All posts by Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

Real cash feeds Facebook’s monopoly over your private life

Facebook has been on a shopping spree in 2014. It’s looking to buy a drone company so that it can bring the internet and Facebook to the other 6 billion, and its acquisition of Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset firm, is aimed at making your friending, liking, stalking and humble bragging more experiential.

Now it seems the company is in discussions to purchase a London start up which has expertise in online payments. And it is this creeping interest in financial technologies that should worry us more than drones or our friends turning our chats into their virtual reality.

If everything goes to plan, Facebook users will apparently be offered the chance to store and transfer money on the site, rather than having to use a service like PayPal.

Facebook reps are said to have been in talks with several London-based peer-to-peer money services that could make Facebook payments a reality. One of these is Transferwise, a company that recently hit a quintessential target for a scaling tech company when it announced that it had processed £1 billion in user payments. Another possible candidate, Dublin-based CurencyFaire, has also hit the billion mark, albeit in dollars.

The convergence of social media and financial services should be seen as a profound shift in how people view, save, use, and are freed of their capital. And Facebook’s interest could mark a tipping point. Social media is being used as agateway drug to get users hooked onto much more pernicious forms of socio-technical circuitry and economic capture.

Why would Facebook sell vague social analytics about our activity to advertisers when it could go directly to our wallets? This is the ultimate “disintermediation” or cutting out of the middleman.

Capitalism requires fluidity – the transformation of static objects into cashable objects. By making money social and digital it becomes more fluid.

And since social media corporations are already learning how to turn individual users into liquid assets, the mix is all the more potent. Fluid money and personal data pools in centralised servers owned by the millionaires and billionaires of Facebook and Google.

Facebook apps for asset management will not be designed for the financial elites whose wealth is already governed by a well-paid professional managerial class. While the discourse is about empowering the working and immigrant poor to be able to send money home without costly fees, it is really about financialising a new market, the formerly private acts that are being unlocked by social media.

The privatisation of our lives is already booming. Visit AirBnB to rent out your home, Girl meets Dress to rent someone else’s high-end clothes, WhipCar to borrow someone’s car, Rent My Items to get your hands on their power tools, or Microworkers to rent minutes of your day to do small time work for menial pay.

This is financialisation masked as the “sharing economy” but at least we get to rent a nice dress or go on holiday as a result.

Facebook has been successful in inviting us to volunteer our free digital labour in producing one of the world’s most valuable companies. Some lovingly call this “participatory culture” while I and others call it exploitation.

Facebook can capture additional users by raining down wifi from drones and by making a scroll through bachelor party pictures more immersive with 3D goggles, but these markets will be small time in comparison to the financial market of online payment and banking.

This is an explicit attempt to transform the means of our digital sociality, our online public sphere and agora into a mall, a bank, a bazaar. If Facebook is successful, users will rarely leave the site. They will forgo the dangers of the wider internet for the safe comforts of our gated virtual community where we are safe to self-promote and shop till we drop.

Or worse, this is an attempt to “gamify” money management. It will be Farmville for personal finance or 3D Candycrush for cash. This sounds stupid because it is. It represents the transformation of a complex system into a simple one. The more our social life is monitored and then digitised, the easier it is to hoard, gamify, and monetise any profitable crumbs.

This will not result in more agency but less. Banking is based on hard-to-understand calculations but it is regulated. Add complex filtering algorithms and financial technological derivatives to the picture and no sane person will understand what is happening to their money.

Online payment isn’t the problem. Facebook, Google, and others who monopolise and monetise our digital lives on closed centralised systems are. The financialisation of our private lives as well as unwarranted, indiscriminate, illegal, bulk surveillance flourish in these spaces where corporations and governments gain direct access to our private lives.

What we need is a social movement to demand an information commons, decentralised servers, and digital literacy along with so-called financial literacy. We don’t need to hand Facebook yet another key to our private spaces.

