One Token, Two Sides: Data Dysphoria & Fantasies of Control

Image by Robert Herian

New data horizons

Cyberspace, as a shared dimension but unequal community, is in a moment of unease and alienation over the ways and means of data creation, dissemination and preservation, including methods of storage on- and offline. Communication and circulation of commercial and personal data increasingly occurs amid threats of intermeddling and exposure to varieties of fraud and exploitation. This unease is symptomatic of scandals involving the ‘psychological profiling’ of personal data in the course of supposed civic and democratic processes, and the growing uncanniness of digital social spaces. The company Cambridge Analytica, whose ‘data harvesting’ practices and psychographic analyses of user content from sources such as Facebook led to accusations of dubious interventions in and effects on the US Presidential elections and UK European Union Referendum1Olivia Solon and Oliver Laughland, “Cambridge Analytica closing after Facebook data harvesting scandal”, The Guardian, 2 May 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/may/02/cambridge-analytica-closing-down-after-facebook-row-reports-say (accessed 4 June 2018). Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s subsequent tour of apology, confession and defiance in front of US government and European Commission representatives in early 2018 amid accusations that the company ‘weaponised’ personal data only served to add intrigue and consternation to the prevailing climate of unease2Carole Cadwalladr and Emma Graham-Harrison, “Zuckerberg set up fraudulent scheme to ‘weaponise’ data, court case alleges”, The Guardian, 24 May 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/may/24/mark-zuckerberg-set-up-fraudulent-scheme-weaponise-data-facebook-court-case-alleges (accessed 4 June 2018).

The fall-out from these high-profile and rather salacious examples is a type of user/subject unease that I refer to as data dysphoria, which involves but is not limited to specific examples of the dubious commercial data practices that pervade cyberspace. In conjunction with this unease ideas and mechanisms to ‘take (back) control’ of one’s personal data have emerged that provoke the desire for meaningful practices of data self-care in the subject, but which, I argue, instead entangle the subject in a burgeoning mesh of fantasy in which control and data sovereignty are always possible but never attainable. The extent to which data subjects are actually capable of or willing to assume control of personal data in a fully informed way is entirely unclear if not entirely unrealistic. Yet it fits ideologies of technological solutionism perfectly, enforcing the belief that new data horizons must be seized first and questioned later — a coda of the classic Silicon Valley mantra: “move fast and break things”.

Use of a banking app on a smart phone to manage one’s finances is convenient, for example, but it does not require the user to negotiate the intricacies of global finance. On the contrary, the convenience of banking apps masks the extent to which personal finance (the credit held in a current or savings account) is embedded in a vast complex of different financial products and networks over which the user has little insight and no meaningful control. Banking apps, therefore, represent a de minimis form of user control, not a radical mode of individual financial liberation. This model is articulated by a wide range of contemporary data management platforms, mechanisms and applications, all of which are directly or indirectly hungry for data3See, for example: Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism. 2017. Cambridge: Polity.

Data dysphoria and its corresponding structure in fantasy describe part of the conscious and unconscious negotiations subjects make with networks, systems and the increasing levels of computational autonomy and authority that are in every sense alien and radically unknowable to the vast majority of users caught by and within them4As James Bridle maintains: ‘If we do not understand how complex technologies function how systems of technologies interconnect, and how systems of systems interact, then we are powerless within them, and their potential is more easily captured by selfish elites and inhuman corporations’ (James Bridle, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future. 2018. London: Verso, pp.2-3). Importantly, as symptomologies, data dysphoria and fantasies of control describe affects not online but in the ‘real world’. Cyberspace (including databases, networks, systems, or interfaces) in this case does not “solve” the “problems” qua messiness inherent in human endeavour (as long, that is, as the primary role of cyberspace is to serve humanity), but represents ever expanding frontiers into which human psychology inevitably moves, may flourish but, equally, falters.

Data dysphoria has particular resonance in the relationship between, what the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) calls, data subjects, controllers and handlers5https://www.eugdpr.org/the-regulation.html (accessed 6 June 2018) . In particular how these categorisations and the regulations more broadly sit within a discourse of data sovereignty (‘taking control’), which at first blush implies empowerment of the data subject but, I argue, satisfies ideals of consumer protectionism above all else. That is, supporting the sovereignty of data subjects insofar as they remain efficient, engaged economic subjects within the ambit of neoliberal capitalism; subjects who without demur bear a financial cost for taking part in history, by investing all their energy into creating new “free” markets and ensuring all social life is calibrated to the logic of those markets6Adam Greenfield makes a similar point but specifically targeted at the role Ethereum, the organization behind the other major public blockchain alongside the Bitcoin blockchain, is having on shaping individual adaption to and adoption of blockchain applications such as smart contracts and tokens (i.e. Ether) allowing for participation in decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs). See: Adam Greenfield, Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life. 2018. London: Verso.

