Authority and authorship in a post-Google world

In a previous post I wrote on the difficult ways to establish trust and intimacy in the digital age. In pushing this idea out a bit laterally I have begun to ponder more about the ways that authority and authorship dictate our digital lives.

Think about trust: Google and other technology companies are in the business of making trust. They are “trust making” companies. Authority and authorship are baked into their business model. Don’t be evil is another way of saying trust us. You are viewing the physical representation of this ideology right on their search results page. The blue links are just colorized trust icons. Each link leads to a source that has authorship embedded into its very existence. Do we fail to recognize how humans are behind these texts? Sure, algorithms whip up something great and serve it on a facile platter for easy consumption, but a human being is tied to each and every bit and byte. To ignore that or to claim that the Internet is somehow neutral or neutered is naive. Their authority, and the authorship guiding each and every move on the internet, is precisely the source, fuel and engine of their power.

Corporations are commodifying trust, and this is not new – every brand is a logo-fied version of a monetized public good. Might as well take a branding iron to the forests, since that’s basically what every paper company has done. This signifies a new owner/author of the public domain. They stamp, brand and own what is effectively no one’s and everyone’s. They restrict and legitimize space and time. They create patents, aka the system of ‘search and destroy’ that targets anyone who trespasses on their sacred domain. Commodities are signifiers of a largely unnamed world, and yet those in control want to make the world into another material object. And as ‘consumers’, we have willingly bought into this myth, since we too, want a piece of the author pie. It’s ours to share, have and hold. A beautiful marriage of consumerism and empowerment.

Commodification, authority and authorship are one side of the coin; democracy is the other. We continue to view the world in this binary frame where everything post 21st century is ours/theirs, and yet the public space is still no one’s. How can we live in this mediated space where the two are incompatible? This myth will only continue to be perpetuated unless we have a larger discussion on what it truly means to be a democratic society. I’m hopeful that there are others out there who feel the same.

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The internet’s “either/or” complex

The internet, in its wild, macabre- and kitten-filled, twisted house of mirrors existence, is not as inclusive, or as some say “cozy“, as we believe it to be. At least that’s not how I see it nowadays. Relative to power, control and democracy, the internet has its own version of “have’s and have-not’s”: users are ping-pong’ed and bounced around from one site to the next, gated by ISPs, IPs, Google, Facebook, and other providers attempting to control and direct traffic within its slippery contours. To use a simpler analogy, the internet continues to exhibit symptoms of the “walled garden” problem – or what I call the “either/or complex“.

What is the “either/or complex“? It sounds fancy, but it’s something you’ve probably encountered if you frequent the internet often enough. Go ahead, picture yourself getting really excited about the Next Big Thing of the Internet. You arrive at its home page, only to be confronted by a smattering of messages, perhaps one or all of the ones below:

Sign up with your Facebook account!
Enter your first and last name.
Accept our revised Terms and Conditions.
Download the latest OS to use this app.

Don’t want to do that? Oh wait there buddy – you can’t go any further. The gates have closed – sorry! You are prohibited from using the Next Big Thing of the Internet. The alternative is… nothing. You have no other option. Those are the rules of the game.

There, now you’ve just experienced the “either/or” complex: either you’re in or or you’re out. Not surprisingly, this attitude is common practice in both old and new internet players, whether you’re a bank or a social network, and it’s changing our notions of participation and belonging.

This ideology plays on our perceptions of what constitutes socially acceptable, normal online behavior. Of course you must use your own name to sign up! You missed the Next Big Thing because you didn’t want to send over your credentials for a new iPhone app? How lame – I’m already gaining followers! Here in the West, where profile information data are freely given in return for delivered goods and services, this either/or binary is baked in – hell, that’s Facebook’s mission, “to make the world more open and connected” – but, why? This isn’t a zero-sum game, yet we’re being trained and coaxed into believing that it is, under the guise of choice, freedom and market capitalism (hey, if you don’t like how this company does business, go somewhere else!). I sometimes feel that this warped social contract has to do with our system of meritocracy. Sign up to play – at your own risk.*  If you do well, it’s because you worked hard, were really lucky, or are a social media guru. If you fail or get scammed, you should have known better, you idiot!

The web is complex, an ecosystem of flickering lights across an overlapping utility grid, yet the operators flip the ol’ on/off switch, effectively shutting off access for whole swaths of people (or should I say, non-consumers). News flash – unique visitors are people, metrics have eyes and ears behind them, and we cannot be discarded so flippantly. Data points aren’t incidental, they are real, flesh and blood, multicellular beings and we ought to have a say in how and why we participate. The internet is not a hammer, and we are not nails. This either/or complex needs to be shattered in order for us to not get swept up into a roiling system worthy of Orwellian proportions.

*Disclaimer: Next Big Website-App-Thing is not responsible for any loss of personal dignity or belongings while on this site, nor do we prevent trolls, spammers, marketers, ad resellers, 3rd party vendors, Catfishers or the like from mining your personal details for maximum gain. Your privacy is important to us, which is why you’re seeing this message, duh!