Gabriel Sistare is a writer and thinker most comfortable steaming vegetables or sitting in the public library. He prefers to sit next to the oversized Phaidon Atlas of World Architecture and write about his philosophical opposition to the automobile.
On August 26, 2010, the MetaFilter user, blue_beetle offered an argument aimed for the heart of the Internet. “If you are not paying for it, you are not the customer; you are the product being sold.” The brief jab was the kind of summary that deconstructs something massive and confusing like the web, distilling it’s unknowable complexity to something simple and unsettling: the web is exploitative.
Still, when the web is ubiquitous and its barriers-to-entry so few, it’s potential to exploit is self-propelled, and its champions abound. Awareness of the web’s degrading attributes are too often confined to these brief, meme-like phrases such as the MetaFilter post, that are distributed and written about but never built into the web’s architecture. Shrouded in an ironic, inarticulate, gleeful narrative of public participation and democratic communication, the dimensions of a kind of unintended slavery are inherent to the web as it exists.
So often the intellectual-of-choice reference for advocates of social media and crowdsourcing, Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher affiliated with the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, is aware of the social pathogens built into certain technologies. In his 1968 essay, “Technology and Science as ‘Ideology’,” Habermas explains that the outcome of a rational society, or rather a rationalized society, is a “specific form of unacknowledged political domination.” So it is that domination is present with the “free,” user-generated content of so many social media like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, Path, and on and on.
To those who ignore that technology is apolitical, Habermas argues that it is “always a historical-social project: in it is projected what a society and its ruling interests intend to do with men and things.” In the context of blue_beetle’s comment, people who produce material for web media, (material which certain social media gurus are so fond of calling ‘content’, and not something much more nourishing like phrases, arguments, and essays), web technology’s historical-social project is to sustain itself by projecting an image of endless comfort to people who “toil,” in some way, to generate data for profit-preoccupied companies over which they have no control.
At its most pernicious, and to refer to Habermas, the web “provides a legitimation of domination which is no longer called down from the lofty heights of cultural tradition but instead summoned up from the base of social labor.” Clearer, now, the web’s angelic offspring, social media, is the kind of base-level origin of the domination to which Habermas refers. And it is sadly this grassroots aspect of the web’s domination that so many advocates say is the web’s potential to liberate speech.
And we are comforted by this ideology, that our degree of participation is equivalent to our freedom, rather than what is real: our degree of participation is equivalent to our exploitation.
But the potential for freedom exists. The project is to retain ownership of the labor you exhaust on-line.
Jurgen Habermas, “Technology and Science as ‘Ideology’,” in Critical Theory: The Essential Readings, ed. David Ingram and Julia Simon-Ingram (St. Paul: Paragon House, 1992), 117-145