“In the future that the surveillance capitalism prepares for us, my will and yours threaten the flow of surveillance revenues. Its aim is not to destroy us but simply to author us and to profit from that authorship.” – Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power
There is a painting I have been thinking about a lot these past few days. It is entitled “Corporate Decision” by the late American artist George Tooker. In the background, a group of grey suited figures appear to be meeting in a boardroom of some kind. And in the foreground, a family grieves over the body of a loved one. The message is clear. The lives of ordinary, everyday people, mean nothing to those grey suited figures. In fact, ordinary, everyday people do not exist in any real way to those faceless men in the boardroom. Yet they wield enormous power over their lives.
This painting came to mind after being informed that my Facebook account was “disabled permanently” without any warning or explanation. In the blink of an eye, an algorithm took away 11+ years of memories with no option for appeal or recourse provided. And I suspect that it has to do with a massive purge that is taking place across all social media following the incident at the US Capitol on January 6th.
Since the insurrection, social media companies have been on tenterhooks, awaiting the consequences of allowing far right hate groups to organize freely on their pages for years. And they are not taking any chances. There has been a concerted effort by Facebook, Twitter and other social media giants to curtail hate speech. But in their rush to stop the next insurrection, they are rapidly constructing the infrastructure for corporate state censorship.
My last piece is an example of this. It was in no way peddling the far-right conspiracy theories of a certain well-known cult. In fact, it was highly critical of the phenomenon. But none of that seemed to matter. It was undoubtedly flagged for the sweep. Now, the use of certain forbidden terms, even if you are not promoting the theories behind those terms and are merely discussing them, appears to be reason enough to have you excommunicated forever from the church of social media. Noam Chomsky once said “the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” It appears that that “spectrum of acceptable opinion” is becoming even more limited.
And this is why I have thought about Tooker’s piece so much of late. Of course, my experience in no way compares with the gravity of the subject of that painting, but it has parallels., Our online identities have become so enmeshed with our lives. Social media acts like the journals of the past. A place where we record our activities and thoughts from day to day. And aside from the daily routines we become accustomed to, many of us attach a sacredness to sharing moments of our lives with others in this medium. Moments of joy, frustration, surprise, sorrow, anger. Holidays, births, weddings, deaths, trips, illnesses, dinners, reconnection with old friends. All of this is now captured in pixelated time. When it has been entrusted to a corporation and then permanently disappeared by them due to some arbitrary algorithm, it feels as if your home has been robbed.
Today the corporation has, for all intents and purposes, become the state. We are its subjects. And it is not a democratic arrangement, but a dictatorship of wealth. Deregulation, austerity and privatization, the hallmarks of neoliberal economics, have prevailed. The land, water, air, food and all that makes life possible have been commodified. Healthcare, education, and communication have been monetized.
The commons, and this includes the digital realm, have been carved up among powerful oligarchs who are unaccountable and unanswerable to our questions, complaints or pleas. It freely mines our data while it decides how we should think and speak in its realm. And it profits enormously from this arrangement. Facebook, alone, was worth $528 billion in 2020. And while we still have the freedom to express ourselves enshrined in certain historic documents, that right is meaningless if we have been denied access to the rest of the community. Of course, all speech and expression holds with it responsibilities and consequences. However, in a corporatocracy the arbiter of such decisions has little to no accountability to the people. And dissent of any kind is reason enough for them to expel someone without any warning or explanation.
But this arrangement is not absolute. Anything can change with enough public will. And we have more agency than we realize. As the late writer Ursula Le Guin said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”
Kenn Orphan February 2021
Painting is entitled “Corporate Decision” by George Tooker August 5, 1920 – March 27, 2011)
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