Platform sous rature
Are Amazon and Facebook placing themselves 'under erasure'?
I’m wondering if the potential for an anti-ubiquitous-surveillance sentiment to grow is now becoming a particular concern in the committee rooms of the big tech platforms. Such a sentiment, even if only in the background, might become a thorny barrier to their expantionist tendencies. These platforms may be worried that if they appear to be everywhere then they may seem too powerful or too surveillant. Perhaps these types of concerns are behind two quite different attempts by big tech to understate their own presence.
The first came with the recent advertising campaign for the Ring video Doorbell system. The TV advert made no mention at all of Amazon. Last year I wrote a piece on Ring and the normalisation of what Zuboff has famously called ‘surveillance capitalism’ for Prospect magazine. Since then it has become much harder to see the connection between Ring and Amazon. The TV advert is an example of this, but the Ring website follows the same approach (the ‘Terms of Service’ section gives the clue).
There is obviously nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach toward branding, but we might wonder why this strategy of understatement has been chosen. It will be interesting to see if we start to see other offshoot devices - such as the Amazon Echo - being promoted without any obvious or direct connection to Amazon.
Perhaps what we are seeing with Ring is an attempt to gently manage any discomfort with a single organisation or platform having such potential for surveillance. The idea that one large organisation might have access to so many of these networked devices, especially in the private spaces of the home, is likely to cause some disquiet. Moving the ownership of such systems and devices into the background might ease such concerns.
The second case is little different but retains hints of the same type of approach. You will no doubt have seen the widely covered change of title from Facebook to Meta. Where Facebook has been a target of concerns over data rights, amongst other things, the fears might be assuaged if instead of the idea of one platform having all that data, it is possessed by a more anonymous holding company within which Facebook is just one part.
The focus of this change of name has tended to be upon the creation of a new type of internet model based around a notion of a ‘metaverse’ (this type of model is something that gaming platforms like Roblox have been imagining for a while now). It could be the case that the move to Meta is, as indicted, to enable the focus on a metaverse - a move that, if achieved, would create its own possibilities for data harvesting. This is a grand eye catching gesture1. There are other ways of viewing this move. The aim may be something more mundane. It is a move that, whilst in plane sight, takes Facebook into the background. This vast holding company, now called Meta, doesn’t carry the same baggage and provides a means of data gathering without the same sense of monopolisation or over-surveillance that the label Facebook had become associated with. Facebook was a target for criticism, whereas Meta, with its interest in a grand virtual future for us all, is something less tangible.
I wonder if these are two instances of something similar. In both cases they seem to be the opposite behaviour to that expected of branding; they are about reducing exposure. In order to manage perceptions the tech platforms, to use Derrida's notion, are perhaps putting themselves ‘under erasure’. This is aterm used to think about how things that have been removed retain a presence - it is famously depicted by including bits of text with a line scored through them. These items are crossed out but remain visible - in this case the platforms are crossing themselves out but remain partially visible. They are present but seek to be absent. Such acts of erasure could be attempts to try to make it less obvious that individual organisations are managing to develop quite such a powerful data gaze, especially as they may be sensing that an obstacle to their data gathering will be a concern with this type of monopolisation of surveillance.
One way to grow data surveillance is to manage fears by stepping into the background - platform sous rature. Maybe this use of alternative branding will be part of a strategy to become less obvious in the ongoing centralisation of data surveillance.
If you are looking for a small distraction, I’ve written about the comedian Bob Mortimer for Louder Than War.
I don’t think the metaverse will ever actually happen.