To The Cloud: An interview with Vincent Mosco

“Informational capitalism is a system that uses IT to commodify the world.”

Vincent Mosco (Ph.D, Harvard) is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Queen’s University and Distinguished Professor of Communication, New Media Centre, Fudan University, Shanghai. 

Vincent Mosco speaking at Octopus Books in Ottawa, September 2014

Vincent is the author of many books, including To The Cloud: Big Data In A Turbulent World, and The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power & Cyberspace, and The Political Economy of Communication, among other titles. His most recent book is Becoming Digital: Toward a Post-Internet Society. 

This is a long piece. It goes into some depth into the issues surrounding the move to “the cloud” and the implications for workers, the environment, privacy and surveillance – and culture, knowledge and power in the digital age.

I spoke with him in Ottawa on Thursday, September 11, 2014, the 41st anniversary of the CIA-led coup in Chile.


Why did you write To The Cloud?

Well, I decided to write the book because cloud computing and big data are significant forces in the world. Specifically, they’re essential components for an expanding digital capitalism, and they’re central to the development of the surveillance state. And it’s the marriage of digital capitalism and the surveillance state that is probably most threatening to democracy in the world today. Most of what’s been written on the subject, in fact probably all, is technical or promotional or both and so I wrote To The Cloud to establish a more critical analysis of the cloud and big data, something I think was absolutely essential.

Steve Jobs described the development of the cloud as a means to “demote” the computer from the centre of our digital life. But, very clearly, the cloud for Apple was always a way to “lock in” the customer. “We are building a server farm in North Carolina,” Jobs says in Walter Isaacson’s biography. “We can provide all the syncing you need, and that way we can lock in the customer.” So, there’s so much to say about all this, but let me ask you right off the hop: Is the cloud or is it not really becoming the principal mechanism to lock all of us into consumer corporate capitalism – for our sources of communication, entertainment, education, work play, culture, digital libraries of our photos, videos, etc. But more than that – to lock us into a branded digital experience…forever?

I think it’s all of those things. It’s important to start with a basic understanding of the cloud. What the cloud essentially does is deliver on-demand to individuals and corporations the data, apps, programs and services that are stored at a distance to the user, typically in large data centres that might have as many 100,000 servers. So in essence we give up our data, our emails, our audio-visual files, our programs, our apps, our software to a cloud company that stores and processes them. It’s important to understand that cloud companies don’t just store our data and programs but they process them and deliver them back to us on demand as services – something as simple as word processing or as complex as an analysis of a company’s sales force. So, in essence it involves giving up control.

In return, the sales pitch is that we no longer need to store our own data on our computers, which entails a cost and a level of complexity that can be difficult for people. It also expands the services that can be delivered to us because a large cloud company can give us more than we can offer ourselves. But the price we pay, in addition to the constant on-demand fee for storage, processing and delivery, is we give up control over the store of our information. And since much of what we store, most of our online life, involves the construction of our identity, what we think about, what we write, what we purchase, what we believe – most all of these things are now expressed online, and when they are centralized in the data centres of a cloud company, we are essentially giving up control of our identities. This is a significant price to pay. So, yes, I think the cloud does lock us into a certain kind of economy.

I was hoping you’d say no. Jobs was allegedly inspired by Zen Buddhism. Working conditions at information and communications technology corporations like Foxconn seem anything but Zen. Is this the lie at the apple core of the digital sublime?

It’s a good way to put it. There is a comic that’s made the rounds that has Steve Jobs meeting his maker, only in his case it’s the path of Zen Buddhism, which, in his view, was founded on the notion that there was reincarnation, and as it turns out Jobs was reincarnated as a line worker in a Shenzen factory making components for Apple computers. That would be justice perhaps. There is nothing Zen-like about the global supply chain that gives us the basic components of computers and the system of cloud computing and big data that increasingly shape our world.

One of the difficulties of the cloud image, and what makes it one of the most powerful tropes for the digital age, is that the cloud suggests immateriality, a certain purity…most all of our images of clouds are pleasant, positive…but the cloud that forms cloud computing systems is anything but immaterial. We are building factories, throughout the world, enormous ones, energy consuming factories that are linked through telecommunications systems that are linked in very material processes that have a whole raft of consequences that are far from the image of the ethereal cloud. Nevertheless, our sense is that by connoting these systems in the imagery of the cloud, we are suggesting something far more positive than the reality demonstrates.

