The Privatisation of the Self < Back

07.09.18 | Neoliberalism’s war on public spaces seeps further and further across the boundaries of what's left of our inner selves, into the previously untouched territory of personal agency and identity. Neoliberal principles now infect almost all areas of our lived, shared thinking, no more typified than by the shape of our digital interactions.

In A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey argues that the “disposable worker,” emblem of the flexible labour markets that are typical of privatisation, faces inexorable repercussions in terms of self-esteem and personal agency. There are “seemingly abundant rewards” for those unburdened from the tyranny of contracts, job security and regular income, set free into a mirror-world of capitalist consumer culture, the only system that can offer both income and identity. What Harvey calls a resultant “possessive individualism” comes no better a descriptor of the technology-forward culture of today: a culture where, individualised by avatars and social media profiles, we broadcast and brand ourselves constantly out into digital public space. But the ‘public’ space of our digital environment is less public than ever. Each post, like, share and follow comes to form a three-dimensional image of you that doesn’t belong to you. This data sculpture lives somewhere in the servers of private conglomerate technology, its gleanings profiling you, determining who you are as consumer, voter, citizen. These things can now only belong you to in the moment before you express them: from the moment they live in the discourse they exist as property of someone else.

The last space left to be privatised is the self: sold and/or co-opted in to the corporate wet-dream of a connected singularity, one no one can exist outside of, from which nothing can be allowed to be kept back. Your cellphone tethers you umbilically to the invisible nebula of human discourse; its breadcrumb trail writes your dreams, thoughts and habits in thick black letters on a permanent ledger which is always up for sale and yet always beyond your reach. Not content with owning our public spaces, our health, our schools, our attention, the private sector wants our very essence. It wants our gestures, our beliefs, the entirety of our ambitions in the form of every micro-expression, every tick of personality, each piece of our interactions with that which we understand to exist outside of us.

To be alive today and grapple with the realities of an information society, an information economy, is to be told one must join or lose, adopt digital literacy both as necessity and as empowerment. We can be baffled and cowed by its intractable mystique, or we can dive feet first into its promise, schooling ourselves in the socioeconomic promise hidden in the unlocking of its codes. “The information economy needs more programmers, and young people need jobs in the future,” James Bridle considers in his book New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future. “But learning to code is not enough, just as learning to plumb a sink is not enough to understand the complex interactions between water tables, political geography, ageing infrastructure, and social policy”. In the enduring proliferation of computational thinking, built almost entirely within a private, corporate understanding of where data and digital life must live, the implication is that we must imagine ourselves as employees, company loyalists to TechLifeCo, in order to conceive of ourselves as functioning in the world. And while this paints a picture of the pernicious persuasion of a malignant entity, bent on perverting a reluctant culture to its own evil will, in truth, the privatisation of the inner life seems like manifest common-sense to most of us. Why wouldn’t you want to function in the space where everybody else is, where each individual apparently has a voice, where connections are infinite and myriad? The provenance of the gateways into those spaces, their very terrain, is a minor consideration, a mere detail. Public or private, what’s the difference?

The difference is important because private systems — of technology, governance, ownership or whatever — come embedded with ideologies. “We will have to stop treating the various networked technologies around us as givens… and learn to see them anew as bearers of ideology,” writes Adam Greenfield in a blog piece for Verso books. Greenfield’s simple definition of ideology as an “unconscious body of assumptions” reminds us that it is the hidden ideologies in the systems of living that, either consciously or unconsciously, come to embody those systems: to be ignorant of, or negligent to, their effects is to become an agent of them. As David Harvey notes, many bemoan increasing social inequality as an unfortunate “side-product” of the privatisation agenda, blind to the fact that such inequality “might have been its raison d’être all along”.

The privatisation of the self thus symbolises a submittal to a system of economic imbalance and corporate logic that makes you complicit in its efforts to diminish not only others, but ultimately yourself. Privatisation — no matter how commonplace it seems, how common-sensical and routine — will never be pursued in the interests of the masses, only of upwardly-mobile elites. As Barthes said, “common sense is the watchdog of petit bourgeois equations: it blocks dialectical outlets, defines a homogenous world”. Privatisation, therefore, is the pot-of-gold at the end of the rainbow of the image we have of ourselves: intangible, utopian, but at the same time somehow ever-present. We are habituated to its promise to the point of banality. Allowing the self to be owned in the image of a body corporate; our thoughts, feelings, our very movements in space to be collected and pocketed and held from us — that is the ultimate punchline to the technology-rich, prospects-poor joke that is our endless dream of meta-progress.

7th September 2018