Tokens of Technical Progress: Blockchains, Data Dysphoria & Fantasies of Control

By Dr Robert Herian

The discourse of data sovereignty (‘taking control’) at first blush implies empowerment of the data subject – Facebook’s Libra project explicitly uses this language and ideal in relation to their subscribers. However, as the author argues, ‘Taking control’ is only an illusion or, more precisely, a fantasy articulated through the notion of data sovereignty and constructed by neoliberal capitalism.

Cyberspace, as a shared dimension but unequal community, is in a moment of unease and alienation over the ways and means of data creation, dissemination and preservation, including methods of storage on- and offline. Communication and circulation of commercial and personal data increasingly occurs amid threats of intermeddling and exposure to varieties of fraud and exploitation. This unease is symptomatic of scandals involving the ‘psychological profiling’ of personal data in the course of supposed civic and democratic processes, and the growing uncanniness of digital social spaces. The company Cambridge Analytica, whose ‘data harvesting’ practices and psychographic analyses of user content from sources such as Facebook led to accusations of dubious interventions in and effects on the US Presidential elections and UK European Union Referendum1. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s subsequent tour of apology, confession and defiance in front of US government and European Commission representatives in early 2018 amid accusations that the company ‘weaponised’ personal data only served to add intrigue and consternation to the prevailing climate of unease2. Recently, the shortcomings of Facebook with regard to data privacy have undergone fresh scrutiny with the announcement that the social networking Titan plans to issue their own cryptocurrency, Libra3.

 

New data horizons

The fall-out from high-profile and rather salacious examples of unfair or unreasonable data use is a type of subscriber/subject unease that I refer to as data dysphoria, which involves but is not limited to specific examples of the dubious commercial data practices that pervade cyberspace. In conjunction with this unease ideas and mechanisms to ‘take (back) control’ of one’s personal data have emerged that provoke the desire for meaningful practices of data self-care in the subject, but which, I argue, instead entangle the subject in a burgeoning mesh of fantasy in which control and data sovereignty are always possible but never attainable. The extent to which data subjects are actually capable of or willing to assume control of personal data in a fully informed way is entirely unclear if not entirely unrealistic. Yet it fits ideologies of technological solutionism perfectly, enforcing the belief that new data horizons must be seized first and questioned later – a coda of the classic Silicon Valley mantra: “move fast and break things”. Use of a banking app on a smart phone to manage one’s finances is convenient, for example, but it does not require the user to negotiate the intricacies of global finance. On the contrary, the convenience of banking apps masks the extent to which personal finance (the credit held in a current or savings account) is embedded in a vast complex of different financial products and networks over which the user has little insight and no meaningful control. Banking apps, therefore, represent a de minimis form of user control, not a radical mode of individual financial liberation. This model is articulated by a wide range of contemporary data management platforms, mechanisms and applications, all of which are directly or indirectly hungry for data4.

Data dysphoria and its corresponding structure in fantasy describe part of the conscious and unconscious negotiations subjects make with networks, systems and the increasing levels of computational autonomy and authority that are in every sense alien and radically unknowable to the vast majority of users caught by and within them5. Importantly, as symptomologies, data dysphoria and fantasies of control describe affects not online but in the ‘real world’. Cyberspace (including databases, networks, systems, or interfaces) in this case does not “solve” the “problems” qua messiness inherent in human endeavour (as long, that is, as the primary role of cyberspace is to serve humanity) but represents ever expanding frontiers into which human psychology inevitably moves, may flourish but, equally, falters.

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The discourse of data sovereignty (‘taking control’) at first blush implies empowerment of the data subject – Facebook’s Libra project explicitly uses this language and ideal in relation to their subscribers. But, I argue, data sovereignty satisfies ideals of consumer protectionism above all else, that is, sovereignty of data subjects is supported and promoted insofar as subscribers remain efficient, engaged economic subjects within the ambit of neoliberal capitalism. Data subjects who without demur bear a financial cost for taking part in history must invest energy into creating new “free” markets and ensuring all social life is calibrated to the logic of those markets6. It is, in this sense that blockchains, as a distributed and decentralising mechanism for improving economic efficiencies, impregnate those who use them with such logics. The irony being that the self-care insisted upon by data subjects who are “sovereign” assumes nothing more than a form of control contingent upon the constraints placed on the subject by neoliberal capitalism, and therefore is not a form of control the data subject is free to exercise or enjoy at all7. To paraphrase Jodi Dean, taking control in this instance does not delineate data subjects from a rest of us ‘whose work, lives, and futures are expropriated, monetized, and speculated on for the financial enjoyment of the few’, instead it serves to highlight the actual complicity of those data subjects in sustaining neoliberal capitalism and ‘the extent of the class power of an elite that has gotten us to think in terms of competition, efficiency, stock markets, bonuses, and financial success’8. ‘Taking control’ is thus an illusion or, more precisely as this essay argues, a fantasy articulated through the notion of data sovereignty and constructed by neoliberal capitalism, one, however, ultimately reaffirmed and maintained by the data subjects caught within it.