You note in your book that giant technology corporations are more and more resembling marketing companies themselves. You write, for example, that “the merger of Omnicom and Publicis to form the largest advertising business in the world is grounded in the need to take on the new competition from integrated cloud-based information technology companies” [p. 56]. The Gartner Group, which you describe as a major cloud booster, has predicted that by 2017, Chief Marketing Officers will spend more on technology that their IT counterparts. Of course digital has given rise to content marketing, the most advanced and pervasive advertising powers we have ever seen in this history of humanity. What kind of world do we live in?

Well, you know, it’s interesting. I don’t know that we can say with any great certainty what kind of world we’re moving toward, because I think it’s important to think about the cloud dialectically and what means is that simply, is that the cloud yes is building a world of production and consumption that is largely under the control of a handful of companies with the guidance of a state which by and large is hellbent on surveillance. And that force has enormous power and threatens democratic institutions. At the same time, what we might call these chains of accumulation, of capital accumulation worldwide, are being met with chains of resistance whether it comes from labour, or consumers or the supporters of democracy. So it’s workers going on strike at Foxconn; a union in Germany striking against Amazon for the first time; freelance digital writers mobilizing in the freelancers’ union in New York with its 200,000 members; established trade unions converging across journalism, broadcasting and telecommunications and IT to form a large enough force to defend workers against some of these large corporations.

So, I think it’s important to recognize that even as the forces of capital grow, so too do the forces of resistance. And much of the interplay of accumulation and resistance takes place now in an online world and much of it also takes place in the cloud. You can see this right now in the United States as its chief policy regulator, the Federal Communications Commission [FCC] is now debating whether to lift restrictions on providers of online communication which require them to give everyone equal access to the same speed to the cloud to the online world. The FCC wants to end that, allowing some people to buy “high speed” lanes on the information highway and what’s interesting is that the FCC has received the most resistance, in the form of comments on its proposal to rescind to what’s called “network neutrality” than it has for any other FCC rule-making. Something on the order of a million and a half people have formally commented to the FCC to get them to stop rescinding network neutrality rules. Now that’s an important step, an example of resistance. It takes place within the scope of existing policy, it’s not revolutionary, but it’s evidence that more than the official policy community cares about free, open democratic access to the online world. And I think that’s significant. And we’re seeing evidence of this, whether it’s workplace resistance or resistance of users worldwide. And I think it’s important for us to understand that in the face of the growing power of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter.

How can we create an international, public cloud utility when we, in Canada for example, can’t even create new national programs like a national child care program, due in part to constrictive trade deals which limit the public sector?

Well I understand that it’s difficult, and it’s a real challenge. It’s probably the most important challenge, at least in the broadly defined information society that we are creating. It will be difficult, but we need to understand there are examples throughout history, including the history of computers, that suggest real possibilities to instill a democratic momentum to the information age. So for example we have a history of creating public utilities in water, in electricity. Once it was demonstrated that delivering these essential resources through private means would be destructive and ruinous for entire populations of people the state stepped in and seized control over the delivery of essential resources. We’ve built public education systems, public postal systems, public broadcasting, public telecommunications systems in the West and throughout the world. So, there are precedents for this.

And within the computer world, there are interesting examples. It’s interesting that we are doing this interview on September 11 because on September 11 in 1973, Salvador Allende was overthrown and tens of thousands of people were killed in a coup supported by the American government. I mention that because Allende was responsible for designing and planning a publicly controlled computer system that would be used for democratic worker- and citizen-controlled decision making throughout the country under what was called Project Cybersyn. There are many other examples. In fact, back in the 1960s there was a debate in North American led by a Canadian Douglas Parkhill about the need to organize information in the form of public utilities. How can we provide this essential service to all citizens? How can people be involved in the planning of information resources?

See, my sense is that the cloud will fail as a technology shaped solely by the private marketplace, that it will generate enough resistance on a number of grounds – its environmental consequences will be so severe that unless we step in and regulate the cloud it will have disastrous consequences; the privacy and surveillance implications, we’re already seeing those; and there are rebellions against both corporate and government surveillance.

