What you are looking at is one interpretation of what the internet knows about you. You were convinced to click or otherwise follow a link, and this article was shown to you. The publisher of this article knows the quality of the computer you are using, where you are, and much more. Useful predictions about what you want for yourself and for others, now and in the future, have already been made. Many people are bidding for the chance to determine what you see next.
The smart people you are told work for Google and Facebook spend their days thinking about what to show you next. How can requested information be presented by a publisher to the interested party in a mutually beneficial way? The publisher wants acclaim, loyalty, and many other things, but typically measures real success in dollar values. Advertising is a common path to profit, so the publisher lets you have what you desire (a burst of information that you’ve suggested an interest in, maybe because you want to feel happier or get an answer or satisfy a sexual urge) in exchange for your agreement to interact with, and therefore validate, an advertising and marketing team’s opinion of you (1). Incomplete pieces of you are replaced with machined prosthetics reducing idiosyncrasies to idealized shapes conforming to predetermined slots modeled by marketers, and you consent to this redefinition with every click you make.
With a nod to Descartes’ cogito, we can say “you touch, therefore you are”. The entirety of what you see next is an attempt to define and direct the desires of a two-dimensional picture of you, printed by a machine. The time allotted to constructing this picture of you is measured in milliseconds(2). This virtual object built by others becomes your identity online. Your actions in response to the advertising and correlated content you see on Facebook (such as ignoring, clicking, swiping, or touching it) trigger algorithms to recalculate their picture of what kind of person Facebook and its partners choose to believe you are, and what to show you next. This quid pro quo between a proxy actor that doesn’t ask for your opinion and the corporate marketing arm of some of the most efficient vehicles for the distribution of ideology ever created determines the look and feel of the digital content you constantly interact with.
In 1920 the League of Women Voters was created. Cigarette companies began advertising to women in the 1920's. A man named George Washington Hill, at the time president of The American Tobacco Company, hired Edward Bernays to aid in this effort. Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, is generally acclaimed as the “father of public relations”.
In his seminal book “Propaganda” (1928), Bernays writes:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.
Paraphrasing Robert Hughes: America is a pantomime of desire and revolt. Bernays suggests not simply that we are driven by desires, but that we perceive the fulfillment of of our desires to be the truest form of self expression, that those desires have been implanted by external actors, and that this has been done to preserve a democratic society. Acting on these artificial desires is, by this reading, anti-revolutionary.
From Alain Badiou’s “15 Theses on Contemporary Art”:
Since it is sure of its ability to control the entire domain of the visible and the audible via the laws governing commercial circulation and democratic communication, Empire no longer censures anything. All art, and all thought, is ruined when we accept this permission to consume, to communicate and to enjoy. We should become the pitiless censors of ourselves.
Badiou’s call for self-censorship as a revolutionary act of emancipation is bracing, as unrestrained self-expression, self-generation, indeed self-replication is what democratic capitalism sells:
…the Communists could not stop the mass media from sustaining and spreading the desire for freedom among the captive peoples. Far from being an impregnable fortress, Eastern and Central Europe was a Potemkin village easily penetrated by electronic messages of democracy and capitalism from the West. — http://www.heritage.org/research/lecture/ronald-reagan-and-the-fall-of-communism
That war on ideology left behind an American culture tooled for mass media. Unable to dismantle this apparatus bolted onto our sense of freedom, we have forgotten how liberty involves not simply the absence of restrictions on our desires, but the power to define oneself. Bernays may see devolving individual agency as the path to a smoothly running “post-ideological” capitalist democracy. It may even be that such a structure is the best for the most. But you aren’t obligated to wave a flag with someone else’s picture on it.
The tools of “commercial circulation and democratic communication” promoted by the commercial internet (Facebook, Twitter, Google, Pinterest, and so on) censure nothing when constructing their picture of you. Which is another way of saying that everything you absorb and emit is taken as a relevant statement about who you are. Facebook composes your digital profile out of only 98 data points. They have, right now, another you.
Artist Grayson Perry’s “Who are You?” project explores “the negotiations we are all involved in, unconsciously or otherwise, around who we feel we are and how we are seen.” (3). Perry is exploring how we might emancipate ourselves from the identities that others make for us.
Emancipatory politics is by definition about escape. Here’s one definition:
…political activities that aim to end exploitation and enhance participatory democracy through which leadership can be held to account on a daily as well as periodic basis, in the workplace and beyond. (4)
Facebook wants to emancipate you. There is no doubt about that. Facebook is on a mission to connect, and change, the entire world through their proprietary technology:
When you give everyone a voice and give people power, the system usually ends up in a really good place. So, what we view our role as, is giving people that power. (5)
They believe this effort brings good, both for society and the bottom line. Facebook believes the spare toolkit for expression they’ve built out of walls and thumbs is a machine that generates human freedom, understanding, and connection. This is a political position. We can wonder whether without the bottom line the social care bit would still be a focus, but I do believe many people at Facebook are sincere in their belief in that company’s mission, and value.
It was recently reported that 1.8 billion “people” use Facebook every month. It is true that Facebook has constructed 1.8 billion windows out of 98 irregularly shaped panes of glass, and that they are not arguing with a tech media that draws an equivalence between the quality of a face assembled from monochrome shards liberally caulked, and the qualities of a human being. In reality Facebook and its peers capture but a trickle of your soul, and the transubstantiation of this thin gruel into advertiser-friendly data soup is the business of the lords of a new digital church — and their tithing acolytes.
I don’t know many people who prefer to be misunderstood. Nevertheless, many people embroider their digital selves with baroque flourishes. Isn’t that true? Is that resume or current interest or dating profile free of branding? How honestly do you construct yourself? How many prosthetics do you unwrap and snap into place the morning you present yourself for the big interview or the first date or the genuflection before your mentor within the halls of power you aim to walk through? How hard do you work on your “personal brand”? Indeed, do you believe those who don’t promote their online brand to be fools? Perhaps freedom is the rejection of this perverse permission to endorse a contrived you. We should take seriously Badiou’s suggestion to become “pitiless censors of ourselves”.
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(1) : This is the “contract” those with an interest in believing so suggest is being “violated” by users of ad-blocking tools.
(2) : Programmatic advertisers like AppNexus and DoubleClick run multinational auctions for access to the next screen you see, and bidders bid for the right to serve advertising on that screen. Each bidder has no more than 10 or so milliseconds to read you, and send a bid for your attention. Any longer and the bid is ignored. This number of milliseconds measures the confidence of the advertising (and surveillance) industry: What is the minimum length of time needed to create a virtual identity accurate enough that advertising traders will risk some amount of money with the confidence they will over may engagements come out net positive.