Surveillance through usage of new public goods PDF Print E-mail
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1 in every 5 minutes of time online is now being spent on social networking sites, up from a mere 6% in early 2007, shows the 2011 report of comScore.

The sites reach 82% of the world’s internet-using population or about 1.2 billion people in total. If you ask yourselves what is the common in between these well known sites, you will guess it immediately – all of them are free to join. Although they might offer paid premium services, their core is in the offering of free participation to everyone across the globe who wants to join (doesn’t necessarily mean that he could join due to geopolitical restrictions like in China!) in an open-end network. Of course, these networks are controlled by companies and they are the ones to determine the main rules for participation. And as private sector thinkers they are lead by their main interest: capital accumulation.

As Adam Smith formulates it “I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. The public good is a good that is non-rival and non-excludable. Non-rivalry means that consumption of the good by one individual does not reduce availability of the good for consumption by others; and non-excludability means that no one can be effectively excluded from using the good. Usually its production and the guarantee for the regulation for its public usage are associated with the role of the governments. However, being the catalyst of radical digital innovation in our century, the private sector organisations are the ones, which created the social networks, blogging and crowd sourcing platforms, representing a new form of public good...

In the network society concept of Manuel Castells, the public good would be seen as the one common thing between all participants in this interlinked form of social organisation – no matter if they are actively “included” or “excluded” members, “strong” or “weak” nodes. Hence it becomes the highly-appreciated from all free to use connector between different actors with different social status and power. And although the participation comes at no price at first glance, the reality is far from that and we have to ask ourselves is the public good actually good for everyone?

Our society, actively interacting in these digital environments, is exactly the one who is creating the additional microeconomic value for their usage. The more information we share and allow access to, the more corporate databases are filled with all the details around the person, his social circles, lifestyle and etc, a topic widely examined by Max Weber. The more people join, the more new interest is raised to attract the non-participants. It is creating an artificial feeling for a social exclusion for the yet non-members; but worse, it is us, who are raising the surplus value of these digital products and services. Embracing this feeling of receiving a gift, a public good like a platform to look for a job (LinkedIn), chatting with family abroad (Facebook), sharing our interests and ideas (Twitter) and etc, we actually become the workers. Not only that we create the core value of such a network through becoming part of it, but also as the ones who are feeding the surveillance databases of the corporations with information to be used for achieving economic goals and market domination. Additionally, that might go far beyond a mere market leadership, by growing into monopoly or oligopoly over multiple digital sectors on the market.

Being unaware workers in this new sphere of digital database production, we produce a good at no cost if we reflect the capital accumulation theory. The value of our labour power is 0 and the value of the means of production added to the product is neglected from the perspective of the capitalist corporation. Not only that we are not even paid as labor, but sometimes we even lose time from our officially paid working days to “benefit” from this public good. Something more, we are locked-in in these social networks with newly build social and individual rights constraints. First, social constraints, because once you become a member, the exit of those virtual networks becomes really difficult through the social pressure of the community and second, individual rights constraints, because at certain point you lose the real control over your personal information and rights to privacy. The users become conditioned to accept the new network rules, even if they are not fairly communicated in order to avoid the good knowledge creation about the human-worth-unit in these databases. And similar to the Marx views, the more time you “serve” online, the more the surplus value of the network, and you as its product and unit of reproduction, rises.

Our century is so much dependent on the digital technologies and architectures that at a certain point the problem stopped being the amount of personal information being collected. The problem became the one who has the power to access and operate with it, being it regulated or not by the state, can benefit in great amounts not only in pure market terms. Such an actor can distort social freedoms, neglect human rights, and impose new relations of power to the weaker links in the networked society of Castells. The perception of what surveillance is, became different thanks to the electronic systems, most of which ubiquitous and for most of which the society is not aware what and where is stored and how is that data being manipulated. However, the surveillance society in which we are living and consciously participating doesn’t differ much from the relations between the capitalist employers and their workers, as usually reflected in the understandings of political economists about the views of Marx.

As Christian Fuchs writes the Marxian concept of the cycle of capital accumulation allows to systematically discern six forms of economic surveillance: applicant surveillance, workplace surveillance, workforce surveillance, property surveillance, consumer surveillance, and surveillance of competition. All of those are very much valid today, even though the current ICT developments were not at all part of the time in which Marx lived. According to his concept, the capital accumulation process is the maximization of profit and the increased exploitation of surplus value. Surveillance is a method that capital employs for controlling the production, the circulation process and for controlling and disciplining or again in our context manipulating the workforce, writes Fuchs. And as Prof. Matthew Gandy points out: “Businesses seek to maximize profits by minimizing risk. They do this by identifying individuals, who, by virtue of their profiles, ratings, or comparative scores, should probably be ignored, avoided or treated with the utmost deference and respect”.

And as David Lyon stresses the importance of Marx for conceptualizing economic surveillance: “Karl Marx focuses special attention on surveillance as an aspect of the struggle between labour and capital. Overseeing and monitoring workers is viewed here as a means of maintaining managerial control on behalf of capital. [...] Marx observed how control was maintained through the enclosed space of the factory“. Today the enclosed space of the factory usually fits on our mobile screen or display, while our data becomes part of the global corporate databases. And while governments have to watch the watchers, and regulate the protection of consumer and human rights, that’s rarely the case, especially when states create conditions and spaces, where private power can operate to produce social disturbances and unfair advantage.

Occasionally governments themselves take advantage to fulfil their political interests in disregard or in full opposition of the social ones and transform the economic surveillance into a political one. Not surprisingly one is correct in the labour-production reference theory of Marx, and that is that once you create the conditions for class relations and force these relations, the labour could become your greatest capital.

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