The impact on labour is going to be extraordinary. You mentioned Gartner earlier. The people at Gartner have been at the forefront of suggesting that the cloud will eliminate whole swaths of knowledge workers, from IT workers to workers throughout public and private organizations whose jobs can be automated and outsourced to the cloud. We have great faith today in Big Data’s ability to provide us with a new truth – but in fact, the uses of Big Data have been marked by their failures. I document some of these in the book, including Google’s failure to predict flu outbreaks based on an analysis of searches on keywords. So my sense is that, as with on other technologies, and one of the things we’ve learned about other technologies, is that when they are controlled solely by the market they ultimately fail – and it’s often the developers of the technologies themselves, the businesses that run them, that come begging for regulation. There are many cases, including the case of broadcasting in the United States where it was the radio networks that sought regulation because they couldn’t manage a complex technology in the face of the anarchy of a system that was unregulated. So I think there is a potential growing out of the resistance and the need to standardize, manage and control the cloud that might open opportunities for the creation of public utilities. I recognize it’s a tall order, and in the early days of a privately controlled cloud system it’s hard to imagine that but we’d better do that because, absent a vision of a public information system, we’re in for a real rocky road in the cloud and in big data.

Robert McChesney, author of Digital Disconnect, considers the Internet to be the most powerful driver of monopoly capitalism we have ever seen. What do you think of that idea?

Well, I agree. Bob and I have been friends for a long time and have shared ideas and have worked together as critical communications scholars. It seems to me that cloud systems, that the usual suspects – Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Microsoft, IBM – are building today are essential means of control, providing companies with opportunities to manage global supply chains, to manage and control the global division of labour, to manage the workplace and through opportunities to rationalize business operations for profit and to intensify surveillance of both workers and customers.

So, in some respects, it’s a key force for the growth of monopoly capital. But where it falls down as a system is in the very process of extending corporate control, state control and surveillance, it generates resistance from workers who lose their jobs, from people who live with the consequence of the environmental devastation brought about by the expansion of power needs of big data centres, and by people who find their identities are adrift in an online world as a result of giving up their identities to big cloud companies – all of these create opposition and resistance and calls for forms of regulation and control. So yes, it’s important to look at the ways in which the cloud vision of the online world extends monopoly capitalism. At the same time we need to examine the forms of resistance that will I believe ultimately lead to the reconstitution of the cloud system, and the likelihood that it will be organized in a more democratic way.

What does a global cartel on information even look like? How do we alert people to such an idea when it’s never been easier to “access” information?

You’ve asked a couple things. One of them has to do with, is there a global cartel on information providers and that’s clearly the case. It’s recognized by governmental organizations like the European Union which has been engaged in a battle with some members of the cartel, including Google and Microsoft, that have sought to extend the cartel across Europe. We see the battle taking place in China as the Chinese government tries to set the terms in which the big companies can operate in China. There clearly is a cartel.

In the cloud, it’s a division of Amazon that pretty well dominates at this point, a division called Amazon Web Services that, interestingly, is identified as the key to Obama’s last presidential election victory, but it also includes Google, and Microsoft, IBM, Apple, Facebook, a handful of mainly US companies – though there some challenging companies growing in China, AliBaba in particularly and Baidu. But these companies are extending their control over markets. So individuals are given opportunities within constraints, to access information. So we can do searches under Google. Does Google provide us with the full range of information available on what we want to research? No. We can obtain information within the constraints of its algorithm which is governed, as you would expect, by the profit needs of Google. Facebook allows anyone to post but constrains what you see based on the needs of the company, so it sets its timeline, its newsfeed, based on what will likely yield the largest group of people for its advertisers.

So, while we have the appearance to full and complete access, the reality is that access is constrained. It’s constrained by what we have to pay when we purchase the devices or buy space in the cloud, and it’s constrained by the rules – set by private companies – and this is quite significant. Ironically, when we examine the cloud computing industry, people talk about the public cloud and the private cloud and the hybrid cloud which combines the two, but the term “public cloud” means only that any individual or organization can store and have their data processed, provided they pay the fee, to a cloud company.

