‘Your brain might assimilate to a browser. Let’s hope it’s Tor! Or any form of aggregate feed, constantly interrupted, distracted, fragmented.’
——Hito Steyerl, in an interview with Andrey Shental
On Christmas Day in 2019, I had a bad acid trip. Little did I know what was to come. But someone in my group had an analog camera, and wanted to document the night—nothing wrong with that, except I flipped out at the idea of being recorded, and ended up experiencing a violent psychosis that made me see them as some version of Big Brother.
As I slowly regained clarity the next day, I reflected on why I reacted the way I did. LSD has worked for me (as well as for willing participants in a burgeoning medical field known as psychedelic psychiatry) as a kind of therapeutic exercise to exorcise the subconscious. The unease I felt around being watched had probably been on my mind for a while, but was something I hadn’t dared confront due to my intimate relationship with the internet.
It’s what researcher Kate Crawford defines as ‘surveillant anxiety’, a fearful affect that has arisen out of Big Tech’s grip on our extremely networked lives. According to Crawford, this has manifested in distinct phenomena: ‘whitewalling’ (when people delete old posts), posting less on a public feed and migrating to private groups or chats, relying more on ‘alts’ (as opposed to a ‘main’ account) and the rise of end-to-end encrypted messaging apps such as Signal. As Crawford notes, ‘It reflects the dispersed anxiety of a populace that wishes nothing more than to shed its own subjectivity.’ This anxiety also goes both ways: Crawford argues that the agencies surveilling us are so inundated by the sheer amount of data they harvest that gaps appear, paradoxically causing them to harvest even more data to ostensibly plug these same fissures.
Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been experimenting with ‘alts’ in order to find different ways of using social media that don’t hinge on being seen or being known. Much like some people create ‘burner’ email accounts just for ads or newsletters, I have a burner Instagram just for cats (imagine, a whole feed filled with catstagrams), and a burner Twitter just for people whose thinking I enjoy but for whom I don’t socialise with. Perhaps a related equivalent would be ‘lurking’, and while there was certainly an initial dissonance to the act of starting over—letting go of a personal archive and detaching myself from the thrill of being delivered recommendations ‘tailored’ to ‘me’—it feels as if I am finally untethering my self from the machinations of ‘the platform’.
Letting go of a personal archive and detaching myself from ’tailored’ recommendations feels as if I am finally untethering my self from the machinations of ‘the platform’.
Platform capitalism, as political philosopher Nick Srnicek has written in his 2016 book of the same name, revolves around ‘a tendency that involves constantly pressing against the limits of what is socially and legally acceptable in terms of data collection.’ Accordingly, many online platforms are built such that they are inextricable from the tenets of capital, encouraging behaviours such as the glorification of performance (via metrics), platitudinous engagement and gratuitous antagonism for the sake of spectacle. The logic of the platform is our desire for more.
As such, this experiment has brought for me a certain freedom, similar to the crushing-loss-yet-buoyant-relinquishment of accidentally closing a browser with the sixty-five tabs you promised yourself you’d get around to reading. Will I ever? The news feed simply rolls on. Meanwhile, I log on to Reddit and Discord for specific interests, and together they build for me a map of the internet that resembles the one I grew to know and love—a network of misfits who sought belonging through relative anonymity and non-curated self-expression. I find myself gravitating less towards kneejerk reaction, and am more interested in good faith communication, relishing the fluidity that comes from code-switching between my public and private accounts. Offline, this is akin to how I code-switch between Englishes or ways of being within a myriad of relational contexts. The inevitability, then, of context collapse strikes me as more manageable.
