Mon, 4 January 2021
It is common these days to bemoan the amount of personal information companies like Amazon, Facebook, and other modern telecommunications goliaths collect about us. For many, this invasion of privacy exists as a necessary consequence of our growing dependence on the internet. With every click of the mouse—making it possible to have products manufactured half-way around the world delivered to our doorstep—there is a reluctant awareness of the risk that our private lives might be made public.
That sense of the potential of our private lives being made public is all the more real when we acknowledge the human beings at the center of these information networks. Our modern service economy relies on people whose jobs involve an intimate awareness of our daily lives—the Amazon delivery person who brings us toilet paper, the barista who procures for us our morning coffee and knows whether we prefer cream or almond milk; the data analyst who knows what new titillating show we’re watching and uses that information to sell us on the latest product. Our desire for on-demand services is satisfied through these people having access to information about us, all the more so amid the ongoing pandemic. Katie Hindmarch-Watson has spent many years thinking about the human labor involved in making a service economy. In Serving a Wired World: London's Telecommunication Workers and the Making of an Information Capital, she shows how concerns about privacy and information were at the center Victorian-era London’s telecommunications industry centered around the telegraph and telephone: the internet of its day. In doing so, she takes us on a journey involving telegraph boys ensnared in homosexual scandal and wicked telephone girls suspected of interrupting connections, all the while revealing the intimate and bodied labor that made (an) information capital.