“Public” here means simply the right to consume, to pay for a service. It has nothing to do with the traditional meaning of public, which refers to openness, transparency, participation, access and public control. In this respect there is no public cloud, it’s all private. When cloud executives refer to a private cloud, that is a specific kind of cloud that is by and large comprised of a set of gated communities where you can buy private space in a data centre by paying more money and guarantee yourself more privacy. So a company won’t mix your data with those of other cloud subscribers – you get the special space in the cloud. So though it’s called a public cloud, there is no role for the public within it.

As a result, while we as consumers can have access within the financial and business constraints of the companies that operate it, we have no ability to develop regulations or, in any broadly democratic way, establish the rules for the use of the cloud. There isn’t even the elements of democracy that were there in the public postal service or public broadcasting or public telecommunication. The public has been eviscerated from the cloud as we know it. And it seems to me, in order to build a cloud system that is democratic and represents the broad interests of people, we have to shift the fundamental way in which the cloud is governed – that is, shift from a system of digital capitalism to a system [with] some variations of public information utilities.

Now, I should add that the internet itself was established on public principles. It was a coming together of a community of people who did not have a financial stake in the Internet, but developed it so people could share information. This is the Internet of the 1990s. But beginning around the turn of this century, we’ve seen what I call an information counter-revolution as businesses like Google, Microsoft et al, and governments especially, represented in the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency and the agencies they are linked to worldwide, sought to overturn the democratic impetus that established the Internet, to seize control over it for business and for the surveillance state. In fact, today we are in the midst of the battle between the original information revolutionaries who saw a democratic Internet and the counter-revolutionaries who were trying to turn it into something that is by and large in existence to serve capital and serve the state.

That’s not what the marketing says when it comes to the power of the Internet, and their own mythologizing of what they’re about.

Absolutely, and mythologizing is central. It’s central to all technologies. I’ve studied the mythology of communication information technology over history and something I described in some detail in an earlier book, The Digital Sublime. It’s not unusual to mythologize technology and certainly myths have emerged with the cloud. They’re significant in part because all technologies have to be sold to be accepted by a wide population of consumers and citizens and it can be difficult to do this because people recognize there are costs involved in bringing on new technologies.

So there’s this enormous promotional effort to sell the cloud, and you see it in advertising – I took the title of my book from a Microsoft commercial, To The Cloud [here’s the Australian version and the German version for comparison]. It was a particularly perverse ad in which a mom is trying to take a photograph of her family. There’s dad, two kids and a dog, all of whom are misbehaving and mom is frustrated with the inability to take the perfect family photograph and so she announces the need to move to the cloud. And what does she find in the cloud? She finds the idealized faces of each member of her family and so after taking the photograph of what in her mind is the misbehaving, disheveled family, she’s able in essence to photoshop their faces and in the conclusion of the commercial she says “Thank Goodness, Windows gave me the family that nature never could.” It’s obviously perverse and one reason the ad didn’t run terribly long, and has been pulled from time to time from YouTube, but there is this sense that you can move to the cloud and find perfection. And we see it in all of the advertising.

But beyond that, cloud companies have used social media, blogs, they use private corporate reports to promote the cloud, to create this kind of sense that everyone is moving to the cloud, why not you? They gain legitimacy from formal government reports that support the corporate agenda and they sponsor conferences and business shows that are by and large promotional in nature. In the course of writing my book I spent a week at the largest such corporate event in New York City, CloudExpo 2013, where thousands of cloud enthusiasts met to sell the cloud to one another and to people who came to learn about the cloud. So there’s a worldwide promotional effort to sell the cloud and it’s essential because there are so many significant problems associated with it, so the sales pitch has to be very strong. If you’d like, I can describe what some of these problems are.

Please do.

I’ve alluded to some of these, but I think that there are five issues that are vital here.

One, there’s no role for the public in the cloud so the decisions are made by a small group of businesses and the intelligence agencies of big governments. And this is a problem for the cloud because it means that the development of cloud computing is constrained by the needs of a few companies and of a handful of intelligence agencies.

