Communication Currents

Mediated Interactivity: Tools for Democracy or Tools for Control?

February 1, 2007
Digital Communication & Gaming, Mass Communication

When a global media giant uses its bullhorn to proclaim that the Internet has allowed the public to seize control from the media giants, it's time for a closer examination of the marketing of mediated interactivity. Long before Time told us that we were allpeople of the year, the New York Times reported hyperbolically that against the background of emerging forms of interactive TV the brief history of commercial broadcasting could be revealed as a form of top-down information control, tantamount to Stalinism (a reference, of course, to Time's “Man of the Year” for 1939).

The point of such timely interventions is not so much to validate familiar critiques of old media as it is to hype the promise of the new. There is little doubt the commercial mass media are badly broken, at least as a tool for democracy. Consider, for example, the fact that we are in the midst of a war that has led both political newspapers of record, the New York Timesand the Washington Post, to apologize for insufficiently critical coverage of the Bush administration's claims about the threat posed by Iraq. But just how real is the democratic revolution (and Time insists that “it's really a revolution”) being served up by the promoters of new media technologies? In theory, perhaps, interactivity has the potential to facilitate forms of participation and access that might challenge entrenched forms of economic, political, and media power. In practice, however, the version of interactivity on offer – celebrated by the existing media oligopolists – often amounts to a revamped strategy for surveillance and control. The challenge for the era of networked interactivity is to develop strategies for distinguishing between these various versions of interactivity in order to foster those that deliver on the promise of power sharing.

This short essay proposes two related aspects of the deployment of commercial interactivity that fall short of the promise of democratic power sharing: interactivity as surveillance, and interactivity as labor.

First, let me start with an anecdote: This past summer a friend of mine in Australia recounted her attempts to play a high definition version of a DVD she had purchased in the United States. Because the movie was in a proprietary format, she was prompted to log on to the Internet to register her DVD. Upon registering, she was informed that she was attempting to view the movie in the wrong region--because it had been purchased for viewing in the United States, it wouldn't play in Australia, even though she'd carried it halfway around the globe to watch it on her own laptop. The Internet had located her and prevented the movie from playing. Admittedly this is a trivial inconvenience, but it's a symptom of the control clampdown that universal interactivity will make possible. Sometime in the not-so-distant future, the digital rights management software on our portable, networked iDevices will likely know every song we play, when we play it, and whether or not we have permission to play it. Copyright protection will be just one aspect of this online surveillance, which will generate a comprehensive profile of personal media use for marketers and data miners.

This form of information gathering serves not just as a form of control over information, but also as productive labor – the generation of information commodities for the use of producers, marketers and data miners. In a nod to the productive character of interactivity, producers have coined the terms “consumer generated media” and “crowdsourcing” to describe ways in which the promise of interactivity can put the public to work. Far from seizing the reins of power, when we avail ourselves of the promise of interactivity by, for example, crafting Web sites for MySpaceor videos for YouTube, we are creating content and marketing information for Rupert Murduch and emerging new media hegemon Google.

Thanks to the rise of digital networks, we are rapidly enclosing ourselves within a series of virtual interactive enclosures in which our interactions and transactions leave a data trail that can be collected, stored, and aggregated. To use the term “enclosure” is to invoke the fact that control over a monitored space compels a shift in power relations. To the extent that interactions and transactions go online, they become subject to the oversight and control of those who own and operate the enclosure. Submission to detailed forms of information gathering is a condition of buying books online (instead of at the corner bookstore) or using Gmail.

Digital enclosures can encompass both physical and virtual spaces. Consider the example of Google, which plans to offer free wi-fi access to the entire city of San Francisco in return for being able to target individual users with advertising based on their location throughout the day. If you're near Fisherman's Wharf, clacking away on your laptop, you might receive an ad for a nearby seafood restaurant. Google wants to make the physical space of the city itself interactive. As we engage in our daily tasks within Google's digital enclosure, sending e-mail, searching the Internet, working online from the corner coffee shop, we are simultaneously working to generate information commodities for Google – information that will be used to fine-tune the efforts of marketers. A fully interactive world is a fully informated one in which every action and communication is redoubled by information about itself. Within such privatized digital enclosures the promise of interactivity and participation mobilized by Time is assimilated to the inducement to participate in marketing to ourselves.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the version of interactivity as surveillance is is increasingly coming to infiltrate personal interactions, thanks in part to selective public access to the means of monitoring. Sam's Club has mass-marketed relatively inexpensive background check software while search engines like Google have become a ready-to-hand monitoring tool for both government agencies and the general public.

Even as the Internet era has helped to usher in an age of generalized reflexive awareness of the contrivance or performance of self, it has provided strategies for verification and behind-the-scenes access. My survey of online peer-monitoring practices among college students indicate that the vast majority use the Internet as (among other uses) a way of gathering information about friends, significant others, and family members – often without the knowledge of those being researched. Information gathering that once might have been considered a form of stalking has become routine because of the ease with which it takes place online.

Such practices are reflected back through the lens of popular culture by youth-oriented reality shows that model investigatory techniques for cutting through the façade of public appearance and gathering useful background information. Hidden cameras, room searches, cell-phone logs, computer hard drives, and voice-stress analyzers are offered up as sources of information about friends, family members, and prospective dates. The equation of interaction qua surveillance with authenticity and security is, in turn, of a piece with the galloping expansion of government surveillance in the post-9/11 era. Peer-to-peer monitoring can be folded back into a top-down structure, as in the case of municipal terrorist-watch programs like New York City's “if you see something, say something” campaign which hails the citizen spy: “There are 16 million eyes in the city. We're counting on all of them.”

This is perhaps the crucial point to be made about the appeal of interactivity as a strategy of control: It invites identification with the imperatives of those who control the means of interaction. Thus, an interactive campaign against terror incites participatory identification with the terms set by the government--that the campaign is indeed an endless, frontierless war. Similarly, a participatory newsgathering campaign, such as CNN's iReport, urges viewers to define the news in CNN's terms, just as marketers invite viewers to define self-expression as participation in their own manipulation. The challenge of the interactive era is to resist the ready equation of democracy with participation: All forms of democracy require participation but not all forms of participation are necessarily democratic.