The Cyber-Corporate Body Snatcher

Perhaps it wasn’t to take long until mini-computers were set to enter the bodies, once computer miniaturization had sufficiently advanced and, of course, corporations saw a profit opportunity in that. Such wearables are essentially, electronic devices with micro-controllers that are worn close to the human skin able to detect, analyze, and transmit body signals, as bio-feedback to wearers and companies.

In fact, in the 1960s, MIT invented the first wearable computer. In true James Bond-style, it was placed in a shoe with the goal of tracking a roulette ball in a gambling casino. However, MIT’s invention never worked and in 1985, Nevada prohibited wearables in casinos.

Despite its early disappointment, today’s wearables are everywhere. They are commonly used as fitness monitors for example. Today, there are thousands of wearables available on the market or in development. Yet, artificial intelligence (AI) is set to markedly improve wearables. In the future, many wearables will move from being worn “on” the body (e.g. a watch) to being located “inside” the body (e.g. a smart pill).  Even the US military is looking forward to that.

For the advocates of wearables, the Internet of Things isn’t about linking people to the Internet. For them, the Internet of People is the key, and it means that your body is connected to the Internet via external forces (a chip) that act on the body while the body acts – like soldiers receiving commands while out in the field.

Set against such techno-euphoria is the need for a critical digital literacy of wearables preventing data harms and data violence. Critical digital literacy can illuminate future circumstances where data are used to undermine human subjectivity, and forcibly control people under the aegis of security and order.

In other words, we needed to understand the term wearable and its links to technologies connected to the body in the context of corporate capitalism. Much of this also includes the so-called embeddables, such as prosthetics and implantables, which are microchips implanted under the skin. And, it also includes ingestibles, which are smart pills. A lot of this can be understood as embodied computing. On such smart pills or ingestibles, the former Alphabet’s boss Eric Schmidt once noted,

you will, voluntarily, I might add, take a pill, which you think of as a pill but, is in fact a microscopic robot, which will monitor your systems and share information about what is happening in your body.

What Eric Schmidt calls as “shared information” can indeed mean as the transmission of intimate data to a health corporation. And, this will pay the corporations handsomely as the global smart pills’ market size is estimated to be worth roughly $3 billion by 2025.

Much of this also runs under the heading of visceral computing – which is computing that is happening inside the body. At one point, this was set to deliver handsome cash to companies like Proteus Digital Health. Yet, in this case, it did not. While one corporation failed, others carry on. But the key questions remain: should we give up sensitive visceral data about our bodies to companies and corporations?

And, should we give such companies the ability to manipulate users’ data by exploiting algorithms and AI through various mechanisms like “insurance incentives”, and the enforcement of non-compliance through disciplinary measures?  Of course, such corporations are only too happy to do that.

And they do such by relying on bio-media which is the outcome of bio-informatics’ technologies enhanced through biological materiality, i.e. the body-as-media. These are corporate data systems and algorithms linked to learning machines. These systems have the capability to process biological information about us. Which of course, are processed for a company.

The corporate plan is that we literally eat data and become digital data-human assemblages. In this, the human body is conceptualized in two ways: a) as a data-ingesting body and, b) as a data-emitting body. Both work in an eternal cycle to generate data, bringing these data into the self, and most importantly, generating yet more data for corporations.

The ever supportive Food and Drug Administration views this as a system composed of ingestible micro-sensors; such as a data recorder, in the form of a skin patch; software; and, an ingestible telemetric gastrointestinal capsule imaging system used for electronic visualization. Unmentioned but still important, this can give private “healthcare”(!) companies and other corporations permanent access to your internal bio-data on an everyday basis.

Perhaps even more important than all of this is the fact that such ingestibles can be furnished with the ability to track gas development inside your body, only to let users know when it might be the time to visit the bathroom – a sort of an electronic ‘fart alert’. On a more serious note, such digital pills have the potential to create a biomedical Big Brother – Your Big Corporate Brother is Watching You! Now from the inside.

With all this in place, companies and corporations are ready to “move in” so that our bodies become platforms for the next computing revolution. In that way, embodied computing can tell corporations about immediate threats to our bodies.

And, it can send and receive data about our human thoughts, emotions, vital signs while simultaneously, our movements can be uploaded and monitored by corporations. It is a constant bodily monitoring – known as bio- or auto-monitoring – which is done for (of course): health and security reasons.

All of this simply means that a gigantic datafication by corporations of the human body is seamlessly translating the flux of life into discrete, machine-readable data points to be used by corporations. Corporate bio-sensors will be able to mine data from inside our bodies making bodily data ready for corporate monetizing.

While many operate from the inside of the body, there are also skin-based computer-systems like sensing technology that works “on” human skin. This kind of wearables became known as epidermal electronics, E-skin (electronic skin), smart skin, and digital tattoos. It resembles the temporary stick-on tattoos that children place on their bodies. Unlike such toys, they are ultrathin and flexible devices intended to sense brain, heart, and skeletal activity. These promise to revolutionize medical bio-feedback to corporations.

Many of these technologies support a highly automated and well-networked form of bio-surveillance allowing corporations to use algorithmic decision-making when interpreting life signs directly from inside the body. Its software-guided algorithm can shape decision making processes. Under cyber-capitalism, these have now been placed into the hands of corporations. It is no longer a human medical professional who makes those decisions.

For the unsuspecting customer, it is a one-way mirror of transferring information. Worse, it is happening without our ability to fully grasp, follow, and even understand what is happening. Of course, there is next to no power given to customers to determine what is happening.

