Whose Right To Unlimited Data?

(For @aaronsw)

While watching the NFL playoffs on TV this weekend I was stunned by the following commercial, which affected me so strangely and powerfully that I had to write this blog entry in an attempt to explain.

Although this Sprint commercial clearly piqued me, I did not immediately know why. It took me a moment to figure out that it had something to do with the “thinking-feeling” of watching the commercial in the mediational “stimmung” that has emerged in the wake of Aaron Swartz having hanged himself on Friday, January 11 (Massumi, “The Thinking-Feeling of What Happens”).  Swartz’s suicide was apparently a depressive reaction to what Lawrence Lessig called “prosecutorial bullying,” his ongoing prosecution by the Justice Department for attempting to download thousands of articles from JSTOR, a non-profit academic database whose holdings were available (mainly to academics) through paid subscriptions from university libraries. Hacking JSTOR, like most of Swartz’s online actions, was done in the service of a fundamental commitment to open and universal access to information, sloganized by Stewart Brand in 1984 as “information wants to be free.”

In order to unpack my affective response to Sprint’s “unlimited data pan” commercial, I need to detour through another recent television ad campaign, for Apple’s highly touted “Retina Display,” first unveiled for the iPad 3.

Apple’s advertisement deploys the 80s and 90s logic of remediation, simultaneously calling attention to and erasing the device’s technical mediation.  The narrative consists of two parallel assertions about mediation, each of which begins with a phrase (“when a screen becomes this good”) that names the aspect of remediation that sees each new media technology as improving on, and hence re-mediating, existing media technologies. Together these assertions replicate the double logic of remediation.

The first assertion foregrounds the hypermediacy of the Retinal Display screen, enacting a movement from the materiality of screenic mediation to the real:  “When a screen becomes this good, colors are more vibrant, words are pin-sharp, everything becomes more brilliant.” In moving from “vibrant colors” to “pin-sharp words” to the becoming brilliant of everything, the first assertion mingles perception, sensation, and affect with the technical mediation of the Retinal Display. 

The second assertion, however, suggests that the consequence of Apple’s improved technical mediation is not to emphasize mediation but to do away with it: “Because when a screen becomes this good, it’s simply you and the things you care about.”  What makes the Retinal Display “this good,” what results from its technical remediation, is the fact that it disappears.  Rather than colors or words or brilliance, the screen leaves only “you and the things you care about,” together without the mediation of image or text or luminosity.  

Like Apple’s earlier iPad Retinal Display commercial, Sprint’s commercial for its “Truly Unlimited Data” plan for iPhone 5 sets a tone reminiscent of 90s digital sublimity, here remediated for the rhetoric of 21st century social media marketing: “The miraculous is everywhere, in our homes, our minds.”  But where Apple’s retinal display commercial markets a media device, Sprint’s ad highlights sharing, connectivity, and data. “We can share every second in data dressed in pixels—a billion roaming photojournalists uploading the human experience.” 

Where the Retinal Display marketed the affective life of media, the Sprint ad markets the affectivity of our mediated lives.  Measuring experience in data and pixels, the Sprint ad is selling the sublimity of a life led online by billions: “and it is spectacular, so why would you cap that?”  During the montage, the words “unlimited” and “connect” flash supra-liminally on the screen.

Sprint’s “truly unlimited data” is attached to a specific device, the iPhone 5. Almost like the eye (or “i”) of God, “my iPhone 5 can see every point of view, every panorama, the entire gallery of humanity.” Where the Retinal Display is so good that it erases itself, the iPhone 5 generates the need to erase the embodied self by uploading human experience to the cloud.

What comes next is what threw me off, what stopped me in my affectively mediated tracks, particularly in light of Aaron Swartz’s suicide. The commercial’s voiceover ends as follows: “I need to upload all of me, I need—no, I have the right—to be unlimited. Only Sprint offers truly unlimited data for iPhone 5.”

Moving from the “need to upload all of me” (which echoes what Katherine Hayles has summarized as “Hans Moravec’s transhumanist fantasy that we will soon be able to upload our consciousness into computers and leave our bodies behind,” “Wrestling with Transhumanism”) to the “right” to “truly unlimited data,” the Sprint commercial remediates the cyber-libertarian belief in the universal political right of unlimited access to information as a consumerist right to an unlimited data plan. In the media “stimmung” generated by Aaron Swartz’s suicide, this transformation of a political ideal for which he (and indeed many others) lived and (sometimes) died into Sprint’s newest data plan for the iPhone 5 produced an affective thinking-feeling that a blog entry can only begin to explain. 

