Issue #146 Life in Fifteen Gigabytes

Life in Fifteen Gigabytes

Bami Oke

A 2.5” hard drive. License: CC BY-SA 3.0.

Issue #146
June 2024

It was the closest thing to a break-up text I’d ever received:

November 6, 2023

Subject: Action Required – Important Changes to your Alumni Google Account

We are reaching out because you currently have some active Gmail or Drive content in our Google Workspace for Alumni, and we need your help to avoid losing your data. Unfortunately, Google has recently introduced significant new costs for licensing storage, and this has forced the university to place limits on Google Workspace storage for the entire community. Your current storage usage is over our newly established limit, and you will need to reduce your data storage to the new 15 GB quota before March 4, 2024.

Fifteen gigabytes. For an account that held the contents of three laptops, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and eighteen generations of Sims 3 gameplay. Anything valuable I had ever made was uploaded to this Drive. Anytime I broke my phone or started a new cover letter, I’d find a smug comfort in the depths of my unlimited storage. And now, this email had come to inform me that not only was my Drive done with me, it was taking all of my data too. In fact, the message implied that my Drive was never really “mine” to begin with. Of course, it had my name on it, and I got to choose who could access certain files. And yes, I had created its contents, but once I put it onto Google’s servers, there was nothing to indicate that I had permanent ownership of the data my Drive contained. This became apparent as the message went on:

If your storage is not under the quota by March 4, your account will be locked, you will be unable to access your data, and you will need to contact the Office of Information Technology to reopen it. Any accounts with more than 15 GB of mail, files, photos, and other data will be purged of all content shortly after the deadline.

So that was it. Either I needed another place to stash my files, or they’d be gone forever. Between November 2023 and February 2024, I received six identical emails to illustrate the fact that my former university was not fucking around. I could keep hoarding data as long as I liked, but I couldn’t do it on their dime.

I don’t tend to be sentimental with my things. I regularly donate the clothes I no longer wear, and I absolutely despise clutter. So it didn’t make sense that I found myself so reluctant to let go of my digital possessions. In conversation with friends, I realized that this was a common problem. My best friend’s home screen is a dizzying mass of screenshots, essays, and audio recordings for future reference. My mother’s internet browser regularly crashes because of the fifty-three tabs she keeps open at all times. My partner never deletes a photo without putting it on one of his three-terabyte hard drives first. The ubiquity of all this data-hoarding made me wonder if there isn’t some explanation for this behavior beyond sentiment. What fuels the desire to keep computer files we will probably never look at again? What do we stand to gain by holding on to every last shred of our personal data?

Perhaps, in an economy where the sale of information has made certain people very rich, you could argue that we collect these scraps hoping to one day turn passion projects into passive income. Of course, for most this is not the priority. Storing old files is nothing more than an innocent way to relive a pleasant memory. For others, though, the value of stored data isn’t based in fond recollections. The Drive is a business expense for them. Business owners pay to store information, materials, or IP that they’ll eventually sell for money, and money allows them to buy whatever they need to continue running the business.

Twenty years ago, in her book A Hacker Manifesto, McKenzie Wark recognized this capacity to sell stored data as emblematic of a greater shift in our political economy. In order to sell information, one first has to own it. Only a select few—whom she calls the vectoralist class—hold the property rights that enable them to store and transfer swathes of information to the highest bidder. It might not be unreasonable, then, to suggest that the prevalence of digital hoarding emerged out of the very same conditions that formed Wark’s hacker class—the class that initially produced the information that vectoralists have now come to own. A widespread ability to produce information, coupled with the scarce capacity to sell this information, led a generation of people to accumulate data to no apparent end.

Perhaps it’s time we extend our interpretation of the hacker class to include not only those who produce information, but also those who hoard it, before shaping it anew. The primary group that comes to mind are “content creators”—individuals who produce and circulate information, often in exchange for a wage. In recent years, the expansion of hybrid and remote work environments has come to mean that influencers, copywriters, podcasters, and even, regrettably, certain artists can all be lumped into this umbrella term. Because they don’t enjoy the full profits extracted from their data by the ruling class, these creators might attempt to withhold their content from circulation, proposing instead a “democratized” marketplace, where hackers, hoarders, and content creators alike can profit off of their own contributions.

But a Marxist review of class relations tells us that this small-scale system of exchange, built within the larger infrastructure of abstracted labor, can only ever lead to continued exploitation. So long as information exists in the property form, these creators will cling onto their content and fail to allocate their resources efficiently.1

Successful hoarders, though, tend to share one commonality: the information they distribute is collated, with rigor, and often tied to an organized movement for radical action. This methodology separates the “collection” from the endless stream of “content” we see today. It removes all distractions from the hacker class’s chief aim: the production of new knowledge and culture, made freely available, as part of a larger move towards collective transformation.

