Notes Information Apocalypse

Equity, Autonomy, and the Asymmetry of Attention

Personal branding - building online equity through ones own internet identity - has become a prime movement in the recent trend towards renegotiating the conventional relations between employer and employee. Increasing numbers of tech savvy young people are aiming for self-employment, eschewing the 9-5 workaday world for increased autonomy and personal freedom. It's hard work, but the rewards are great - getting to be your own boss is compelling enough, and it's just one of many reasons.

There is an interesting contradiction entwined in this trend, which reverberates to the very foundations of the sociology of the web. Seemingly, this increased individual autonomy comes at a cost - that is, the increased homogeneity of the internet infrastructure itself.

The tradeoff is simple: as an individual promoting yourself as a brand, you want to get maximum exposure from minimum expense and effort. In the past, scaling your small, personally managed web presence up to a high traffic, high exposure web property was a nail biting and expensive process, fraught with tension and technical headaches. Now, with the commoditization of the cloud, you can easily and cost effectively outsource the management of this infrastructure, and simply focus on communicating your creative ideas.

The catch is that the success of this individual autonomy is greatly contributing to the consolidation of online assets by an exclusive group of large corporations. As personal equity grows, the content of the web grows more diverse but its control and ownership becomes less so. A glance at the small group of companies who own almost all of the most popular web domains gives a clear view of this bigger picture.

Some would argue this is a positive thing. After all, there are opportunities and optimizations only possible at the giga-scale that massive companies like Google and Microsoft operate at. But not all these opportunities are going to lead to feel-good consumer experiences. Increasingly, you're contributing data from your own attention flow and ambient movements towards ends that you receive no direct benefit or value from. The massive scaling potentials of these large companies are beginning to create a new digital divide, based less on class or socioeconomic inequality, more simply on controlling transmission and receipt of information.

The concept of the "wisdom of the crowd" has given way to a radical asymmetry of broadcast and reception. Members of the crowd are not aware of the immediacy of the information they are generating as a whole. Companies that are gathering this information are uniquely placed to benefit from this value. The more information they collect, the smarter they become, and the harder it is for other organizations to catch up. The divide widens. Arguments about "improving consumer experience" don't really wash with me, as they fail to address the incremental slide down the slippery slope towards totalitarian connectivity. The key point is that this asymmetry of information and power sets up a value imbalance which consumers have no power to modulate or mitigate unless they avoid using quasi-public spaces (like malls) and virtual spaces altogether.

So what can we do about it? There are fascinating ethical and political questions surrounding the collection of unsolicited attention data. It's becoming harder and harder to "switch-off", in any public space or context. The simple act of carrying around a mobile phone is enough to spray out a vast cloud of intimately personal location based information. Our daily habit of typing search terms into a web browser unlocks a unique fingerprint of our thoughts and whims at any given moment. It will take some time for the traditional legal and political systems to assimilate and prepare for this eventuation. In the meantime, it may be up to us, the crowd, to bootstrap our own shared mechanisms for privacy, lest we continue this slide into a disillusioned, marketing mediated parody of Idiocracy or 1984, played out in actual reality. We need to move faster than just reacting - analogous to reclaiming the streets in virtual space. As early technology adopters and creators, we need to anticipate and diffuse such developments where at all possible. We cannot rely on a nanny state or a self-regulating industry to protect our best interests.