The Dangers of the Internet of Everything

April 1, 2015 § 2 Comments

Courtney Barnett is this week’s sensation.  She’s an indie rocker from Sydney, Australia, and she’s making it big in the UK, and even here in the US.  She plays retro 90s guitar rock, for the most part.  Close your eyes and it’s 1996 still.  That’s not a bad thing, she also writes great songs, she tells stories, most of them autobiographical, and mostly funny.  Her music is catchy as all get out.  Rolling Stone is drooling, giving her new album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, 4.5 stars.  But RS‘s review also steps a bit off the deep end in this 90s revivalist kick.  In the loudest song on the album, Barnett plays around with gender stereotypes and her frustrating life pre-stardom.  The chorus goes:

Put me on a pedestal/And I’ll only disappoint you
Tell me that I’m special/And I promise to exploit you
Gimme all your money/And I’ll make origami, honey.

RS calls this “so-totally-Nineties anti-corporate lyrics.”  Fat load of good the alleged anti-corporate tenor of the 90s did.  On Sunday, Evgeny Morozov commented on a new app, FitCoin, in The Guardian.  FitCoin, based on BitCoin, seeks to monetize our visits to the gym and other attempts at fitness.  FitCoin “is the first Proof of Human Work digital currency,” in the words of the app’s designers.  That’s right, using FitCoin, you can earn digital currency, which you can then use with participating sponsors like Adidas for discounts on gear, etc.

As Morozov argues:

FitCoin might fail but the principle behind it is indicative of the broader transformation of social life under conditions of permanent connectivity and instant commodification: what was previously done for pleasure or merely to conform to social norms is now firmly guided by the logic of the market. The other logics don’t disappear but they become secondary to the monetary incentive.

The ability to measure all our activities remotely is opening up new avenues for speculation, as anyone – from corporations to insurance firms to governments – can now design sly compensatory schemes to elicit desired behaviour from consumers chasing a quick buck. As a result, even the most mundane of daily activities can be linked to global financial markets. Eventually, we’ll all be trading in derivatives that link our entitlement to receive specific medical services to our physical behaviour. This is how fitness and health are gradually subsumed by the realm of money and finance.

Wonderful.  Sign me up.  Morozov rightly notes the dangers of this, though I think anyone with a pulse would recognize the inherent dangers in the commodification of basic human behaviour such as working out.  Or whatever.  This works, in many ways, on the same principle as newspaper websites.  Take, for example, my local daily, The Boston Globe.  I have discussed the descent into stupidity by the resident conservative columnist, Jeff Jacoby.  Jacoby, however, is a very intelligent man, and is capable of making complex arguments.  But he doesn’t any more.  His descent is tied to the larger descent of The Globe into irrelevance for anyone with a working brain.  This is made all the more bizarre when one remembers that Boston is also served by the populist, right-wing tabloid, The Boston Herald.  I guess The Globe wants to be a liberal tabloid.  In this descent to stupid, The Globe has realized which columnists and stories get the most clicks, and therefore make the most revenue. Jacoby works, because he riles people up.  And then there’s Kevin Cullen, who likes to use words like “punk” to describe Whitey Bulger (yes, he’s still carping on Bulger).

Thus, The Globe continues its race to the bottom because people want tabloid-level articles on the Boston Marathon Bombing Trial, or the murder trial of former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez.  Real news gets pushed deeper and deeper down the webpage.  In the physical newspaper, real news is buried deeper and deeper as the front page is dominated by these two trials, as well as Cullen’s vapidity and Jacoby’s cage-rattling.  The Globe makes more money off this than real news.

Human behaviour in terms of a newspaper is commodified, but we, the humans who follow the clickbait do not benefit economically.  FitCoin, on the other hand, takes that economic benefit and puts it into our digital wallet.  And many people will think this is a great thing.  But it is not.  Tying all human behaviour into ‘the internet of things’ will necessarily lead to the monetization of our behaviour, and this will lead to the “triumph of market logic” in all aspects into our social lives.  As Morozov argues,

[I]f permanent connectivity is essential for that logic to exercise control over our lives, then the only autonomy worth fighting for – both for individuals and institutions – would be an autonomy that thrives on opacity, ignorance and disconnection. A right to connect is important – so is the right to disconnect.

In other words, we enter into the type of world imagined by Dave Eggers in his 2013 best-seller, The Circle.  In it, Mae Holland gets a job at The Circle, an internet of things corporation, thanks to the fact her college roommate is an executive there.  Mae, as she climbs up the corporate ladder, is seduced by The Circle and its various apps that allow her to track every single aspect of her life in the cloud and on social media, from her health, to her late night escapes to kayak in San Francisco Bay, to her sex life and her parents’ health.  Her ex-boyfriend, meanwhile, is a craftsman and objects to Mae’s attempts to popularize his hand-crafted woodwork and wants nothing more than exist outside the all-seeing eye of The Circle and the internet.   Meanwhile, first politicians, then nearly everyone wears body cameras for transparency.  Then cameras are embedded everywhere, in the eyes of The Circle’s CEOs, this is good, because, like with Google Street View, people can travel the world without leaving their living room.  But, cameras everywhere lead to a surveillance state.  Mae, meanwhile, becomes increasingly embedded, and loses her critical ability to see what is happening.

Then there’s Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org, complete with the slogan, “The More We Connect, The Better It Gets.”  The TV ads for Internet.org are what I would call creepy.  They are set in the Developing World, and focus on people, usually young people or children, who build things like windmills, effectively inventing it for their part of the world.  Then the narrator of the video informs us that they don’t have the internet, and asks us to imagine what we lose globally because Mehtar and Mostek don’t have the internet.

And while certainly, the internet can be a good thing.  It can democratize.  It can get news out of places like Egypt during the Revolution there in 2011, which I watched unfold in real time on Twitter.  Or with the Ferguson protests last summer, which I also watched in real time on Twitter.  And it can bring knowledge to Mehtar and Mostek.  And maybe Zuckerberg really just wants to bring the internet to everyone.  But the internet also Americanizes the world. And it commodifies the world.  And there is a sniff of imperialism in these ads.

Belgian rapper Stromae has a brand new video for his track “Carmen.” In it, Stromae is caught in a hell of internet addiction, driven by love and consumer culture (you need to scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the video)

Eggers’ dystopia is fiction.  The FitCoin future and commodification of everything is very real.  And why should we be surprised?  As Tony Judt argues in his brilliant Ill Fares the Landsometime in the 1980s, during the era of Margaret Thatcher and Reaganomics, western society became completely and totally obsessed with money.  The end result of this is that, despite the alleged anti-corporatism of the 90s (honestly, I am not entirely sure what this is about, even counter-culture superstars like Nirvana were on major labels), is the monetization of everything.  Greed drives us.  And as the game proceeds, it will be harder and harder to opt out.  Morozov’s “right to disconnect” will disappear.

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