It’s no surprise that Shoshana Zuboff’s 700-page tome The Age of Surveillance Capitalism has seen massive popularity in the English-speaking world since it was published last year. Whether or not it’s one of those books that people reference more than they actually read is beside the point—its very prominence points to a greater shift in public awareness with regard to how people consider their selves in relation to the platforms we spend our time on. What initially seemed like a fringe paranoia has now moved to the mainstream as Big Data’s privacy violations have become more apparent. The key words here, however, are ‘more apparent’: widespread surveillance, particularly that of low-income and Bla(c)k communities, both in the West and the Global South, are not new. In so-called Australia, this has long shown itself in ‘preventive policing’ programs which specifically target Aboriginal youth, and welfare surveillance both in the form of the BasicsCard, and the hiring of contracted third-parties to track down alleged ‘bludgers’. Since 2014, no warrant is required for law enforcement agencies and other institutions to access ‘metadata’ information, and individual traveller data on commuter cards (Opal, myki, et al) can be accessed similarly. Elsewhere, mass surveillance is one instrument in the ongoing genocide against Uighurs in China, as well as orchestrated through the ASPEN card issued to refugees in Britain, and via various long-standing covert operations against Black activists in the US.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. As researcher Joana Varon Ferraz has pointed out, ‘Data is the new oil. Beyond collecting information, it also means gathering power.’ But this was the Before Times. In the time of coronavirus, data collection from both Big Tech companies and governments (who, it must be noted, are increasingly colluding with each other) has only accelerated. Already, the re-opening of the state of Victoria in the last fortnight has seen QR check-ins to venues tracked and data potentially resold to third-parties, in a move towards what privacy experts have termed ‘marketing surveillance’. And as the world conducts work meetings, funerals, weddings, trivia nights, book launches and even court proceedings and cabinet meetings through the videoconferencing software Zoom, its stock value goes through the roof. Its security fallibility was first observed through a phenomenon known as ‘zoombombing’ (where interlopers unrelated to the call enter the space to wreak havoc), then later rectified after much backlash through a series of measures that has now resulted in end-to-end encryption for all users (it was initially rolled out for paid users only).
What initially seemed like a fringe paranoia has now moved to the mainstream as Big Data’s privacy violations have become more apparent.
In the Now Times, the monopoly wielded by tech companies such as Facebook, Alphabet/Google, Amazon and Apple is in plain(er) sight. Perhaps it is also during this time that people are beginning to come to the realisation that online connection is looking less like what’s advertised on the box if there is little to juxtapose against it. When the thirst for connection outstrips camaraderie, the inherent contradictions that the networked world—as occupied by humans—has always grappled with is laid even barer: intimate yet removed, authentic yet performative, together yet alone. The imposition of algorithmic technologies further reinforces this paradox: within our respective filter bubbles, what are we really seeing? And what are we not seeing?
Though Facebook has recently acted to ban fallacious content, there is still plenty that these corporations do not reveal to the public. It must be said that content moderation is often outsourced to low-paid workers, and there still continues to exist a skewed perception of ‘freedom of speech’ which has seen anti-fascist and anarchist content banned alongside QAnon groups. Apart from the discovery of tools such as ‘dark patterns’ (i.e. prompts baked into the user experience to manipulate individual choices), the specialised knowledge that tech engenders usually makes it difficult for the layperson to grasp, which further obscures abuses of power. Even if it’s not uncommon for many people in the world now to own a computer or smartphone, certain arenas of tech literacy (algorithmic practices and cybersecurity, for example) remain some of the largest hurdles. And for good reason: much as financial knowledge is often inaccessible for those who didn’t grow up with it, it’s difficult to crack through tech’s confounding jargon to understand its inner workings if it hasn’t been imparted to you in the first place.
For someone like me, one of those ‘xennials’ who saw some of my most formative years in the 2000s shaped through online connectivity, what’s changed? In the nearly two decades since I started going online, I saw the internet transform from multiple anonymised, somewhat decentralised spaces into one that seeks to consolidate power in only a few spaces, demanding ‘transparency’ as a form of surveillance. In this time, Twitter has transformed from a ‘microblog’ (I was mostly talking to myself) to a ‘hellsite’; the on-demand economy has taken shape across the world; sections of radical politics have atrophied into mere slogans; context collapse has become normalised; cynicism and irony has shot to the front of the race while sincerity trails behind. We can blame it on the rise of neoliberalism, the era of the personal brand, the conflation of work and leisure, the fetishisation of burn-out…the list goes on, and yet the penchant for envy and aversion to shame has stayed the same.
It is undeniable that there is less of that ‘weird and wonderful’ ambiance that saw some of us seek a home online in the first place.
In the last few years, I’ve noticed many wistful yearnings for the ‘old internet’: a time of MySpace, Livejournal, Geocities, blogs and the like. This is often paired with resolutions for less: less social media, less technology, a return to nature, exhortations to ‘log off’ and ‘digital detox’. It’s only par for the course: when there is an acute sense of freaky disorder, nostalgia is never far behind—which as Svetlana Boym notes in The Future of Nostalgia is ‘not so much the past as [it is] about vanishing the present.’ These longings imply an undercurrent of powerlessness: perhaps by divesting power from the institutions which seek to monitor and sell our selves back to us, we can finally break free from our problematic subjectivities. But does creating these binaries result in less desire? What do people want?
