While I’m revisiting old posts, the term digital exhaust came up again in a very interesting article by Shoshana Zuboff called “The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism,” published in Frankfurter Allgemeine in March 2016. I no longer remember how I came upon it, but its publication in a obscure (to Americans) German newspaper (German and English versions available) was easily located online with a simple title search. The article has certainly not gone viral the way social media trends work, but someone obviously picked it up, promoted it, and raised it to the level of awareness of lots of folks, including me.

My earlier remarks about digital exhaust were that the sheer volume of information produced and exchanged across digital media quickly becomes unmanageable, with the result that much of it becomes pointless ephemera — the useless part of the signal-to-noise ratio. Further, I warned that by turning our attention to digital sources of information of dubious value, quality, and authority, we face an epistemological shift that could take considerable hindsight to describe accurately. That was 2007. It may not yet be long enough to fully understand effect(s) too well, or to crystallize the moment (to reuse my pet phrase yet again), but the picture is already clarifying somewhat terrifyingly.

Far from being a passive or inconsequential byproduct of computer networks, online activity, and social networks, Zuboff refers to digital exhaust instead as behavioral surplus, a wholly new kind of resource to be mined and exploited in the digital realm and which has spawned a new economic form:

The assault we face is driven in large measure by the exceptional appetites of a wholly new genus of capitalism, a systemic coherent new logic of accumulation that I call surveillance capitalism. Capitalism has been hijacked by a lucrative surveillance project that subverts the “normal” evolutionary mechanisms associated with its historical success and corrupts the unity of supply and demand that has for centuries, however imperfectly, tethered capitalism to the genuine needs of its populations and societies, thus enabling the fruitful expansion of market democracy.

Surveillance capitalism is a novel economic mutation bred from the clandestine coupling of the vast powers of the digital with the radical indifference and intrinsic narcissism of the financial capitalism and its neoliberal vision that have dominated commerce for at least three decades, especially in the Anglo economies. It is an unprecedented market form that roots and flourishes in lawless space.

Surveillance is undertaken by governments and large corporations, both of which have thrown dragnets over the entirety of Internet traffic. Whereas the government’s approach is intended for national security (so we’re told), the corporate approach is to monetize its data collection and turn users, citizens, into tradable commodities both individually and in aggregate. Aggregation of behavioral surplus is part of Big Data, and its apologists say that individuals are anonymized in the process. If Zuboff is accurate, however, this is a rather unexpected manifestation of Big Brother, more subtle than the Orwellian version of totalitarianism by force but ultimately no less concerning.

My sense is that Zuboff focuses almost solely on the privacy we all lose simply by being online, routine and innocuous though it may be, and ignores the vast amount of data exchange (thus, exhaust) that occurs machine-to-machine with no human involvement or interest (e.g., syncing the time, establishing network connections, and backing up data). Instead, the juicy bits come from surveilling social networks, search, geolocation, and shopping, which are behavioral. I admit I don’t fully understand the mechanism for commodifying that information by Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and others — how scooping up all the minute bits of data provided by online activity translates into an exploitable resource and means of directing behavior — but I recognize readily enough the perils of corporations and governments knowing too much about us. Zuboff writes of “dispossession by surveillance,” which I suspect is a bit too arcane for average folks to grok, but I have grave reservations over loss of identity in addition to loss of privacy as we forfeit so much of our time and attention to devices that feed us someone else’s values and instructions.

At a lunch with coworkers recently, the topic of privacy rights online came up, and there was a clear division between the two of us in the room who reached adulthood prior to the advent of the Internet and those who had been born afterwards. The youngsters did what youngsters are wont to do, admonishing their elders (who obviously possess no wisdom) to get with the times and let go of outdated notions. They probably knew that the U.S.S. Personal Privacy has sailed without them, and they gladly contribute their personal information in exchange for the convenience of using online resources. They had no inkling that dispossession and forfeiture need not be so willing. Nor did they appreciate that as an ongoing epistemological crisis, their very minds are being colonized. Sadly, I fear the damage has already been done and there’s no going back until the damn thing is shut off.

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