Plutonian Striptease is a series of interviews with with experts, owners, users, fans and haters of social media, to map the different views on this topic, outside the existing discussions surrounding privacy.
Geoff Cox is currently a Researcher in Digital Aesthetics as part of the Digital Urban Living Research Center, Aarhus University (DK). He is also an occasional artist, and Associate Curator of Online Projects, Arnolfini, Bristol (UK), adjunct faculty, Transart Institute, Berlin/New York (DE/US) and editor for the DATA Browser book series (published by Autonomedia).
Social networks are often in the news, why do you think this is?
Social networks, or more specifically the social web, are bound up with vested interests and the social imaginary. They have become key sites for entertainment, making business and even doing politics. Along with this, and as communications technologies become key sites for various forms of contestation, there are bound to be some juicy stories. In addition, social networks are becoming the apparatus of the news. On the one hand, there is the use of platforms for various kinds of social movements and alternative news gathering, and on the other, the old news apparatus is adapting itself to new kinds of distribution channels – rather like selling any other product.
In what way do they differ from older forms of communication on the Internet?
In some ways not much, or not as much as the hype would lead us to believe. This is an important point, and one that many commentators would stress in that the Net is more than the Web, and that the Net has always been a sharing platform – BBS and UseNet, etc – what some refer to as extreme sharing networks. Even with Web 1.0 there were plenty of examples of social activities and file sharing making the notion of a new release little more than a marketing exercise. The distinction is that sharing now has become subject to centralizing and privatizing controls. I love the uncompromising way Dimitri Kleiner explains this: “Web 2.0 is capitalism’s preemptive attack on P2P systems”. Sociality and sharing have become enhanced but at the same time ever more commodified.
Who is ultimately responsible for what happens to the data you upload to social networks?
Strictly, if you agree to the terms of service, I guess the person who uploads it is responsible – as no doubt they are the ones who are signing away various rights to their data. In many ways this is the key issue, not the content as such but the ownership of the data. The data becomes capital and you decide whether or not to trade it.
Despite what I say above, no, not really although clearly I should. There’s simply not enough time in the day to read pages and pages of text – often many thousands of words and written in inaccessible legal jargon. To read the detail would make most services untenable on ethical grounds so I guess people are far more pragmatic and again trade ethical principles for use value (even those related to commercial exploitation). I personally don’t do that much trading along these lines.
Do you think you’ve got a realistic idea about the quantity of information that is out there about you?
No, probably not, but I’m not too paranoid, but in general try not to upload much information about myself. I also am reluctant to use social networks as I prefer to have very few (real) friends. As expected, I try to be mindful of the various strategies being developed to encourage me to upload data. As we hear from the news, it doesn’t take much to be able to assemble a whole profile for someone from very little information as a starting point. The artist Heath Bunting has also demonstrated how easy it is to construct a profile of a “real” person (as part of his “Status Project”).
How do you value your private information now? Do you think anything can happen that will make you value it differently in the future?
I’m old school. Mostly I would like to demolish the whole notion of private property, as this relates to information too. As you can tell, I do not value it much at all in itself but the difficulty is that others do. A change of the prevailing logic around property would change the ways in which value is negotiated but this is rather idealistic on my part I admit.
How do you feel about trading your personal information for online services?
As I mentioned already, and it’s not something I do much. However, it seems clear that this is what people do, and often quite knowingly. They sign away rights to platform owners in exchange for sharing services and are willing to live with the compromises this necessitates. It seems like these are for free, but clearly they are not. I have tried to avoid such compromises where possible.
What do you think the information gathered is used for?
Ultimately this is for the accumulation of capital, or in other words profit or surplus value, and even if it is not altogether clear how profit or value can be extracted. Data on people is clearly a crucial aspect of this if not the prime commodity in itself – such are the conditions of informational capitalism and what people refer to as the attention economy.
Have you ever been in a situation where sharing information online made you uncomfortable? If so, can you describe the situation?
No, not really. As I said, as a skeptic (or luddite!), I don’t share that much information over online networks so remain fairly comfortable.
What is the worst case scenario, and what impact would that have on an individual?
Individuals could be seen to be selling themselves to the network in a perverse reversal of usual relations (as users and their data become ever more entangled). To put it differently, the worry is that through social networks, new kinds of subjectivities are being constituted that are market-driven and that engage sociality in restrictive ways. This is the case already to some extent but the worst case scenario relates to the extreme degree to which this is happening.
Nowadays, most of the “reading” of what is written online is done by machines. Does this impact your idea of what is anonymity and privacy?
No, not really, as social relations already involve the interplay of humans and machines, for better or worse – in strange combinations of human and non-human actions. Even radical networks have to take this logic on board.
Can a game raise issues such as online privacy? And if so, what would you like to see in such a game?
Of course, why not, especially given that social networking is game-like anyway. I guess I’d like to see this as an opportunity to emphasize the rule sets that are at work, and to suggest that if social networking can be considered to be a game, that there are cheats/hacks that can disrupt the rules. I think my answers to some of the other questions also indicate this way of thinking and how the issue of privacy might be engaged or made contradictory.