Plutonian Striptease I: Rob Myers

Artlab,naked on pluto marieke @ 7:25 pm

Plutonian Striptease I: Rob Myers

astounding stories of super science - brigands of the moon

First in a series of interviews with with experts, owners, users, fans and haters of social media, to map the different views on this topic, outside the existing discussions surrounding privacy.

Rob Myers is an artist, writer and hacker based in Peterborough, England. He is part of the GNU Social team. GNU social is a decentralized social network that you can install on your own server. Project catchphrase:

What if you could authorize your server to reveal as much, or as little information about you to other sites, as you wish… one time, one day, or forever?.

Social networks are often in the news, why do you think this is?
Often it’s moral panics of the sort that accompany the spread of any new technology. But there’s a growing awareness in old media that social networking software sites are starting to gain the kind of hold on human communication that postal, telegraph, and telephone networks have had in the past. That kind of power is always abused. Old media used to and still does where it can.

In what way do they differ from older forms of communication on the Internet?
Scale. A community site like The WELL, which predates the web, has only a few thousand users. Facebook has 500 million.

Regularity. Email and homepages were free-form. Facebook imposes a standard style and content on every page.

Reification. Rather than enabling people to play with different identities or interests in different forums, a social networking sit eimposes a single fixed identity on each unique individual.

Completeness. A social network now supports profiles, messaging, calendars, photo and video uploading, and many other services that previously had their own websites.

Business model. Social networks have given up on pretending they are going to try and make money directly from their users, it’s all advertising and data services for third parties now.

Who is ultimately responsible for what happens to the data you upload to social networks
At the moment nobody is responsible for it, they just have power over it. Your data is controlled by the corporation running the social networking site you use. They are in turn beholden to their investors and to anyone who will pay to access your data, from marketing companies to government agencies.

We can take back control of our data by taking responsibility, socially and economically, for services that have so far been offered to us at no monetary cost but at an increasingly unacceptable social cost. Projects like GNU social (which I’m involved with) give us the software resources to do that. Projects like give us conceptual frameworks to evaluate our efforts against.

Do you read Terms of Use or EULA’s and keep up to date about changes applied to them?
I don’t read EULAs. The EFF have a service that allows you to track changes to EULAs but I don’t follow that. I really should.

Do you think you’ve got a realistic idea about the quantity of information that is out there about you?

I try not to think about it. I spend most of the day online. I email, I use instant messaging services, I use microblogging services like StatusNet and Twitter, I blog, I use Facebook, I search on Google, I browse through web sites, I purchase goods and services, I vote on or rate things, I watch videos and listen to music, I download files varying from a few bytes to a few gigabytes in size. Over time the volume of explicit and implicit data about what I am doing must run into terabytes.

How do you value your private information now? Do you think anything can happen that will make you value it differently in the future?
I suppose there are personal emails I wouldn’t want too many people to read, but for the most part private information for me is things like passwords and PINs. If I don’t want it to be public, I don’t put it on the net. I don’t think that will change; it isn’t technically possible or ethically desireable to break other people’s computers so that they cannot just copy and paste something you’ve written to them.

How do you feel about trading your personal information for online services?
The promise of web services at no monetary cost to us really distorts social relationships. We aren’t Facebook’s customer, we are its product. The customers are whoever will pay for access to our data and attention. This always makes me think of Burroughs’ introduction to “Naked Lunch” where he talks about selling the customer to the product.

I’d rather pay with money and involvement than with privacy and power. That’s why I’m a member of The Well, and that’s why I’ve bought a GNU/Linux plug server to run my own GNU social instance on (there’s a picture of it here).

What do you think the information gathered is used for?
Online social networks are a reified model of social relations. You could see this in the Google Buzz debacle: unlike a sociologist’s model of a social network it had no conception of negative social relationships and so made everyone people had ever had contact with a “Friend”, including people’s enemies. This fits well with neoliberalism/managerialism’s need for authentic individual identities to exploit. The data gathered about these individuals is highly prized for corporate marketing and for government spying.

Have you ever been in a situation where sharing information online made you uncomfortable? If so, can you describe the situation?
I carefully self-censor censor what I write online. That makes me uncomfortable. There are jokes I don’t make, issues I don’t speak about, words I don’t use.

What is the worst case scenario, and what impact would that have on an individual?
People will be persecuted and killed for their beliefs discovered through social networks. 4chan and China’s Human Flesh Search Engine are the precursor to this.

Nowadays, most of the “reading” of what is written online is done by machines. Does this impact your idea of what is anonymity and privacy?
People have told the machines what to do, which is generally to more effectively intrude on our privacy on their behalf. I don’t care whether it’s a bored employee or a computer cluster forwarding interesting keywords from my webmail to the intelligence services except in so far as the computer cluster can do so much more efficiently. The intrusion has the same potential for harm.

Can a game raise issues such as online privacy? And if so, what would you like to see in such a game?

It can. The relationship between games, social networks, privacy and human behaviour is already quite complex. Foursquare uses game mechanisms to encourage people to give up their privacy, for example.

I’d like to see a game that shows the footprint of every little action you take online, how much data is generated, in a visual way and then allows you to capture it as power-ups. Or a game where you play a marketing or intelligence agent trying to get more and more private data on people, to illustrate what goes on behind the smiley face of micromessaging your “Friends”.

But online community used to involve play, especially identity play, and I think that restoring that element of play into the social networks themselves is one of the best ways of resisting their reifying, limiting, exploitative identity politics. On the internet, Facebook knows damn well you’re not a dog. It’s time to fix that.


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