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.

December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
Foreign Interventions in Revolutionary Russia
Richard Klin
The Disasters of War
Katie Fite
Rebranding Bundy
Gary Olson
A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit Britain’s Crisis of Self-Confidence Will Only End in Tears and Rising Nationalism
Andrew Moss
Undocumented Citizen
Dean Baker
Trump and China: Going With Patent Holders Against Workers
Lawrence Wittner
Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: a Practical Proposal
Dan Siegel
Thoughts on the 2018 Elections and Beyond
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: I Can Smell the Dumpster Fires Already
Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
Ajamu Baraka
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Time to De-Colonize Human Rights!
Andrew Levine
Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition
Jennifer Matsui
Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls
Rob Urie
Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian
Robert Hunziker
The Deathly Insect Dilemma
Robert Fisk
Spare Me the American Tears for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Joseph Natoli
Tribal Justice
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Macdonald Stainsby
Unist’ot’en Camp is Under Threat in Northern Canada
Senator Tom Harkin
Questions for Vice-President Bush on Posada Carriles
W. T. Whitney
Two Years and Colombia’s Peace Agreement is in Shreds
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Ramzy Baroud
The Conspiracy Against Refugees
David Rosen
The Swamp Stinks: Trump & Washington’s Rot
Raouf Halaby
Wall-to-Wall Whitewashing
Daniel Falcone
Noam Chomsky Turns 90
Dean Baker
An Inverted Bond Yield Curve: Is a Recession Coming?
Nick Pemberton
The Case For Chuck Mertz (Not Noam Chomsky) as America’s Leading Intellectual
Ralph Nader
New Book about Ethics and Whistleblowing for Engineers Affects Us All!
Dan Kovalik
The Return of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the Rise of the Pro-Contra Left
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Exposing the Crimes of the CIAs Fair-Haired Boy, Paul Kagame, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front
Jasmine Aguilera
Lessons From South of the Border
Manuel García, Jr.
A Formula for U.S. Election Outcomes
Sam Pizzigati
Drug Company Execs Make Millions Misleading Cancer Patients. Here’s One Way to Stop Them
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Agriculture as Wrong Turn
James McEnteer
And That’s The Way It Is: Essential Journalism Books of 2018
Chris Gilbert
Biplav’s Communist Party of Nepal on the Move: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian
Judith Deutsch
Siloed Thinking, Climate, and Disposable People: COP 24 and Our Discontent
Jill Richardson
Republicans Don’t Want Your Vote to Count
John Feffer
‘Get Me Outta Here’: Trump Turns the G20 into the G19