Tag Archives: Interface Criticism.

Digital Money, the end of privacy, and the preconditions of Post-digital resistance

Why not …

“I don’t want to live in a world that everything I do say is recorded” said whistleblower Edward Snowden in his recent interview with the Guardian, in order to justify his revelations over the extend of the surveillance and data-mining of communication around the world by the National Security Agency (NSA). The exposures about “Prism” a surveillance program that allegedly gives NSA direct access to email and telephone communication both in the United States and abroad, has raised concerns about privacy around the globe, including in some of US’ closest allies, including Germany and France. The fears about communication surveillance is fully justified, but there is seems to be little concern about the fate of the information about our economic data and how they circulate in electronic networks. Networked based economic transactions are founded on the principle of absolute verifiability and supervision, and in this domain the fear of Edward Snowden’ is becoming a reality. E-commerce and e-banking can exist only because everything is recorded, retrievable and verified. The same principles apply also to conventional banking before that, but there is one important difference. The information about electronic transactions is in a format that can be processed by the newly available software technologies in low cost and unprecedented speed giving insights about individual and collective behavior that can be both economically and politically useful.

What I think is the most obvious conclusion about the NSA surveillance program “Prism” is the complete failure of the rule of law to protect the privacy of citizens, independently of their location or the particular legal safeguards in their jurisdiction. However, the legal status of data about the economic transactions processed by banks and credit card companies does not entail the same degree of protection as private communications, even though bank secrecy laws give a sense of relative safety. Such data are owned both by the organization that processes the transaction and transacting parties. The proprietary status of the records of virtual economic transactions makes the possibilities of compromising the privacy of banking and credit card information likely. The value of such information is already recognized and in many used for marketing, for the prediction of price movements, and for the screening of transaction for potential dangers of fraud or default. Economic profiling is at par with security profiling but not in relation to potential illegal and harmful for the society actions, but for the creation of profit and the exclusion of the economically disadvantaged. The new flows of economic information may raise new barriers to participation in the official banking and monetary system, excluding first the illegal, then the migrant and potentially the poor and the precarious from accessing the financial system.
Usually the argument that is used to address privacy concerns such as those raised against is that if somebody has nothing to hide, there is no reason to be afraid. Such an argument is premised on the assumption of a benevolent and more importantly of a infallible government.It is not only the case that mistakes can and do happen, even in the most advanced systems of surveillance and processing of economic (and not only) information. What is even more troubling is that when such mistakes happen, there is no forum, or authority that can be called to rectify such mistakes. Once our digital profile is rejected by the algorithms of economic profiling there is nobody, and probably nothing that we could do to rectify our un-attractiveness as clients, something that can limit our access to credit, insurance, and even to a bank account.

Digital money rising

The revolution in information and communication technologies facilitated the expansion of the electronic payment systems and the organization of new types of payment instruments. Communications have became faster, easier and safer but also considerably cheaper. More efficient fund transfers systems emerged and as a result direct debits and credit transfers have been expanding at an increasing pace. Cards payments have been developing by providing added value services to consumers that rely on application of novel transaction interfaces, limiting the use of cash and of other paper based payment technologies and laying the foundations for a cashless society.

With increasing competition from all these new payment media the use of cash is confined only to a fraction of the total value of monetary transactions as the recent editions of the Blue and the Red Book indicate (ECB, figures for 2005; CPSS, figures for 2003). Before the introduction of the Euro (in 2000) cash in circulation amounted only to 1.9% of the GDP in Luxembourg (the lowest in the union), 2.1% in Finland, 6% in Italy, 6.2% in Germany and 8.9% in Spain (ECB, Blue Book 2003 27; CPSS, 84). In the same year cash in circulation as a share of narrow money (M1) was 0.8% in Luxembourg, 6.5% in Finland, 14.3% in Italy, 21.9% in Germany and 17% in Spain(ECB, Blue Book 2001 figures, 9). These figures imply that most of the economic value is transferred through other payment media, but cash still remains dominant in retail. In the Netherlands 70% of all retail payments in 2001 were made in cash, despite the availability and sophistication of electronic payment instruments available (CPSS, 298), in the UK the same figure was 74% (CPSS, 403). The numbers for 2011 within the EU, less than ten years after the introduction of the Euro, suggest a radical change in the landscape of payment technologies if one compares it with the pre-Euro, pre-SEPA times and the there is a strong tendency towards immaterialization. Only in 2011 the total of non-cash payments increased by 4.4% to 24.9 billion. The importance of paper-based transactions continued to decrease, with the ratio of paper-based transactions to non-paper-based transactions standing at around one to five. The number of cards with a payment function in the EU remained stable at approximately 727 million. This figure amounts to 1.44 payment cards per EU inhabitant. The number of card transactions rose by 8.7% to 37.2 billion, with a total value of €1.9 trillion. Finally, only in 2011, the total number of automatic teller machines (ATMs) in the EU increased by 0.9% to 0.44 million, while the number of points of sale (POS) terminals increased by 3.2% to 8.8 million (ECB, press-release). The average value per card transaction is around €52. Chart 1 below shows the use of the main payment instruments from 2000 to 2011.