Beyond Surveillance Fridges and Socialized Power Drills: Social Media and the Financialization of Everyday Life

written with John Carter McKnight, Department of Sociology, Lancaster University

This past weekend, two prominent socio-technical critics have given us radically different versions of the future of capitalism in the age of social media. Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, argues in an op-ed for FT for a dystopia of toothbrush analytics, trash bin surveillance, and our personal lives being turned into marketing data and sold back to us as irresistible products and services. Meanwhile, Jeremy Rifkin in the New York Times sees similar trends leading to “The Rise of Anti-Capitalism.” These big-picture visions are important for steering us towards futures we’d rather live in. However, studying companies and consumers at the forefront of the transformative interaction of social media and financial services gives us a different picture entirely: one where old and new, privacy and sociality, onrushing corporatism and peer to peer pushback are producing a tangled, complicated, often contradictory mess – and along with it, the future we’ll probably see.

As kids growing up in Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” 80s we endured a lot of propaganda regarding drugs. One was the myth of the “gateway drug.” We were told that drugs like marijuana with few medically provable harms were highly dangerous because they were gateways to harder more evil drugs. Gateway drugs are like linkbait, hooks that bring unwitting subjects from a one innocuous practice to one more pernicious.

Morozov claims that social media is a gateway drug for the financial sector to hook us on a new range of products and services, while increasing its control over our lives. We hear that the dark insides of our mouths, fridges, rubbish bins, and cars will be scrutinized by networked and image-recognizing surveillance cameras. Videos will be algorithmically analyzed producing “data portfolios” which will be automatically used (for a fee) by third parties to adjudicate our credit worthiness, employability, and romantic fitness. As longtime admirers of Morozov’s guts and wit we’ve been pleased to see him begin (finally) to use the name and identify the problem head-on—neoliberal capitalism galvanized by ubiquitously networked humans. Continue reading

Data Havens of Iceland

Alix Johnson, a PhD student in cultural anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, will be going to Iceland to study the practices and discourses of data centers. She studies information infrastructures in capitalist economies and postcolonial politics, and researches these questions in Iceland where they take strange and fascinating forms.

Adam Fish: What makes Iceland important for information activism?

Since Iceland’s pretty spectacular financial crash, and the subsequent protests that kicked the government out of office, information technology and politics have cropped up in many projects of reform.  In a lot of ways the crisis was framed as a problem of secrecy – too much secrecy had allowed for massive banking risks and backroomban deals, and this was a problem more public information could solve.  The politics of information freedom, then, have been appealing and are taken up in a range of ways: for example, the so-called “crowdsourced constitution,” Iceland’s ongoing connections with WikiLeaks, and most recently the election of three Pirate Party MPs – the first Pirates elected to a national parliament.

But the part of this turn that interests me most – and the piece that my research aims to address – is the way that information is used to carve Iceland out a new niche.  In recent years Iceland has been pitched as an “information haven”: an attractive place to store the data of the world.  The idea is that data stored in Iceland is subject to Icelandic laws – so by passing “information friendly” legislation (favoring free speech, online privacy, and intermediary liability protection), and building data centers where information can live (an easy sell in Iceland thanks to the cool climate and inexpensive geothermal power), Iceland can change the rules of the game. In my research I ask how these efforts reconfigure the internet and re-imagine the nation, by following the “information haven” as it’s materially made.

AF: Cloud computing companies are the quintessential black box, difficult to access the people who work inside and once inside difficult to understand. How have you overcome these difficulties?

Honestly I’ve had to structure my approach to work around them.  But I’ve mostly come to terms with these limitations, as I’m less interested in data centers’ inner workings, and more concerned with their impact on and role within the communities where they “live”.  That is, while I do spend time with data center developers, I hope to spend more time interviewing locals – who more often see these new structures as big buildings that block ocean views, capital-intensive construction projects that redirect municipal funds, or concrete tributes to transnational connection.  From this perspective, secrecy can make an interesting starting point.  That said, I also read the trade publications, and look forward to my very few allotted trips inside!

AF: You are going for a year, what are you going to do? With which companies will you work? Continue reading

Post-Snowden, is Microsoft the Right Choice for Universities?

In light of the ongoing leaking of information about domestic government surveillance by the National Security Administration (NSA) in the United States and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the United Kingdom, scholars and administrators need to reconsider if our data and confidential communications are truly secure. While the ethics review committees do their best job of ensuring that scholarly practices protect the privacy and safety of research subjects, the recent revelations should cause us to immediately reflect upon whether our use of Microsoft Office and particularly our email service Microsoft Outlook violates the research ethics agreements we’ve signed. Universities need to recognize that hiring private information technology corporations such as Microsoft and ethical compliance with protecting the privacy of our communications may not be compatible. Given our professional obligations to preserve confidentiality, what can be done to maintain compliance?

