Friday, December 2, 2022

Soap and Surveillance: Is there any way to stay clean under capitalism?

Soap and Surveillance: Is there any way to stay clean under capitalism?

I rented an apartment in Hudson, NY so I can get off the farm every week. As much as I am committed to the work of Worlds End - it’s thick and varied landscape of relationships and agricultural problem solving (Donnie and his penchant for playing and chewing on lambs is a recent example) - I also believe that the key to stamina in a sprawling project like this is the ability to get away from it.

As we forge new ways of living and working together, we get to invent new rules and patterns; assessing and pivoting in real time. Prior to this apartment, I had been living in a cabin without electricity and water, a fun experiment that ran its course.

Suffice it to say the respite this place provides allows for physical and electronic device recharge. It also gives me a chance to experience true ‘days off’ and alone time to think and write and see friends outside the context of the farm.

Privacy is a huge concern inside the project of Worlds End. The ability for residents to live and work together is proportional to their access to true privacy. Privacy means a room or cabin off limits to others, but it also means you have a place where you can’t hear someone else’s phone call or hear that they are opening the fridge. It means having time when you don’t casually run into someone in the hall and end up answering a question or having a quick chat when really you just want to brush your teeth.

We can define privacy easily in these physical, real world experiences.

Privacy in the digital realm is more complicated to understand and poses a larger threat…

In this apartment, there is an antiquated, non-programable thermostat from the ’80s. James sees Black Friday sales and suggests we buy a Nest thermostat that can be controlled from our phones from a great distance. We can likely save money on days when not here, and be more comfortable by warming up the apartment just before we arrive.

I immediately seize up at this idea as I’m recently reading Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff (this is a great interview to watch, also her hair) and starting to understand with greater detail the extent to which our access to private sanctuary is being eclipsed by enticing and helpful technologies that promise to make our lives easier.

One of my favorite movies is Ex Machina. It’s a chilling story about artificial intelligence and passing the Turing Test. Embedded in the film is a great explanation - you can watch it here - of how collected personal data can inform the creation of new technologies through machine learning. It also contains, in my opinion, one of the most memorable dance scenes in all of cinematic history.

In this example, we’re talking robots - very human-looking ones that can cook and have sex with Oscar Issac - but in a more normalized reality, this type of data can be used to moderate and adapt our behavior - quietly and without us realizing it. And it is being used to gently shape our desires, fantasies, emotions, and access to freedom.

All phases of capitalism have taken some aspect of human experience and pulled it into the marketplace; examples would include the loss of the commons, the commodification of labor power, and the creation of the ‘personal care industry.’

Surveillance capitalism commodifies the masses of surplus behavioral data left over from user interfaces. It’s data collected from how you interact with your phone and your computer browser - but it’s also your television, your security camera, your thermostat, your smart refrigerator, and your car.

In the 1988 masterwork, Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky argue that mass media and corporate power are inextricably linked in their collaborative creation of propaganda aimed to funnel profits to those in power.

Today, with an understanding of data collection and surveillance, we can see how the expanding horizon of helpful personal ‘smart’ technological devices not only ‘improves’ our lives but opens an entirely new territory for intrusive manipulation of the masses.

To return to the title query of this email; I do believe the process of commodification contaminates any action, art, or object we make. I see this all the time in creative people who struggle to balance their making life with their need to earn a living.

I do think that grace and god exit the room when we attempt to make money just for money’s sake. I think we need new ways of living together in communities that collectively understand value as being something completely separate from the dollars needed to pay for gasoline or taxes, and I think it’s easier to practice this kind of experimental work in far-flung agriculture-based projects like Worlds End.

I joked last week about collecting your data as you shopped around on the Saipua website; which - full disclosure - includes me using dial-up internet to log into to the back end of our Squarespace website to see what you purchased when, after which email and with which discount code. The Saipua algorithm can be said to consist of some loose mental math after a brief scroll through your orders and the subsequent conversations with Susan at cocktail hour.

In all sincerity; thank you for your orders. I say this all the time, but I can’t say it enough: they SUSTAIN us and our work here.

Can we stay clean under capitalism? Perhaps it’s the wrong question... A more interesting one: what could the world look like without such massive accumulations of wealth and power?

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