Still, it is undeniable that there is less of that ‘weird and wonderful’ ambiance that saw some of us seek a home online in the first place. Even though they have not ‘disappeared’, they require more effort to discover—and in a time of accelerationism that privileges the idea of ‘convenience’, anonymity and privacy become compromised. If you can have a phone under your pillow that tells you the day’s weather as soon as you get up, why would you go to the trouble of obtaining this information via other, less invasive means? If all your friends are on Facebook, why would you alienate yourself by leaving the platform? If you are able to have a ‘home assistant’ which you can ask for recipe ideas or to control other appliances—even if it has been found that serious security breaches are mounted through these products—it’s difficult to reimagine how it was ‘before’. Life is simplified. But here’s the rub: innovation and convenience are often used as marketable rhetoric. If it’s tough to remember a slew of passwords, then just log in with your face.
Sometimes being online feels like work. I don’t mean this in the sense that a lot of the work I do is frequently conducted through the internet, but that the arena of pleasure has been robbed. It has become routine, at least nowadays, to work to find out if what I’m seeing on my screen is worthy of note, or in extreme cases, ‘real’. An obvious case in point would be deepfakes, but even just reading the news there is an escalating need to sift out the verifiability of the information I’m taking in.
Even Google—so ubiquitous that the brand has become a generic verb—is not exempt: Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) shows users the ‘most relevant’ hits first, which in Google’s case is most likely Google itself. In August this year, it was also discovered that the tech behemoth was providing data to US police based on search keywords. And at the time of writing, Google is undergoing an antitrust lawsuit filed by the US Department of Justice that will decide if the conglomerate is an ‘illegal’ monopoly—that will most likely take years to reach any kind of resolution, if at all. Closer to home, the Australian Competition and Consumer Association has done similar: by suing Google for misleading users about its location data collection practices.
As capitalism goes through more and more permutations of itself, the surreality of life becomes less of a crackpot idea and more a low-key certainty. Much has been made of the ramifications over the last few years—hell, the last few weeks—of disinformation, which traffic in fear, uncertainty and the human desire to ‘get to the bottom of things’, particularly in an accelerated era where news and events seem to give off an increasingly ludicrous sheen. This is made even more so as they are facilitated by right-wing power players. Not only is there the pre-existing threat of information and affect overload, the relentless grab for eyeballs in the attention economy tend to place highly-trafficked URLs front and centre, the search for an ever-fleeting truth be damned.
In other words, as James Bridle writes in his searing treatise New Dark Age, there are ‘ever more byzantine theories of the world.’ When everything can be proven online by way of a labyrinth of websites that echo and support each other, how does one clearly distinguish fact from spin?
We all have secrets: how can anyone, much less the algorithm, truly know our multitudes? Even when I’m ‘oversharing’, there are still aspects of myself that I’m not revealing.
It is hardly shocking, then, that conspiracy theories are proliferating throughout various corners of the internet. Much like the co-option of left-wing subcultures, these previously peripheral movements are inching their way towards the mainstream. The nexus of capital and the feedback loop, as well as the power of the far-right, has resulted in not only paranoia and mistrust, but also the manipulation of these affects. Since the pandemic, QAnon has attracted a massive growth in followers; just as the virus itself has struck the most disenfranchised, the rise in conspiracy theories tend to stem from institutional distrust, class resentment, racism and more. And while I obviously don’t condone or believe in unfounded theories, distrust and resentment rarely appear out of nowhere—they are often intertwined with rising inequality and frustration at poor job opportunities.
This climate has been reinforced by what researcher Whitney Philips has termed ‘the oxygen of amplification’, which sees an already-weakened media proliferate the messages of conspiracy theorists for the sake of delivering sensational page views. The bleak nature of Big Tech platforms is that in order to maintain a thriving ecosystem of communication, users will often adapt to its whims. This presents a tricky impasse, which means that little of this behaviour can be directly attributed to the people or platforms themselves, but rather the social and economic factors that encourage certain behaviours. Assimilation begets assimilation; virality begets virality. In a time of what scholars have deemed ‘neofeudalism’, Big Tech’s all-seeing monopoly looks down on the serfs as communication is weaponised for profit.
There remains the mistaken assumption that if someone chooses to conceal themselves, they must have something to hide. As such, burner accounts are often relegated to the realm of 4chan trolls, incels, wingnuts or criminals; to demand ‘privacy’ online makes it seem as if the individual wants to engage in deception. But of course we all have secrets: how can anyone, much less the algorithm, truly know our ever-protean multitudes? Even when I’m ‘oversharing’, there are still aspects of myself that I’m not revealing.