If we are serious about ethical research universities should consider abandoning the Microsoft suite of programs in favour of not-profit, transparent, and highly encrypted software platforms that do not provide our data and metadata to marketing corporations and governments. (I say “not-profit” because I doubt that for-profit software companies will reject the immense profits to be made from retailing metadata to marketing companies). Knowing universities’ commitments to Microsoft I understand this is a Swiftian modest proposal. The software represents years of sunk-investment in training, skill development, and licensing deals. Many colleagues struggle with Microsoft software as is; any new software suites would undoubtedly cause rigor mortis in the university. Practical or not, the leaks should force universities to do something to ensure that we are not compromising private information. Continue reading

Stop Paying Conference Fees

Big expensive conferences cost too much and offer too little return. Fine, I’ll give it to you. Conferences are acceptable for professional development, almost good for networking, OK for your CV, and decent for being exposed to new ideas. I think some are well worth attending. But just stop paying the extortion fees for big conference. Only go to fee free or all expenses paid conferences. Yes, you’ll go to less but you’ll be better for it. Conference as they are at present are a relic from the patronage pre-neoliberal academy where universities accepted responsibility for their staff, faculty, and students. In those halcyonic days, travel and lodging were less expensive, conference fees were smaller, and most importantly, the university would foot the bill. Today, the extortion conference systems remain in place while the university has dropped its patronage responsibilities while the costs associated with conference attendance have skyrocketed. We must break the back of yet another exploitative system. Stop paying conference fees.

Conferences are of a very limited utility but a utility nonetheless. You should still go but only to select, useful, and economically fair events. Let’s break it down. There are three economic types of conferences: Continue reading

Interview: An Anthropologist on Tiger Woods

I had the pleasure of pitching a few questions to Orin Starn, Chair and Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, about “popular anthropology,” golf, Ishi’s brain, and the right PC sports to play if you’re an anthropologist (its not golf!).

AF: I really liked your book The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race, and Celebrity Scandal. As a golfer and media producer I found the book impossible to put down but as an anthropologist it made me wonder about the future of the discipline.

It might just be my hang-up having just earned my PhD badge but a key concern is the absence of data derived from ethnographic field research. You make passing reference to playing golf with other players and taking notes about the experience on the links but none of that information seemed to explicitly inform your reading of Tiger Woods. The book is primarily an analysis of representation–how race is discussed online, on TV, in tabloids. Again, this makes me think that some form of offline ethnographic research in these cultural industries might have afforded you and your readers access to forms of information not easily accessible. This brings up for me a bunch of questions:

How important is ethnographic field research for the future of the discipline?

OS: For all the many changes over the decades, I think that intense, engaged fieldwork remains the single most distinctive thing about anthropology. I I think and hope it’ll remain just that. I like very much the idea that understanding another way of doing things shouldn’t be a fly-by proposal, but deserves the kind of deep, sustained engagement that only fieldwork can provide. I’m not sure that the actual ethnographies we write – which aren’t always very interesting — do justice to the great time and energy we give to our research, and yet I’m still a believer in the Boasian credo that fieldwork matters. Continue reading

Who Built the Internet? We Did! (Part 5)

In 2006, according to Time Magazine, the theory of technoindividualism “took a serious beating.” In electing You to the position of the Person of the Year, Time prophesized the fourth discourse of internet historiographical revisionism following President Obama’s statement. It was not the state, corporations, or genius insiders who made the internet, nonfiction best seller author and transhuman apologist Steven Johnson claimed in the New York Times, but Us who built the internet. Continue reading

Who Built the Internet? Studly Genius Individuals! (Part 4)

Thus far Crovitz’s and Manjoo’s positions are located within modernist historiographical and liberal conceptions over the battles of freedom, with network technology as a proxy battlefield, and the role of states and corporations as extenders or inhibitors of those freedoms. The third leg of this modernist battle has to be initiated by the sole genius and his impact on the development of the internet. Continue reading

Who Built the Internet? The State! (Part 3)

