Big Brothers Are Seducing You: Consumerism, Surveillance, and the Agency of Consumers

Big Brothers Are Seducing You: Consumerism, Surveillance, and the Agency of Consumers

Ikbal Maulana (Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Indonesia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8491-9.ch004

Abstract

Internet technologies have empowered consumers, giving them access to any information, allowing them to compare products against one another before they decide to buy. And when the product disappoints them, they can easily spread their disappointment. They have even the possibility to mobilize themselves to force businesses to comply to their demand. However, the corporations that provide the technologies are also the ones that continually surveil and create detailed profile of each individual consumer. It allows businesses that use these data to better seduce consumers to want and desire many things that they actually do not need. While there are concerns that consumers are vulnerable to informational manipulation, on the internet consumers are not passive audience. On the contrary, they can challenge businesses in many ways. Consumers can be surveilled by businesses, but the former can also put the latter under their collective social surveillance.
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Introduction

Big brother is watching you. No. big brothers are watching you. It is not one, but can be many big brothers that are watching you. The number of big brothers depends on how many of them you invite to surveil you. Yes, it is you yourself that invite them. It is you who let them put yourself under their looking glass in exchange for comfort and pleasure. Indeed, these big brothers are not the Orwellian villain who is devoid of any goodness. They constantly monitor you to know you personally as a unique individual, so that they can maximize serving you.

So, welcome to the era of surveillance capitalism, an era you cannot avoid if you cannot live without making continual digital connection. It is an inevitable world when most of the people you know are being digitally socialized. You will be left out by your social networks if you stubbornly remain analogue.

Don't worry. The surveillance capitalism will not put you in the Orwellian world. You will not be forced to obey anyone's command. On the contrary, you will get much more freedom than what you already have in your actual life. They will put all information in the world at your finger tips, they allow you to create your own world with friends you can freely select, or they will allow you to easily make any transaction, find you suitable friends, or lead you through unknown territory. So, there is nothing to worry?

Many people, most of them scholars, do really worry that you are not immune, or even are vulnerable, to informational manipulation. By allowing the providers of free services to constantly surveil you, you allow them to hack your inner self, to program you to want and desire many things that you actually do not need. They have a sophisticated form of power over you, because they are capable of “inducing compliance by influencing desires and beliefs” (Lukes, 2005, p. 136). By constantly monitoring you, they may know some aspects of you better than you know yourself, and manipulate you by providing information that suits your personal data. Being manipulated, you will not feel coerced, you may even see your new wants and desires as the characteristics of the identity you aspire to be. For the users of your personal data are mostly businesses, they will have greater capability to convince you to be their consumer. You may then develop the belief that your identity and lifestyle are supposed to be expressed in and your happiness also relies on the consumption of consumer goods they offer (Featherstone, 2007). Businesses always seek to make you their loyal, and even greedy, consumers.

This chapter will discuss how the current Internet technologies have empowered both consumers and businesses. These technologies have shifted the power toward consumers, and given them easy access to product choices and information. They can easily compare product offerings from different businesses, and can easily spread their disappointment when they are disappointed by the latter. These technologies have intensified competition among businesses. But, they have also the opportunity to continually surveil, and then manipulate and exploit consumers' consumption and desire to consume. The current technological development may not necessarily result in businesses exploiting consumers or the other way around. But, generally consumers can be more consumptive, and may consume much more than what they truly need.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Capitalism: An economic system that relies on market mechanism to support competition and the private ownership of production systems to pursue profit.

Big Brother: A fictional character in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four who gains his power from surveillance of people.

Big Data: Large and complex data sets which cannot be adequately processed using traditional data processing software or techniques. New techniques of statistics and machine learning have been developed to deal with big data.

Consumerism: A view or ideology that regards that the increasing consumption of goods and services is necessary for economy.

Consumer Culture: A culture where people define their identities and the identities of others based on what they and others consume, their values stimulate consumption, and their world is centered on the consumption of goods and services.

Machine Learning: A type of software technology that allows computers to learn from data and develop a capability without being explicitly programmed.

Surveillance: Close and often hidden observation. On the internet, the surveillance is carried out by using software technology and results in large amount of data to be analyzed by using other software technology.

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