The right to your own self Reclaiming the Corporate Owned Self

Control panel
One controls all | Photo (detail): Norbert J. Sülzner © picture alliance/chromorange

By Marc Garrett

In a world where every atom can be addressable with an IP address (IP6), discussion of the possibility of capturing analogue things is increasingly less relevant. What becomes critical is the question of who captures and controls what data owned by whom.
(Carleigh Morgan, ‘Data Asymmetries: An Interview with Burak Arikan’, Furtherfield, 9 December 2016)

The old cliché that knowledge is power holds true today as it has ever done. Elite groups channel our social interactions, cultural identities, and interests all of the time. The narratives and stories of who we really are have become distorted, filtered, and engineered in accordance with the needs of marketing companies, accepted historical canons, everyday mainstream media, the military, numerous corporations, and nation states. Truth, like everything else, is a commodity; it is not a right. Truth and fact are owned by the highest bidder, and if you can afford it, you can misinform a mass of people.
 
Social networking platforms such as Facebook, Google, and others are collecting users’ personal data on an unprecedented scale and then selling it on to advertisers for billions, as “an infrastructure, Facebook is progressively embedding itself in our daily existence, taking over more and more functions formerly provided by other, less restrictive means.” (Jean-Christophe Plantin, Carl Lagoze, Paul N. Edwards, and Christian Sandvig, ‘Infrastructure Studies Meet Platform Studies in the Age of Google and Facebook’, New Media & Society 20.1 (August 2016): 291-310.)
 
Critiquing these technological platforms is a necessary exercise. A new generation of contemporary artists, scientists, researchers, activists, hackers, and journalists are exploring beyond graphical user interfaces (GUI) and finding inventive strategies to unlock these clandestine machinic manoeuvres that vacuum up our data experiences in our everyday lives. One such artist is Jennifer Lyn Morone. By literally turning herself into a corporation she has embraced this extreme form of capitalism. Morone is an individual and a business enterprise. Her intention is to better understand the effects of these free-market systems dominating our lives.
 
Autonomy across the Internet and its networks is disappearing as online activity has been dominated by corporate controlled platforms, “social” zones. The virtual indigenous user of the Internet graze away in these social networking pens, similar to cows in a field, chomping at the bits allocated to us through biased and filtered, algorithms, as they dictate and regulate what we see and hear, and what others see of us. When we use these social media platforms and web browsers, our data is harvested and scraped. This mass extraction of data extends much further into blatant arrogance involving questionable aspects akin to social engineering.
 
Facebook knows your friends, what information you provide about them, what they say about you, what other sites you visit (if they include a Facebook ‘like’ button, which most do), what you bought, what device you used to access Facebook, and much more.
(Mark Hachman, ‘The Price of Free: How Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google Sell You to Advertisers’, PCWorld, 1 October 2015.)
 
According to the British newspaper The Independent, in 2014 Facebook was found to have secretly manipulated hundreds of thousands of users’ news feeds as part of an experiment to work out whether it could affect people’s emotions. And it has been considering secretly watching and recording users through their webcams and smartphone cameras. (Aatif Sulleyman, ‘Facebook Could Secretly Watch Users Through Webcams, Patent Reveals’, The Independent, 8 June 2017) Apple collects mass phone data which they say is collected anonymously and users have no opt out clause. This includes text messages, contact lists, and photos extracted from iPhones. This actually affects not only our privacy but our bank accounts as many ISPs, and charge for data transfers. We are a rich source of data-mining material.
 
The historical roots for this lie in the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and 20th century statistical analysis. These two methods of formulating data have grown ever closer together backed by corporations and government initiated military funding. The English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late Eighteenth Century designed the Panopticon, to allow round-the-clock surveillance of inmates by a singular warden. Bentham’s intention was humanitarian, but penitentiaries are not typically the best advertisement for a utilitarian ethic. In 1975 the French Philosopher Michel Foucault said we are not only monitored in prisons, but in all hierarchical structures like the army, schools, hospitals, and factories. This process has evolved through history resembling Bentham’s Panopticon, harnessing the power to see into people’s behaviours. Now, we have digital networks: our phones are following us via mapping apps and GPS, TVs have been tracking what their owners were watching, and shuttling that data back to the company’s servers, where it would be sold to eager advertisers. The contemporary version of the Panopticon exists through digital networks as the Netopticon. Individuals are complicit in feeding their own forms of collective co-surveillance every day, whilst being tracked by corporations, governments, and spammers.
 
Morone turns the tables by shining the torch back onto the hunters by claiming corporate ownership over her own personal data. Morone breaks down the abstraction and ambiguity of what was hidden before. As the founder of her own corporation, turns her skills, capital, possessions, and intellectual property into the corporation’s assets. This includes Morone’s identity. Her name, appearance, and IP addresses are the brand and trademarked; thus, her mental abilities (knowledge) are processes and strategies; her physical abilities are equipment; her biological functions are products; her data is the (her) corporation’s property; and its shares are her potential.

By interrogating the relationship with proprietary systems and re-examining the conditions and affordances of black boxes and the systems of techno-cultural production, we can disrupt the mechanisms that dominate the conversations around art, technology, life, and economy.
 
Everything she is biologically and intellectually, everything she does, learns or creates has the potential to be turned into profits. Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc. is a graduation project in Design Interactions but as Jennifer underlines, this is not a speculative project.
(Regine Debatty, ‘Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc: The Girl Who Became a Corporation’, We Make Money Not Art, 23 June 2014)
 
Morone is developing an app called Database of ME or DOME. It collects and stores the data she generates: her location, heartbeat, browsing activity, mood, etc. This way, the company can sell, lease, rent, exchange or invest the data for her own profit. Morone has also made Lure and Repel as part of her production line, made from her pheromone molecules that, respectively, attract and repel men. Donna Haraway proposed that the proper state for a Western person is to have ownership of the self, to have and hold one’s core identity as if it were a possession. Meaning, that if we do not own our self(s) we are less likely to have agency in the world. Morone’s work certainly fits this strategy.
 
Wouldn’t it be great if this was the start of something similar to when punks picked up their instruments to forge a new era of social change, where outsiders, amateurs, and the working classes suddenly found a voice and a place for their own artistic freedoms’ of expression, when for a brief period of time DIY culture, music, and politics emerged from its subcultural ghettos influencing mainstream culture and the media. Reclaiming those freedoms curtailed and diverted by the powers that be is a progressive and intelligent action. Morone has bravely entered into an explorative zone, demonstrating a new edge, a new venture space for the avant-garde. like Morone, we all need to deconstruct and unpack this hidden world we are all held hostage to. Perhaps if we actively reclaim our digital selves and take more responsibility of these clandestine transactions, we may have a chance of owning our own digitally oriented, networked futures, on our own terms. If this happens, at least we can say that did not fall to our knees, submissive and ignorant of the meta forces working to exploit and redefine us. At least we had fun disrupting the exploiters with our eyes wide open.
 
This text is from a larger article originally published in PostscriptUM #39, Ljublijana: Aksioma, 2017. And then in, State Machines: Reflections and Actions at the Edge of Digital Citizenship, Finance, and Art, with Yiannis Colakides and Inte Gloerich, 2019.