Big Data and the Logic of Consumerism

Reading about drone warfare in The Intercept makes me think about how much Silicon Valley assumptions about human behavior have shaped our world.

November 5, 2015

Last month The Intercept, an online muckraking news source that was founded last year by Glenn Greenwald and others, released a trove of leaked classified documents about our drone warfare in the Middle East and Africa. Though it was mostly ignored by the media, it was an important story. We learned that Edward Snowden isn’t the only person in the intelligence community who feels the public should know more about how we are conducting the “war on terror.” We also learned specifics about how we target people for assassination and how many non-targets die along with them (though our government posthumously labels them “enemies killed in action”).

I keep thinking about one of the articles analyzing a leaked document. Jon Schwarz sees  parallel with some marketing material from IBM, a Pentagon contractor providing data analysis programs. He writes, “the Pentagon’s drone program uses data analytics in almost precisely the same way IBM encourages corporations to use it to track customers. The only significant difference comes at the very end of the drone process, when the customer is killed.”

The data gathering that lets a company acquire, retain, and personalize high-value customers is transformed into “finding, fixing, and finishing” high-value targets. The techniques that corporation use to profile us and shape our consumer behavior have been adapted to conducting assassinations. Schwarz characterizes the language in this document as “bloodless,” using enthusiastic marketing language about tasks and targets that ellides the fact that it's about killing people. I had noticed this marketing-speak in the PowerPoint slides leaked by Snowden. So much bragging, so much self-congratulatory hype. So little acknowledgement of what these programs actually do.

This struck me as a theme that I’ve seen in higher ed discourse. So much of what we think about when considering ways to use the data trail that people leave behind them is shaped by the consumerism-driven logic of social media. Metrics seem to carry value simply because they are numbers that can become bigger numbers. Behavior can be shaped through “personalization” that depends on watching people in ways that not too long ago would have seemed invasive and creepy. (Remember when we thought Facebook’s simple-minded focus on how many “friends” we could collect seemed silly?) We have known for years that journal impact factor is a bogus way to judge the value of any one article or its author, but now we judge personal value through counting clicks and eyeballs. We used to think that personalized education came through small classes and the human connections between teachers and students; now we think teachers can’t possibly know students as well as a computerized system that gathers and analyzes information about them.

Perhaps this is inevitable. There’s a lot of money involved in the surveillance-industrial complex, whether it comes through military contracts or ed tech solutionism that pairs austerity and efficiency. Librarians aren't immune, either. We scramble to make our platforms more like Google and Amazon, even though we can't compete with their capacity for mass surveillance and the generation of detailed profiles. How any of that works is hidden from us: it’s a trade secret.

It troubles me that we’re growing more and more comfortable with the assumption that human behavior is essentially consumer behavior, that we are all targets of one kind or another.




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