Secondly, there are significant environmental problems. Cloud data centres are huge energy consumers. It’s the early days for cloud computing and yet the cloud now uses about 3% of the world’s electricity supply. That’s because cloud systems need continuous power for the tens and hundreds of thousands of servers in cloud data centres but also because their systems have to be cooled, so massive air conditioning, of course depending on the locations of data centres, but all require cooling. So, there are enormous energy requirements. Furthermore, because individuals and businesses want 24/7 access, systems have to be kept going all the time, and when the electrical supply, the grid goes down, data centres need backup systems. These are heavily polluting, whether they are diesel generators, complex fly wheels that are used, chemical batteries, all of which have already created some significant environmental issues and these are only likely to grow.

So, you’ve got environmental problems. You’ve certainly have problems of privacy and surveillance. Now, most of the focus is on deviant hackers – criminals and others who crack into data centres, and they are significant problem for cloud computing companies and for the companies that buy services from cloud companies – but we have to keep in mind that it’s part and parcel of the business plan of the cloud companies to engage in intense surveillance on their users because cloud companies make money not only by selling services to users but on selling information about their users to third parties – advertisers, marketers – so that Facebook for example uses its data centres essentially to process information about its billion plus users and use that information to create one of the world’s most efficient advertising systems, providing ads that are tailored precisely to each of its individual users. So it’s not just the deviant hackers. It’s the companies themselves that are founded on the principle of massive surveillance.

And then of course, as Edward Snowden revealed, there is a massive global system of state surveillance at work using the cloud for massive invasions of individual privacy. So it’s no coincidence that the largest cloud private company, Amazon, has teamed up with the CIA in a joint effort to create a CIA cloud-based intelligence system. The CIA is paying 600 million dollars to Amazon to help develop the CIA’s cloud. The NSA, the National Security Agency, is developing its own cloud data system. One of the world’s largest data centres is under construction in a mountain in Utah, and the NSA is there because it’s considered an impregnable fortress for the NSA and the NSA will use it to expand its global system of monitoring and surveillance. So privacy and surveillance are significant.

Beyond that there is a massive threat both to the existence of jobs and the quality of work. What the cloud does is expand the automation of knowledge labour. It’s not just that the cloud will help companies to downsize or even eliminate their IT departments. That in itself would be a significant development, and we’re seeing it happen now. Companies are saying that they can save between 15 and 20 percent of their IT costs by moving their IT departments to the cloud. But what’s critical to understand here is that, more and more of the labour, the jobs of people in developed societies, is similar to IT work: it involves producing, processing and distributing information. And so the ultimate goal of companies – and cloud companies are selling themselves on this basis – is that it will help you to automate most of your corporate functions. So Salesforce, a cloud company, will do your marketing and customers relations management for you. They can do accounting, legal services. The cloud is moving into the educational world with online learning. Certainly in the media and communication area, with the first steps towards automated journalism, as it were. A seeming contradiction, but there are companies developing software to provide for automated story construction and editing – fill in the blanks.

You know, some big research companies like Gartner, whom you mentioned earlier, are predicting that most of the knowledge or analytic labour of people can be moved to the cloud. Certainly there’s a threat to jobs, but what the cloud also does, through its surveillance function is allow the intensification of every workplace activity. Amazon is in fact the pioneer in this, using online surveillance in its warehouses and distribution centres. So this is a significant development. Workplace control that would probably shock Frederick Winslow Taylor and even Harry Braverman, both of whom predicted intensified control over the workplace with the advance of technology. So you’ve got threats to labour that are significant.

And finally, and especially through the Big Data analysis component, what we see is the fetishization of data, or as one big data enthusiast writing in Wired magazine said, “We don’t need theory. We don’t need history. We don’t need causality. The data will speak for themselves.”

It’s what I call “digital positivism”. What it means specifically is that all we need to do is toss data into the giant computers in data centres, and apply software that creates and suggests relations among the data. So what in simple social science methodology would be “find the correlations” between searching for terms about flu in Google and outbreaks of the flu virus. And what this is doing is valorizing a very narrow kind of method – so you don’t need to get to know people, you don’t need to observe them, you don’t need to read the histories of people, you don’t need to think in theoretical terms about how societies work – or in ethical terms about how they should work. Rather, just simply gather the data, put them into a computing system and let’s see what comes out. This kind of fetishization, or what I call digital positivism, is a dangerous way to analyze the world in part because it often fails, as the Google flu studies demonstrated.

