What Does Capital Know?

It is common for us to speak about corporations as though they were people. In fact, for many legal purposes, we treat corporations as though they were people. But this only a legal device, right? Corporations are not aware of our actions, are they? Do corporations make informed decisions?

Back in the early nineteenth century, Romantic artists, writers, and thinkers began to marvel at how all of nature, including, of course, human beings, were linked in a web of life. So taken were they by the comprehensive character of this web that many began to doubt whether individuals were not themselves, in their entirety, products of interactions in whose composition the individuals played no meaningful role. They called this sense of ultimate finitude the “sublime.” One of these thinkers, GWF Hegel, wrote about the totality of relations among all these individual parts as a Spirit or Mind (der Geist) in which we individuals took part.

And then I listed to Michael Barbaro’s December 10 “The Daily.” On this particular show, Barbaro and his guests drilled down into the kind of information that data corporations collect from us, how they map our movements, how — in a sense — they know who we are. And that’s when it struck me: this is Hegel’s Geist, the universal Spirit, or universal Mind.

In Hegel’s interpretation, it is not only that the universal Mind knows the world; it is also the case that the world shapes Mind. As the world changes, this also changes what Mind knows. It changes how Mind interacts with the world that it knows; and so it changes what Mind knows about the world.

But, of course, we are talking about corporations, right? And corporations can’t know; or can they?

Back in the day, when I learned that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security were collecting and processing data they collected from my phone, email, and texts, I decided to make it easy on them. I decided to cc: all of my email to John Ashcroft, who at the time was the Attorney General. “On my way home,” cc: John Ashcroft. “Picking up the kids,” cc: John Ashcroft. “Running late,” cc: John Ashcroft. “Do we have dinner plans?” cc: John Ashcroft. It’s probably safe to say that I am not a real big privacy nut. If John wants my information — legally or illegally — John has ways to get it.

But this is different. To my knowledge, although the  corporations that track my purchases and movement adjust their behavior to suit my movement, purchases, and browsing habits — and although they certainly wish to alter my behavior and even my thoughts and desires — to my knowledge no one is really conscious of Me. I am simply one among millions of data points being purchased, sold, and traded in a general effort to expand what economists call the marginal product — that one additional unit of any good, including information about me, that holds value to some investor somewhere. In the New York Times piece, “How the Times Analyzed Location Tracking Companies” (also December 10), a map of Manhattan displays in real data points the precise locations of users when their data was traded:

The map and the story reminded me of Hegel’s description of universal Mind or Spirit. It suggests that we are known and that what is known about us shapes how the world interacts with us.

But somehow, unlike the web of life for 19th century Romantics, this image of data points fails to invoke feelings for the sublime — or maybe I am wrong. Perhaps it does. Perhaps the sheer immensity of the map, and of the project giving rise to the map — the endless pursuit of an ever larger marginal product; next to this project, perhaps we are right to feel small and powerless. And maybe this is sublime. In our case, however, we probably dimly remember clicking the box next to “I AGREE TO SHARE MY LOCATION DATA [while using?] THIS APP.”

Information has value; which is to say, the more an investor knows about me — my movement, my thoughts, my habits, my purchases, my reading lists, my music tastes — the better able that investor is to use this information to maximize their marginal returns. Defenders of data collection point out — correctly — that these returns would fall were their information less reliable. And they point out — correctly again — that data collection holds benefits for both investors and consumers; the more reliable, the more detailed the information, the better equipped investors are to efficiently serve our needs. Impede or impair the dissemination of reliable information, and you will diminish the marginal product. All true.

This changing, growing, expanding “web of life” is data dependent; information has value. Our movements, thoughts, desires, dreams — all have value; in fact, they have marginal value, value that can be precisely mapped and evaluated. And, as with any “web of life,” it is possible to disrupt and impair its capacity to grow and expand.

But let us now suppose that the Romantics were wrong. They thought they were describing a timeless iterative historical process, a comprehensive whole, a totality, that only within the past century was becoming conscious of itself. What if, instead, we assume that the Romantics were simply picking up on the fact that, for the first time ever in history, global markets had become sufficiently integrated, comprehensive, and rational to give individual investors and consumers within these markets a sense of being very small and insignificant? What if what Hegel called Mind or Spirit (der Geist) was already nearly identical to the data points displayed on the pages of The New York Times article?

If these questions fall not too wide from their mark, then privacy regulations miss the point. Whether or not some data collection firm “knows” the shape of our lives, this will not prevent our lives from taking their shape from the intricate “web of life” composed by capital. But, of course, this is no web of life in any meaningful biological sense. Rather is it  the living, dynamic, transforming and transformative capitalist system, expanding, growing, and occupying every corner of our lives. Controlling the flow of information will do no more than invite it to expand in some other way. What is important is not the data points. What is important is that you are shopping. Happy Holidays!

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