Paying for the Internet in Vulnerability

Often, despite my not infrequent fulminations, as I find myself spending more and more time in front of computer screens, reading and writing and even Twittering with ever more frequency, I start to wonder if I have been too pessimistic about the internet, about its role in accelerating our consumption of culture, the degree to which it more thoroughly saturates our everyday lives with marketing and its associated ideology: the celebration of novelty for its own sake, the embrace of narcissism as a mode of hyperfriendship, the supplanting of knowledge with information and data, the transformation of consumption into meme production, the mobilization of identity into a circulating personal brand that articulates the amount of society’s attention one is worth, the disappearance of contemplation in favor of increased mental throughput, the sense that quality, though frequently brandished as a goal, is in truth a liability unless it can serve as an emollient to our alacritous neuroprocessing. (I was going for a sentence of Ruskin-like expansiveness — how did I do? Perhaps protracted Proustian periods will persuade us all to take the long view now and then.)

But when I read an news item like this WSJ article, by Nick Wingfield, I am reminded all over again that I am not as cynical as I should be. The article details how Microsoft considered developing its internet browser so that user privacy would be better protected as a default, but then decided that such a course would inhibit the true purpose of internet accessibility.

In early 2008, Microsoft Corp.’s product planners for the Internet Explorer 8.0 browser intended to give users a simple, effective way to avoid being tracked online. They wanted to design the software to automatically thwart common tracking tools, unless a user deliberately switched to settings affording less privacy…. In the end, the product planners lost a key part of the debate. The winners: executives who argued that giving automatic privacy to consumers would make it tougher for Microsoft to profit from selling online ads.

The internet is ultimately not a commons, and our access to it is conditional on our vulnerability within it. Neither Microsoft nor any other tech company is in business to open our access to free-flowing information or protect our privacy for nothing. (The companies that do want to help you do that are parasites who rely on the others to intentionally endanger it.) Their business, as network architects and technicians, is ultimately surveillance — to make sure one is connected to the network and appropriately exposed, exploitable as a node. Wingfield points out that “the 50 most-popular U.S. websites, including four run by Microsoft, installed an average of 64 pieces of tracking technology each onto a test computer.” We get to use the internet, or rather companies want to make it possible for us to use the internet, because they can reap the rewards from our data processing there — that’s the only reason. And at tech companies that survive, executives are in place to smack down the wild-eyed dreamers among the product developers who think otherwise. This graphic illustrates the way the tracking systems work, and how we, in our lust for information, work to transform ourselves into demographic data

And here‘s more reason for cynicism: Google’s negotiations with Verizon to in effect put an end to net neutrality. They are discussing placing a burden on content creators to pay to have their content distributed efficiently on the internet. This seems like it would ultimately reinstitute the gatekeeping power of the media companies, which would quickly turn such costs into something that mimics the costs of printing and distributing bundles of paper, or pressing grooves into vinyl, or what have you. So any dream of the internet being a democratizing, disintermediating force in the realm of cultural production would be effectively quashed. Amateurs would be on the ham-radio section of the net, with transmissions at lugubrious levels, while the professional media would be on the “real” internet.