The Stream

In the summer of 2021, Black TikTok creators went on strike, and refused to produce any new content for the social media platform until they received recognition for their contributions.2 This came after a series of non-Black creators and influencers gained popularity by recreating viral dances and challenges without giving any credit to the original creators of this content.3 Although “credit” in this sense doesn’t automatically translate into a paycheck, the strikers were well aware that a certain level of engagement on the app could open up access to paid brand partnerships, tips, and most notably, TikTok’s Creator Fund.

After a user surpasses a certain level of engagement, the fund allows them to receive financial compensation based on factors like the quantity and “authenticity” of their viewership.4 The BBC reported that TikTok creator Addison Rae “made nearly $5m (£3.6m) from TikTok in 2020 alone, getting views from videos she made recreating dances from black choreographers.”5 Meanwhile, Jalaiah Harmon, inventor of the “Renegade” dance that Rae performed, estimates that she earned $38,000 on the app that same year. Frustrated at this disparity of earned income, Black TikTok creators chose to withhold their content from the app.

The success of this strike hinged on one thing in particular: the capacity of TikTok users to monetize their content. Notably, the strikers were less concerned with TikTok’s ability to generate a consistent profit, regardless of which users they paid. The focus of this strike was clear: appropriate compensation for a group of undervalued workers. By withholding their content from circulation, the strikers had hoped to reap the financial benefits of their labor, rather than see it handed to their non-Black counterparts. But the payments that TikTok eventually makes to its most popular creators are never equivalent to the actual value of TikTok’s content, so the strike could never achieve fair compensation across the board. One creator’s video, left unseen in their drafts folder, can literally generate millions of dollars as soon as it goes viral—and TikTok repays a fraction of that cost to the original creators. So it might be worth asking what it is that makes this uploaded content worth so much money. The “Renegade” dance itself didn’t change as it went from Jalaiah’s camera roll to TikTok’s servers. How can one corporate platform’s storage generate so much more value than the storage of an individual user?

Hoard Formation

To fully appreciate the difference between corporate and individual hoards, we first need to detach our understanding of hoarding from its empirical associations. In recent years, there have been studies that designate digital hoarding as a subtype of psychological hoarding disorder. Much like physical hoarders, the subjects of these studies found it emotionally distressing to discard stored data, citing a fear of wasted potential for future use.6 While these symptoms may appear to be related to our discussion, here I am more concerned with the role that digital hoarding plays within our political economy.

My focus begins at the overgrown camera roll, and extends to the most valuable data hoards in today’s economy: collections of user-generated information. This is information about an event between a human and a computer, which is then formalized into “data,” organized into categories, fed into predictive algorithms, and sold to the highest bidder.7 For brevity’s sake, I’ve greatly oversimplified this process, but the important thing to note for now is that our current system of exchange does indeed allow corporate hoarders to sell their data for money. The promise of profiting from a data hoard is not unfounded. Many have done it successfully, following these very steps. But a gap in our understanding appears after this sale is complete. From the outside looking in, we might assume that the money received in exchange for hoarded information goes into an ever-increasing pile of profit, and that is how the rich stay rich. The truth, though, is much less evident.

Cloud Data Center. The data protection company Arcserve predicted that the world will have 200 Zettabytes.

Marx described the desire to hoard as “boundless in nature.”8 Any commodity can be exchanged for money, which in turn means that money can be exchanged for anything else of value. So the more of one material good you hold on to, the more of its equivalent value in money you can receive—and this drives the ruling class’s obsession with accumulation. But what good, really, is a pile of money to a capitalist, if it lies dormant and out of circulation?

On its own, the money received from a sale will not feed the capitalist or keep their body warm in the winter. It must be exchanged for material goods that will fulfill these needs. The capitalist needs money, built up in reserves, to pay for all sorts of expenses. Most notably, they need money to cover the cost of their employees’ labor at the end of each period—because no smart entrepreneur pays someone before they’ve made anything to upsell. It’s much safer just to pay for the materials that workers need beforehand, and only pay them once they’ve made a finished product. This ensures the continuity of production. The employee is paid for making a new product, and the new product is then sold for much more than the employee makes.9 Profit is generated, but only after some of it is used to pay the workers’ wages, which allows the cycle to continue. This is Marx’s main contribution to our understanding of hoarding today. Stored money doesn’t just function as a means of exchange; it is also a method of paying for labor power in retrospect.