In How To Do Nothing, Jenny Odell’s book on resisting the attention economy, she refers to ‘the difficulty of maintaining any kind of silence or interiority’ as connected to a ‘financially incentivised proliferation of chatter’. And in an especially politicised moment, the burden of transparency begins to outweigh the desire for opacity. If I don’t post about human rights abuses, does that mean I don’t care that they are happening, or not acting against them offline? There appears to be the encroaching impression that not weighing in on a topic means losing the opportunity to ‘create awareness’—however, this is already a move weaponised by Big Tech companies themselves, as shown in the aftermath of the recent Black Lives Matter protests. In the interests of ‘transparency’, such as a screenshot of my donation to an important GoFundMe or a political infographic on Instagram, speed and convenience belie the act. Within the moralised instinct to be publicly seen as ‘good’ or ‘effective’, it appears to be that I am giving up my privacy, all the while indirectly being a shill for Big Tech’s claim that their creations are a path to betterment and productivity.
To me, opacity seems an impulse worth pursuing. When the conflation of identities is something Silicon Valley execs themselves encourage—Mark Zuckerberg himself famously said in 2010 that ‘having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity’—perhaps visibility should not be the endgame. As a queer person of colour, I am already simultaneously hypervisible and invisible in society; how do I circumvent the desire for exposure or representation and harness the strengths that come with invisibility instead? I want to be able to create memories, grow, and make mistakes away from the eyes of others, returning to visibility in ways that can subsequently benefit others like myself. When I am using my burner accounts or tending to my digital garden, I am not being inundated by information or affect overload, and I find myself with more energy to engage with and organise against Big Tech’s very failures.
When I am using my burner accounts, I am not being inundated by information or affect overload, and I have more energy to engage with and organise against Big Tech’s failures.
As Byung-Chul Han writes in The Transparency Society, ‘Wherever information is very easy to obtain, the social system switches from trust to control. […] Total transparency imposes a temporality on political communication that makes slow, long term planning impossible.’ When an object’s value accrues insofar that it is seen, such as that of the compulsion towards virality, an ironic sameness becomes the result: like begets like; performed authenticity begets performed authenticity; virtue signalling begets virtue signalling. When I’m communicating with a mishmash of strangers on Discord, there appears to be more room for disagreement that does not rest on the implacable public zeal to be ‘right’. Han again: ‘Anaesthetic hypercommunication reduces complexity in order to accelerate itself.’
Within the interconnected free market, where ideas and intimacies are exchanged on a level that makes it more attractive for them to be displayed and consumed, I don’t claim to have any answers. As I have reviewed elsewhere, and as Odell has written, our ‘margins of refusal’ are shrinking rapidly as Big Tech’s monopoly continues to tower over society. The little things I’ve tried to do—such as using DuckDuckGo instead of Google, Signal instead of non-encrypted messaging software, Jitsi instead of Zoom, among others—give me a semblance of control that sometimes feels like purchasing free range eggs over caged ones. In the meantime, I try to be optimistic in hoping that perhaps a groundswell of refusal will shift corporate interest, and that beating surveillance capitalism will mean something like going to the op-shop instead of purchasing new items from the fast fashion industry.
To put it another way, as Guy Debord writes in his ever-relevant 1967 work The Society of the Spectacle, ‘The spectacle presents itself as a vast inaccessible reality that can never be questioned. Its sole message is: “What appears is good; what is good appears.” The passive acceptance it demands is already effectively imposed by its monopoly of appearances, its manner of appearing without any reply.’ We are long overdue for a mass dérive. If there is little we can directly change in our embodied, lived realities, the digital sphere as navigated through this same reality may give us something more: by participating in a burgeoning data rights movement that seek to challenge surveillance technologies, abolitionist futures can be fought for not just on the streets, but through attempts at sidestepping algorithmic patterns that don’t hinge on optimisation or consumption. Or, as Legacy Russell said in an interview about her book Glitch Feminism, ‘Filters and algorithms mean we sometimes have to fight for our digital neighbourhoods.’ To be able to vanish completely may be a privilege I cannot afford (which is to say, help: I can’t log off), but like the many animals that undergo a process called crypsis to selectively hide from the world, I want to write a self that is unseen until I choose to reveal it.