Data Exploitation: Technologies of the Self

The bundled aggregation and recorded sedimentation of information within, between and around individuals is not simply a symptom of an accelerating information and technological communications culture – it precisely and constitutively is that culture…


The extent to which a person is required to vigorously and pro-actively protect their personal data from theft or exploitation is a measure of the implicit insecurity and uncertainty endemic to those distributed information and communications systems within which we are all now so deeply embedded.  Recent revelations concerning Facebook and the commercial and (subsequent) political exploitation of tens of millions of unwitting participants’ digital lives have brought into sharp focus that wide-open door of personal digital insecurity.  In a context where hundreds of millions of human beings freely and enthusiastically hand over almost their entire lives and identities to social media, this data is then used for purposes which reflexively and recursively shape the perceptions and (ultimately the) lives of those same social media users in sometimes profound and unexpected ways.  Most of us have been at least peripherally aware of the dangers of identity theft and hacking but few commentators foresaw the full-throttle digitally-enabled data exploitation which Cambridge Analytica have quite clearly been engaged in.

Overall social media user insecurity concerning the safety of personal data was fairly timid until this recent series of revelation in regards to an ongoing and systematic mass-manipulation of public perception and opinion.  Who could ever have fooled themselves as to the reality of the commercially exploitative nature of Facebook and its incessant white noise of advertising and constant spruiking for engagement and participation through various psychological and emotional marketing methods ?  A politically-engaged dimension to this commercial exploitation is very likely as inevitable as it is effective.

A general ignorance of the extent to which online activity is commercially tracked and recorded for algorithmic analysis and exploitation was the unacknowledged blind spot in social media usage which a majority of social media users have been, perhaps unwittingly, willing to trade for an indefinable emotional comfort and virtual experience of belonging and participation provided by these online platforms. A negative, perhaps angry or shocked emotional response to the dawning awareness of the extent to which social media companies and assorted other enlightened self-interests benefit from this data would be almost entirely to miss the point.  The bundled aggregation and recorded sedimentation of information within, between and around individuals is not simply a symptom of an accelerating information and technological communications culture – it precisely and constitutively is that culture.  The exploitation of information is, similarly, a perfectly natural consequence of physical laws and contexts where complex systems seek homeostasis and functional, existential continuity through harnessing information for their own self-interested self-propagation.  The current global media focus on Facebook and Cambridge Analytica may to be miss another salient point: the elephant in this room is not the data exploitation we know about but is rather all that as yet unacknowledged commercial and political exploitation of data that we do not know about.

        In regards to Technologies of the Self, Michel Foucault arrived at an interpretation of a particular institutional and scientific construction of individual subjectivity.  This is a “self” considered as a reflexive response to institutionally and culturally normative systems of knowledge and information aggregation or sedimentation built around the concept of person-hood or identity.
The experience or bundled perceptions and subjectivity which then (under this perspective) becomes a useful, pliable and socially, culturally, technologically-dependent entity or “self” is implicitly entangled (perhaps ensnared) within the narratives and vectors of communication and information which have defined it and upon which it then comes to fundamentally depend for validation, meaning and purpose.

That a particularly successful locus of social media data extraction (perhaps: “identity farming”) has been in a specific category of social media nuisance known as personality tests is actually quite revealing.  At a general, perhaps generalised, level of analysis: that the notional differentiation and determination of personality type or classification (on a spectrum from “Which Game of Thrones character are you ?” through to the Meyers-Briggs identity-fiction) is that nexus and focal point of such utility for identity exploitation indicates that it is in some ways through the participatory construction of identity that identity is actually grounded.  The superficial game being played by the average participant in these tests is not the same game being played by the companies harvesting the valuable data analytics from this engagement.  An entertaining few minutes engaged in an online personality test is also an exercise in casually offering up your weaknesses, your vulnerability to influence and your value as a target for digital exploitation and commercial or political operations of influence.

The world is not experiencing anything fundamentally or radically new in a blossoming Baroque complexity of information and communications systems, it is merely proceeding to do what is has done before in more rapid and efficient ways.  The vast glaciers of data which are towering above us (and in the consequences of whose expanding melt-waters we currently paddle) may be an inevitable logical consequence of any information storage, retrieval and communications system which, having generated the information-technical means to do so, proceeds to a “shifting up” of gears or organisational phase transition of exponential internal extensivity and accelerating growth.  Information storage represents a kind of complexity battery and it is now entirely clear that procedural, algorithmic technologies exist for the unleashing of this complexity in effective and goal-directed ways.

