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iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era

Author: Mark Andrejevic
Publisher: Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2007
Review Published: September 2009

 REVIEW 1: Jacob Kramer-Duffield
 REVIEW 2: W. Benjamin Myers
 REVIEW 3: Hiesun Cecilia Suhr
 REVIEW 4: A. Freya Thimsen
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Mark Andrejevic

In iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era, Mark Andrejevic illustrates a critical dimension in the landscape of media convergence by arguing that "interactivity" has been used as a way to control and manipulate consumers in contemporary media culture. He contends that although a gathering (whether real or virtual) of any type of users may seem empowering, control and surveillance usually accompany the more developed technologies, as can be seen upon closer investigation. Andrejevic states that the type of participation that occurs in the interactive era is "a form of manipulation insofar as it is passed off as a form of democratic empowerment" (244). The reason for this is due to the asymmetrical nature of commercial interactivity: "The decisions and actions of corporate entities remain opaque -- private -- even as consumers are rendered increasingly transparent to marketers and advertisers" (257). Andrejevic's account of interactivity is an alarming wake-up call, rather than a celebration of diversity and democratization.

Throughout his book, Andrejevic provides a variety of examples in support of his main thesis. The author pays particularly close attention to the ability of internet technologies to mine consumers' data and to the operations of TiVo, the GPS feature on cell phones, and interactive television programs, which invite audience participation. He also explicates the issues linking I-war and politics. While many of Andrejevic's examples depict the startling nature of our media environment, some of his examples deserve closer scrutiny. The example of online television fan communities reveals that everyday citizens' seemingly harmless leisure activities carry significant undertones of exploitation. Andrejevic argues that fan communities' free laboring processes do not solely benefit the users through the enjoyment of communicating about the television programs that interest them. Whether known or unknown by the fan communities, their self-disclosures provide a platform for major markets to gain insights about their consumers, thus giving the markets vital information about their targeted consumers. In this vein, interactivity occurring on the participatory media cannot simply be viewed as an empowering process for participants -- underneath the veil of pleasure, they are functioning as free agents of large corporations.

On a much more serious and somber tone, Andrejevic provides an example of how the so-called War on Terrorism exploits and manipulates citizens through incumbent ideologies of self-defense. This not only pertains to issues of self-defense against enemies, but also targets every aspect of one's security "ranging from personal investment to personal hygiene" (165). In the chapter on I-war, Andrejevic's critical voice sharpens and becomes indignant when he describes how the government toys with one of our basic human emotions: fear. The author notes that while instigating fear among citizens, the call to overcome fear has been preached as a preparation for unexpected incidents. Rather than calling on individuals to expect the unexpected, the notion of readiness has been paired with "a stance of perpetual anxious diligence" (167). Citizens are psychologically provoked to prepare themselves assiduously, yet the warnings to take charge of personal security are ironically linked to a request to expose one's personal identity, which eventually leads to further vulnerability. In short, advising citizens to monitor one another via advanced surveillance technology results in a contradictory outcome. This has engendered a proliferation of investigatory tools, which hold the potential to endanger our personal lives and privacy (178-179).

Maintaining a consistent critical outlook on interactivity, Andrejevic also explains how the celebratory notion of interactivity can have an adverse impact on the realm of politics. He states that mass customization and similar activities pose problems, since the messages produced through these endeavors allow for biased political views, thus fostering parochialism in the political landscape. Andrejevic thus concludes: "customization, then, means not only that citizens will receive customized campaign appeals that are based on their politics, background, and preferences, but that they may receive different levels of information -- and some may be excluded entirely" (208).

Overall, Andrejevic's critiques focus on major media corporations, advertising companies, and the government; however, Andrejevic's ideas should be applied with some delicacy to the context of independent cultural producers who interact online to build their careers. In the world of independent cultural producers, manipulation and surveillance still occur, but the end reward is not necessarily the same. For big corporations, the goal is to make profits, while from a cultural producer's point of view (i.e. independent musicians), two possible teleological aims could be: 1) to gain popularity to start a successful career path, or 2) to share one's music with more listeners for the sake of sheer enjoyment. While the two goals intersect and it is difficult to demarcate the fine line between them, from an artist's point of view, the desire for more listeners with whom to share one's art does not deserve criticism.

Despite these considerations, Andrejevic's view of interactivity and the participatory model does not fail in its attempt to exemplify the ubiquity of social networking activities by independent cultural producers. Recently a variety of competitions were held on various social networking websites, usually in partnership with mainstream media companies or major record labels. To this end, participation that occurs on social networking sites can be interpreted as having a teleological aim that caters to the aims of the recording industry. This implies that, instead of cherishing innovative artistic creations, participants risk becoming puppets in the game created by the major recording corporations. In this process, one can assume that immaterial values and/or aesthetic quality may be compromised, although it could be debated as to whether the final creations are promising or degenerative.

Although Andrejevic's thesis sounds gloomy and pessimistic, towards the end of the book, he invokes the possibility of hope. He does not completely reject the notion that the interactive era can generate democracy and power-sharing. Contrary to a privately controlled digital enclosure, Andrejevic finds public enclosure promising in that it "could provide the developing world with a huge advantage when it comes to collaborative uses of Internet and to computer literary" (267). He adds that this type of model can give rise to a participation that is both more democratic and conducive to the developing world. Andrejevic interweaves numerous incidents where the word "interactivity" connotes deception, asymmetry, and control. His steady and unfaltering messages will surely leave many of us despondent and indignant. However, rather than walking away from his message with skepticism and hyper-paranoia, Andrejevic's finding should empower us with heightened awareness and urgency of the need to take control over our privacy, personal communication devices, leisure activities, and most importantly, our rights to know unbiased information and covert intent -- whether it relates to politics, the news, or product information.

Hiesun Cecilia Suhr:
Hiesun Cecilia Suhr is a Ph.D. candidate in Media Studies at Rutgers University and an assistant professor at Bloomsburg University. Her dissertation examines social networking practices of musicians in the context of convergence culture.  <hiesun@eden.rutgers.edu>

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