This summer, in the radiating heat of a New Orleans July, I had a vision of a possible future, the future continuing down society’s current path of corporate-orchestrated, convenience-addicted consumerism. We can now see the outlines of the path from where we are now, in 2016, to something not too far from the society in the movie The Matrix – a techno-totalitarian society with some significant percentage of the population pacified and controlled using virtual reality. Some version of matrix can in fact happen here and people need to be creating alternative futures starting now.
Between stays in New Orleans in February and July, I noticed a distinct increase in the number of people walking on the sidewalk looking down at their phones. And then I noticed that a lot of people who weren’t looking down at their phones were walking with their phones in their hands, ready to attend at the slightest alert. As I pondered the significance of this trend, Pokemon Go burst onto the scene. It was society’s first big dive into augmented reality – reality plus computer-added “virtual” layers. In Pokemon Go, a player looks through her phone’s camera at “reality” augmented, at specific locations in the landscape, with little cartoon creatures she can see as she looks through her phone. Pokemon Go is already fading from mass consciousness, but that doesn’t mean augmented reality is a fad. More likely it’s a small swell building into a tidal wave.
It’s no fun to rain on people’s parades, but… Our dramatically-increasing reliance on smartphones and the emergence of augmented reality are flashing-alert signposts along the path to a corporate capitalist consumer culture version of the matrix – a society in which an always-on augmented/virtual reality-experience is constructed for each individual based on profit-producing algorithms crunching the “user data.” The crucial process on the way to such a society is the podification of the the population – the P-O-D podification – turning citizens into consumers and consumers into products.
The first step is to transform citizens into consumers. Citizens engage in politics and potentially work together to enact democracy in ways the benefactors of the status quo can’t always control. This capacity to work with others to organize affairs and relations into the kinds of societies and governance people want is the fundamental freedom inherent in democracy. Consumers, on the other hand, are brought within the logic of individualized “freedom of choice,” a freedom that has nothing to do with other people. You decide – pick whatever works best for you – you get to choose (from among the available choices you can afford).
The fundamental freedom to work together to govern society is not limited in advance; democracy is a wide open frontier of possibility. Freedom of choice creates a different spatial logic for action – it’s not an untapped frontier, it’s a superstore, a shopping mall, a gentrified neighborhood – a closed world sliced up into “choices.” In agreeing to choose, and thereby accepting the range of choices on offer as the field of possibility, the individual is isolated as a consumer and her “freedom” is captured within the parameters set by the people in charge of the choices.
If you’re choosing, you’re allowing “the market” to control outcomes by controlling the range of possibility. Of course, “the market” is just a politically-correct euphemism for the interests of concentrated capital – the ruling plutocracy that is rooted in and dependent on capitalism’s money-makes-money logic of profit and accumulation. So “freedom of choice” consumerism turns out to be a form of plutocratic population control.
But wait – there’s more! In our modern capitalist society, the highest form of control is commodification – the transformation of a thing into a commodity, a marketable product that can produce profit for the owner, a thing through which money makes money. Commodification is how the captured, “freedom of choice” individualism offered in capitalist consumerism blends into the next step in podification: the transformation of consumers into products.
Years ago, I read an essay on the political economy of television by a media studies professor named Nick Browne who made a point that blew my mind. The product of television, Browne explained, the thing that television produces and sells to make money, is *viewers*. The product of television is viewers; television creates content in order to attract (“produce”) viewers who can then be ‘sold’ to advertisers. The attention of viewers is the product the buyer with the money ends up with. Viewers are the product, the commodity, that is being produced and sold in a money-makes-money process.
In 2016, there are reportedly more than 1.5 billion registered Facebook users. Facebook is a highly-valued, for-profit corporation. The product of Facebook is users. More specifically, a user’s interests, relations, purchases, locations, etc., become – after processing through Facebook algorithms – sellable products. The algorithms that pull out certain characteristics as marketable make access to a user who displays those characteristics a commodity, a “marketable” thing that can make money make more money. Facebook’s universe of algorithm’d users is a resource for marketers to mine for consumers. If a company has a marketing strategy targeting people with characteristics XYZ, Facebook can sell access to users with characteristics XYZ.
Then there’s the user’s side of the story. For a user, the experience of the world of Facebook starts with the feed of information on your home page. The feed is *based on* your stated interests, your “likes,” “follows,” relationships with “friends,” your purchases, location, and so on. But *based on* is the key. Your feed is not unfiltered. It is the product of one or more Facebook algorithms that let some things in and screen others out. And at least some of this screening in and out is based on who pays extra to “boost” their posts past the limiting algorithms. Over time, the kind of individualized, algorithm’d feed served up by Facebook becomes feedback – in the world of Facebook, you become your feed, which is Facebook’s version of you, algorithm’d in ways intended to make Facebook money.
A Facebook feed is less a window onto your world than your world algorithm’d into Facebook’s commodified version of you. Earlier this year, reporting revealed Facebook was algorithm’ing users’ news. On Twitter, if you follow CNN, you get every thing CNN posts in your feed. But with Facebook’s algorithm’d experience, you only get some of the CNN posts – presumably those the algorithm determines best fits your pre-existing profile. So if you’ve never searched for or clicked on posts about Somalia, the algorithms might determine you don’t need to hear about the latest terrorist bombing in Mogadishu. And, since you can’t click on something you don’t see, without some extraordinary event everyone is paying attention to, Somalia will never appear in your feed, will have no place in your Facebook user-world. Your feed becomes feedback.
