Cyberspace, commodification and the history of me

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A friend of mine recommended I watch the documentary “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace”, a three-part series devoted to exploring the culture of technology, its evolution and its impact upon modern society.

The first episode, “Love and “ starts off by using Ayn Rand’s objectivism as a touchstone (never a good thing in my view) but breaks off into a variety of discussions on the rise of Silicon Valley in the 1980s and 1990s and, more importantly, the unleashing of western markets on the worldwide economy, where faith in market stability was hedged on the power of computer networks.

In the first episode it mentions an allegedly very influential essay on the nature of the individual in Cyberspace by Carmen Hermosillo, a denizen of early 1990s message boards, but also a essayist and research analyst. Composed under the alias ‘humdog’, she wrote a scathing critique of the early nature of Cyberspace, seeing it as another mask by which power, particularly political and corporate power, could wear.

The essay “Pandora’s Vox: On Community in Cyberspace” was published in 1994 and started with the following sentence:

“when i went into cyberspace i went into it thinking that it was a place like any other place and that it would be a human interaction like any other human interaction. i was wrong when i thought that. it was a terrible mistake.”

In one interesting passage, Hermosillo reasoned that her activities in Cyberspace resulted in her commodification. Her words and personal thoughts written on newsgroup pages owned by corporate networks could potentially be commodified. She did not own herself and she had made herself into a product yet derived no profit from her own words. Here is the telling paragraph:

“i have seen many people spill their guts on-line, and i did so myself until, at last, i began to see that i had commodified myself. commodification means that you turn something into a product which has a money-value. in the nineteenth century, commodities were made in factories, which karl marx called ‘the means of production.’ capitalists were people who owned the means of production, and the commodities were made by workers who were mostly exploited. i created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board i was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment.

that means that i sold my soul like a tennis shoe and i derived no profit from the sale of my soul. people who post frequently on boards appear to know that they are factory equipment and tennis shoes, and sometimes trade sends and email about how their contributions are not appreciated by management.”

Immediately after comes a chilling realisation.

“as if this were not enough, all of my words were made immortal by means of tape backups”

Obviously Cyberspace has developed rapidly since 1994, but many of the ideas Hermosillo worried about in 1994 still seem like problems today, particularly in the age where social media is the one of the dominant forms of interaction on the Internet. It’s difficult not to think of what we’re giving away simply by existing on the likes of Facebook and Twitter. Us, as consumers, derive some enjoyment, leisure and occasionally financial restitution from operating on these large networks, but those who own or control these structures surely derive much much more.

One other personal concern raised after reading Hermosillo’s essay was the idea that my ‘immortal words’ could resonate henceforth, shaping my future identity in ways I may not be able to directly control. Questions begin to form in my mind – how can one detach themselves from their Cyberspace identity? Will Cyberspace warp or imprint a false impression of my own identity on current or future peoples? The impact of the Internet on history will be very interesting, and perhaps extremely concerning.

Hermosillo’s essay is great and contains much more interesting ideas than I’ve detailed here. Many of these ideas still resonate loudly today, some uncomfortably so.

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