Clearly, Žižek had not yet thought through his analysis of the internet. We – internet users – are not renters, we are the rented.
Rather, we are the raw material which is refined by internet providers into products (demographics). Access to these products is rented by marketers, politicians, ideological promoters, charities, et. al. We are the ore, ore in the ether. Some of us are composed of a more valuable amalgam of personal data than others, depending on how absorbent, how malleable, how transparent we are and how narrowly we can be refined (i. e., defined). For example, someone wracked by anxieties with a large disposable income is more valuable than the busy head of a household that is surviving hand-to-mouth who, in turn, is more valuable than a reclusive OCD stamp-collector.
So, yes, we are exploited – not as human beings are exploited, with the kind of cruel exploitation that put Marx’s knickers in a twist, but as a natural resource is exploited; and a renewable resource, at that.
It is a painless exploitation. (Among all the sorrows that burden the human condition, having to deal with pop-up ads counts for very little.) Many people even find pleasure in being exploited by Silicone Valley.
So, what are we looking at? A humane capitalist exploitation?
(Note: I’m referring only to internet exploitation. We remain the victims of ruthless, painful capitalist exploitation – some of us as workers; all of us as consumers.)
If the exploitation of our personal data is not a burden to us, and even, sometimes, is useful, is there a moral aspect to our being exploited? Or is it morally neutral, morally moot?
While dyed-in-the-wool humanists may be outraged that their IP addresses appear on lists of depressives, flatulence sufferers, chocolate lovers, Angelina Jolie fans, etc., etc., most people don’t care at all.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Maybe, as a capitalist phenomenon, as an economic exercise, the monetization of personal data is a bubble – more like tulips and Beanie Babies than gold and oil. Maybe some day market researchers will discover that demographics are not as profitable a marketing tool as they had been told, that unlike a physical resource, natural or manufactured, human natures are constantly changing in ways which cannot be rationally analyzed or accurately foreseen.
It is a pleasant thought. As one of those dyed-in-the-wool humanists, I feel a frisson of anticipatory schadenfreude when I imagine that bubble bursting.
But something tells me that it isn’t a bubble. It’s something else – unique and unprecedented.
The relationship between internet providers and internet advertisers is an economic one, certainly, but is the relationship between internet providers and internet users also an economic one? Unlike the tug-of-war between buyer and seller, capitalist and worker, landowner and serf, there is no tension, no conflict, no clash of interests, between internet exploiters and the internet exploited.
Our use of the internet and the exploitation of that usage is a symbiotic relationship, not a contractual one, an organic process, not an economic one. Unlike the vagaries of economics and politics, which waft this way and that with the winds of the zeitgeist, our tranquil interdependency with the internet is evolutionary, irreversible. As our lives, our personalities, even our subconscious impulses, commingle with those of everyone else, humankind takes a giant step in society’s progress toward the hive state.