We need a rebellious information politics

We have become economic subjects, instead of digital citizens. A new film, “Give Us Back Our Data”, demands that we resist the consequences of our lost technological imagination, recapturing it from Silicon Valley. 

Tim Jordan
7 December 2015

Rebellious geeks are too often thought to be either maladjusted destructive male youths in basements, or the geeks selling revolutions to our lives: the model of Steve Jobs of Apple or Sergey Brin of Google.

But rebel geeks have also, always, been those who rebel against the seemingly unending turning of our lives into information by rich corporations or intrusive governments. In “Give Us Back Our Data”, an episode from the new excellent documentary series “Rebel Geeks”, Evgeny Morozov sums up the problems these geeks attack.

“Silicon Valley has usurped our imagination.”

“Rebel Geeks” examines the meaning of information (say, a photograph) that is automatically farmed away from us, when the use of that information is held by whoever creates the system that attracts the information (say, Facebook).

Whether it is Google tracing your searches and building a picture of your desires from it in order to target advertisements, or a security agency secretly copying and recording everything you do, the dynamic is the same: people online use various services, and in doing so, provide information about themselves that is only seen by those who control the service.

In these digital dynamics, people are encouraged to think of their data as a property that is 'theirs' that constitutes them as an individual. Whether it is fitness data through Fitbit or a history of searches about Disneyland holidays, the information offered is thought to be the exclusive property of whoever creates the information and to be integral to them as an individual.

But the aggregation of our information in these ways creates divisions in society. Who will get insurance if your fitness data becomes a requirement of access to insurance? Who can afford to use the various data trackers and so be able to participate in the services being offered by them? Who can remain private and secure in their freedom if governments automatically collect all our data?

“Give Us Back Our Data” demands that we address the politics of information, and attempt to change the information world to create possibilities for a better world – a technological imagination that is not dominated by Silicon Valley, not a world where we have become 'owners' of ourselves as information rather than being digital citizens and human subjects.

It is important to think about democracy and social life in a world that seems to constantly find new ways to embed digital technologies into our most emotional, intimate and social moments. Not only should we be asking, 'what is being done to us by information hungry institutions', but also, 'what can we do better for ourselves in this new information world?'

Morozov notes that a company like Uber draws information and keeps it to itself. He makes the simple point that if all those who travel each day taking a similar route could see all the other people taking that route, then that information might enable a world of mutual help. But these travellers cannot see the mutuality, they cannot see the way they could join together because they do not have that information. If that information is dominated by a profit-seeking corporation, then the travellers will both never see their mutuality but may also be treated as profit-centres through the use of that information. They have become economic subjects instead of digital citizens.

Hector Postigo's important research argues that digital citizens are only citizens, and not subjected, if they can alter the digital environments they are part of. There is a necessity for ways of opening up and understanding how these collectively created digital environments need to be responsible to those whose actions create them, and not just those who own the technologies that enable one version of them. Who can avoid using a search engine these days? And who can avoid using Google as their search engine?

The consequences of the easy answers to these questions – very few people – should be one starting point of an information politics that contributes to a democracy populated, in part, by digital citizens.

At the heart of such a politics has to be an understanding of the nature of information and its potential to be fully and completely usable to everyone at the same time. The information about who travels and when that might underpin mutuality or profit-seeking could be available to Uber and all travellers at the same time. My age is information I can have, that you can have (56 if you must know), that my friends and family can have, that Google, various governments,  and many more institutions can all have at the same time in full.

This is often obscured because information to economists is usually defined as a 'non-rival good'. For economists, information lacks something in its inability to be exclusively available to one person. To make information exclusive, it has to be made into something material, so that if we have a book, only one person can read it at a time, or if a film is given digital rights management, it can only be viewed once at a time and not copied to many at a time.

Information has to be restricted from its ability to be fully and completely usable for it to become something that is the exclusive property – ‘This is mine! You cannot have it!’ – of someone, because potentially we can all have the same information at the same time in full.

But others can see an alternative to conceiving information as 'lacking' rivalry, and they show us that a democratic society could be founded on the explosion of information that all could have access to. Information could and should be celebrated for its ability to be simultaneously and completely available to us all.

Some rebellious geeks are pioneering this way of re-conceiving society in the digital age partly around an information politics that sees information's full value emerging when it is distributed. Most famously, this is pioneered in free software, but the principles of freedom here, free culture, need to be fully embedded in ways of us living together in information-saturated times. We need a rebellious information politics.

Geeks are resisting the consequences of our lost technological imagination. They open up one way of recapturing our imagination from subjection to profit and Silicon Valley, to create information imaginations of citizenry, collectivity and democracy.

“Give Us Back Our Data” airs on Al Jazeera English from 7 December at 22:30 GMT. For more information about “Rebel Geeks”, read more here.

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