Slaves to the Internet

Jean Baudrillard’s posthumous Agony of Power begins with a discussion of the ongoing transition from “domination” to “hegemony.” Domination had featured masters and slaves battling over control and liberation, and as that battle ended hegemony appeared, with the emancipated slaves now internalizing their masters’ thought. While one can see this shift in the Protestant Reformation, which inculcated believers so devoted they no longer needed to be monitored by the priesthood, Baudrillard was discussing the present, and his description of modern slaves cum “hostages” is particularly applicable to our relationship to the internet.

This is not to condemn the internet per se, just to point out that technologies are developed by and put to use within specific political-economic contexts. The military developed the internet, and once on its feet the “information superhighway” was given over to the market, a process resembling the evolution of capitalism itself. And, rather than being “neutral,” internet use for most people occurs at work, while looking for work, or while unwinding from work. Moreover, much of non-work related internet use is actually work insofar as it generates wealth for others.

Thanks in part to users’ data input and unpaid social production in general, online dating sites have recently become more profitable than porn sites. While leading to some priggish celebrations, this hardly suggests anything positive, least that alienation or objectification of women is being overcome. Thanks to sites like OkCupid, (mostly) men increasingly find it more effective to get off by looking at attractive pictures of “real” women, whose availability and plausible accessibility facilitate the fantasy. “Wanna fuck now?” This effectively means that people who post pictures on dating sites, or engage in amateur porn, are “giving it away for free.” More accurately, given their extraction of profit through user input and advertisements, as well as the fees that many sites charge, online dating sites establish a relationship of reverse prostitution. Notwithstanding their offer of “efficiency” (which makes their promise of “romance” oxymoronic) and exhibitionism, the material basis of the relationship is that you pay to work for them.

Another hugely popular and profitable website that runs on unpaid social production is the consumer-based review site Yelp. Readers’ posts on Yelp have measurable effects on businesses, yet it is significant that this form of putative “digital democracy” benefits people as “consumers.” Discussing food, service, and décor, Yelp reviewers usually praise their subjects, but when they complain it tends to be about what is apparent rather than what is actual. It is far easier to blame a server for a long wait for your meal than it is to learn that the owner reduced the afternoon staff. It is similarly easier to notice that the server has “a bad attitude” than to think about the rent that necessitates that the server smile at you in the first place. Everyone a critic, Yelp provides owners with an anonymous and ubiquitous tool with which to discipline labor. A bad review on Yelp, and more importantly the very fear of a bad review, increases workers’ vulnerability, making them work harder while intensifying competition and reducing wages for everyone. Notably, Yelp affects small businesses more than large ones, and in general its impact is greatest on the weak; owners are harder to see and thus review, and even if they were seen they could not be fired. They merely go out of business, but they, as opposed to workers, do not face starvation while investing in new enterprises. Yelp encourages us to opportunistically, and often self-righteously (“It’s her job”), attack other workers. In so doing we are not only exposing our dastardliness but also our stupidity. We’re all secret shoppers now, and we’re doing it for free.

If our becoming consumer snitches reflects our collective “Stockholm Syndrome,” it is through email, as well as networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, that we are held hostage. We perform untold hours of shadow work reading and writing work-related emails and managing our “networks” while lamenting all the time we waste keeping up appearances on Facebook. Yet, most people cannot permanently quit these sites, let alone the internet as a whole, as doing so would introduce huge practical burdens – as well as social alienation; better virtual company than none at all. That quitting the internet today is a practical impossibility demonstrates that it uses us.

The internet’s reliance on unpaid productivity combined with the ‘each is an entrepreneur’ ethos found on sites like LinkedIn, Craigslist, and Facebook suggest an apparent contradiction. Yet these seemingly conflicting online roles show that we have all become, at least in our heads, capitalists. While we “give away” our labor through online social production this is not done, we think, as workers but as consumers and dilettantes. Posting sexy pictures, complaints about weak cups of coffee, or videos of talking dogs might make money for advertisers and site owners, but it is just a fun “activity” for most of us. At the same time, we attempt to make money marketing ourselves online not merely as laborers but as aspiring capitalists, trying to extract surplus value from any conceivable trade, skill, or gimmick. Selling one’s personality, purpose, and essence, the division of labor has been seemingly resolved online: we own the (would be) means of production, which actually means that we have become utterly commodified. But because capitalism is based on competition, the more people there are who try to make it only ensures that relatively fewer will, with ever declining profitability. Selling out has never been cheaper, as, outside of lottery odds, you can’t make it and you can’t join them. To be sure, this isn’t mere failure. The internet’s exponential acceleration of capitalist penetration means that we’re all hostages now.

