Thought Experiment: Social Media/Tech as Big Data Farm as Prison Farm

By in big data on September 15, 2013

Clearly, I am in the process of thinking through what big data means for my various projects. I imagine I will be on this kick over the next few months. Let me see if I can correctly remember the process that brought me here. I was in the middle of a conversation about surveillance and wearable technology have surveillance technology built-in to feed the data farm. This made me go to Wikipedia to look up data farming, because it had to exist! (it does). The article left me thinking it didn’t quite get at what I wanted, because the data farm I was imagining isn’t a simulation. It is reality.

I had an ah-ha moment on twitter. Or at least I had the thought that made me do this thought experiment.


Rather than attempting to write something new, I decided to take part of the text from the Wikipedia prison farm entry and change a few words to see if big data farms as prison farms work. Here are the results.

Rewriting: Wikipedia Prison Farm Entry for Big Data Farms & Digital Platforms

A big data farm or digital platform is a large correctional facility where social labor users are put to economical use in a ‘farm’ (in the wide sense of a productive unit), usually for data labour, largely in open systems, such as in social, personal and, technological media, etc. Its historical equivalent on a very large-scale was called a penal colony.

The data produced by big data farms are generally used primarily to feed the laborers themselves and other wards of the platforms, and secondarily, to be sold for whatever profit the platform company, and any other company the users may have entered into a clickwrap or browsewrap agreement with, may be able to obtain. This configuration is often referred to as prosumption.

In addition to being forced to labor (produce data) directly for the government on a big data farm or in a social media platform, laborers may be forced to do farm work for private enterprises by being farmed out through the practice of selling access to data streams to work on private profit-making initiatives (often targeted advertising or related industries such as, taste matching, shopping and media recommendations, career services, etc.). Data purchasing is also done by law enforcement and government agencies. The party purchasing the data for the government generally does so at a steep discount from the cost of free labor.

Depending on the prevailing judicial doctrine on terms of use and data ownership, psychological and/or physical cruelty through loss of privacy and/or intellectual property ownership may be a conscious intent of big data farm labor, and not just an inevitable but unintended collateral effect.

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