Chart 1: Use of the main payment instruments in the EU 2000 – 2011 (ECB various publications, estimates of number of transactions in billions)

The phasing out of cash and other paper based payment instruments raises important theoretical questions both about the nature of money and the economic relationships in the new network economy. Interfaces, protocols and networks influence the structure of the market, the degrees of participation of different social groups and also the distribution of the social wealth. In addition the immaterialization of money, brought about by the gradual disappearance of cash opens new possibilities of bio-political control as well as new forms of suppression and resistance.

Digital Economy and the Bureaucratic control of Participation

The digital revolution has not exhausted all its potential, and the application of information technologies seems to be still expanding, but for some time there is a discussion about a new phase. The description of the new condition of the technological and consequently of the social and economic development as post-digital refers to maturation of information and communication technologies and the normalization of their use. We could describe the new condition of sociality as post-digital referring to a series of new organizing principles. The use of digital technologies becomes pervasive at the same time as it gets normalized and integrated in economic activity. The normalization suggest a series of further consequences for the digital framework of socioeconomic interaction which include commercialization, enforcement of common standards that often constrain freedom of expression, surveillance, and concentration in the power and control of electronic network in the hands of a limited number of agents. This later development is especially troubling but also unsurprising since digital networks have an ingrained tendency towards concentration.

The gradual replacement of the networked computer, which is the general purpose technology that carried more of the weight of the socio-economic transformation, by other information processing-devices which have a more restricted domain of application is a further important indication of the normalization of the ICT revolution. Smart-phones, e-readers, tablets, media players, and game consoles provide more restrictive access to content and to interaction, build around graphic interfaces, and allowing limited if any access to their supporting protocol. IT companies, which are simultaneously the producers of the devices, their software, and the retailers of the content, have a vested interest to prevent sharing and cooperation among users to a minimum. Controlled consumption, a term used by Henri Lefebvre, to describe the bureaucratic control of supply and demand in the affluent society, has assumed a new meaning where it becomes a model of restricted and temporary access to information, conditioned by the interfaces and protocols.

In the post-digital age, it is the interface, rather than the personal computer, that emerges as the medium of social participation and consequently as the object of analysis and critique, “for it is the place where flesh meets metal or, in the case of systems theory, the interface is the place where information moves from one entity to another, from one node to another within the system.” (Galloway, 936) If information becomes the main resource and the most valuable commodity, if the economy becomes post-digital, the interface is the most authentic concatenation of technological, social and economic principles. The transformation of individual property rights, and the consequent surveillance for their enforcement, have far reaching consequences over the individual and the economic freedom, reaching even to the fundamental right of economic as well as of political freedom. The intervention of money in digital exchanges commodifies cultural content by the ascription of prices. Here we allude to the economic function of money as an abstract standard of value (Papadopoulos, 957). In this capacity money supports interfaces of controlled consumption, transforming content into economic value and imposing the rules of market exchange on digital culture (Lefebvre, 9). Controlled consumption regulates the participation of the user by creating artificial constraints in the form of intellectual property rights that are inscribed on digital content.

The Payment Interface and the Constitution of the Subject

The investigation of the contribution of transaction interfaces in the support of the symbolic order should explain how the mystifications and the fetishistic attachments that money encourages are enacted in electronic networks. The informatization of money has increased the control of the master signifier of value over the subject by adding more layers of mediation between the subject and its desire, and new mechanism of control, intensifying surveillance and normalization. In the current juncture it is important to reflect on how desire and identity are represented or at least regulated by the new visual architecture of electronic interfaces. The new graphic interfaces impose a new aesthetic, normalizing further the visual representations of sociality and value. As Anne Friedberg argues “this remade visual vernacular requires new descriptors for its fractured, multiple, simultaneous, time-shiftable sense of space and time. Philosophies and critical theories that address the subject as a nodal point in the communicational matrix have failed to consider this important paradigm shift in visual address.” (Friedberg, 3) The forced participation in the market, the alienation of desire by the signifier, the inconsistency of the system of prices, the unjust distribution of wealth and resources, and the vacuity of the notion of economic value find their way in the simulated economic systems, in the interfaces social media and the aesthetics over-commercialized Web 2.0.

The ritualistic character of money is manifest in its repetitive and unreflective everyday use. Subjects relate to money on a practical level; theoretical understanding of the meaning and the functions of money comes only later, if at all. The process of acquiring this practical understanding is quite similar to that of language-learning. The subject is socialized in the use of money through guidance and imitation of the shared practices that involve the use of money. The unreflective relation to the monetary system is not limited to the quasi-automatic rule-following of the norms that regulate money, but extends to the acceptance of the dominant discourse about money and its relation to value. The subject may be agnostic about the role of money, the mysteries of economic value or the constitution of the system of prices, but the use of money is a continuous ritual of investiture in the ideological content. Money develops from a mere carrier of its social function, as standard of value and a means of payment, to the dominant organizing force of social interaction. Social relations are mediated and reconfigured through the intermediation of money. The signifying omnipotence of the master signifier is combined with the omnipresence of everyday use, effectively quilting the signifying chain of the system of prices both at the level of meaning and at the level of practice. The distance that the subject may assume from ideological content is neutralized by the reliance on money for social engagement. The intermediation of money in social relations affirms the symbolic order for the subject as well as its mandate inside this order, even despite the subject.

Money is the master signifier and provides the foundational organizing principle in the contemporary configuration of global capitalism. The salience of money is manifest in the dominance of financial speculation over ‘real’ production1. Money emerges as the vehicle that realizes the global economy of unequal exchange, and as the instrument that commodifies social relations and regulates bio-politics; it is the signifier par excellence. Money signifies the particular content that hegemonizes the universal ideological construction of capitalism providing a particular and accessible meaning to economic value, which colors the very universality of the system of prices and accounts for its efficiency. In addition, the use of money involves a ceremony of initiation in the ideological form, an everyday practice that reifies the dominant ideological form in everyday transactions. Money is the signifier/cause of desire, which symbolizes and signifies all commodities, as well as the articulation of desire and lack in the symbolic order of capitalism. Money is “the unconscious sinthome, the cipher of enjoyment, to which the subject is unknowingly subjected” (Žižek, 106) in and by the market.

The interfaces that support the circulation of economic value in the internet are imbued with a complex machinery for hiding things, be it the emptiness of the value form, the self-referentiality of money and its ability to mask its own history of production and the social division of labor that it generates. The success of of the interface is the ability to regulate information through inscription and execution, which is no doubt both an abstraction or a re-territorialization of the actual circulation of value globally. The structure of electronic payment facilitates the global system of unequal exchange. The relationships between center and periphery, between producers and consumers, between labor and capital, between finance and society are all neutralized by the algorithms of money and networks. The ability of money to reduce all qualities in an absolute quantity is being intensified by the functionality of protocols to domesticate social relations. Protocols reproduce the same fetishistic logic of money. “Users know very well that their folders and desktops are not really folders and desktops, but they treat them as if they were – by referring to them as folders and desktops” (Galloway 2006, 329); in the same fashion the semiotic flow of monetary value, be it through PayPal, through MasterCard or through Bitcoin, even though just a simulation it acquires a modicum of reliability through enforcement and representation as money via the providers of monetary interfaces.

Payment Interfaces and Post-digital challenges; a set of questions

Despite the disillusionment and the concerns about the emergence of a new totalitarian economy of controlled consumption, the new economic condition of digital culture is described by the proponents of the model of controlled consumption as a revolution, with its simulated existence presenting itself as the ultimate reality of value, which tries to make earlier forms of social participation subordinate and even unreal. Starting from this mystification of the effect of digital interfaces on social interaction, the paper aims to raise a series of questions for the analysis of the cultural effects of the mediating function of post-digital interfaces by focusing on their economic, technological and aesthetic conditions of existence. A critique to the new digital architecture of the monetary system and the market should start by investigating the different protocols of digital transactions, focusing on the dynamics of commodification by locating how money intervenes and signals the creation and transfer of economic value. The aim should be a theoretical framework for the analysis of the model of controlled consumption and its dependence on money and its function as a standard value. The ability of interfaces to impose, both overtly and covertly, new relations of ownership as well as well as new forms of surveillance, suggests their capacities as technologies of biopolitical control of the individual.

