Neoliberalism promised freedom – instead it delivers stifling control

I agree with most of George Monbiot’s analysis of neoliberalism in The Guardian. He’s right to say that “the freedom we were promised turns out to be freedom for capital, gained at the expense of human liberty”.

Where I differ is in my understanding of the “extremes of surveillance” adopted by the neoliberal project.

For me it’s more than the Amazon wristband designed to monitor employee movements. It goes much deeper. For me there are a series of psychological and social technologies, institutions that have internalised that surveillance in us. We don’t even realise we have been socialised into behaving a certain way, manipulated into thinking certain things, made to understand things that are entirely manufactured as “natural” phenomena.

My previous employer wanted me to install an app on my phone. It was presented as entirely natural, offered under the guise of efficiency, so I could punch in and out of shifts. It used company wifi, and needed access to the GPRS on my phone. I refused, I didn’t trust the company not to misuse the information gathered, or the access granted. I wasn’t forced to install the app, but I was made to feel like my concerns were somehow the territory of the paranoid conspiracy nut.

My phone, like everyone I know, contains all kinds of personal information. It’s part of my “transactive memory”, and no employer should have that kind of access to any employee. That app represents a level of intrusion that most other employees in the company accepted as entirely natural.

While the app represents an example of an external intrusion I resisted. It doesn’t address the issue at the core of the intrusion. The internal, unavoidable, surreptitious intrusion. The behaviours that are integral to, and encouraged by, our digital devices.

I was recently asked to write about “why digital matters?”

I started by asking three questions. Question one. What’s the difference between a physical book and a book on your kindle? Is it the convenience of having a thousand stories there in your hand? Number two. How is a photograph different from the images you take with your digital camera? Could it be the immediacy of seeing the image you just snapped? Finally. Why is the music played from a disc different from the music you stream from Apple? Is it the idiosyncrasy of the playlists you compile?

Digital has certainly made things easier, faster, and more personal. But is that enough to explain the profound shift in behaviour digital has brought? I would argue not. In mathematics there is something called a factorial. A factorial is the product of an integer, multiplied by all the integers below it. For example factorial five is 120: 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 120.

I think digital can be explained in the same way. Factorial digital is intimacy. Digital multiplied by convenience, multiplied by immediacy, multiplied by idiosyncrasy, equals intimacy.

Intimacy conjures up feelings of affinity and warmth, rapport and affection. It invokes feelings of love. Why? Because our devices allow us to connect intimately with our passions.

Increased levels of sharing, unprecedented levels of access, is inherent in the devices that have been brought to market throughout the neoliberal project. From the VCR to the iPhone we have been sold devices that make things easier, faster, and more personal. They have fundamentally changed the way we behave, the way our brains are wired.

Hard won rights of the past have been given away without even a thought. We have willingly consumed the morality of a machine that, I want to say controls us, but control is the wrong word, the word I think is governs?

We have willingly consumed the morality of a machine that governs our behaviour.

We unquestioningly give away gigabytes of information about ourselves for free access to a platform. Why? That feeling of intimacy we get from the feedback loop of share and like.

My social media is like my own personal advertising campaign. In return for me “getting out there”, and being able to reach the world, my social media platforms fill my timelines with adverts it judges are of interest to me.

What are the algorithms that push these adverts doing to me? Are they feeding a view I have of myself? Am I constructing who I am based on what they push? Are they sculpting me to service their needs?

The devices we’ve let into our lives have allowed us to reach beyond the very narrow circle of people we physically know. They persuade us that there are myriad possibilities, while simultaneously honing our view of the world.

What was once intrusion is now sharing.

All of that amounts to a paradigm shift in human existence. We all want to be liked. We all crave approval. Is that desire being used to shape us? Probably yes. Is that desire making us accept things that are against our own interest? Again, probably yes.

Will I stop using them? Defiantly not.

We can only live in the world we have. We can be passive and allow it to happen to us, or we can be active and aware. We can wake up to the ways the “extremes of surveillance” are governing our behaviour.

I don’t think we can fight it.

That’s like fighting Tyler Durden. You just end up punching yourself in the face. We can only point a finger, make a claim, call out what we see.


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