The irony being that the self-care insisted upon by data subjects who are “sovereign” assumes nothing more than a form of control contingent upon the constraints placed on the subject by neoliberal capitalism, and therefore is not a form of control the data subject is free to exercise or enjoy at all7See: Robert Herian. Regulating Blockchain: Critical Perspectives in Law and Technology. 2018. London: Routledge. To paraphrase Jodi Dean, taking control in this instance does not delineate data subjects from a rest of us ‘whose work, lives, and futures are expropriated, monetized, and speculated on for the financial enjoyment of the few’, instead it serves to highlight the actual complicity of those data subjects in sustaining neoliberal capitalism and ‘the extent of the class power of an elite that has gotten us to think in terms of competition, efficiency, stock markets, bonuses, and financial success’8Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon. 2012. London: Verso, pp.69-73. ‘Taking control’ is thus an illusion or, more precisely as this essay argues, a fantasy articulated through the notion of data sovereignty and constructed by neoliberal capitalism, one, however, ultimately reaffirmed and maintained by the data subjects caught within it.

Fantasies of control

Like GDPR, the broader, mainstream emergence of blockchain technology in the present moment of data dysphoria is no accident: it is part reaction to it, and part exploitation of it.

The technology satisfies, at least in theory, ‘problem’/’solution’ matrices with deep roots in a wide variety of global economic, political, social, legal and cultural contexts — too many to cover or mention during the course of this essay. ‘Solutions’ dreamt up by a variety of stakeholders including entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and technologists who consider blockchain-led socioeconomic and political characteristics of transparency, disintermediation, post-trust, and so on to be the keys to healthier cyber-socialites and ontologies.

There are no shortage of businesses promoting the benefits of blockchain-led digital economies through idealizations of secure, peer-to-peer, data-as-property (e.g. tokenization) paradigms that promise to empower users by allowing them to unlock ‘value’ from their personal data in the form of ‘micropayments’ — a model of granular payments that individuals, as well as corporations, can derive from all forms of data exploitation large and small. Far from novel enterprises, a number of these business models necessitate conventions in offline and off-chain markets and consumerism models that require high levels of interoperability between different interfaces, whilst also sustaining forms of centralization and mediation that correspond closely to the logic of existing patterns of commercial development that blockchain, it was claimed (lest we forget), was going to destroy.

Peer-to-peer digital economies do not eschew but rely upon transactions of personal data within traditional (capitalist) business models. Data subjects auto-exploit by relying on data sovereignty mechanisms, models, skills and techniques given to them as indisputable tools of engagement and self-management, a clear contradiction if we take as our definition of sovereignty ‘the receiving of a general recognition of exclusive domain and consequent possession of the capacity to establish rules of conduct within a particular field of action’9Sarah Manski and Ben Manski, “No Gods, No Masters, No Coders? The Future of Sovereignty in a Blockchain World”. Law & Critique. 2018. (forthcoming). On this point we see the root of the fantasy of control begin to show itself, because the façade of subject/object choice as a condition of contemporary economic engagement is revealed to be the mere belief in the organizational networks enveloping the ‘free’ economic subject as data subject. In other words, it is an illusion that a data subject has ‘capacity to establish rules of conduct within a particular field’ because ‘a general recognition of exclusive domain’ has never existed but is instead always already capitalism’s domain and the data subject a material site for its ideological (re)production10Louis Althusser, On Ideology. 2008. London: Verso, pp.46-47.

‘Self-sovereign identity technology can put the control [of personal data] in the hands of individuals’ Andrea Tinianow has claimed11Andrea Tinianow, “GDPR Isn’t the Answer, But Blockchain Is”, Forbes. 4 June 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/andreatinianow/2018/06/04/gdpr-isnt-the-answer-but-blockchain-is/#75e88f8848bd (accessed 5 June 2018). For control to manifest in the manner Tinianow envisages would involve wholesale transformations of the present model of socioeconomic organization and hegemony, however, that is, the transformation of capitalism into a new state of economic organization predicated on more not less self-interest. Given the fundamental tenets of capitalist ‘free’ enterprise include supply and demand and ‘winner takes all’ market engagements grounded in the necessity of self-interested, competitive economic subjects, it is hard to see how more self-interest is going to fundamentally ‘disrupt’ the prevailing economic model, or, indeed, encourage it towards some specious notion of post-capitalism. But then it is not meant or designed to. Instead it is a fantasy of economic perfectibility by a data subject at work in the model of data or identity self-sovereignty; or, put more simply, capitalism reinventing itself for the sake of preservation.

Capitalism is not seen as a problem to be solved, but rather the architecture supporting blockchain concepts and implementation. Notions of data or identity self-sovereignty derive from capitalist and, capitalism’s ‘mutant form’12Byung-Chul Han, Psycho-Politics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power. Translated by Erik Butler. 2017. London: Verso, p.5, neoliberal structures in fantasy that insist on the perfection and wholeness-of-being attainable through economic practice and self-care. Data practice and data self-care emerge as species of broader capitalist practice: a practice of the practice that maintains capitalism’s prominence whilst resisting countervailing and critical notions of data sovereignty from within non-market and non-competitive communities on- and offline.

