iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era
Author: Mark Andrejevic
Publisher: Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2007
Review Published: September 2009
While watching 30 Rock last night, NBC made me an offer. "Chime In" they encouraged. There are several ways to do just this. Go to the NBC website and look up character profiles, take a quiz to see which characters I most resemble, chat with other fans about what directions I might like the show to go in, vote for the funniest moments and to watch exclusive webisodes. The invitation to "Chime In" may seem fairly innocuous at first, but after reading Andrejevic's new book, iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era, I have come to approach these kinds of offers with a bit more skepticism. The call to "Chime In" by NBC is just one of many in the new interactive era that Andrejevic describes. iSpy makes the claim that we have too readily embraced interactivity without adequately pausing to consider the tradeoffs. This book does excellent work explaining the history behind interactivity, the unreflexive attitude our society has toward interactivity, and the dangers of the "digital enclosure" (3) it creates.
Andrejevic describes interactivity as the push for consumers to get involved in the production process either through the ability to talk back to the producers or to customize products to their individual needs. The promise of this new interactivity is one of democracy; for each and every one of us to be heard. Andrejevic argues that the needs that interactivity addresses are fundamentally rooted in a Marxist critique; consumers have been divorced from production. Interactivity promises us that we can be in control once again. It relies on a sense of nostalgia for the days when our labor and consumption were not separated by the machinery of capitalism. Andrejevic describes how this is possible through many new interactive technologies such as Nike allowing us to design our own shoes on its website to TIVO letting us create our own television viewing schedules. Andrejevic argues that interactivity is a technological fix to the ideological problem of being divorced from production. We accept this technological fix far too quickly and without properly understanding the consequences or underlying ideological implications.
Andrejevic explains this interactivity through the lens of Taylorism. Interactivity delivers on the dream of Frederick Taylor to not only watch over employees as they work, but to stand over consumers with a "stopwatch" as they consume. Relying on critical theorists such as Habermas and Zizek, Andrejevic describes the role of the citizen in a capitalist society as being primarily a consumer. Watching commercials is a form of audience labor. How is it then that we might be made to do our work better? How do we keep from "slacking off on the job?" Devices such as TIVO are delivered to us with the promise that we can consume at our leisure and never have to watch shows we do not love. From the perspective of the marketer though, TIVO not only makes sure you do not consume media that is not likely to increase consumption, but it also offers a perfect digital record of what shows you like, when you watch, how often you watch, and allows for incredibly effective target advertising. There are already talks of TIVO broadcasting commercials to your television that are based on your particular viewing habits.
Andrejevic slowly and quite convincingly lays out exactly how this interactivity affects us. It offloads work to the consumer. We exchange information about ourselves for the promise of convenience. Your cell phone is a perfect example of this. Cell phones track our movements (some cities already use data from cell phones to track interstate traffic) and offer the ability for constant on-the-go consumption (ring tones, news, sports scores, etc.) and we use them because they offer us the convenience of always being plugged into the "digital enclosure." Cell Phones are also customizable, another feature of interactivity. We do the work of letting our movements be tracked while also paying more for products that have interactive features.
Interactivity also lets us identify with insiders to feel like we have a voice in product development. This is clearly evident in numerous examples that Andrejevic provides including politics. Reading this book so soon after the election of Barack Obama was quite startling. Every prediction that Andrejevic makes about politics gets played out exactly as he forecasts in the rise of Barack Obama. What gets heralded as a radical shift of empowerment in the campaign of Obama does not come without tradeoffs. Obama clearly offloads work to the consumer/voter when he sends text messages to supporters who are then asked to send it to ten friends. This new political interactivity which includes using MySpace and Facebook, cell phone networking, registering through MyBO.com, and getting podcasts loaded onto your iPhone, all work to create a massive database of information on supporters. This allows for more sophisticated and effective campaigning. Andrejevic explains this concept through a quote of Zizek: "We are invited to actively participate in staging the scene of our own passive submission -- and to view such participation as a form of power sharing" (15). This book was written before Obama's rise, so he is not specifically mentioned, but his practices are referenced as predictions of where the political machine might be headed, and Andrejevic is spot on.
If these illustrations peak your interest, there are plenty more in the book. Indeed, the examples are arguably the strongest aspect of the book. For every concept Andrejevic provides poignant and effective examples that help the reader get a grasp of how pervasive this move to interactivity is. He moves from anti-terrorism, to dating websites, to mp3 players, to law enforcement, to Second Life, to reality television. Andrejevic takes great care to show how these technologies are not necessarily radical and new, but instead they fulfill the dream of social scientific management from the days of Frederick Taylor. It is the logical conclusion of our drive to manage society, and instead of delivering something fundamentally new, we simply have the technology to enact what we have been working toward for the last hundred and fifty years.
This book's strengths is in its comprehensive approach to this phenomenon in modern life and its grounding in history. The pervasiveness of interactivity is astounding, and until reading this book I had never seriously contemplated what a double-edged sword it is. Andrejevic is careful to never cave into a heavy handed critical approach that paints interactivity as "the devil." Instead, he systematically explains the expectations we place on it without seriously considering what we lose by adopting it. Every new form of technology requires a negotiation with society, and Andrejevic believes that we have not seriously engaged in the work necessary to make informed choices about interactivity. iSpy is an engaging, provocative, and spot on call for this dialogue to happen publicly. This book is a great starting point for us to engage in a discussion of what role we want these new technologies to play in all aspects of our lives.
* I would like to thank my class, SSPH 398, for their lively and engaged discussions of this book that greatly helped me with this review.
W. Benjamin Myers:
W. Benjamin Myers is an assistant professor of speech at USC Upstate. His research interests include ritual studies, surveillance, and performance of identity. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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