In the context of TikTok’s owners, if it is data they hoard, and not money (though, of course, they keep that too), it’s useful for us to know how that data is made. As hoards can only exist after a product has been made, surely that must mean that someone, somewhere, is working tirelessly to create all of this data. In part, the Black TikTok strikers were right: the app would be worth “nothing,” and have no value, without the labor of its users.10 But the value in question isn’t actually in the content that circulates on TikTok. This is no ordinary labor, and these are no ordinary workers. These are, in Wark’s eyes, hackers—individuals who produce new information out of their given materials. And information about the behavior of “users,” in particular, is the commodity du jour. But, as we learn from A Hacker Manifesto, the primary thing that sets our current system apart from traditional capitalism is where that information commodity actually comes from. At what point does the exact amount of time I spend on TikTok, or searching for hard drives on Amazon, translate into a “useful” commodity? Whose labor power is consumed in order for these tech giants to even have such a hoard of information to sell? Well, reader, if you haven’t already guessed, the chances are, it’s yours.

Clocking In

Let’s examine, for a moment, the commodity in a different context—not as labor power or data, but as entertainment, consumed by internet users. All commodities come at a cost. The websites and apps that present themselves as complimentary do, in fact, require payment, in the form of user-generated data.11 We consume all their product has to offer, and pay for every click, every second spent on these apps, with our engagement, after the fact.

Here, there are really two commodities at play. There is entertainment, and there is data. But it is not a like-for-like exchange. You can’t directly turn a fifteen-second video into sellable data, unless you employ an active workforce to carry out that change for you. In the 1960s, advertisers began to see the “leisure time” created by the forty-hour work week as an opportunity to exploit the working class even further. “The work which audience members perform for the advertiser is to learn to buy particular ‘brands’ of consumer goods, and to spend their income accordingly.”12 So now, the consumer works for two separate employers, on and off the clock. The workforce that carries out this process of material transformation, from entertainment to data, creates the perceived need for both products.13 At their day jobs, workers create products for their employers to sell. And in their spare time, they create data about other products, through their likes, browsing history, reposts, and internet searches.

As we peruse the internet, any expressed desire for a specific good—be it entertainment, coffee, or external hard drives—is “parsed into a form the machine can understand,” and as such it becomes “data,” a commodity in and of itself.14 Our consumption of information on the internet thereby becomes free labor. We work to create information that we will never own. And this is what makes a viral video profitable; the engagement data produced by every single user belongs to TikTok alone, and it’s theirs alone to sell, without paying a single penny to users for their role in creating this data. If the Black TikTok strikers wanted to truly enjoy the profits of their labor, they didn’t need to hoard their content. They needed to own the data their content generated.

Were it simply a matter of having access to a collection of data, the wealth gap within the information industry—between those who produce it and those who own it—would cease to exist. When Wark proclaimed twenty years ago that “information wants to be free but is everywhere in chains,” she underscored the fact that we already have the infrastructure to make every single piece of information freely available.15

Access is only half the problem. Social media giants profit from their data collection because of: a) the sheer amount of it they have to offer, and b) their ability to sell data exclusively to their advertising audience.16

This exclusivity creates a clear power divide that some users have tried to address by creating their own content platforms. These are sites that promise fairer compensation for the creatives producing their content, but stop short of opening up the profits to the people who produce their data. Tidal, for instance, is a music streaming service that originally made its mark by delivering a paid-only service that promised to return more money to artists than its competitors, even if it meant “less profit for [Tidal’s] bottom line.”17 In the absence of advertisers, Tidal promised its paid users an exclusive collection of content. The platform’s one-time owner Jay-Z went so far as to remove all of his music from Tidal’s competing platforms, underlining the exclusivity of Tidal’s content.18

Apple ad about your data being sold in auction, 2022.

But Jay-Z was only able to pull such a stunt because he owned the rights to all of his songs.19 Most musicians today aren’t so lucky, because a host of IP and labor laws prevent them from claiming ownership of the commodities they produce. The same could be said for TikTok’s creators, and for all data producers. Even the few users who do manage to “own” their data rarely have the means of reproducing it to even a fraction of the scale that Meta or TikTok can provide. As individuals, hoarding information for our own profit becomes an entirely futile attempt at circumventing the wealth of the ruling class.

Open Sources

We reach the same conclusion today that A Hacker Manifesto alluded to in 2004; in terms of revolutionary action, the most useful hoards of information are those made freely available, unbound by the constraints of property ownership. Digital hoards themselves aren’t necessarily a bad thing. The problem arises when users try to monetize their contents. Individual hoards inevitably fail to redistribute corporate wealth, and corporate hoards are dependent on labor extracted from us in our “free time.” So, perhaps our free time would be better spent in service of alternate hoards, dedicated to the same principles of advancement that Wark laid out twenty years ago. These are digital hoards formed with the intention of developing human society, through the unfettered circulation of information. Two examples come to mind, in equally unexpected locations: the International Criminal Court (ICC), and Minecraft.