Joshua Sperber lives in Brooklyn and can be reached at jsperber4@yahoo.com

More articles by:

Joshua Sperber lives in New York and can be reached at jsperber4@gmail.com.

February 19, 2019
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Troublesome Possibilities: The Left and Tulsi Gabbard
Patrick Cockburn
She Didn’t Start the Fire: Why Attack the ISIS Bride?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Literature and Theater During War: Why Euripides Still Matters
Maximilian Werner
The Night of Terror: Wyoming Game and Fish’s Latest Attempt to Close the Book on the Mark Uptain Tragedy
Conn Hallinan
Erdogan is Destined for Another Rebuke in Turkey
Nyla Ali Khan
Politics of Jammu and Kashmir: The Only Viable Way is Forward
Mark Ashwill
On the Outside Looking In: an American in Vietnam
Joyce Nelson
Sir Richard Branson’s Venezuelan-Border PR Stunt
Ron Jacobs
Day of Remembrance and the Music of Anthony Brown        
Cesar Chelala
Women’s Critical Role in Saving the Environment
February 18, 2019
Paul Street
31 Actual National Emergencies
Robert Fisk
What Happened to the Remains of Khashoggi’s Predecessor?
David Mattson
When Grizzly Bears Go Bad: Constructions of Victimhood and Blame
Julian Vigo
USMCA’s Outsourcing of Free Speech to Big Tech
George Wuerthner
How the BLM Serves the West’s Welfare Ranchers
Christopher Fons
The Crimes of Elliot Abrams
Thomas Knapp
The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC
Mitchel Cohen
A Tale of Two Citations: Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Michael Harrington’s “The Other America”
Jake Johnston
Haiti and the Collapse of a Political and Economic System
Dave Lindorff
It’s Not Just Trump and the Republicans
Laura Flanders
An End to Amazon’s Two-Bit Romance. No Low-Rent Rendezvous.
Patrick Walker
Venezuelan Coup Democrats Vomit on Green New Deal
Natalie Dowzicky
The Millennial Generation Will Tear Down Trump’s Wall
Nick Licata
Of Stress and Inequality
Joseph G. Ramsey
Waking Up on President’s Day During the Reign of Donald Trump
Elliot Sperber
Greater Than Food
Weekend Edition
February 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Time for Peace in Afghanistan and an End to the Lies
Chris Floyd
Pence and the Benjamins: An Eternity of Anti-Semitism
Rob Urie
The Green New Deal, Capitalism and the State
Jim Kavanagh
The Siege of Venezuela and the Travails of Empire
Paul Street
Someone Needs to Teach These As$#oles a Lesson
Andrew Levine
World Historical Donald: Unwitting and Unwilling Author of The Green New Deal
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Third Rail-Roaded
Eric Draitser
Impacts of Exploding US Oil Production on Climate and Foreign Policy
Ron Jacobs
Maduro, Guaidó and American Exceptionalism
John Laforge
Nuclear Power Can’t Survive, Much Less Slow Climate Disruption
Joyce Nelson
Venezuela & The Mighty Wurlitzer
Jonathan Cook
In Hebron, Israel Removes the Last Restraint on Its Settlers’ Reign of Terror
Ramzy Baroud
Enough Western Meddling and Interventions: Let the Venezuelan People Decide
Robert Fantina
Congress, Israel and the Politics of “Righteous Indignation”
Dave Lindorff
Using Students, Teachers, Journalists and other Professionals as Spies Puts Everyone in Jeopardy
Kathy Kelly
What it Really Takes to Secure Peace in Afghanistan
Brian Cloughley
In Libya, “We Came, We Saw, He Died.” Now, Maduro?
Nicky Reid
The Councils Before Maduro!
Gary Leupp
“It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby”