Stanely Deetz (1991) writes about the “corporate colonization of the life-world,” suggesting a lifelong influence of corporations as the replacement for traditional societal structures such as family and church:
Children are born in corporate hospitals environmentally structured with corporate values…, go to corporate sites with their parents to participate in corporate-run daycare, and from there go to schools where they primarily learn positive work-related skills and attitudes. (p. 15)
The dictates of the corporation shape the routine and flow of our lives, as well as the skills and attributes we value. And for the most part, we willingly adopt and enforce the power of the structures for ourselves and our families in manufactured consent. How many of us have chosen a college major (or career path) for ourselves or our children based on the earning potential of the degree rather than our own interest in the subject? We give our manufactured consent, willingly participate in these dominant ideologies, for what seems like the most logical of reasons—that’s “just the way things are” (thus reifying the ideology) (Eisenberg, Goodall Jr., & Trethewey, 2010, p.143).
However, does this corporate-driven hegemony, corporate power and control that is embedded in routine thoughts and activities, influence our technological lives (Eisenberg et al, 2010, p. 143)? Earning a living is one thing (or so we say), but the way we spend our free time, now that’s entirely different. Or is it? In this post I will examine ways in which we as a society, and I in particular, both participate in and resist hegemonic practices related to Web 2.0 technologies and marketing messages. I’ll conclude with a consideration of how “big data” and a more monitored web will continue to create issues of hegemony and resistance. (For my take on the hegemonic co-opting of resistant messages, see this vlog post on the corporate co-opting of the body acceptance movement.)
Opting-in to colonization
When the Edward Snowden story broke, and the US government finally admitted that the NSA was collecting the digital messages of the world, US Internet users were furious. How dare anyone violate the privacy of our inboxes and mobile devices? However, what the government did behind the scenes, most Internet users willingly opt-into every day. With a quick click of the annoying box that acknowledges that “ I’ve read the terms and agreements,” which at 90 pages long we haven’t even skimmed, we willingly consent to be monitored for the purposes of advertising and market research, corporate ideologies.
I am a Google Apps user. I use Gmail for both personal and business email accounts, I browse on Chrome, I post videos to YouTube, I’ve embedded Google Webmaster links in all of my websites so I can use Google Analytics. My home page is Google Search, and my first stop of the day is Google News. My business phone is a number from Google Talk. I’ve opted-in for each of these are more, willingly and happily, for the use of these services for “free.” By opting-into user agreements for Gmail, I give Google permission to search my email for keywords and terms that the corporation can use to sell space to advertisers directly in my email program. If I use Google Search while logged into one of my Gmail accounts, my search is “customized” based on the preferences the algorithm has calculated from having access to my email. While Google swears that Search isn’t skewed toward advertisers, paid links are going to show up on top and along the side of my browser. I willingly allow the violation of my privacy for the marketing purposes of a mega-corporation, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. That’s hegemony and manufactured consent at its finest.
It’s not just my computer that I allow to be co-opted by corporate ideologies, but I’ve also given over my conversations. At least I’m not alone. A 2011 study by Keller Fay and Google revealed that there are 2.4 billion (that’s BILLION) conversations per day in the US that involve the mention of a brand. That works out to 1.4 brands mentioned per conversation. And 94% of those conversations occur offline. For those conversations happening online, brands are mentioned far more frequently (Google, & Keller Fay Group, 2011) When I first heard this I thought, “No way, I’m not always talking about brands.” However, I refer to my phone as “my iPhone.” I refer to my tablet as “my iPad.” I talk to friends and families about television shows I’ve watched, music I’ve heard, about grabbing a coffee at Starbucks. In social media I have asked for and given brand recommendations for technology, restaurants, plumbers, and more. My daily conversation is mindlessly laced with brand conversation. And why? Usually I’m talking brands as a means of social currency or to be helpful. If all my friends are watching Scandal, then I want to be able to talk about Scandal. If one of my friends posts about iPhone versus Android, I’m quick to jump in and be helpful. I give manufactured consent to the marketing goals of companies that I pay (they aren’t paying me to talk about them). I reinforce the power of brands and brand marketing by being a target and statistic in ‘word of mouth” marketing. I’m the smiling spreader of the viral marketing message.
I do not engage in these technologies without resistance. Even with my generous opt-in policy, I am well aware of the purpose of free platforms such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter. I practice resistance by staying abreast of privacy issues and privacy changes on platforms. I understand that by participating in these platforms that I must be vigilant and mindful of the type and style of marketing messages I’m seeing and understand the point of these messages—to get me to believe that my life will be better through consumption. Whenever possible, I use third-party privacy apps and ad blockers. I refuse to allow GPS access to my phone my apps that don’t need them. I have always had a rather utopian view of the Internet as the “democratization of technology.” I believe that many marginalized voices are heard due to access to “free” Internet technologies. I try to use these technologies to support causes and voices that need to heard.
‘The technology doesn’t care,’ but someone should
Noam Chomskey, interviewed for ZMag, proposes a contingent view of communication technology, asserting, “The technology itself doesn’t care; it can be used to improve freedom, dignity, and understanding. It can also be used to coerce, control, and mislead” (Malkin, 2013). Earlier, I touched on issues of web surveillance and data collection. The next big issue of technology, “big data,” is going to create its own sets of ideologies and resistance. Target uses the analysis of its massive collection of sales and customer data to predict when a customer is in early stages of pregnancy (often in the first few weeks, starting by tracking the purchase of pregnancy tests), and begins sending the customer coupons for maternity and infant items. Target’s goal—target a new generation of customers before they are born (Hill, 2012). This takes Deetz’s corporatization of the life world to another level. The children born today are being corporatized in the womb.
This seems extreme, womb-to-tomb corporate colonization, but there may be benefits to big data. Hyper-targeted marketing can help customers weed through the information overload that is the current state of media. Transparent and inclusive knowledge management systems, as proposed by Trethewey and Corman (2001), allowing consumers to control the data that is collected and how it is used could be a useful tool to both buyers and marketers (cited in Eisenberg et al., 2010). Whatever the next trend, it is the responsibility of the mindful user to tread cautiously with full awareness of the hegemonic practices inherent in most technologies.
Question to the readers: to what extent do you willingly and knowingly opt-in to data collection in exchange for something free?
Deetz, S. (1991). Democracy in an age of corporate colonization: Developments in communication and the politics of everyday life. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Chapter 1.
Eisenberg, E. M., Goodall Jr., H. L. & Trethewey, A. (2010) Organizational communication: Balancing creativity and constraint (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Google, & Keller Fay Group. (2011). Word of Mouth and the Internet. [Industry Report]. Retrieved from http://www.kellerfay.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/2011_Word_of_Mouth_Study1.pdf
Hill, K. (2012). How Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her father did. Forbes.com. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/02/16/how-target-figured-out-a-teen-girl-was-pregnant-before-her-father-did/
Malkin, J. (2013, December). Technology in a free society. An interview with Noam Chomskey. ZMag. Retrieved from http://www.zcommunications.org/technology-in-a-free-society-by-john-.hmalkintml