Monthly Archives: April 2013

Surveillance and affective privacy

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.

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Selfies are not self-expression

Brian Droitcour writes:

Producing a reflection of your image in Instagram always involves an awareness of the presence of others, the knowledge that your selfie is flaking and refracting in their phones. Labeling this reflection #selfie tacitly recognizes the horizontal proliferation of reflections, the dissolution of personhood in the network. The real narcissists are the ones who never take selfies. They imagine their self as autonomous, hermetic—too precious to be shared.

I have a similar feeling about Facebook use: hardcore narcissists are put off by it because it reveals that they are not the center of everyone else’s universe. Facebook caters more to “jerks,” at least as Eric Schwitzgabel defines them here. A jerk is, he writes,

someone who fails to appropriately respect the individual perspectives of the people around him, treating them as tools or objects to be manipulated, or idiots to be dealt with, rather than as moral and epistemic peers with a variety of potentially valuable perspectives.

It might make sense to say Facebook tries to cure narcissism by turning narcissists into jerks. To put that in the bland jargon of economism, it “builds social capital.”

Selfies don’t betoken narcissism; do they indicate self-centeredness? Do they exemplify an instrumental attitude toward the self that presents an obstacle to intersubjectivity? You can alter or change me, “flake or refract” me, selfies say, but only at the level of these images. It sets the terms of interpersonal engagement at the level of the superficial image.

This “superficial” level of engagement may be more generative politically, if it helps us set aside the idea that the ultimate purpose of politics is to secure one’s right to maximum autonomous self-expression as an atomized individual — to be as big a jerk as one wants to be.

Selfies, when they enter circulation, aren’t a matter self-expression but self-surrender, which seems a requisite precursor to collective action. But at the moment of their production, they may be mistaken for autonomous self-expression: one can try to recuperate precarity in the present moment through an assertive selfie-taking gesture, declaring the self through the communication/surveillance tools that by and large have been deployed to control the self. The selfie, however, doesn’t express a suppressed inner essence; it manufactures a self to present to the world as an artisanal product —one that the world can then use as it sees fit, extracting utility from it however they can.

The selfie may be the moment when external control — which, in a “communicative capitalist” economy, generally takes the form of the pressure to transform oneself into a tradeable image — is internalized as crypto-defiance. I’m not going to consume their images, I’m going to make one of my own! We can think we are escaping control by showing ourselves off in a way we stage, though this is actually the exact mechanism of control: producing ourselves as an object for the network, performing the work of identity construction in a captured space.

The post-hoc unification of the self in the external circulation of images has succeeded the exhumation of the “true” or “authentic” self through depth psychology. We can explicitly look for coherence of self in the reactions of our audience, amalgamate them into an ad hoc narrative that defines us for a moment or two, rather than try to look within and expect to find some unique essence there from which all our expressiveness has stemmed.

But self-commodification, through selfies or whatever use of social media, even if it has moved past the political limitations of possessive individualism (and I don’t think it has) and the “culture of narcissism,” doesn’t impede capitalism’s drive to subsume and commodify everything, to impel a production of the self as a kind a capital stock, as a resource. Selfies represent the availability of the self to the network; this is partly why they often have the affect of pornography. The selfie is the apotheosis of self-commodfication; subsequent serialized selfies then determine whether the self will coalesce into a coherent brand.

And the practice of selfie-making doesn’t eradicate the infrastructure of identity that is embedded in the media tools for “expressing” it.

In The Interface Effect, Alex Galloway argues that

Whenever a body speaks, it always already speaks as a body codified with an affective identity (gendered, ethnically typed, and so on), determined as such by various infrastructures both of and for identity formation. The difficulty is not simply that bodies must always speak. The difficulty is that they must always speak as.

The selfie doesn’t invent a language of identity; it marks a voluntary entry into established codes, reinforcing their validity even if a particular selfie tries to subvert them, repurpose them.

Galloway goes on to claim that the subsumption of everyday life through networks of affective capture and the economic mobilization of self-production are prompting a new “politics of disappearance”:

What was once a logic of supercession is now a logic of cancellation. Seek not the posthuman, but the nonhuman. Be not post identity, but rather subtractive of it. The operative political question today, thus, in the shadow of digital markets, is not that of confrontation on equal footing, not “what are they going to do to us?” or even “what are we going to do to them?,” but rather the exodus question: first posed as “what are we going to do without them?” and later posed in a more sophisticated sense as “what are we going to do without ourselves?”

Maybe selfies are a step in the direction of answering that last question. But they are not an answer to it, as Droitcour seems to optimistically suggest. Social media allow users to put identity in circulation and experience that as a kind of liberation, as a serviceable replacement for social mobility, but this dissolution doesn’t imply a readiness to inhabit subjectivities that are not about the “I,” that are not predicated on the consumption of images and status signifiers, or on elaborating taxonomies of the social and winning hierarchy games. The generation of an audience for oneself is not the same as joining a collective.

The selfie may be a bid to break out the cage of identity and let go of anxious control over it, but when others consume and comment on the selfie, they aren’t helping you destroy that cage but are shoving you back in it. They are affirming that you are a discrete self, one baseball card in the pack, and your statistics alone will always be printed on the back.

