Kin Lane

The Body of Our HTTP Requests

We give a little of ourselves over each time make a request on the Internet and receive a response in return. The majority of online requests we make of any website or mobile application are just empty requests asking for a digital treat. Give me. Give me. Give me. GET. GET. GET. However, there are periodic requests which we make consciously or unconsciously where we actually give over a piece of ourselves as the “body” of the requests we POST. The body of these POST requests may be something as benign as a ping, letting a platform know that we are still here, but others might contain our location, our deepest thoughts, and insight into our personal lives. In these moments we give little pieces of our individual self away with each request, but collectively we are also allowing ourselves to also be incrementally eroded by digital technology through the power give each request when we use the term “body” to describe the payload. Defining, attaching, and allowing us to be extracted using invisible cybernetic cords we willingly place upon ourselves.

The words we use matter. There is a reason we name Internet technology the way we did. We needed to make it familiar. It had to be attractive to lure us in. We applied skeuomorphisms across the digital landscape to make it feel like the real world. Helping us feel like we belonged. The body of an Internet request and response is nothing like our physical body, but the words allow us to cozy up to Internet technology in a way we often times can’t see. Those who build the Internet do most of this cozying up with tech, while everyone else is completely unaware of the cybernetic dance that we participate in thousands of times each day. As we mindlessly GET, GET, GET, and POST little pieces of ourselves, we willingly give ourselves over to the platforms where our digital selves live, giving away control with each domain, allowing them to define which paths we can take the next day. Leading us to believe we have more choice, but in reality our queries only give us access to increasingly known set of Coke or Pepsi choices—reducing our real world down not a series of predictable transactions that are designed by the platform owners, and not by us.

An online POST of a contact submission form seems harmless. We are asking our hosts for something, right? We want some value in return. However a POST of an image to Instagram can tell a more more nuanced story about a single moment in our life, and collectively a lot about who we are and how we live. I have allowed Facebook and Instagram to extract a lot of value from my life over the last decade. I have shared many intimate moments of my life with them. I consciously demonstrated to Facebook during both Obama administrations that they wielded a significant amount of power over me when it came to elections. A power that they have been abusing ever since. In 2020 I still POST to Facebook on a daily basis. Why? Why do I still give Facebook so much of me. I have detached numerous digital cords from my world by unfollowing 30-50 Facebook “friends” on Facebook over the last four years. Reducing the emotional power that Facebook wields over me each day. I also POST a lot less information about me personally on Facebook, further deciding not to hand over my most meaningful bits to these companies. All conscious efforts to minimize what I give away in my life.

Cybernetics is a mostly forgotten “science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things”. Because I study the APIs behind Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, and other dominant platforms, I spend a lot of time thinking about this intersection between humans and the Internet technology that has become ubiquitous in our lives. I have done deep dives into the value that I hadn’t over to technology platforms each day. It worries me that we aren’t spending more time talking about the cybernetic relationships we’ve been in for almost twenty years. Beyond Cambridge Analytica, and a handful of other stories about Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, the popular media does very little to scrutinize what is going on behind each request we make online each day. When we do, we tend to talk about the value of this data to companies like Facebook, and we do very little to truly understand the cognitive and emotional toll Internet technology takes on our personal and professional lives, and how much we actually give away within the body of each HTTP request. Some day we’ll look back with horror at the damage we’ve cause to our physical selves through our unhealthy relationship we have with Internet technology.