Andri Snaer Magnason’s 2012 science fiction novel "LoveStar" details a world filled with “howlers,” otherwise mildly behaved people who might suddenly yell out “IIIIICE-COLD COKE!” on the street. Forced by poverty or circumstance to hire out their “speech centers” to advertisers, howlers might find themselves suddenly screaming in unison with a thousand others as part of a major ad campaign. Some of the people they yelled to might in turn be “secret hosts,” who had hired out not only their voices but also their reflexes and emotions; their ad buyers would embed offers into conversations, draining every discussion toward the drain of the sale:
“What did you think of Jonas Hallgrimsson’s poem?”
“I wonder what sort of life insurance they had in the nineteenth century. LoveLife hadn’t been founded then….”
Magnason, in top science fiction form, takes the circumstances of our present to their fullest, extreme conclusion. As becomes clear in Jacob Silverman’s Terms of Service, a thorough thinking-through of the conditions that social-media culture has placed on modern life, the jump to such a conclusion isn’t very far. There is Facebook’s sale of its users’ pictures of themselves as endorsements for advertisers on the network. Or AT&T’s internet service offer of two choices to customers: a $99-per month “standard” plan, or a “premier” plan, $29 cheaper, that allows the company to “use your individual Web browsing information, like the search terms you enter and the Web pages you visit, to tailor ads and offers to your interests.” Or health insurers who “have begun lowering premiums for people who use fitness monitors and let their employers and insurers collect that data. The obverse of this arrangement is that those who don’t submit to this kind of surveillance are penalized. They have to pay more just to keep their basic health information private.”
Silverman, a critic and freelance journalist who has covered data brokers, social networks, and surveillance for The New Republic, New Yorker, and the New York Times Book Review, writes in the shadow of Christopher Lasch’s "Culture of Narcissism," Susan Sontag’s "On Photography," and John Berger’s "Ways of Seeing": his work, like theirs, squints into the bright fascinations of our time in an attempt to actually see what their attractions blind us to.
The central fact of social networking, comprising sites like Google, Facebook, and Twitter; their trackers and extensions which cover the Internet with data-collecting glue; and the insinuation of smartphones and the flick-and-squint they inflict on human bodies, is surveillance. Not just the reach of governments and corporations, which touches nearly everything we transmit over the air or through the line, but also the self-conscious acts of performance that accompany anyone’s presence on social media. With moral clarity over the exploitative nature of Big Data’s surveillance and sale of every part of our lives it can observe – all in the service of devising sharper ways to separate us from our money – Silverman keeps a steady eye on the constant negotiations of identity and privacy required by the people who live under observation, and “how these acts help to create a culture in which to watch and be watched has become not just a matter of law enforcement or intelligence work but also a social practice. Through it, we become conditioned to want surveillance, not only for paternalistic protection but also for self-expression.”
For governments, the logic of surveillance is, as it always has been, dedicated to control. For modern corporations, it is driven by the demands of advertising. For the customers who join the surveillance, it’s a logic of communitarian feeling: “This is why, when it comes to social media, it’s hard to talk about opting out…. [I]f you’re opting out, you’re opting out of communicating with me, too. I need your broadcasts for my timeline to feel richer, or at least to feel like I have an audience.”
“When our sense of ourselves depends on being seen,” Silverman says, “on being visible and circulating through the network, then when someone chooses to opt out, the whole enterprise can be called into question.” The whole enterprise here is a culture of surveillance that reaches beyond our browsing habits into our very bodies; the questions Silverman calls to it are profound. His suggestions for how to answer the overreach of the enterprise are pragmatic and compassionate toward those who want so strongly to stay connected to each other.