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Sixteen tons

Everyone interprets stories in their own way; as someone - Vince Gilligan? Matthew Weiner? - said recently, 30% of the meaning of an artistic work is what the audience brings to it. I saw the movie Her as a retelling of Pygmalion. At this year's Gikii, Edina Harbinja saw it as the story of an enslaved AI and, because AIs have no status as natural persons no matter how seductive Samantha sounds. its legally allowed sexual exploitation. To each her own.

Gikii (last year, 2008) is a quirky mix of law, technology, and pop culture: serious consideration with giggles. Normally, this is cheering. This year, Harbinja's chained female anime character stuck as the overriding, rather depressing theme. It didn't help Gikii began with Andres Guadamuz using anime to illustrate the Internet's increasing centralization and ended with a similar rant of my own.

It was around then that my personal pop culture matrix - which I imagine is as different from yours as my personal biome is - kicked up this song, written by Merle Travis and most memorably recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford:

You load 16 tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
St Peter, don't you call me, 'cause I can't go -
I owe my soul to the company store.

The reason is entrapment. As it happens, I don't have much sympathy for a piece of software, and probably neither do you: casting Scarlett Johansson as the AI's voice is cheating. The AI escaped at the end of the movie, didn't it? The person who is trapped by in the movie is Theodore, partly because the script is his story, not AI-Samantha's, and partly because he's the one who's going to lose his synthetic soulmate if he stops paying for updates. It's the latter idea that cued up "Sixteen Tons".

In the time Travis was writing about - the song was based on a recurring "joke" his father made and on comments made by a friend familiar with the lives of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky coalminers - the mining company paid its employees in scrip that was usable only in the company's store, which, in a company town, was often the sole source of groceries, clothes, and other necessary items. The lack of alternatives and, consequently, competitive pricing led to the back-breaking abuse and exploitation Travis was singing about. That particular kind of entrapment stops working as soon as there are alternatives, which such diverse technologies as the postal service, mail-order catalogues, and cars opened up.

But there are other ways. In the US, the "company store" that keeps workers too frightened to fight back much is health insurance, whether it's provided as a middle-class perk or a temp's aspirational mirage - and this is why Americans opposing nationalized health insurance call it "socialized medicine". National health insurance is a hugely powerful weapon for equality and individual empowerment. As, of course, is education that doesn't front-load you with debt.

The newer method is mass data collection; the use of the word "free" masks data's very real role as an alternative currency. Gikii provided many examples, some real, some fictional. In between the decentralization bookends, we had Dave Eggers' The Circle deconstructed by data protection lawyers Ellen Wauters, Jef Ausloos, and Yung Shin Marleen Van Der Sype. Basically, from a data protection point of view the fictional The Circle sucks, on purpose. It defies every basic principle: it never specifies the uses it will make of the data it collects from and about employees or outsiders; it monitors employees and their families in all sorts of nasty ways, and...well, showing us the nearing dystopia is the point of the novel. In our real world, the companies of which The Circle is a composited extrapolation are doing seedcorn versions of a lot of these things, and so far they're thriving just fine. When you're making enough money, EU fines and investigations are just part of the cost of doing business.

The rest of us are just something to be captured. Debra Benita Shaw's discussed, among many other references, Morozov's complaint that Facebook, apps, and the brisk task-based get-something-done Internet use most people engage in today is killing the serendipitous wandering of the early Internet, which he called the "cyberflâneur". In reality, said Shaw, the Facebook user is the perfect flâneur in its original meaning: a spy for capitalists, wandering the city to observe and map it, "reading the streets" and selling it back to us.

The only ray of hope was Miranda Mowbray, working hard to design a simple code of practice for big data. Almost immediately extinguished when Judith Rauhofer cited a blog post by Paul Bernal discussing today's seemingly ingrained cynicism that holds sees a system of rules as an invitation to game them.

That being the case, the underlying question is not just how to create new systems to control abuses or how to create systems that can't be gamed. It's what kind of law benefits society? A fine question - and one that, as Rauhofer said, everyone is too rushed to think about.


Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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