Published almost a century ago, Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! offered readers a vivid panorama of speculators’ scramble to acquire western lands and then dig for petroleum at all costs. Sinclair’s portrayal spared nothing: the trickery and deceit used to acquire land, the bribes doled out to coax favorable policies from President Harding’s Washington circle, or the insidious, symbiotic relationship between the industry and American empire. The rapacious quest for capitalist profits from oil, Sinclair decried, was “crippling the bodies of men and women, and luring the nations to destruction by visions of unearned wealth, and the opportunity to enslave and exploit labor.”
Today there is a new rush to extract and exploit a previously untapped asset. The financial rewards from this asset are so great that pundits have rushed to dub it a “new oil.” But rather than tapping the remains of ancient algae and zooplankton, we produce this asset through our daily jaunts across social networks such as Facebook and TikTok. We exude it when we browse the Internet, triggering electronic tracking “cookies” that advertisers have cunningly strewn across the web. It is pumped forth from our muscles as soon as we strap on a Fitbit or turn on a directional service while walking or driving to work or school. And increasingly, it will bubble up from “smart” devices laced through our homes, neighborhoods, and cities, many with the capacity to geolocate and track our actions and habits.
The slightly misleading name for this resource is “personal data.” Whether handed over intentionally or unwittingly, it captured by social media, cookies, and the internet of things captures, second-by-second now, granular details of behavior, temperament, and even thinking. It is an enormously valuable asset because it can be used to draw inferences not just about the expected future behavior of the producing subject.
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