In online platform-based cyber-capitalism, algorithms will make decisions for us and for corporations, as computers filter what is produced on body sensors. Meanwhile, corporations map our whereabouts – and always for health reason, obviously. Worse, corporations will remember faces of people we meet and whom we know, and even inform other corporations about our next move.

Much of this is possible because of digital wearable devices which includes bands that are worn on the wrist, leg, ankle, around the chest, and even on the forehead. There are also smart rings, smart watches, pendants, and devices that can be clipped onto clothing and worn on helmets. And, then there are smart clothing and footwear, headsets, and smart glasses, headphones, ear buds, and medical devices such as hearing aids, smart contact lenses, and electronic skin patches – the list is endless.

Of course, these wearables are equipped with radio frequency identification (RFID) systems which are already used in workplaces to monitor employees’ movements for algorithmic performance management and, of course, for the firing of workers – every second of not moving in an Amazon warehouse, for example, is registered.

Whether at work or elsewhere, these systems may turn human beings into living cyborgs – a biological and technological integration. As a cyborg, a human person and technology build an integrated system. The goal is that he or she or it has capabilities beyond the normal human. At its simplest, is a person with a hearing aid.

On a more advanced level, AI technologies are implanted into the body so that technology becomes part of a body. Worse, AI-driven technology can even log into the human nervous system or brain. As a consequence, the idea of human selfhood and personhoodmight change.

Beyond all that, much of this may open the floodgates for Überveillance or embedded surveillance. This comes in three broad forms furnished by human-implantable microchips: AI-guided control system for access to certain locations and to control employees; personal convenience when making e-payments; and, health care when accessing e-health records remotely.

In all of these, Überveillance can be seen as an omnipresent and an all-pervasive electronic surveillance system that is always on and always with you. Überveillance is basically a sort of Über-Big-Brother implanted in you, always checking and transmitting your heart, pulse, and temperature sensor readings emanating from within your body as binary data, wirelessly. This can work even through amplified eyes such as an inserted contact lens’ glass that might provide visual display and access to the Internet.

Überveillance means someone is watching from above. It is the collecting of personal data and public data for corporate data mining. Yet, there is not only a “watching from above”. Most importantly, “watching from inside” you has been added. All these are coming together via wearables and implantable devices on or in the human body.

With Überveillance, the greatest privacy invasion will come from when the sensors pick up everything we say, see, hear, do, taste, and even think, and of course, sending these data back to a corporate hive for processing. In the wake of that, an electronic apartheidcould follow – as a technological gorge between the haves and have-nots opens up.

Worse, this could be spiced up by an almost endless advances in AI technologies. This form of Superveillance can extend to coming from the sky as simple surveillance; to the street level as simple dataveillance; to the person around you as sousveillance; and to within you as Überveillance. All this can be transmitted back to the sky and onward to the cyber corporate body snatchers.

Even more problematic is the fact that much of this has a certain involuntariness attached to it. The supposedly voluntary opting into such technologies can quickly become a requirement to participate in society, to belong, to benefit socially, to engage as consumers financially, and simply to be able to work. It is a super-cranked up version of the simple corporate ID card worn by millions of employees – voluntarily!

Much of this is based on the neoliberal marketing idea that many users are increasingly willing to give up data protection in exchange for a smorgasbord of goodies such as convenience, to be seen as cool, free health checks, access to jobs and work, etc.

Some corporations confidently predict that by 2028, half of all Americans – and by 2054, nearly all Americans – will carry device implants in their body capable of communicating with corporate retailers as they walk down the supermarket aisles while inspecting goodies.

Going substantially beyond all this are the champions of Techno-Supremacy. They believe that, if you assume a sufficient rate of advancing AI, we, humans will be left behind. Even in many rather benign situations, you will find ultra-intelligent AIs in the very near future. Those who do not join would be far below in intelligence – the leftovers. Those human beings would be like a pet. Even techno-fancying Elon Musk became so alarmed by the monstrous potential of AI that he has called for its regulation.

Undeterred, Techno-Supremacy may well be an anti-democratic tyranny driven by today’s digital robber barons who live in the belief that their vision for humankind is not just the wisest but, also the most perfect one. This vision is based on augmenting minds with technology with the power to, at least potentially, eliminate subjective reality and privacy of thought.

Testifying to AI’s ability to outthink human beings are IBM’s Deep Blue and AlphaGO that have beaten humans at chess and Go – a fact Techno-Supremacists’ see as proof of their belief. Yet, despite Elon Musk’s calls for regulation, it is rather likely that Techno-Supremacists will bulldoze regulations for technological advancement and the corporate profits that often come along with it. In the end, today’s Techno-Supremacists might be imposing their visions on society within the frame of neoliberal capitalism.

In our neoliberal world where maximizing profit remains the categorical imperative, reaching into and manipulating consumers’ minds might well be both: irresistible and unpreventable. Under neoliberal capitalism, the corporate agenda for using any complex technological device remains necessarily economic.

Every IT and AI-driven product requires corporate investments that must not just be recouped but deliver a profit on investment. All corporations have a legal duty to maximize shareholder value. As a consequence of all that, we might soon see the cyber corporate body snatchers roaming freely.

Thomas Klikauer has over 750 publications. His latest book is on Media Capitalism. Meg Young is a Sydney Financial Accountant who likes good literature and proofreading, and in her spare time works on her MBA at WSU.