitter — and there’s some aspects of this that I think is compelling — it’s these things are meant to be authentic and “democratic” in the sense that they’re being produced and created by the people who used them. …

So it’s kind of democratic in the sense of it turned to the populace in the popular culture, not popular culture created for you by somebody else, but the people’s culture created by you, for you but merely channeled through a commercial platform that will then harness all of that authenticity and creativity in order to more effectively market to you.

… You’re doing the work. You’re pulling, but somebody else is kind of steering or directing. That doesn’t mean that they’re telling you what to say on Twitter, although things like Facebook and Twitter, they have that double logic to them where on the one hand, it’s like yeah, you’re writing it, you’re saying it, but what are the imperatives that are built in there? How do those work?

What happens when you get a certain size Twitter following and then all of the sudden you’re like, “Damn, I’ve got to maintain it and keep it up and try to get more people”? Is that [an] imperative of yours, or is that kind of structured into this online economy where the more that you can generate, more attention, the more links, the more people following you, the better it is for the companies that have developed this technology, and the more you buy into a certain type of emotional culture?

I’ve got to build my brand. You know, everybody’s got a brand, and I’ve got mine, and I’ve got to maintain. There’s a certain kind of level of buying into the logic of rating, and a logic of promotional culture, and a logic of branding that’s shaped by the types of imperatives that you may not have started out with when you get on these sites, but it’s kind of structured into the sites.

I’m on Facebook, and I’m maintaining my presence. If I write something that I didn’t get a lot of links to or a lot of likes, maybe I’m going to change it. I’ll try to start writing stuff in little sound bites so that other people will like. …

You start to have kind of an entrepreneurial media relationship to yourself that’s compounded and reinforced by these accounts of those people who have gone on YouTube and have been able to support themselves by becoming YouTube celebrities or who have become stars or superstars by becoming YouTube celebrities.

It’s that weird lottery-like promise of interactivity. You’ve got to be in it to win it. If you get online and you start YouTube posting, OK, maybe you’re not imagining that I’m going to become a celebrity who can support myself by getting thousands of Twitter followers or YouTube followers. But somewhere that logic is built into the kind of promotional imperatives of these sites.

It’s weird to live in a society where people are spending a lot of time on sites that turn them into brands, in a sense, and allow them to participate in the logic of being a brand — you know, live the brand.

That is fascinating, and the kids get something out of it. … If I was younger, I’d like to be famous. …

It’s very clear that we live in a society where over and over we’re reinforced with the message that fame and celebrity are desirable things, … but that’s an imperative again that comes form a commercial commodity culture, right?

You ask some kids, a very high percentage of them picked being famous over being rich if you survey them on what they’d like out of life. And that’s not surprising. We live in a society where celebrity is valorized, and interestingly we live in a society where celebrity is increasingly linked to a certain kind of reality. Celebrities are real, too. They’re like us. …

So here I wouldn’t critique the kids for embracing what society teaches them is good. That’s the message that they hear over and over again, that a way to find acceptance, a way to have impact, a way to feel you’re making a mark in the world is to be a celebrity.

It’s channeling certain very human aspirations and desires for acceptance, to feel like you’re having an impact, to feel like you’re loved, through the lens of consumer culture, right? OK, here’s the way in which you can have those aspects of your life or those needs fulfilled. Do it according to a certain kind of branding logic. That’s where you can fulfill yourself. …

So what happens when it turns out that I do not have the phenomenal talent of Beyonce that’s been granted by God, right? Now how do I achieve that fame? …

The nice thing about these online environments is that you can achieve a certain type of interaction and attention and communication on a whole range of different scales. So it’s not just there’s the mega scale or there’s nothing.

Somebody can be on Twitter and can have thousands or millions of followers, and somebody can be on Twitter and just have their friends. But still there’s a way in which you can perform that same activity as somebody who’s got a much larger following. You can embrace and adopt that logic, and maybe there’s something scalable about it, which is not to say that you’ll get some type of celebrity benefit out of it. But you’ll engage in the types of behaviors or so-called creative activities that people can do on a much larger scale and you can get some type of reward for it. …

So it’s a way in which we kind of internalize certain ways of thinking about what it means to interact with others and how to interact with others, and that interacting with others is a way of influencing that we’re getting an “I like” response to them.

Tell me about Klout.

What Klout does is it measures the influence of somebody’s online social presence through taking a look at the number of followers that they have on Twitter or other variables to figure out how influential you are. And in some sense it’s almost a reinvention of what marketers have described as “influencers” since the mid-20th century.

The notion of how advertising and marketing works is through a two-step flow. What advertising does is maybe not influence everybody directly, but one thing it can do is influence people who can influence other people in turn. So marketers and advertisers have long tried to find those people who are the opinion leaders or the influencers or the early adopters, the trendsetters, those people who will presumably have influence on others. And what Klout does is actually make it unnecessary in a sense for the marketers to do that work of finding out who those people are. …

I was at a conference recently where people were talking about a party in which you can only get in if you had a Klout score of over 40. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it was like, are you influential enough to be invited to this party?

