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Internalizing, Interpreting, and Identity: What do Attention Trackers Do in a Social Sense?

David Smith has an amusing and intriguing post about the surveillant potential of attention trackers. I briefly covered this in my last post on the new control society but it was a little buried in the entry. I think it is widely going unnoticed, with all the Web 2.0 optimism and the drive to develop new, profitable business models, that we are gradually collecting the traces of our projected identity we leave around the Social Web and neatly packaging them. This is the essential nature of attention trackers. These tools track your comings and goings in a way that is certainly not a new phenomenon for the Web; what is new is that we are doing this voluntarily, for our economic benefit. This isn't simply happening in the attention on attention, but this self-tracking has become a staple of interaction in these social media networks. Andy Beal has an entire post about the best ways to track your identity (or company, or product) on the Web, and Platial allows users to visually map their lives. While not as explicit as Root Vaults, this kind of self-tracking (which I do with embarrassing frequency) is the same process of beginning to concretize, reify, commodify, or centralize one's inherently multiple projected identity. I say "beginning" because many independent databases run by many different independent entities is very different from the same effect in a singular database.

To look at this in terms of power and control, this is a process of internalizing the new kind of distributed control that has grown around these media. It is not a Big Brother type that keeps tabs on us and gives us our cards (here, referencing Guattari's vision of the access card driven control society), because we are doing it ourselves. Where this does begin to resemble a dystopian scenario is when Foucauldian-style institutions begin to form around these packages of volunteered data. What I am wondering, however, is to what extent is it significant that we are largely able to define ourselves? Is the creation of a concretized, singular identity itself as much as problem as an externally originated, exploitative one? I am tempted to say "yes" but am by no means sold.

There is a balance here, a balance between "harnessing" (though I think "interpreting" might be a less invasive term for the implied action) the wisdom of the swarm (Nicholas Carr has a good post related to this) and exploiting it, controlling it.

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