As Aaron Swartz’s courageous life and tragic death remind us, the data to which Sprint would sell us unlimited access is in fact severely limited, owned and protected by governmental and corporate institutions who choose precisely what we can access and what we cannot, what information is “free,” what can be purchased, and what cannot be accessed at any price.  Indeed the only “truly unlimited data” that might exist is that which Sprint and Apple, Facebook and Google, or state and federal governments obtain from us, as we take advantage of their “unlimited data plans” and free online services to “upload the human experience” to their databanks, where it can be mined for commercial and political ends.  

While this structural homology between the cyber-libertarian belief in unlimited access to information and the  neoliberal marketing of unlimited data betrays the fact that both positions have their origins in classical liberalism, this shared intellectual genealogy must not be taken as equating the two sets of commitments.  For there can be no mistake.  It was precisely in the service of interests like those represented by Sprint’s “unlimited data plan” that the US Department of Justice and its corporate allies prosecuted Aaron Swartz to his death.  







About rgrusin

I am an Academic Entrepreneur and Professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
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4 Responses to Whose Right To Unlimited Data?

  1. Richard, I appreciate and agree with a great deal of this post. I’m just a little bit concerned with the portrayal of JSTOR as “an academic database whose holdings were available (mainly to academics) through paid subscriptions from university libraries”–I know you know the rest of the story, but this seems a little truncated to me and to fit too well with the general media coverage of this story. JSTOR created and *provides* access to archives of journal articles that, prior to or without JSTOR, existed only as paper copies. From everything I’ve read, its very low fees go only to support its creation and maintenance of those archives, with some residuals to publishers for copyrighted data. Swartz’s actions, if his goal was to free JSTOR’s articles, can only be construed as meaning that JSTOR should not be able to charge for its product. Fine (although I disagree), but that means it should not be in business. If not in business the articles would only exist in paper form and be exponentially *less* accessible than they are today. Swartz expressed concern for people in developing nations, but JSTOR has long had a policy of pursuing open access in every way possible, and today (and apparently with no relation to Swartz) lets all institutions in developing nations access its archives completely free. JSTOR was actually *doing* what Swartz seemed to want–opening and freeing information–rather than preventing it. Further, it’s critical to note that in the US, all public universities are required to make their resources available to any citizen, and that most private universities follow this policy as well–ironically, that’s why Swartz as a non-MIT student was able to download much of JSTOR. The truth is that pretty much throughout the world, anyone can read, and often print and download, almost any JSTOR article they want for free, just by visiting a university library; now much of JSTOR’s public domain holdings are available for free, and they’ve recently started a program for individuals, and there is history of individuals who need and can’t afford it applying to JSTOR and being granted access. That *is* open access, on any reasonable understanding of it, that allows JSTOR to remain in business and keep providing its materials. Unfortunately for me, this misunderstanding (still promulgated in much of the media coverage of Swartz’s suicide) puts his actions in a different light–I don’t know what freedom he was fighting for, in the JSTOR case, unless it was to free the (very few) JSTOR employees from their jobs. I fear he had swallowed a line that is actually contrary, in many ways, to the principles to which he was apparently deeply committed. As such his loss is doubly tragic, at least.

  2. rgrusin says:

    Thanks, David, for the clarification. I agree that JSTOR is very different from for-profit services and as such a minor offender in the overall scheme of things (if, as you suggest, an offender at all). In my post, too, the JSTOR characterization is minor, but it is accurate (if not complete). I suppose if I had added that they were free to individual academics whose libraries paid for subscriptions it might have been moreso.

  3. Hi Richard, You are completely correct and I apologize if I even seemed to be saying that your characterization was in any way incorrect–just wanted to add some more detail (specifically about JSTOR’s availability to non-academics, as this appears critical to the Swartz story) for others who might be following along and might not, as you and I both do, interact with JSTOR a lot.

  4. Char says:

    I too have been thinking about Sprint’s Unlimited commercial. Each time I see it I contrast it to the new Cat Power song “Human Being.” Whereas she writes of our human right to express, experience, and feel our selves, Sprint’s slogan seemed to move that experience away from our selves.

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