William Bogard’s The Simulation of Surveillance (1996) has the misfortune of being a book about ubiquitous surveillance written just before the emergence of social media. So it anticipates some of the recent developments with the “internet of things,” Big Data, voluntary self-surveillance, and predictive analytics — and how these are more subtle and intrusive forms of social control than a Foucauldian panopticism in which the fear of being watched disciplines individuated bodies — but is mired in the obfuscating terminology of late Baudrillard (everything is always already hyper- this and ecstasies of that) that multiplies paradoxes everywhere.
This results in Bogard making claims that seem sort of wrong yet still have a submerged, garbled accuracy. For example:
Screens don’t “watch” people or “invade” their privacy; increasingly, they are their privacy. The mildly pleasurable stupor induced by interacting with screens is the most pure form of privacy.
Given that smartphone screens are the surveillance device par excellence, that claim seems wildly off. There is nothing private about our interactive screens that log all every way we interface with them. But when you consider the way people seem to escape into their phones and abandon public space (people absorbed in their phones on the subway, or in lulls in conversation at parties, withdrawal into virtual worlds of games, etc.), then the underlying point seems obviously true. Smartphones afford a feeling of control over space that we might call privacy, if privacy wasn’t so strongly associated with control over our data. Because control over data is privacy, self-quantification — surveilling ourselves on our own terms and for our own apparent ends — can seem like an assertion rather than a surrender of privacy.
Bogard wants to disabuse readers of the idea that we will experience the interactive screen as overt domination (“Big Brother is you and you are Big Brother,” he writes). The “stupor” he posits seems a residue of criticism of television as a stupefying, pacifying medium, but it still applies to smartphones: They are pacifiers that create a comforting zone of privacy (that isn’t actually private). Given that no spaces are private anymore in the sense of being unobservable, all that is left is the illusion of it. “Privacy … has nothing to do with escaping the gaze,” he insists. So Bogard’s claim that we will need screens to feel privacy (as a kind of reified consumer experience) seems especially prescient. Being disconnected from the network, away from the screen, doesn’t feel like privacy and isn’t an option for it; it’s just desolate isolation, social death.
The corollary of the feeling of privacy being separate from surveillance is that publicity too no longer depends on definite exposure. “The sensation of publicity is not produced by a gaze … but by the mere fact of connection, and of the powerlessness to disconnect, the totalization of the simulated gaze.” Just being on social media is sufficient to make us feel microfamous, regardless of how many likes or reblogs we might attract. Virality, is implicit in everything we do, since it is all near-automatically set in motion in information networks. “Every moment is one of both potential exposure and absolute absorption” — we can be consumed by the network (made totally public) at the same time we consume what the network offers (feeling totally private in the enjoyment of a moment tailored specifically to our interests as derived from our data). “Everyone is instantly famous, instantly forgotten” simultaneously, Bogard writes.
Bogard depicts the surveillance society as a closed loop: Through being observed and documented, individuals are “simulated” as data within the system of interlocking networks of surveillance, and this simulation (what I tend to call a “data self“) becomes for all intents and purposes the “real” person. We dont need to be watched, because we don’t exist until after we’ve been seen — we exist only insofar as we are surveilled. This mass-of-data simulated-person is put to work (rather than the physical body) in the engines of predictive analytics and the echo chambers of social media, manufacturing influence and cool. These engines in turn shape the individual’s environment to tailor it to the data already collected and to elicit more data, which will continue to tighten the informatic noose. “Work,” he claims, “is its record” — the point of work is produce self-referential documentation of its occurrence. Work discipline is built in when workers are making information.
To translate that for our contemporary moment: The point of being on social media is to produce and amass evidence of being on social media. (Look at me, I’m liking some stuff! And I got retweeted 14 times! Seven new followers!) Or to focus on another tautological dimension of our economy of signs, spectacle, and representations: the point of making things seem cool is to make cool seem like a real thing. The value of the cool produced depends on the system that contains its production; cool is meaningless outside the fashion system that it helps constitute and animate. When we make these things — social media content or cool (often the same thing) — we also intensify our dependence on the systems that give that material its value to us, that makes our work meaningful. That’s why work discipline and social control is built into the work process itself and requires no external surveillance. As a bonus, we are working whenever we are engaging with these systems, which is close to always.
When we are completely and inescapably constituted within the pool of data, privacy and publicity become, he argues, indistinguishable, simultaneous, just as work and leisure become increasingly synonymous. Absolute connection (you are networked with everyone always) is also at once absolute aloneness (the network makes you a discrete node and forecloses the experience of transindividuality). Value ceases to be a matter of utility outside the realm of information — we’re not making anything that we can “use” outside the systems that assign their symbolic worth. In that sense, we are, as Baudrillard writes, “beyond use value.”
The next logical step is to view all of capitalism as the most comprehensive of these systems that posit their own form of value that those caught up in the system become dependent on. This is “real subsumption” in action, the condition in which capitalism is dictating the forms of life and what makes it valuable in advance for subjects constituted within it, so that the meaning of life seems inseparable from the accumulation of capital — economic growth as the general good, profit and efficiency as values unto themselves. The worth, the meaning, of what any individual does registers only as wages.
The wrinkle ubiquitous surveillance adds to that is that it makes visibility into a form of wage. It lets capital “pay” workers in attention (which has pseudo-value in the data realm in the form of influence metrics, which seem currency-like but can’t be spent or directly invested as capital) and thereby more thoroughly exploit them.
Affective privacy — the feeling of privacy — no longer involves withdrawing from networks of information circulation and value creation. Instead it means engaging with that network more intently, seeking an illusion of agency over it that is really just a trick of the interface in the end. And in the process, more of our life is put to work for the owners of the networks. Privacy becomes labor.