 

Fantasies of control

The mainstreaming of blockchain technology in the present moment of data dysphoria is no accident: it is part reaction to it, and part exploitation of it. The technology satisfies, at least in theory, ‘problem’/’solution’ matrices with deep roots in a wide variety of global economic, political, social, legal and cultural contexts – too many to cover or mention during the course of this essay. ‘Solutions’ dreamt up by a variety of stakeholders including entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and technologists who consider blockchain-led socioeconomic and political characteristics of transparency, disintermediation, post-trust, and so on to be the keys to healthier cyber-socialites and ontologies. Capitalism is not seen as a problem to be solved, but rather the architecture supporting blockchain concepts and implementation. Notions of data or identity self-sovereignty derive from capitalist and, capitalism’s ‘mutant form9, neoliberal structures in fantasy that insist on the perfection and wholeness-of-being attainable through economic practice and self-care. Data practice and data self-care emerge as species of broader capitalist practice: a practice of the practice that maintains capitalism’s prominence whilst resisting countervailing and critical notions of data sovereignty from non-market and non-competitive communities on- and offline.

There are no shortage of businesses promoting the benefits of blockchain-led digital economies through idealisations of secure, peer-to-peer, data-as-property (e.g. tokenisation) paradigms that promise to empower users by allowing them to unlock ‘value’ from their personal data in the form of ‘micropayments’ – a model of granular payments that individuals, as well as corporations, can derive from all forms of data exploitation large and small. Far from novel enterprises, a number of these business models necessitate conventions in offline and off-chain markets and consumerism models that require high levels of interoperability between different interfaces, whilst also sustaining forms of centralisation and mediation that correspond closely to the logic of existing patterns of commercial development that blockchain, it was claimed (lest we forget), was going to destroy.

Peer-to-peer digital economies do not eschew but rely upon transactions of personal data within traditional (capitalist) business models. Data subjects auto-exploit by relying on data sovereignty mechanisms, models, skills and techniques given to them as indisputable tools of engagement and self-management, a clear contradiction if we take as our definition of sovereignty ‘the receiving of a general recognition of exclusive domain and consequent possession of the capacity to establish rules of conduct within a particular field of action’10. On this point we see the root of the fantasy of control begin to show itself, because the façade of subject/object choice as a condition of contemporary economic engagement is revealed to be the mere belief in the organisational networks enveloping the ‘free’ economic subject as data subject. In other words, it is an illusion that a data subject has ‘capacity to establish rules of conduct within a particular field’ because ‘a general recognition of exclusive domain’ has never existed but is instead always already capitalism’s domain and the data subject a material site for its ideological (re)production11.

‘Self-sovereign identity technology can put the control [of personal data] in the hands of individuals’ Andrea Tinianow has claimed12. For control to manifest in the manner Tinianow envisages would involve wholesale transformations of the present model of socioeconomic organisation and hegemony, however, that is, the transformation of capitalism into a new state of economic organisation predicated on more not less self-interest. Given the fundamental tenets of capitalist ‘free’ enterprise include supply and demand and ‘winner takes all’ market engagements grounded in the necessity of self-interested, competitive economic subjects, it is hard to see how more self-interest is going to fundamentally ‘disrupt’ the prevailing economic model, or, indeed, encourage it towards some specious notion of post-capitalism. But then it is not meant or designed to. Instead it is a fantasy of economic perfectibility by a data subject at work in the model of data or identity self-sovereignty; or, put more simply, capitalism reinventing itself for the sake of preservation.

We are witnessing the rise of a ledger society in which rituals of verification will become more central to the everyday normative functions of society than Michael Power first certainly envisaged two decades ago.

What is perhaps most astonishing about the blockchain moment, one which is definitively neoliberal capitalist, has been the ability of stakeholders to convince the world of the desirability of digital ledgers as immaterial objects of ritual and devotion. Based on its potential for expansion the digital ledger is arguably an example of greater transformation of the mundane into the spectacular than even mobile phones achieved with the inauguration of smart phones13. We are witnessing the rise of a ledger society in which rituals of verification will become more central to the everyday normative functions of society than Michael Power first certainly envisaged two decades ago14. Within this paradigm the ledger assumes a vast and growing status as ritual object and multivocal symbol, its referents ‘not all of the same logical order’ but ‘drawn from many domains of social experience and ethical evaluation’ for the purposes of allowing data subjects to perform economically15. The result is a jumble of misunderstandings as to the precise nature and value of blockchain as a technology, and reductionist narratives of blockchain as a global economic panacea rushing to fill gaps evacuated of critical reason and reinstitute what Herbert Marcuse long ago called the ‘comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom’ that ‘prevails in advanced industrial civilisation, a token of technical progress’16.