Identifying nefarious commercial subtexts and purposes to the global narratives of social media mass-participation is, other than being a gloriously empty expression of futility-in-hindsight, perhaps more to highlight the many ways in which any sufficiently sophisticated social, cultural and technological system is bound to (perhaps autonomously) seek methods and processes of information exploitation through internal extensivity and insight.  If sophisticated rules-based (and by extension – organisational) systems are always open for extensibility and extension, then the methods and dynamics of this internal extension are likely to find “their own way” to optimum methods for self-replication and the emergence of supporting sub-systems.  Qualitative assertions or perceptions concerning the consequences of the exploitation of the personal data of millions of people are valid perspectives but in some sense they are also entirely inconsequential value-judgements which, beyond measured ethical consideration, fail to acknowledge the inevitability of this kind of information activity.


In this context and from a systems-analytical perspective, we might attribute the unrelenting menace of identity theft or data exploitation to be another consequence of little more than a primordial incentive for utility and benefit-seeking through information acquisition and exploitation; a bias native to all self-interested organisms and social, cultural or otherwise distributed, living systems.  It is not so surprising that the vast systems and networks of association within which we exist and participate also possess their own emergent complexities and biases towards continuity and self-propagation.  The kinds of activities we have (retrospectively) observed involving Cambridge Analytica and their exploitation of social media, although in this specific instance clearly volitional and intended for commercial and political benefit, are also symptoms of broader (and largely autonomous) social, cultural and technological biases towards the active exploitation of information for personal (or systemic) benefit.

It is sometimes questionable the extent to which we may exploit situations and contexts to our own benefit or, conversely, the extent to which situations and contexts may actually exploit us for their own, unguided and unconscious or entirely non-sentient, benefit.  It is apparent that from within the shell of consciousness and personal experience that it may be irredeemably implausible, cognitively abhorrent and generally unintelligible for us to understand or accept that there may be forces or dynamics at work which are not explicitly guided or volitional.  The recent efflorescence of the complexity sciences clearly illustrates that emergent complexity is endemic, implicit and ubiquitous – we would do well not to be surprised by its omnipresence as it appears to be a logical and procedural inevitability of the laws of physics and just as much as we ourselves, all of our technologies and their various uses (and misuses) are.  That there exist individuals, tribal affiliations and commercial or political entities capable and willing to capitalise on these dynamics is not as difficult to accept or understand as that many of these global or holistic systems processes are entirely involuntary and autonomous emergent properties.

Human beings are natively social creatures and will often voluntarily associate themselves to behaviours and narratives which, while they may at least superficially fulfill fundamental human needs and drives for belonging, participation and a sense of meaning or purpose, also quite clearly represent unwise or even dangerous personal (or collective) choices.  It is interesting to reflect on the extent to which any individual or group, upon finding themselves in an ideologically untenable or materially unsafe situation may find that their attachment to that narrative of self which emerges from their context provides more perceived psychological security than does the literal security provided by removing themselves from that context.  Human beings seem on the whole more interested in believing something, anything which provides them a reflexive sense of meaning and self-identity than they do in rationally assessing the risks and consequences of that context, belief system or ideology.

That the various measures and vectors of personal identity and activity can be so relatively easily detached or extracted from an individual’s own aspirations to care-taking and protection of that data is itself evidence of a significant and rarely acknowledged revelation.  That bundled aggregate of information vectors and data-points which we come to associate with an innate and inalienable sense of self and personal identity are so readily detached because they are not actually innate or inalienable – your life and your various activities and expressions of self are notionally separate (if nevertheless related) to the matrices of measurement and reference which seek to define you.  Your identity and recorded (perhaps record-able) presence in the social, cultural or otherwise “informational” world functions as an anchor upon and through which that world and its various rationales and teleologies seek continuity and self-validation, meaning; the information context and network finds itself in interdependent symbiosis with the individual node in such a system.

A rank lack of maturity or unbiased sophistication of purely commercially-oriented goal-seeking in the management or regulation of mass-data information systems generates or provides the opportunity to harness the possibility, perhaps inevitability, of data theft and exploitation because these commercial systems are in every sense already oriented towards assertive self-interest and competitive advantage-seeking.  All indications are of a world in which the rapid pace of competitively-driven technological change has far outpaced the intellectual or political maturity to successfully comprehend or usefully and equitably orchestrate an unfolding systemic acceleration and complex process of ongoing and dynamic metamorphosis.  Sophisticated future-directed cultural, information and communications systems must be fundamentally collaborative and cooperative at some basic level; in this exhibiting a manner of knowing, thinking, being and acting which appears to this point in time to be far beyond our collective grasp.

As for myself, I have now left Facebook.


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