White-collar businessmen flashing down the information superhighway

Pointing their plastic fingers at us.1

Quotes from
Profitable Surveillance
Online Community as Commercial Exploitation
Department of Broadcasting, Telecommunications and Mass Media. Temple University

This research considers the myths of empowerment through interactivity and the use of online communication technologies to serve commercial ends as opposed to communicative needs.

This work posits that these retail communities use the rhetoric of community to entice new consumers and fulfill business goals; they are commodified versions of community which exist solely to sell.

This work also...examines the possibility that these communities are used as surveillance mechanisms for the purposes of data mining.

This research encourages consumer understanding that the promises of social revitalization through Internet technology are, in part, being usurped for the purposes of commercial gain.

Ultimately, this research addresses the manipulation of basic human emotion about community in order to fulfill commercial goals.

Technology can exert a form of power over individuals, by imprisoning and surveilling them, even as they willingly accept the technology and revel in its benefits.

The techniques used to amass databases are in themselves a form of "soft social control"; human desires are usurped to guide consumer choices.

Personal information has become a massive commodity in the information economy,

Corporations and institutions of all sorts collect personal data at a copious rate, culminating in...the "Superpanopticon," the system of electronic surveillance and the databases it creates. The Superpanopticon is a form of control of the populace in which it participates;

Ultimately, consumers help to constitute themselves as entities to be marketed to through repeated building of the self (what I call a "data self") from the totality of their digital data transactions.

The system is panoptic because it collects all information about someone to determine that person's economic value, and it then sorts individuals into categories based on that value.

Biopower is a type of control gained from amassing human biographical information and constructing profiles of various groups for the purposes of risk management (marketing opportunities, strategizing, and profit).

The value of this collected data is increasing at a staggering rate.

What types of coercion exist around data mining technology? Online users are to be comforted by privacy policies that ostensibly protect the consumer while the invisibility of these technologies allows online entities to surveil them, usually through the use of cookies and web bugs (invisible graphics on web sites or in email messages intended to monitor who is reading that page).

Corporations are now taking on the characteristics of the state in Foucault’s conception of Panoptic power.

Corporations conduct consumer surveillance, they breach privacy, they corrupt community. The lack of public concern enables corporations to engage in surveillance and data mining unchecked, and help fuel the creation of the culture of the electronic dossier. This culture is constituted, in part, by the promise of community offered by retail-oriented web sites in an attempt to attract consumers and silently monitor them.

Community as Commodity

As online activity increases, so do cultural expectations that the Internet can promote democracy and community through interactivity. But as online technologies progressively serve commercial ends, promises of communicative freedom may be endangered.

Threats to online privacy and autonomy are directly related to the unchecked commercialization of the Internet. Just as “loyalty clubs,” targeted advertising, and co-branded credit cards represent the consumer management strategies characterizing late 20th century capitalism, so does the use of “community” in its variant forms to connote that personalized mood in marketing techniques. Electronic traces left by online consumers allow companies to focus their efforts on consumer surveillance in the guise of “relationship marketing”. Increasingly, companies are using community sections of their web sites to obtain personal information about preferences, tastes, and desires which can supplement electronic trace information databases to create extensive personal electronic dossiers.

Like other commodities of the industrialized world, community can be exploited as a form of wealth that can be cultivated, mined, or sold like other capital commodities.

Selling the Community

All of these web sites have in common a use of the language and felt nature of community to collect and use personal data while contributing overall to the electronic dossier culture. Visibly at work are Foucault’s notions of the panopticon as an apparatus of social control and observation. While web users are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of protecting their information, the user who becomes unwittingly swept up into the promise of a communal experience may ignore impulses toward privacy in favor of membership in a community. The mechanisms of biopower or the panoptic sort remain largely imperceptible to participants who have little reason to question the sincerity of the community of users. Undoubtedly, however, user information is compiled in large and valuable data sets that are being amassed in these forums.

Where EU businesses are prohibited from using customer information to construct databases, surveillance and information collection are seen as legitimate U.S. business needs for the purposes of marketing or even customer service.

In a move to insulate themselves from criticism about their invasions of privacy, corporations have begun to claim that they possess free speech rights. In many legal circles, issues of free expression supersede those of individual privacy rights. Thus corporations assert themselves as individuals in order to gain Constitutional protections.

Corporate personhood” is a bastardization of the concept of free expression as essential to the true functioning of a democracy. In the U.S., corporations are becoming the overseers of Foucault’s concept of the panopticon. Thus, the collection of information on individuals is not just a privacy issue, but a bureaucratic power issue and now a corporate power issue.

This amount and type of data collection threatens not only our valued social institutions, such as community, but our personal autonomy and freedom as well.

We are witnessing the deterioration of a basic human need (community) for the objectives of profit making.

1. Opening phrase adapted from If 6 Was 9 by Jimi Hendrix