Despite Crovitz’s best wishes, Taylor’s Xerox PARC Ethernet didn’t become the internet as Slate’s Farhad Manjoo and Time’s Harry McCracken explain. Two days later, Manjoo rebutted Crovitz’s “almost hysterically false” argument. Aligning with given wisdom, Manjoo stated that the internet was financed and created by the US government. Despite being more historically accurate than Crovitz’s argument this statement is also political. In reminding the residents of Roanoke of the government’s role in the founding of the internet, President Obama, according to Manjoo, “argued that wealthy business people owe some of their success to the government’s investment in education and basic infrastructure.” This argument is progressive, social democratic, or socially liberal–advocating for responsible taxation and the shared burden of national identification, and is therefore a political narrative opposed to the Darwinism of technolibertarianism expounded by the Technology Liberation Front. Continue reading

Who Built the Internet? Corporations! (Part 2)

Obama may have gaffed, neoliberal assistant editors at Fox News and the Republican National Committee, exploitatively edited, repurposed, and exaggerated the speech, but it was Wall Street Journal writer L. Gordon Crovitz who mistook the misedits as evidence for US executive branch internet revisionism. Crovitz, ex-publisher of the Journal, ex-executive at Dow Jones, and social media start-up entrepreneur, attacked President Obama’s statement that the internet was funded and engineered by the federal government. “It’s an urban legend that the government launched the Internet,” he idiosyncratically declared. The crux of Crovitz’s argument was focused on Robert Taylor, who ran the ARPAnet, a US DAPRA project that connected computer networks to computer networks. Taylor, according to Crovitz, stated that this proto-internet, “was not an Internet.” And therefore, most importantly for Crovitz, this meant that President Obama was dead wrong, Taylor, a federal employee at this time did not help to invent the internet. The internet was not made by engineers paid by public but private hands. Crovitz’s twist on the accepted story is that Taylor later made a different internet, ethernet, at Xerox PARC where we worked after DARPA. And it was Ethernet that became the internet. Continue reading

The Internet: Who Built That?! (Part 1)

[This is a part of a six part blog on four debates about the origins of the internet. Please see all six posts here.]

Suddenly in the wake of President Barack Obama’s untimely but ultimately non-fatal but non-optimal grammar, the question of who made what when and how much the government had or had not to do with it was up for debate. Resisting the attacks on all things federal at the tail end of the 2012 US presidential election, President Obama said to a crowd in Roanoke, Virginia on July 13, 2012:

“The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all companies could make money off the internet.” Continue reading

Silos of Casino Capitalism

Something called a “silo” kept cropping up in my field research with media reform broadcasters throughout 2012. At the National Conference of Media Reform in 2011 I attended a panel, “Getting Out of the Silo: Editing Video as a Community.” The organizer told me she was “looking to create an intersectional narrative of collaboration” with the panelists. “We are all living in our little silos,” said the general manager of a small television news network explaining how a possible partner rejected his overture for collaboration. Its “the silophication of the company,” said a vice president of a television news network of the process by which internet, television, and marketing divisions were not well-integrated while taking different approaches to the same product.

What is a Silo?

Silophication is most actively theorized by a person who straddles anthropology, global finance, and journalism: Dr. Gillian Tett, a Cambridge trained anthropologist and US managing editor of the Financial Times. Below I build theory through  categorizing Tett’s use of the term silophication in her financial journalism critical of how regulator’s and banker’s silophication led to an absence of information sharing and the presence of a global financial crisis. Continue reading

Paul Ryan’s Neoliberal Fantasy and Keith Olbermann’s Demise

Foucault asks “Can the market really have the power of formalization for both the state and society?” (Foucault 2008: 117, originally 1978-79). House Budget Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan is convinced it can. He outlines it happening in the 2012 and 2013 fiscal year budgets. The impact of this neoliberal fantasy on democracy is stated by Couldry: “‘Democracy’ operated on neoliberal principles is not democracy. For it has abandoned, as unnecessary, a vision of democracy as a form of social organization in which government’s legitimacy is measured by the degree to which it takes account of its citizens’ voices” (Couldry 2010: 64). What is the impact of the dearth of diverse progressive voices on public and private media within the hegemonic public sphere?

