Innovative dystopias

An essay by Matt Stoller called "Profit-Driven Surveillance and the Spectrum of Freedom" on Naked Capitalism looks at the way that analytics, real-time tracking, and the for-profit prison and debt industry combine to produce a dystopia: "In fact, whether you are tracked because you get a discount on your auto insurance or whether you have broken some arbitrary rule or fit in a non-mainstream class of person, innovation in technology and autocratic organizational forms means that there will be a whole new category of constraints on freedom."

There are innovations in injustice that could accompany these products. Traditional illicit corporate profit-taking has been about denying certain products to segmented groups of people – segregation in housing, lower quality of medical care for ethnic and gender groups, predatory lending etc. But technology has now opened up a new model of profit-taking – if a company knows where you go, who you talk to, what you buy and eat, and your medical history, then it can charge you premium pricing by denying you exactly what *you* want. It can bypass your ethnographic group, and focus on tolling off component parts of what you as an individual want.

Imagine a new financial product targeted at people who have defaulted on debt and have a history of avoiding debt collectors. It’s a new kind of credit card, by a bank, which offers a reasonable rate of interest. You don’t have to put up cash or collateral. You don’t have to pay on time. The catch is that the financial institution requires that you wear a small tracking device on your ankle, so that their debt collection department knows where you are at all times. And if you violate the terms of service, the device blares out messages from debt collectors, wherever you are. The device could also be set up to blare out messages whenever you enter a “restricted zone”, say, a shopping mall or a store that the bank has put off limits to you.

Or imagine that a corporation decides that new employees must wear one of these for the first 30 days of employment, to ensure that he or she isn’t tardy, and to more accurately clock people in and out of work. The technology exists, and is being marketed, by private corporations. And it is being used by private corporations everywhere in America, to track tens of thousands of people. I drew this example from a specific device that could do this is called the ExacuTrack One) – the web page describing its technology leaves open all sorts of chilling possibilities. The reason you haven’t noticed is because these products are tracking prisoners, ex-felons, and people on parole.

Profit-Driven Surveillance and the Spectrum of Freedom: “We will offer electronic monitoring services in every state.”