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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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

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.