But what it does again is equate your influence with social standing, with higher acceptance by others, with your value and worth as a person. Oh, wow, your Klout score is low. Maybe you’re not as valuable as a person. You’re not as cool to come to this party, but if it’s 40, you’re in.

Again, that’s a kind of embrace or the adoption of a certain type of market logic. Are you enough of an influencer? Are you enough of an opinion leader? And if you’re not, maybe there’s ways in which you can become one. Maybe you can work upon it. Maybe you can tweet more; maybe you can have more influential Facebook posts. …

When did [gaining this kind of social currency] become so cool?

I think it became cool perhaps when other imagined options just shut down and didn’t seem to be available, and also when it became maybe as fun as it’s become. I wouldn’t want to downplay the forms of entertainment and the forms of reward and the kind of excitement that people feel when they go on these sites and see that they’re able to connect with other people and how many friends have followed them. I do think that it’s fun.

You know, selling out to the man can be fun in today’s new, participatory, interactive world. We have ways to make it cool and rewarding and interesting for you. And all that other stuff didn’t really pan out, like yeah, the ’60s are over, right? That kind of imagination seems to fade from popular culture.

I don’t want to say it’s disappeared completely. We have Occupy Wall Street, and the Internet is an interesting place to look for forms of activism and political engagement. I wouldn’t want to downplay that, but of course they also use Twitter and Facebook and these applications.

So I’m not sure it’s all about selling out 100 percent of the time, but selling out has become a lot more fun than it used to be, perhaps a lot easier.

… This whole notion of interactivity, like I have a voice; I can talk to Beyonce, and she’ll talk back; I can tell Pepsi what I think, and they’re interested in my opinion. So I am empowered, and the celebrities are just like us. But they’re not really, are they? It is still somebody is kind of working the marionette strings on that side, right?

… One of the things that I keep waiting for and wondering if it’s going to happen is, at some point are we going to reach interaction fatigue, or are we going to reach information overload? Are we going to reach some kind of skepticism toward the hype? And I don’t know if that’s going to happen. …

Any technology that allows us to talk to each other or to interact with each other, to share information, that’s probably going to remain a really important part of our technological lives. But are we going to max out at “always on” activity, always having to tweet, always having to update?

You see people who engage in this, who use these technologies, sometimes reflect upon them. Man, do I really need to tweet again? And why am I tweeting, just because I feel I have to? … Who knows? We might reach a point of sharing fatigue or linking fatigue or interaction fatigue, though I haven’t seen it. …

One of the threats that connect the different aspects of what I see, the mobilization of the logic of interactive culture, is the way in which it relies on our participation, but our participation usually or very often comes in the form of willing submission to increasingly comprehensive forms of monitoring.

Reality TV is an instance of that. Yes, you can participate in celebrity television culture, but the way in which you participate is through willing submission to increasingly comprehensive forms of surveillance.

Yes, you can participate in Twitter or Facebook or use Google, and there’s a certain way in which all of these are interactive platforms for you that provide certain services based on your ability to interact. But the condition of the participation is willing submission, or maybe unknowing submission to increasing forms of monitoring.

And that logic seems to go across a whole interactive economy. We live in a world where surveillance is the norm, and to some degree or other, willing submission to increasingly comprehensive and detailed forms of monitoring is the norm.

I think that the social implications of that are interesting. What does it mean once that becomes normal, once we understand that’s how our society works? It’s been really interesting to me to see some of the revelations about the forms of monitoring to which people in the U.S. and beyond are submitted to routinely as a part of the new security regime in the post-9/11 era.

What’s interesting to me is one hasn’t seen the type of reaction that we might have seen in other historical periods. In the Nixon era, if we were told that by the way, the government is collecting data about everybody’s phone calls, there might have been a very different interaction than we’ve seen now.

I wonder if that doesn’t have something to do with the way in which willing submission to increasingly comprehensive surveillance is being portrayed to us increasingly in the terms of the benefits that accrue to it. Oh, yeah, you have to do that, but be on reality TV or you get a free Facebook account or free email. …

Something like Facebook is really interesting to me in the sense that I just wonder how many of those diaries that come with little locks on them are sold to teenage kids anymore. Like maybe you don’t need the diary with the lock anymore. You just go on Facebook, and that’s your outlet. That’s you’re expression of who you are.

That’s a very interesting shift, and I think it goes along with the equation of submission to monitoring with self-expression. So in a sense, self-exposure is equated with self-expression. … We live in a world now where expressing yourself can mean just providing information about what you’re doing. “Hey, I had coffee downtown with so-and-so. It was really good” — documenting the details of your daily life.

The equation of self-disclosure with self-expression, that’s a really interesting equation. It serves ends that I think go far beyond our own personal, creative lives. It serves the interest of those who can use this information in ways that we may not be aware of or ways that we may not have anticipated. …

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Senior Editor & Director of Local Projects, FRONTLINE



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