The Nation states that the GOP’s 2013 budget or the “Ryan Plan” helps the very wealthy, corporations, Pentagon, and health insurance companies while forcing the poor, elderly, disabled, and middle class to sacrifice (Zornick 2012). President Obama called the budget “social Darwinism.” A great term, curiously investigated by the Washington Post. Back in February, 2011, during the last federal budget battle, the New York Times claimed that the GOP targeted to slash funding for job training, environmental protection, disease control, crime protection, science, technology, education, and public media (Editorial 2011). It is a theory of classical liberalism that as these issues of national importance are proposed and debated it is fundamental to the workings of democracy that citizens have diverse information options. This is the job of journalists, newspapers, television news — “the media” — whose investigate capacities have been gutted by parent companies’ market fundamentalism and whose federal funding, when it barely existed, is under attack. Six bills were proposed in 2011 to eliminate federally funding PBS (Tomasic 2011). In this neoliberal media logic, if it fails the single criteria of increasing capital, it misses the cut.

The same week the draconian 2013 Ryan Plan was revealed saw the elimination of two paternalistic guardians of the “American public sphere” –the Media Access Project (MAP), a public interest law firm and 40-year veteran resisting the deregulation and privatization of public media resources. And, most dramatically, Keith Olbermann was fired from Current, a cable television news network. Like him or hate him, he is one of the few television newscasters willing to bluntly critique such instances of neoliberal governmentality on that most hegemonic if media systems: television. As both private public interest and not-for-profit public interest media institutions falter, and federally funded public media systems are assaulted, how will diversity in the American public sphere survive?

I need to briefly address the following normative notions: neoliberal governmentality and the hegemonic or American public sphere.

MAP and Olbermann focused on diversifying the programming within the hegemonic public sphere. They see themselves, their work, and their information as central to dominant national issues within a single American public sphere. They are not interested in producing the conditions for a subaltern counterpublic as Nancy Fraser (1992) describes. Their interest is in competing on a national-level with the likes of Fox News, MSNBC, and other media giants. MAP and Olbermann sought to contribute diverse voices into a single, national, or American public sphere. Does it exist? No. Fraser is right. There are overlapping fields of public spheres. But the hegemonic public sphere is a type of emic model or frame, non-existent on the level of day-to-day discourse, that these media reform broadcasters draw from. More abstract and less polemical, yet comparable with the concept of the “mainstream media,” the hegemonic public sphere is a goal or target for the progressive cultural interventions of these media reform broadcasters.

Foucault provides a cogent definition of neoliberal governmentality in his exquisitely readable lectures at the College de France in 1978-1979. “What is at issue” said Foucault, “is whether a market economy can in fact serve as the principle, form, and model for a state” (Foucault 2008: 117). The result is market statism, or corporatism, which, in an extreme version, is fascism. This is diametrically opposed to the social liberalism advocated by Olbermann and MAP in which the state is focused on non-market social projects. It isn’t corporate liberalism either where the government in public discourse supports social liberalism but that practice is performed by subsidized corporations (Streeter 1996). An example of corporate liberalism comes from the presumed GOP candidate for the 2012 presidential election. Governor Mitt Romney addressed a crowd at a primary campaign stop in Iowa in November. At this event Romney says he won’t gut the Corporation for Public Broadcasting but he will require it to “have advertisments.” Romney doesn’t want to “Kill Big Bird” he just wants it to be on life-support from American corporations. Rather, the Ryan Plan is neoliberal governmentality where social liberal projects are negated and replaced by market fundamentalism. It is this reduction of government functions to market logic that Olbermann and MAP once raged against.

So with the departure of Olbermann and MAP the monolithic American public sphere is less diverse and less capable of engineering the conditions for access for diverse voices. Nick Couldry’s Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics after Neoliberalism (2010) directly addresses how neoliberal governmentality dampens voice through looking at US and UK television. He defines voice as referring to the process of individuals or communities using media to build reflexive and historical stories. Voice, for Couldry, is socially grounded, provides for reflexive agency and is an embodied force. Voice can be injured or denied by rationalities that perceive voice as an externality of market logic. Thus “valuing voice means valuing something that neoliberal rationality fails to count; it can therefore contribute to a counter-rationality against neoliberalism” (Couldry 2010: 12-13). Without Olbermann’s voice and MAP protecting the legal and political conditions for voicing, how will the American public sphere survive this assault by the flexible tactics of neoliberal governmentality?

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Now, dear Reader, to reward you making it this far here are some hilarious videos that illustrate my points from the comic geniuses of Mitt Romney, President Obama, Cenk Uygur! Cue the laugh track after each video.  Continue reading