Am I Big Brother’s Keeper?

Lee McGuigan is one of the eight 2014 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar“The Third Man Theme Revisited: Foreign Policies of the Internet in a time of Surveillance and Disclosure.” Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2014 Seminar discussions.


Post-war Vienna, as portrayed in the film The Third Man, could be interpreted as a metaphor for the internet: A handful of competitively positioned actors are vying to assert authority over a jurisdiction and its strategic resources. While the edges are balkanized to a certain extent according to the controls, values, and norms imposed and enforced by sovereign powers, the central space is an ostensibly international zone in which claims to ownership and authority are contentious and without an obvious natural basis. In many ways, the development of the internet is impaired by an inability to resolve competing narratives of closure. In other words, the actors are staking not only geographical but ideological claims about what the digital space means, how it should be used, and who will oversee its assembly and maintenance. Closure is thus both a matter of architecture and a matter of vision—of consensus about the values embedded in the design of the internet (and its intended functions) and the norms underpinning the legitimacy of an actor’s claim to authority. Absent this closure, the global internet, like post-war Vienna, is a liminal zone wherein strategic actors enforce their preferred agendas, which correspond to different “social imaginaries” (cf. Mansell, 2012). The actors police the space to protect the health and safety of citizens, or facilitate the “efficient” and “free” functioning of markets, or enforce boundaries of citizenship—to determine: who has rightful a claim to belonging; what is the nature of their rights; who are not legitimate citizens; what access to the space non-citizens are afforded; and what punishments befit transgression. Throughout The Third Man, the strategic actors (e.g. the Russians and the Americans) use different tactics to pursue different priorities, sometimes in cooperation and sometimes in discord. Their attitudes toward the agendas of other actors range from indifference, to ambivalence, to antipathy in cases of conflicting objectives. Ultimately, these attitudes are also inherent in power struggles over global flows of information and competing narratives of legitimacy about who should govern the internet and how.


In a 1972 interview with Peter C. Newman, which was lost, rediscovered, and then published in Maclean’s magazine in 2013, Marshall McLuhan made some provocative and startlingly prophetic pronouncements: “The new human occupation of the electronic age has become surveillance. CIA-style espionage is now the total human activity. Whether you call it audience rating, consumer surveys and so on—all men are now engaged as hunters of espionage.” Continuing along this line, he goes on to predict that, “The biggest job in the world will be espionage. Around the world, people are spending more and more of their time watching the other guy. Espionage at the speed of light will become the biggest business in the world.” Venerated techno-utopian and a founding editor of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly (2014) admits what McLuhan foretold forty years prior:

The internet is a tracking machine. It is engineered to track. We will ceaselessly self-track and be tracked by the greater network, corporations, and governments. Everything that can be measured is already tracked, and all that was previously unmeasureable is becoming quantified, digitized, and trackable.

The capacity to collect and analyze what a Big Data scientist at MIT calls the “data breadcrumbs” left behind from our digital lives is embedded in the technical and bureaucratic architectures of our information society (“Reinventing society in the wake of big data,” 2012).

McLuhan anticipated that electronic media would draw together humans within a Global Village in which we would all know the business of our neighbors, whether next door or overseas. So-called social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, certainly facilitate correspondence with our global neighbors; but it is increasingly clear to people that even when they draw the curtains, some neighbors are still peering in surreptitiously. Businesses and governments are racing to build ever more sophisticated and expansive data armories. Again, these strategic actors are harvesting data for various purposes: to accelerate market exchange and reap “efficiencies” through targeted marketing; to protect users from cybersecurity problems (as in some uses of deep packet inspection); and to ferret out “unworthy” cyber citizens, whether criminals, terrorists, or undesirable consumers. An enormous amount of surveillance is undertaken in service of offline law enforcement. Like post-war Vienna, the Global Village is policed by interests that may be working together or at cross-purposes, and often not in view of each other.


Ongoing debates over internet governance are marked by technical and administrative complexities, and they have profound global implications for various arenas of public and private life (DeNardis, 2014). The internet has a currently unrivaled ability to observe and analyze human communication activities. As increasing aspects of life are mediated by internet-enabled media—commerce, education, health care, social organization, political action, domestic life, etc.—questions about who gets to manage these apparatuses of surveillance and control are increasingly urgent. The battle for internet governance—which rages not only among sovereign states but also corporations and political organizations with leverage over some or other component of the physical and administrative infrastructure supporting networked communications—is also a battle for a stake in determining and benefiting from technologies of social control. What sorts of mechanisms can be put in place to check the power afforded individuals and groups monitoring or policing the digital domain? What is the appropriate balance of distributed control among the “stakeholders”—a label which in formal venues typically designates a rarified set of actors representing states, industry, and civil society?