On Facebook, your world is your feed and your feed is Facebook’s algorithm’d version of you. Access to the feed of Facebook’s algorithm’d version of you is the product the algorithms make available for sale. The user is the feed is a product making money make more money for Facebook, as well as, presumably, some percentage of the advertisers who invest money to access the user’s feed to try to get her to buy something. (Or donate. Nonprofits can make ‘money makes more money’ investments in Facebook ads, seeking to bring in more in donations than they spend on ads.)
Identifying the process of podification enables a vision of the near future, if the current glide path of consumerism becomes a slippery slope of virtual reality. If they are not already beta testing out there, then somewhere, some time soon, companies will start approaching people with an unbelievable offer. Selected users will get a free phone, a laptop, and a tablet, with free unlimited connectivity to the cloud/net – and – coming soon! – a virtual reality/internet visor. In addition to closed, virtual reality experiences, these visors will have built-in eye-view cameras so users can have augmented real-world experiences while wearing them; the eyeball screens on the inside of the visor could display the user’s immediate environment as captured by the cameras on the visor. All the user will have to do in return for these free devices and unlimited access is agree to *only* access the cloud/net using the devices provided and their built-in browsers – no hacking or tampering. And, for the visor, the user agrees to wear them when you go to certain specified places. You can use them whenever you want, not only for all kinds of virtual and augmented experiences, but to do anything a smartphone could do and more. But you agree you WILL wear them (or return them to the company) when you go, for instance, to Times Square or the National Mall or the Mall of America and so on.
Won’t millions of people stampede for this offer? And when they/we do, people will be 5/6ths of the way into a matrix. Life.com or me.com (maybe I.life or I.me) will provide your exclusive portal to the cloud/net and its emerging world of virtual and augmented experiences. And like Facebook only radically moreso, now sunk into daily life, I.me will algorithm its users into commodified pods – with, no doubt, drone-delivered special orders available for every single thing you buy. To the extent people have put our lives on the internet, we are subject to “data-based” manipulation and commodification by the private profit-seeking forces that dominate cyberspace. The corporate-sponsored augmented/virtual reality internet visor will move this plutocratic population control more directly into the environments and experiences that constitute everyday life.
Think about how a me.com visor would work. Since every aspect of your cloud/net life goes through the company portal, the algorithms know just about everything about you. Using that “data,” me.com makes money by making you, in your algorithm’d particularity, available to advertisers willing to pay to access to your podified life. With the visor on, your “feed” is your vision, your 360-degree experience of the world around you. And your feed, your vision, your world, is a commodified, algorithm’d version of you feeding back on you, in ways designed to control your behavior and make people money.
me.com might offer discounts on products to people who wear their visors in public. You could be in a bar where drinks are half off for people who wear visors. Everyone would see different advertisements on the walls, depending on who pays for access to a particular user’s visor-world experience. And ads would surely be algorithmically-tuned to trigger purchases by specific users based on past behavior patterns. The world in the visor becomes commodified consumerist feedback. With the visors on, the user’s experience of everyday life becomes a consumer/product pod controlled by profit-seeking algorithms – a consumer culture matrix.
Say you want some new shoes. You ask your I.me visor about nearby shoe stores. The visor can of course find the closest stores stocking the kinds of shoes you’ve bought in the past. But it could also control the “search results” to include only the one of multiple shoe stores in the area that outbid others for I.me access. And then, using augmented reality technology, the visor could make any non-paying shoe stores appear to be not a shoe store at all but some other kind of store the algorithms know you’re almost sure to ignore. If you never shop for jewelry, the visor, for your particular, individualized experience, could overlay the image of a jewelry store on a non-paying shoe store. You will barely notice it as the visor directs your attention along the path to the fee-paying shoe store (maybe even a shoe store owned by I.me!). When the very world around you becomes a podified/commodified feedback loop, controlled by someone else in their interest, you’re in some kind of matrix.
Maybe before this slippery slope becomes the inescapable gravitational pull of a black hole, the whole modern consumer capitalist system will break down once and for all. There are reasons to believe this is happening – climate chaos (self-inflicted in the plutocracy’s short-term pursuit of profit and power) and the seemingly played-out ponzi scheme of “growth” both point in that direction. But the inability to predict the timing or course of capitalism’s collapse calls for development of strategies to resist falling prey to new forms of plutocratic control enabled by virtual reality. Computer-based virtual reality could be a powerful tool for human development. But not if it is commodified and used to make people into products producing profits for plutocracy.
The key to avoiding that fate must ultimately be community, and most likely new forms of community that use the group power of democracy in new ways we can barely imagine from here. For now, in real life and cyberspace, like-minded people have to find each other and form alternative, creative ‘sociations’ (ways of being together) and work together to blaze trails – new ways of living, new ways of being – off the grid of corporate consumer capitalism. It won’t always be easy; true democracy is sink or swim. But people moving down these “neopublic” paths will be the ones most likely to make it through the wreckage of capitalist modernity already raining down around us.
Of course, no one person or small clique will come up with the best defenses to podification or, for that matter, the best ways to move forward into a post-capitalist social universe contending with climate chaos and poisoned ecosystems. True democracy is a group project: strategies are crowdsourced and the future is a kind of wiki – a collaborative consensus crafted by engaged citizens working for the good of all concerned. Our fundamental human freedom and power is our capacity to work together in groups to make things happen – “wiki.” Freedom of choice in plutocracy is an atomized, commodified world of convenience and consumption – “pod.” Unless capitalism collapses first, wiki versus pod will be a crucial struggle in our quest for democracy over plutocracy.
Art Martin is a public defender (appellate court), cultural anthropologist (academic apostate), and guerrilla utopian philosopher living in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in high desert eastern Oregon USA.