The implications of blockchain fermenting deeper economic reason in cyberspace, and transforming it into an ever more perfect market, is not something to be automatically welcomed. Through such propositions we risk an impoverished humanity existing through technology beset by and implicated in the ideals and practices of financial economy first and last. ‘Networked communication and information technologies are exquisite media for capturing and reformatting political energies’, argues Jodi Dean, they ‘turn efforts at political engagement into contributions to the circulation of content, reinforcing the hold of neoliberalism’s technological infrastructure’17. Where blockchain figures in Dean’s analysis is still evolving as the technology moves from the brute economics of cryptocurrencies to more obvious political domains such as the provision of public services and democratic accountability vis-à-vis voting and government transparency initiatives. Contemporary ledger technologies and the peer-to-peer networks they support not only enable contributions to the circulation of content, as Dean expresses it, but more accurately economize contributions in accordance with ever more concise neoliberal values. The data subject within peer-to-peer networks must thus search for and anticipate each new transaction and exchange as fulfilment of the fantasy of data sovereignty

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About the Author

Dr Robert Herian is Senior Lecturer in Law at The Open University.  His research involves critical legal analyses of new technologies.  He regularly presents work at domestic and international conferences and publishes widely in journals, edited collections, and online. He is author of Regulating Blockchain: Critical Perspectives in Law and Technology (Routledge 2018)

References
1. Olivia Solon and Oliver Laughland, “Cambridge Analytica closing after Facebook data harvesting scandal”, The Guardian, 2 May 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/may/02/cambridge-analytica-closing-down-after-facebook-row-reports-say (accessed 4 June 2018)
2. Carole Cadwalladr and Emma Graham-Harrison, “Zuckerberg set up fraudulent scheme to ‘weaponise’ data, court case alleges”, The Guardian, 24 May 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/may/24/mark-zuckerberg-set-up-fraudulent-scheme-weaponise-data-facebook-court-case-alleges (accessed 4 June 2018)
3. See: https://libra.org/en-US/white-paper/ (accessed 5 August 2019); and Robert Herian, “Libra, Iran and the potential end of cryptocurrencies as we know them”. The Conversation, 1 July 2019. https://theconversation.com/libra-iran-and-the-potential-end-of-cryptocurrencies-as-we-know-them-119606 (accessed 5 August 2019)
4. See, for example: Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism. 2017. Cambridge: Polity 
5. As James Bridle maintains: ‘If we do not understand how complex technologies function how systems of technologies interconnect, and how systems of systems interact, then we are powerless within them, and their potential is more easily captured by selfish elites and inhuman corporations’ (James Bridle, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future. 2018. London: Verso, pp.2-3)
6. Adam Greenfield makes a similar point but specifically targeted at the role Ethereum, the organisation behind the other major public blockchain alongside the Bitcoin blockchain, is having on shaping individual adaption to and adoption of blockchain applications such as smart contracts and tokens (i.e. Ether) allowing for participation in decentralized autonomous organisations (DAOs).  See: Adam Greenfield, Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life. 2018. London: Verso     
7. See: Robert Herian. Regulating Blockchain: Critical Perspectives in Law and Technology. 2018. London: Routledge
8. Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon. 2012. London: Verso, pp.69-73
9. Byung-Chul Han, Psycho-Politics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power. Translated by Erik Butler. 2017. London: Verso, p.5
10. Sarah Manski and Ben Manski, “No Gods, No Masters, No Coders? The Future of Sovereignty in a Blockchain World”. Law & Critique. 2018. (forthcoming)
11. Louis Althusser, On Ideology. 2008. London: Verso, pp.46-47
12. Andrea Tinianow, “GDPR Isn’t the Answer, But Blockchain Is”, Forbes. 4 June 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/andreatinianow/2018/06/04/gdpr-isnt-the-answer-but-blockchain-is/#75e88f8848bd (accessed 5 June 2018)
13. Of course, there are now “blockchain-enabled” smart phones as a marriage of the two phenomena.  See: https://hackernoon.com/a-closer-look-at-three-blockchain-smartphones-28b746976d22 (accessed 8 April 2019)
14. Michael Power, The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification. 1997. Oxford: Oxford University Press
15. Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. 1969. New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction, p.52
16. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimension Man: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society. 2002. London: Routledge, p.3
17. Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics. 2009. Durham: Duke University Press, p.32