The model of controlled consumption is challenged by alternative economies, of sharing, gifting, and exchanging based on different standards of value. The critique of money interfaces and controlled consumption should start by studying the collective representations of value in money, the technologies of their dissemination, and investigate their contribution in the constitution of subjectivity in the digital realm. The shared representations of economic value support consumption and commodification by illustrating the cultural significance of the system of prices. A post-digital critique of money can be developed following a series of questions, the most important of which is how the new visual vernacular of digital monetary interfaces informs and shapes the representations of economic value and how are such representations are challenged and informed by post digital practices? The answer to this question comes from critical theory and philosophy rather than from economics, building on the literature on the reliance of the economy on representation and signification, and on an extensive literature on the social function of representation that spans from social ontology, and psychoanalysis, to media theory. The new socio-technological paradigm challenges the cultural foundations of the economy encouraging new representations of value that fit the format of the new media of circulation and the symbolic universe they inhabit. A post-digital critique of electronic money should try to assemble, organize and interpret the emergent iconographies in an attempt to construct a theoretical framework for the analysis of the new ‘digital’ identity of economic value investigating both its authoritative expression in the official monetary system and its alternative post-digital configurations.

The analysis of ‘digital value’ should be supported by the study of three interconnected themes of research combining the methodological framework of interface criticism and aesthetic analysis of monetary interfaces with a critical perspective on economic discourse. The analysis may start by looking back to the growth of the informational sector of the economy, revisiting the most important episodes, integrating them to the overall trajectory of social development tracing the relation of value and money with equivalent transformations in language and image. Such a historiography is important to contextualize the role of information about the economy as separate socio-economic system and to describe its input in social production. In this context the notion of economic value would be central as well as its transfigurations in the new economic system. Equally important would be the relation between money, language and code, which will support the analysis of the immaterialization of economy and value. The second theme would be the issue of uncertainty and its relation to economic growth. In the recent decades the financial markets have thrived on computational models that partly reduce uncertainty to risk, making it manageable. Uncertainty could be considered in two different capacities. It denotes both the unpredictability of future outcomes given the availability of information and the resources of processing it in the present, but also points to a gap between reality and representation, where uncertainty is the part of the undomesticated real that disrupts the relations of our theories to the world. The third part the analysis will address the dialectic relation between interface criticism and the further development of interfaces with a specific attention to artistic practice and political projects that aim at actual alternatives to the monetary system of valuation and exchange, both within and outside digital networks of participation. Ideally the outcome would be an archeology of digital payment media that is informed by the process of social antagonism. To that effect the project should try to compile a typology of the aesthetic and the operational principles of monetary interfaces including both their mainstream version and the critical attempts from the edges of the economic system. The conclusion of the analysis would be a critical history of money and its current reconfigurations in the digital condition.

Interface criticism emerges as a necessary methodology in order to understand the conditions of participation in the new social paradigm. Interface criticism addresses the conditioning of human behavior by new technological media with a specific emphasis on the sensible and persuasive qualities of the interface. Obviously aesthetics and its relation to economics and technology represents an important part in the methodological framework that is used in interface criticism and is a necessary supplement to socio-economic analysis. Here aesthetics is used in three interconnected meanings. Aesthetics denote sensory perception; an interface has a sensible component in order to create meaning and allow for the interaction between the user and the system that are connected through the interface. A second dimension of the aesthetics of the interface has to do with beauty; interfaces are often designed to be appealing, pleasing, and even seductive in an attempt to address the subject and its desire and to invite interaction. The key here is that the interface is within the aesthetic, not a window or doorway separating the space that spans from here to there. It is a type of aesthetic that implicitly brings together the edge and the center, or the protocol and the node, but one that is now entirely subsumed and contained within the visual architecture of the interface. This tension brings us to the last, and most subversive possibility in the aesthetic quality of the interface, the notion of aesthetics as artistic production. Art can operate as a force of consolidation of the power of the interface as it can function disruptively, unmasking the limitation and the normativities of the system, and acting as the real form of transparency.

Works cited:
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