Punchcards and the data self

When I launch jeremiads against Big Data the societies of control and so on, I tend to overlook that the experience of being “under control” is often desired, is experienced as a positive affect. Even idiomatically, getting oneself under control is seen as a healthy step forward, and getting out of control is dangerous, unpleasant, something we warn our friends about. Part of the genius of online social networks and their profiles is the rebranding of social control as self-control.

Nicholas Carr notes that it was easier to think about resisting the assimilation into Big Data’s cloud of predictive-analytic terror (aka, the System) when punchcards were the popular representation of how we were tracked.

To hold a punchcard with your name printed across the top was to see your being reduced to a series of binary punch holes, a series of inscrutable ones and zeroes. Like draft cards, punchcards served as concrete touchstones for protest…

The machine’s interface—its outward representation of the numeric self—is no longer the cold, bureaucratic punchcard. It’s the avatar, the selfie: the lovingly curated, intangible image of the I. The cloud, and particularly its social-networking mechanism, personalizes depersonalization. It allows us to design our own representation of the numeric self … The apparatus of control wears a new face, and that face is our own.

So being turned into archived data has its rewards — the coherent-seeming, easily adaptable avatar is one of them. If we take the digital representation of ourselves in data as a viable expression of our “true self,” then our true self is easily fixed, changed, polished. This self is delineated through benevolent “self-tracking,” and if it is conducted through corporately administered tools, well, isn’t it thoughtful of those corporations and appmakers to develop them for us?

Thanks to the data collected about us, and the powerful tools being implemented to process it all, we’re not burdened with a self that is hard to access, that is intractably oblique, that stubbornly drives us in opposite directions against our conscious will. We don’t need analysis to get at it, just a Facebook page.

The profile-driven social-media data containers (our contemporary punchcards) resolve the ambivalence and ambiguity and contradiction that plague our self-concept. I argue here that users find this kind of “data self” a reassuring escape from freedom. The selfie avatars and other window dressing are there to reassure us that it’s okay to want to become a punchcard.

Surveillance as sympathy; Facebook as sensibility novel

I jotted these down during David Lyon’s keynote speech at the Theorizing the Web 2013 conference a few months ago. Lyon urged a view of surveillance as a kind of looking out for others rather than merely a looking at them for purposes of control. He suggested that the term surveillance might be unsalvageable for such a purpose — to pejorative to most people — and offered “visibility” as possible alternative. Surveillance may potentially make certain aspects of society visible and thus negotiable, discussable, resistible. It unveils ideology as well as enforces it. But it is also an site for ideology itself — we believe that surveillance has certain inherent effects and uses, that it can accomplish certain goals, order society in certain ways as a kind of automatic politics.

Lyon invoked Levinas and the infinite responsibility to the other generated by seeing that surveillance makes morally imperative. So the surveillant who may begin by wanting to impose domination through observation may end up in a sympathetic relation that makes that exercise of power problematic. You see the humanity of a target through close observation; they become real, empathetic.

This reminded me of Adam Smith’s claim in the Theory of Moral Sentiments about sympathy and fellow-feeling generated through observation: “In every passion of which the mind of man is susceptible, the emotions of the bystander always correspond to what, by bringing the case home to himself, he imagines should be the sentiments of the sufferer.” You put yourself in their shoes and imagine what you would feel in that place (what they actually feel is not relevant — no need to respect the irreducible difference, the ultimately unknowable emotions of the other). In the 18th century, this line of reasoning led to the cult of sensibility, which held that seeing pitiable tableaux and crying about them proved one’s virtue or exercised one’s innate moral sense, which indexed one’s quality as a human being. To be virtuous you had to be a surveillant, in other words. You had to go to Bedlam and look at suffering inmates, or if you couldn’t do that, you had to at least read novels or what have you, and react with the proper degree of sympathetic emotion. Hence the popularity of sentimental novels in the late 18th century: The Man of Feeling, A Sentimental Journey, etc. The goal was to be seen crying while reading such books, to prove you were a feeling person yourself, not  a hard-headed, calculating, person driven entirely by vulgar interests rather than moral refinement.

It may be worthwhile to consider sensibility novels as surveillance novels; they dramatize the pursuit of appropriate objects of sympathy that can function as moral gymnasiums for the beholder. Conversely, one can regard the lateral surveillance in social-media networks as interactive sensibility novels. The appeal of consuming Facebook’s newsfeed is possibly to exercise the emotions in a similar way, to provoke in oneself a recognizably virtuous feeling of pity or sympathy in response to the various things people post. In this way surveillance gets authorized and excused by the sympathetic suffering of the surveillant. Consuming Facebook becomes a kind of moral imperative, a necessary regimen to build empathic fiber. Liking things on Facebook is the equivalent of crying over a sentimental book in public: an effort to try to log one’s being above mere self-interest, albeit in a highly self-interested and strategic way. Facebook is a forum for the gratuitous outpouring of emotion, but its archiving structure makes that outpouring socially compulsory. It invalidates the “virtue” it provokes. Users are left with a grammar of sympathetic gestures, translated into digital traces, clicks. Rather than exercise the moral sense, the compendium of likes and shares builds a case against our virtue, showing instead how self-interested all our emotions turn out to be.