The other fascinating example is the case of the research paper that became the founding cornerstone document for global austerity policies.

Among the most cited research papers of recent years appeared to demonstrate, with a Big Data analysis of national economic information, that countries whose debt exceeded 90 percent of their gross domestic product would inevitably decline. That is, they would see falling rates of growth. So what we had to do was cut back national spending, government spending, and that would unleash private forces in society, free them to invest and create growth. The authors of the report received the royal treatment throughout most of the world’s mainstream media until a lowly graduate student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst discovered some things. He was in a seminar at his university and wanted to do an analysis of this paper for his own seminar paper. So he asked the authors for some of their data. And it turned out that there were errors in their data. They left out a number of countries that offered results that contradicted the findings about the need for austerity. And they also seemed to get, by using correlational analysis, and got their argument wrong. So it may be that declines in gross domestic product have an impact on debt rather than the reverse.

The point here is that when we gather enormous amounts of data, unless you’re an enterprising graduate student who is willing to dig through the haystack, it’s easy to bury errors.

Now as a sidebar, even though the paper has now been thoroughly critiqued, austerity policies and practices continue – which says something about the relationship of knowledge to policy, but that’s another matter. What’s interesting here is that Big Data makes it easier to be wrong, and more difficult to uncover errors. And this is a significant consequence of the growth of Big Data that we need to take into account.

So we’ve got significant problems. No role for the public in a concentrated industry based on the marriage of big business and the surveillance state. We have significant environmental consequences. Significant consequences for privacy and surveillance. Threats to our identity. Consequences for labour that are significant, and also a narrowing of what it means to know things to the point that Big Data creates even bigger problems.

Edward Snowden didn’t have his head in the clouds. Should I have my head in the clouds? Should activists have their heads in the cloud? What about alternatives, things like OwnCloud? Are there current alternatives we could use that are protected, safe and genuinely private and publicly available still?

Well, it’s all relative. There are no systems that are safe, completely safe, from corporate or government surveillance. Some are better protected, taking care of my passwords, working behind a firewall, doing business with companies that are committed to securing the privacy of users and who refuse to work with government surveillance agencies. And there are some of these, they are available. But let’s not kid ourselves. If the NSA wants information about us, it will obtain it and given that a handful of companies provide the digital framework for how we live and work in the world today, it is impossible to avoid dealing with Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Microsoft, IBM.

So what does that mean for us? We have to of course make our own choices based on our own circumstances. We create protections. We also go in with our eyes wide open. Assume that what you put online is being broadcast; that is, communicate on the understanding that it’s likely others will see what we are emailing, posting, tweeting, etc. I make extensive use of the online world, but then again, as I said, it depends on one’s individual position – I’m a retired professor, so I have no plans to apply for jobs in the near future where my online identity will follow me, unlike a professor who just was denied a job at the University of Illinois –

Salaita –

Salaita, who happened to express his right to engage in public debate through Twitter and found that his tweets led to his being denied a position that the University had initially determined was his. So you can lose a tenured job for tweets. So it does depend on your position, your need for social media. It’s a constant process of determining what are the consequences of your communication. At the same time, these are tools that can be used for organizing, for bringing people together, for mobilizing across great distances. And my general advice to organizers is to make use of them, make careful use, be aware of what you’re saying and doing but certainly use the tools that are available. With that in mind, I think that there’s been a great deal accomplished by movement organizations, by trade unions, NGOs of all sorts, who have built a presence in the online world.

What would be your advice then to organizations that struggle to make social change as they evolve in the digital era? In particular, how do increasingly digital-based organizations not become nonprofit versions of data empires, by which I mean how do they not become so concerned with metrics and data itself to then analyze social problems – as opposed to face-to-face relationship building, community organizing, that kind of thing? I hope this question is clear.