These questions are far from closed.

My interests are particularly focused on the impending Internet of Things—or the more ambitious Internet of Everything, as has been recently trumpeted by Cisco, Intel, and others. Sometimes called the Industrial Internet, the Internet of Things describes a condition in which microprocessors and sensors connect virtually all objects, whether ordinary or technically sophisticated, within a digital, wireless communication network. Not only computers and electronic appliances, but clothes, product packages, medical instruments and even human bodies are fitted with flexible, nano-sized, and relatively cheap chipsets. With the Internet of Things, the scope of ubiquitous connectivity is staggering. Cisco boasts that the Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) has the capacity to assign unique web addresses to 4.8 trillion objects for every star in the known universe (Bradley, Barbier, & Handler, 2013, p. 2). The Internet of Things presents enormous potential to improve the administration of health care services, to aid emergency response both in cases of personal injury and public crises, to enable better allocation of resources such as energy and food—these are, of course, many of the promises punctuating discourses on “Big Data.” But the Internet of Things will not develop in line with these purposes as a natural matter of course. Its development and deployment is a social process, dictated by the visions of vested interests and the power of those interests to marshal resources toward realizing their visions. That is to say that it is not obvious that this technological apparatus will be put to use more forcefully for health care than for targeted marketing. Perhaps the most zealous proponents of the Internet of Things are among a marketing and managerial elite who imagine a ubiquitous marketplace in which consumers and employees are “always on” (McGuigan & Manzerolle, forthcoming). Beyond the now normalized ambitions for tracking consumers across devices and as they move through virtual and physical commercial environments, marketers imagine connected devices and product packages that automate consumer decision-making to the point that a carton of milk will automatically trigger a purchase when it is nearly empty. Gartner (2013) research predicts that by 2017, some 10 percent of online consumer purchasing decisions will be delegated to connected devices and 80 percent of consumers will become data brokers, collecting their information and using it to barter with merchants for customized deals.

How this connected environment takes shape will not be a matter of pure technical superiority, ingenuous enterprising, or “free” market forces; it will be the outcome of political, social, and economic negotiation. The battle for Internet of the Things governance is already underway, as recently AT&T, Cisco, General Electric, IBM, and Intel have founded something called the Industrial Internet Consortium, with the intention of controlling the direction of the Internet of Things. These are profit-maximizing firms, with no mandate to deploy these technologies in the public interest; yet they have enormous collective power because they build and maintain the technical architecture of the Internet of Things. It is important that critical scholars and civil servants be vigilant in monitoring such organizations and imposing checks on corporate power over what is increasingly the infrastructure for everyday life.


Bradley, Joseph, Barbier, Joel, & Handler, Doug. (2013). Embracing the Internet of Everything to capture your share of $14.4 trillion. Cisco White Paper.

DeNardis, Laura. (2014). The Global War for Internet Governance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Gartner. (2013, November 25). Predicts 2014: Consumer analytics and personalized user experiences transform competitive advantage. Gartner.

Kelly, Kevin. (2014, March 10). Why you should embrace surveillance, not fight it. Wired.

Mansell, Robin. (2012). Imagining the Internet. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McGuigan, Lee, & Manzerolle, Vincent. (forthcoming). ‘All the world’s a shopping cart’: Theorizing the political economy of ubiquitous media and markets. New Media & Society.

Newman, Peter C. (2013, July 16). The lost Marshall McLuhan tapes. Maclean’s.

Reinventing society in the wake of big data: A conversation with Sandy Petland. (2012, August 30). Edge.


Lee McGuigan is a doctoral student in the Annenberg School for Communication. He studies the business and cultural histories of television and advertising, the sociology of markets and consumption, and the political economy of technology. He holds a Master’s degree from the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario. Lee is co-editor (with Vincent Manzerolle) of the book The Audience Commodity in a Digital Age: Revisiting a Critical Theory of Commercial Media (Peter Lang, 2014). His work has been published in Television & New Media and the Journal of Communication Inquiry. Lee comes from a fruit and vegetable farm in Cedar Springs, Ontario.

Featured Photo Credit:Creative Commons License by Silberius Some rights reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

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