Manifest Data: A Kit to Create Personal Digital Data-Based Sculptures
Duke University Speculative Sensation (S-1) Lab
Analogizing Data: The Real Subsumption of Manifest Destiny by Capital, by David Rambo
Touching upon an implicit reference in the title of our Manifest Data project, this essay proposes an analogy between the cultivation of online social relations and activities for profit and the real effects of western expansion driven by the 19th-century American ideology of Manifest Destiny. Like other components of the Manifest Data project, this brief exposition undercuts the sanguine, egalitarian view of corporate Internet platforms by drawing our attention to another history of dispossession, profit, and growth.
Business and policy rhetoric that aims to increase digital literacy and Internet accessibility belies both an exploitation of users' online activity through the data produced and a sense of data collection's naturalness or inevitability. Google's PageRank search algorithm, for instance, relies on users simply to take part in the Internet's core functionality of creating and clicking on hyperlinks. It measures this consumption and creation of websites and then turns its ordered view of the web into a platform for advertisements. Thus, internet access, participation, and usage all contribute to a sort of online social and material a priori, without which Google's business plan could not exist. Among the "Ten things we know to be true" on Google's company webpage, this mining and measuring of the Internet's social existence is considered democratic. Note the equivocation in the last word: "4. Democracy on the web works" ("Ten things"). Explicitly this implies that the Internet actually supports egalitarian decision making, while tacitly it expresses the basic presupposition of Google's business: that Internet users work for Google. Putting Internet usage into terms of "votes" implicates a discourse of a natural right to free participation, and Google wants culture at large to buy into this ideology. This fantasy has recently been satirized in HBO's Silicon Valley, a comedy that follows a group of young, hoody-wearing coders in Palo Alto. The show's "villain" is tech giant Hooli, a fictional amalgamation of software companies such as Facebook and Google. Its CEO and employees give voice to many corporate platitudes regarding technology's role in "making the world a better place." Technological positivism is nothing new, of course; but with the Internet's overtly social existence paired with its covertly material constitution, major software and web-based companies can cultivate user activity like unclaimed soil. To solidify their claim, these companies need only offer proof of improving land.
Such idealization points to an analogous precedent in the lofty characterization of US territorial expansionism as an ineluctable and divinely ordained historical progression, a characterization which in reality motivated the forcible seizure of land from indigenous populations and previously established Mexican settlements. To be sure, 19th-century "Manifest Destiny" and the westward expansion it inspired designate a much more violent ideology and overtly physical process than the monitoring and cultivation of online social relations and activities for profit. Civilian militias invaded countries in Central America, the Hawaiian islands, and Canada, often to the detriment of official foreign policy (May 2002, p.xi). This mid-19th-century "filibustering," as it was called, shared an Anglo-Saxon racial ideology with the governmental proponents of slavery and "the expulsion and possible extermination of the Indians" (Horsman 1981, p.3). According to Reginald Horsman's Race and Manifest Destiny, the political posturing around, and cultural experience of, American expansion toward the Pacific transformed the Founding Fathers' republican ideology into a racist program of continental conquest. At stake was a pseudo-scientific and divine justification for national and economic growth based on a violent disregard of other people (Horsman 1981, p.301).
The pervasive scope of Manifest Destiny beliefs as well as the visibility and breadth of its participants have given way to a technologically complex digital ideology. What Manifest Destiny might mean in the current context of a so-called information society is utterly different from that of its 19th-century genesis. Nevertheless, an analogy between Manifest Destiny and Manifest Data can assist in providing a critical perspective from which to assess contemporary trends in data cultivation. This analogy is already implicit in Eric Steven Raymond's online essay "Homesteading the Noosphere" (Raymond 2000). Raymond analyzes the customs of hacker culture that perform property claims through acts of creativity, modification, and naming. Considering the popularity of web pages that serve as home bases for open source coding projects, Raymond writes, "A project home page concretizes an abstract homesteading in the space of possible programs by expressing it as ‘home' territory in the more spatially-organized realm of the World Wide Web." What groups of coders perform at the level of software and ideas, pioneers did with unincorporated (though not always uninhabited) land under the legal auspices of the Homestead Act of 1862. According to this law, settling on 160 acres and working the land equated to acquiring U.S. legal ownership.
Manifest Data intervenes in a much more quotidian and non-conscious type of homesteading than Eric Raymond's collaborative and networked hackers. It also differs from Tiziana Terranova's study of "free labor," published the same year as Raymond's essay. She notes that within the "digital economy," users participate in and contribute original content to corporate web structures such as AOL forums without remuneration (Terranova 2000). According to this model, users' leisure time doubles as work time, without which the service offered by an internet provider would stagnate. Although the cultural and libidinal elements Terranova identifies in free labor do function in the data homesteading of the online milieu, more recently developed forms of user exploitation treat such activity as secondary. Equally important as the ongoing constitution of a leisure space by users is how websites such as Facebook and Google rely on another order of their users' activity for profit, namely the trends and interests that assist in targeted advertising.