In January 2024, the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor opened an online portal, requesting that members of the public submit any evidence they had of crimes that fell within the court’s remit. This included war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and aggression.20 What followed was the uploading of images, tweets, sound bites, statements, and videos to support South Africa’s case against the state of Israel, in which South Africa claimed that “Israel has engaged in, is engaging in and risks further engaging in genocidal acts against the Palestinian people in Gaza.”21

The evidence submitted by the public was presented in a live-streamed court hearing on January 11, 2024. This amassing of evidence was a collective effort on behalf of everyday internet users to build up a hoard of information aimed at the cessation of a genocide. Much of the work that made this possible was performed on “leisure time,” but the resultant information was never deemed “property” of South Africa or the ICC. Instead, it was stored, organized, and presented to the world in an open forum that remains available for viewing today.

In a similar vein, four years ago, Reporters Without Borders released the Uncensored Library, a collection of articles that had been banned in parts of the world, made available through a server on Minecraft.22 The organization’s use of a blockchain to establish this server meant that even in the most censored countries, the library would remain impervious to governmental interventions. Each Minecraft user could download the library’s contents, share their findings, add their own books to an offline collection, and recreate a copy of the library on their own machines, rendering it effectively impossible to remove from public record.23

Both of these examples point us to data hoards that are first stored, and then shared, without the constraints of ownership to prevent their distribution. They are narratives that bring us closer to the potentials first stated in A Hacker Manifesto—of a future where we can shape our lives beyond the commodity form. The important thing that these examples have in common is not just that they were freely circulated, or even that they were produced (at least in part) by the hacker class. At their hearts, both the ICC portal and the Uncensored Library were rooted in material efforts to better the world we find ourselves in.

For twenty-first century hackers, the most urgent task is to locate environments like these where their contributions can be freely actualized. The majority of new knowledge today circulates through a handful of social platforms; information jumps out at us from the gluttonous stream of gym selfies, airline ads, obituaries, period tracker apps, sea lion videos, film trailers, and leftist memes. Everyday users trade their engagement for brief snippets of entertainment, and on it goes until the shadow of a screen-time banner casts its judgment upon the user’s machine.

This hellscape is no place for free information to thrive. The digital hoarder must take stock, and set out in search of somewhere independent from such distractions. A simple spreadsheet, maybe, a private channel, a USB drive, or even a Minecraft map. What matters here is not the hoard’s form, but its capacity to be consumed outside the limits of the commodity. Free from the profit-churning debris of their social media feeds, visitors to this hoard might gain a better idea of how they, too, can use the information they find in service of principled, radical action.


McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard University Press, 2004).


Sharon Pruitt-Young, “Black TikTok Creators Are On Strike To Protest A Lack Of Credit For Their Work,” NPR, July 1, 2021 .


Cache McClay, “Why Black TikTok Creators Have Gone on Strike,” BBC News, July 15, 2021 .


Jessica Martel, “16 Ways to Make Money on TikTok in 2024,” Time, March 30, 2023 .


McClay, “Why Black TikTok Creators Have Gone on Strike.”


Martine J. van Bennekom et al., “A Case of Digital Hoarding,” BMJ Case Reports, vol. 2015 (January 2015) .


Sebastian Sevignani, “Surveillance, Classification, and Social Inequality in Informational Capitalism: The Relevance of Exploitation in the Context of Markets in Information,” Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung 42, no. 1 (2017).


Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, 1st ed. (Penguin, 1976).


Lapavitsas, 228.


McClay, “Why Black TikTok Creators Have Gone on Strike.”


Sevignani, “Surveillance, Classification, and Social Inequality.”


Dallas W. Smythe, “Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism,” Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory 1, no. 3 (December 30, 1977).


Smythe, “Communications.”


McKenzie Wark, Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse? (Verso, 2019) 9.


Wark, Hacker Manifesto, thesis 126.


Sevignani, “Surveillance, Classification, and Social Inequality.”


Stuart Dredge, “Jay Z Aims to Topple Spotify with Music Streaming Service Tidal,” The Guardian, March 31, 2015 .


David Z. Morris, “Jay-Z Pulls Every Album from Spotify, Apple Music,” Fortune, April 8, 2017 .


Peter Kafka, “Why Did Jack Dorsey Buy Tidal, Jay-Z’s Failed Music Service?” Vox, March 4, 2021 .


See .


“The Republic of South Africa Institutes Proceedings against the State of Israel and Requests the Court to Indicate Provisional Measures,” International Court of Justice, December 29, 2023.


See .


Alice Finney, “Minecraft Library Provides Gamers with ‘a Safe Haven for Press Freedom,’” Dezeen, August 17, 2021 .

Internet, Capitalism
Social Media, Manifestos
Return to Issue #146

Bami Oke is a writer and interaction designer living in London. Her work stretches across disciplines of architecture, multimedia performance, and speculative design.


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