Well, it is clear. And my answer is simple: they should read my book! No, you know, I think it’s important for organizations to recognize that there’s a difference between data and knowledge. That there’s no substitute for human analysis for bringing experience to bear, for recognizing the value of a keen subjective awareness of our surroundings, the people around us and the world we live in. Experience matters. We need to arm ourselves with the critique of the cloud and big data partly because it’s easy for us to fall into some of the traps; it’s quite tempting to think the data will speak for themselves. It’s part of the mythology of big data but it’s a seductive one nonetheless, that all we need to do is gather data and it will speak to us, it will give us answers. Well, no. We still need history. We still need experience. We still need theory. We still need a sophisticated understanding of causality. What brings about what? It’s not just data cohering one with another.

You know, it’s increasingly the view that people – we have an occupation now called data scientist – kind of a chief myth-maker in which people are trained in big data analysis. Well, we need to do a lot more than that and movement organizations have to stand back from this fetishization of data and recognize that older, entrenched skills have great value. So, be very, very cautious about fetishizing data, metrics, correlational analysis – the data don’t speak for themselves. We need to give them voice.

Speaking of Twitter earlier, do you like Twitter? Do you, like me, wince when you tweet, offering up evermore data to the cloud-minders?

Again, it’s interesting. It does depend on who you are and your station in life. I’ve been a risk-taker all my life. I gave up two tenured jobs because I wanted to work somewhere else and with other people. I’ve never shied away from taking academic risks. I’ve spent 40 years as a critical thinker, never fearing to speak my mind. So I approach Twitter and Facebook as educational and political tools and I use them extensively to create networks, to participate in debates and now, no longer a classroom teacher, I use them as forums for teaching, sharing, finding and sharing research – but I can do that because of who I am and where I am in life. I also recognize, and I caution other, younger people to be aware of what’s happening to their posts and their tweets, their Facebook posts, and the online world is different than the world I came of age in, and so there are risks – we need to be aware of them.

But I personally don’t so much wince…I feel constrained by 140 characters. It’s put me in touch with networks of people around the world with whom I communicate every day and it can be enriching as well. So there are, and again it comes back to dialectical thinking, there are great ironies and contradictions and oppositions that you can observe in the online world. So the resistance that Salaita is putting up the University of Illinois, the movement supporting him, is built using social media to mobilize a worldwide network of people who care about free speech, about academic freedom, about the right of educators to set the terms of who does and does not get hired – not administrators, not corporate executives on boards. And that network is being built through social media, and I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that, to recognize it and to use it, understanding as well that there are risks.

Tell me, in 140 characters or less, what “informational capitalism” is?

Keep in mind, I’m not counting characters as I speak, but: “Informational capitalism is a system that uses IT to commodify the world.”


#TheCloud, #Profit, #TheresABetterWorld.

Should I buy a “smart” TV? Someone told me recently that there’s cameras inside the screens that can actually film me or my family watching stuff. Is that urban legend?

I can’t say I’ve heard that. I’ll tell you a story. I know someone who, we kind of joked about it, because when she got her first laptop she put a bandaid on the camera because she was concerned there were people who would be using that camera to observe her. And as it turns out, these cameras have been used, as we’ve since learned, for surveillance purposes. So I wouldn’t be surprised.

But see the point is you don’t need an urban legend like that: smart TVs will be gathering data on all of our choices, the details of everything we watch, to the point that our attention determined by a wide variety of data; again, whether accurately assessed or not is another matter. All forms of new technology are systems of surveillance and we need to know that when we decide to bring those items into our homes.

Last question. Capitalism = digital. Does digital = capitalism?

Well, I don’t think either of those hold, actually. I use the term digital capitalism, but I’m clear of what’s the noun and what’s the adjective. So capitalism is the noun. We live in a capitalist world. We may once have called it agricultural capitalism. Another time industrial capitalism, now perhaps digital capitalism. To identify the dominant means by which capital expanded, how it came to commodify labour, consumption, now information, audiences. A system for producing profit by extracting value labour. “Digital” refers to a dominant mode by which that takes place today, by measuring and monitoring, packaging and repackaging information and people through digital means.

But it seems to me the terms are not equated. Digital describes the means by which capitalism operates primarily today. but let’s keep in mind that industrial capitalism is alive and well as anyone visiting China can observe. It’s not as if we gave up on manufacturing, we just moved it to China an to other parts of the world. So our world is made up of many different capitalisms, but it’s by and large a system of capitalism that governs the global political economy.

Until challenged by global resistance. Thank you very much, Vinny.

Thank you.