check your preferences for “a hellhole dystopia”

Julian Assange, in his skyped-in address at the 30th Chaos Communication Congress a few days ago used the phrase “a hellhole dystopia” to refer to the current security state, and also to the situation he finds himself in at the dawn of 2014. Julian exhorted the system administrators of the world to discover their class status, to rise as a class against the unjust system which threatens to comprehensively oppress us all. He uses apocalyptic language: it is now or else. Perhaps it is true, and he would know, the Internet is (and not only becoming) a massive surveillance machine. But that is what it always has incipiently been.

Sysadmins need to know who their real enemy is, and it is not merely “the state”, it is those who cause the state to abuse the Internet against the interests of its users. The class identity and class struggle Julian calls for among the sysadmins will not be catalysed merely through the fear of losing liberties and rights, it will only be catalysed in the acknowledgement that its real, active and fundamental enemy is capitalism. Whereas, in the old days, the mastery of information was mostly local, through local informants, spies etc. now, the spying is taking place globally on a preemptive and provisional basis. It used to be important for the powerful to know their enemies, now it is important to know everyone, because everybody has the potential to be an enemy, an enemy of capitalism.

Beneath the apparent political implications of this spying, what Annie Machon and others have described as the chilling effect of instilling generalized self-censorship, the financial principles of the web are at play. Personal data is the key to the ongoing investment bubble shell game which is driving the so-called digital economy today. The web could be almost anything we would like it to be, but its contemporary manifestation is conditioned by capitalist exigencies. The financialisation of personal data is absolutely central to how the web services most of us rely on every day for our social and economic lives is produced.

Many people seem not to fully realize that commercial web services need information about users in order to provide the services they do. The less they need to ask users for permission to get this information, the more seamless and satisfying the services are to use. Therefore users click the “agree” boxes and move on with their lives, augmented by the latest wonderful web-linked functionality, shrugging off the fact that they have summarily allowed (unknown and known) private companies access to their private data. The fact that webservices systemically need to work in concert to provide the expected conveniences means that, very soon the users’ data is shuttled and replicated myriad times across the web.

Sharing personal data is intrinsic to a wired lifestyle. There is no other way around it. Companies might be pressured into taking certain technical steps to limit access to private data they themselves acquire from users, but that will simply make the provision of the services users are conditioned to rely on less efficient. The more user data is interoperable across various platforms, the more amazing new intuitive webservices can be developed, making possible ever newer forms of sociability. That, under prevailing conditions of capitalism, this new sociability is always capitalised, should come as no surprise.

The world is a “dystopian hellhole” because users are mountaintop utopians. The cloud is privately-owned industrial server farms located on real privately-owned plots of land. The web is increasingly private property, and has become that way because users are willing to put up
with the unfairness of private ownership in exchange for certain services they have been convinced they need. They need these services for the financialization of their own lives, for their mere survival in an economy where life and productive work (for private interests) is indistinguishable. So we need to discuss to what extent the private-sphere sacrifices demanded of web users are actually avoidable under capitalism. To eschew one’s own (data-) interoperability is ostensibly to compromise one’s value on the life-labour market, compromising one’s own economic auspices under capitalism.

Users seem to prefer the unfairness of private ownership over the unfairness of commonly elaborated policy. Capitalism’s automatic indifference is seen as preferable to human limitation and potential failure. In other words, machines never disappoint, and users prefer dissatisfaction to disappointment. It should then come as no surprise that the world is becoming increasingly inhuman. The messy and inadequate systems of governance, with all the checks and balances we have laboured over for generations are being superseded by the call to convenience and interoperability. The inexorable drive of capitalism produces a scenario where (self-)exclusion can be fatal. No wonder that we wake up every morning ready to even more consummately surrender our most intimate information to web services.

“Hellhole dystopia” is simply a way of describing the eternal present, its inexorable and excruciating complexity, its enormous and intractable social exigencies and challenges. It is the counterface of a heavenly utopianism which is metaphysical, quasi-religious Messianism. Julian Assange is a living breathing, blogging, vlogging stigmata. He is being sacrificed for all of us to continue going about our insecure and compromised hellhole existences. But, as far as emancipating the Internet-using public, the ‘truth’ he struggles for has long been available. Users are being exploited, used, for profit, not their own. Users are financialized life-work beings whose mere existence, in data and otherwise is integral to the production of value for investors.

Under prevailing conditions of capitalism, the user is compelled to be ‘transparent’ to the entities delivering vital services, be these informational, medical, financial or other. This, today, is “transparency international”, any inhibition of user transparency creates “inconvenience”. It may be interesting to remember that convenience comes from the word “convene” which means meeting. Convenience in the digital age means that users convene their behaviour to inter-operate more smoothly with automated services. It is convenience which drives users to open themselves up to mass-surveillance. So, for most users, desperately precarious, privacy is not a question of ‘preferences’.