What is perhaps most astonishing about the blockchain moment, one which is definitively neoliberal capitalist, has been the ability of stakeholders to convince the world of the desirability of digital ledgers as immaterial objects of ritual and devotion. We are witnessing the rise of a ledger society in which rituals of verification will become more central to the everyday normative functions of society than Michael Power first certainly envisaged two decades ago13Michael Power, The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification. 1997. Oxford: Oxford University Press . Within this paradigm the ledger assumes a vast and growing status as ritual object and multivocal symbol, its referents ‘not all of the same logical order’ but ‘drawn from many domains of social experience and ethical evaluation’ for the purposes of allowing data subjects to perform economically14Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. 1969. New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction, p.52.

Based on its potential for expansion the digital ledger is arguably an example of greater transformation of the mundane into the spectacular than even mobile phones achieved with the inauguration of smart phones15Of course, there are now “blockchain-enabled” smart phones as a marriage of the two phenomena. See: https://hackernoon.com/a-closer-look-at-three-blockchain-smartphones-28b746976d22 (accessed 8 April 2019). This explains, at least in part, the fetishism and feverish churn of blockchain concepts and use-cases and why venture capital is investing increasingly large amounts of money to service the eroticsnot the physical mating urge’, but rather ‘the desire for recognition by others and for wholeness’16Jeanne Lorraine Schroeder, The Triumph of Venus: The Erotics of the Market. 2004. Berkeley: University of California Press, p.86 – of emergent blockchain markets. For example, blockchain-based companies with little more than a concept to their name have been raising eye-watering amounts of capital – estimates as of summer 2017 put the figure of blockchain investment at $4.5 billion and this will certainly be exceeded in 2018/1917Jonathan Ponicano, “Blockchain Tops $4.5 Billion in Private Funding This Year, But Deal Growth Stalls”. Forbes, 22 September 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jonathanponciano/2017/09/22/blockchain-tops-4-5-billion-in-private-funding-this-year-but-deal-growth-stalls/#1bb344ef74c6 (accessed 27 February 2018).

Entrepreneurs turn to blockchain for a ‘solution’ with no real need to understand whether it is the best or most effective option for the proposed ‘problem’, or, indeed, whether there is real ‘problem’ that blockchain is required to solve in the first place. The excitement surrounding the ‘disruptive’ potential of blockchain begins not with technology therefore but with fantasies and objects of desire coveted by entrepreneurs, which is not the same as entrepreneurs ‘dreaming big’ with the technology — a staple narrative within the confines of the entrepreneurial class. The result is a jumble of misunderstandings as to the precise nature and value of blockchain as a technology, and reductionist narratives of blockchain as a global economic panacea rushing to fill gaps evacuated of critical reason and reinstitute what Herbert Marcuse long ago called the ‘comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom’ that ‘prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress’18Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimension Man: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society. 2002. London: Routledge, p.3.

The first decades of the new millennium have been dominated by the rise of digital socialization built around an Internet of information and experience sharing, and of an expansion in the population of digital subjectivities willing to expose themselves online and coming to know what it means to engage and participate — albeit falsely, as we are increasingly learning today with scandals over mass data use by companies like Facebook promoting participation of subjects as monetizable data sets. Might blockchain, as the economic layer the web has never had signal a retreat from the idea of cyberspace as a phenomenology of socialization to something plainer, responsible, ‘boring’, where economic savviness and efficiency are established, once and for all, as social and moral norms19Lana Swartz, “Blockchain Dreams: Imagining techno-economic alternatives after Bitcoin”. Another Economy is Possible. Edited by Manuel Castells. 2017. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp.82-105?

The implications of blockchain fermenting a streamlined and deeper economization of cyberspace, and transforming it into an ever more perfect market, is not something to be welcomed, but lamented I argue. Through such propositions we find an impoverished humanity existing through technology beset by and implicated in the ideals and practices of financial economy first and last. ‘Networked communication and information technologies are exquisite media for capturing and reformatting political energies’, argues Jodi Dean, they ‘turn efforts at political engagement into contributions to the circulation of content, reinforcing the hold of neoliberalism’s technological infrastructure’20Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics. 2009. Durham: Duke University Press, p.32. Where blockchain figures in Dean’s analysis is still evolving as the technology moves from the brute economics of cryptocurrencies to more obvious political domains such as the provision of public services and democratic accountability vis-à-vis voting and government transparency initiatives.

At heart, however, blockchain projects that usurp the protectionism of GDPR in favour of prosumer initiatives enable a vision of humanity caught in endless engagement with practices of transacting and exchanging that do not reflect efficiency or create time able to be spent on meaningful non-economic and non-financialized pursuits, but because transaction and exchange are, under the aegis of capitalism and neoliberalism, ends in themselves to be enjoyed ritually. Contemporary ledger technologies and the peer-to-peer networks they support not only enable contributions to the circulation of content, as Dean expresses it, but more accurately economize contributions in accordance with ever more concise neoliberal values. The data subject within peer-to-peer networks must thus search for and anticipate each new transaction and exchange as a fantasy of data sovereignty: an erotic encounter with the other of and within the network worthy of sharing the performative demands and conduct of data self-care within neoliberal selfhood.

Robert Herian is Senior Lecturer at the Open University

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