Who dares to dodge Google’s information tax? | McKenzie Wark

In exchange for giving up our personal data, we get to watch each other’s cat videos, while Google becomes the new state

Of course Google doesn’t want to pay its taxes to the British crown, like a loyal corporate subject.

Of course Google doesn’t want to pay its taxes to the British crown, like a loyal corporate subject. In Google’s mind it secretly thinks that it is now something like a state, and we are all its subjects. It is we who should pay tribute to it – and we do.

We pay it a sort of information tax. Google is the Ministry of Information Retrieval. If you want some data, you have to give up some, about who you are, what you do, what your movements are. Like most other states, Google will then sell access to you to other interested parties.

Just like any state, Google has its spies. Its Street View cars snoop the world’s high-value streets. All the better to help us citizens of Google-land do what we are supposed to do there – which is shop.

If Google succeeds in selling us its Google Glass, then we all become its agents. We would be a sensory apparatus for a vast computer database whose mission is to take our perceptions, thoughts, feelings or discoveries and turn them into money.

Some might be quite happy residing in Google-land. Google Books might be better than your local library. Google Maps makes up for all the missing street signs your council can’t maintain. It is entirely possible that Google has better intelligence on world affairs than MI5 or the CIA, and its designs on what to do with it might be a bit less evil.

As with any state, there’s another side. The British government at least notionally acts in the interests of its citizens. There is at least some transparency, some checks and balances. But in Google-land none of this applies. It acts in the interests only of its shareholders, and that perhaps only notionally. We are not really its citizens but its peons. We always owe a debt of information to Google, no matter how much of it we have already given up.

There used to be all sorts of criticisms of the old “culture industries” like Hollywood and the top 40, which entertained us with stories or songs that always ended on an upbeat note, no matter how false. But at least the culture industries went to the bother of entertaining us. Their replacements don’t even bother. They expect us to entertain each other, and pay a tax for it. Facebook or Google’s YouTube are not the culture industries so much as the vulture industries, taking an information surcharge from us while we amuse each other, and selling us to advertisers. Like do-it-yourself commercial TV.

These are all elements of what I call the “spectacle of disintegration“. The old spectacle of television and radio papered the world with images of what the lovely soul of the commodity was supposed to look like. We were at least still free to daydream while we sat idly watching.

But in the spectacle of disintegration, all that breaks apart. The big screen decays into so many little screens. Our leisure time is now to be spent producing information for the vulture industries of Google and co, in an unequal exchange of information. In exchange for the poll tax of personal data, we get to watch each other’s cat videos, while Google becomes some new version of the state, presiding over all our bitty lives, master of all our data, in aggregate.

Like any state, Google has its patriots. But there are also those who think this latest version of the spectacle offers some quirky avenues for having fun at its expense. Its time for a certain opacity, a certain glamour of obscurity. Not all the information we offer up has to be even remotely true.

It’s 45 years since the failure of May ’68, that last attempt to rock the old kind of state. Afterwards the Situationists, who gave us the concept of the spectacle, disbanded. But they did not go silent. They pioneered ways of discreetly carving out spaces where other codes apply, protected by cryptic passwords. Perhaps some of their subtle arts might work within the belly of this new digital beast, so that we might live within it, but not give it our undivided attention.