Christian Fuchs has lately drawn our attention to this facet of the "international division of digital labor," which as a whole ranges from mineral extraction to software production to online advertising, arguing that, "[b]y giving users access to their platforms, Facebook and Twitter [provide] access to a particular means of communication whose use serves their own profit interests" (Fuchs 2014, p.89). On top of the first-order homesteading of Web 2.0 platforms by millions of users, there takes place a more central (from the standpoint of political economy), second-order homesteading of the data that such use can create. Fuchs references Göran Bolin's claim that the real work behind this industry goes on with the statisticians who analyze and package this second-order data, and not with the users themselves (Fuchs 87). However, Fuchs includes the entire spectrum of activities that must occur in order for such profit to be realized. Marx himself notes in the Appendix to Capital, Volume 1, that what matters in the demarcation of labor that is productive for capital is the "combined activity" that "results materially in an aggregate product" (Marx 1976, p.1040). So, he writes,
it is quite immaterial whether the job of a particular worker, who is merely a limb of this aggregate worker, is at a greater or smaller distance from the actual manual labour. [Head and hand are part and parcel of one labor process performed by relatively discrete subprocesses:] one as a manager, engineer, technologist, etc., the other as overseer, the third as manual labourer or even drudge. [In sum,] this labour objectifies itself directly during the labour process as a fluid quantum of value. (Ibid.)
Marx's analysis of the total social capital's reproduction on an expanded scale—i.e. "real accumulation"—in Volume II of Capital further explains the material conditions for such fluidity of value creation (Marx 1978). One individual capital's product serves as raw material for another capital's labor process. This is precisely what goes on at the level of mass Web 2.0 data analysis.
Here is not the place to ascertain whether Fuchs correctly argues that every moment spent on Facebook is surplus labor time. We simply want to note that such a critical perspective works against a point of view that would have people dispossessed of their activities so long as they fail to "work the land" in a manner recognizable by capital. (Similar claims can likely be made with respect to the patenting of genetic information, made possible by the specific procedures developed to access segments of the human genome.) Targeted advertising is but one industry that divests digitally productive consumers of their microdecisions and macrobehaviors. Netflix, for example, tracks the relations between viewers' ratings in order to maximize its video database's usage and to develop purportedly "original" content (Willmore 2012). That platform developers respond to a public's freely proferred ideas and usage data presents nothing new to Marx's original term for easily exploited, socially accessible knowledge: the "general intellect" (Marx 1973, p.706). Beyond this, however, the "social brain" in some cases now pays to improve corporate-owned assets. As is the case for all web-based business models, the digital lands that are privatized are in actuality not land at all since they must first be produced and then perpetually reproduced as public, social formations. Users of certain online platforms and, in the case of Google, users simply of the Internet, by paying for their internet service, electricity, and computers or mobile devices, enable their own exploitation.
We can characterize these cases of second-order homesteading as the cultivation of a social resource as if it were natural. Google acquired YouTube for $1.65 billion because it recognized the media consumption platform to be a popular site of first-order, conscious homesteading ("Google to Acquire"). While its users pan for gold in their staked off sections of the stream of spectators, YouTube charges advertisers to emblazon their products on its amateur media prospectors. The real gold, so to speak, can be found in the streams of data on Google's servers, which nuggets of data Google filters out and combines so as to serve its AdSense and AdWords clients. Manifest Destiny was one in a complex of factors that spurred US citizens to settle the West and to make their lives there on behalf of a nation's territorial growth. Their lives were the labor process by which the US valorized its ideology of racial and cultural superiority, and by which growing industries and economies, especially slavery, found new markets. Companies that track consumers' internet usage function in an analogous manner. What appears to be a social platform and a primary concern for the user conceals a primary concern for profit, which only secondarily attends to its users so far as they constitute a resource for the business platform. A web page's utility is its tacit justification for the unseen transactions of data and revenue that reduce users to mere raw material. Manifest Data can therefore be seen to evince the real subsumption of Manifest Destiny under capital so far as the users' life-time is tailored to certain valorization processes. Chief among these processes is the advertising industry's reliance on web platforms that treat Internet usage as a public resource open to privatization. With this privatization there comes a discourse dedicated to framing this privatization as a Manifest Destiny, that is, as a fair and pragmatic practice with socially beneficial improvements. As capitalist accumulation progresses,
all means for the development of production undergo an inversion so that they become means of domination and exploitation of the producers; ...they alienate from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; ...they transform his life-time into working-time. (Marx 1976, p.779)
The Manifest Data project reflects on precisely such a transformation as effected by the ubiquitous data-mining industries and their worldview.
Fuchs, Christian. 2014. Digital Labour and Karl Marx. New York: Routledge.
"Google To Acquire YouTube for $1.65 Billion in Stock." 2006. «http://googlepress.blogspot.com/2006/10/google-to-acquire-youtube-for-165_09.html». Accessed November 24, 2014.
Horsman, Reginald. 1981. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Marx, Karl. 1973. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Harmondsworth, Eng. Baltimore: Penguin Books.
— . 1976. Capital Volume I. Trans. Fowkes, Ben. Pelican Marx Library. Eds. Fernbach, David, Ben Fowkes and Ernest Mandel. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin Books.
— . 1978. Capital Volume II. Trans. Fernbach, David. London: Penguin Books.
May, Robert E. 2002. Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Raymond, Eric Steven. 2002. "Homesteading the Noosphere." «http://www.free-soft.org/literature/papers/esr/homesteading/» Accessed November 24, 2014.
"Ten things we know to be true." «https://www.google.com/intl/en/about/company/philosophy/» Accessed August 31, 2015.
Terranova, Tiziana. 2000. Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy. Social Text 63 18 (2): 33-58.
Willmore, Alison. "Is Netflix Changing the Way TV Series Are Made With Its Use of Data Mining, Or Doing More of the Same Old Thing?" 2012. «http://www.indiewire.com/article/television/how-netflix-is-using-data-mining-to-determine-its-original-series». Accessed August 31, 2015.