There is a short article by Gilles Deleuze which has become a central touchstone of academic writing on social media, big data and “the digital” in general in the last few years. This is ‘Postscript on Societies of Control’ in which Deleuze famously asserted that we are now living in “control societies” rather than the “disciplinary societies” which Michel Foucault described. As I understand it what he meant by this was that rather than social control being exercised through institutions (such as schools and prisons) “drilling” people to behave in certain prescribed ways we are now controlled through our freedom.We are now subject to “modulating” controls which adapt to our behaviours.
Many people have applied this argument to digital culture (Alexander Galloway has done some interesting work in this area) and online life through identifying the ways in which the structures of social networks and the algorithms behind online search results are largely hidden from us but subtly control what we see and how we act. But the experience for the user is usually one of freedom as they feel they are navigating around them online world in whatever way they choose.
I have been quite convinced by this theoretical approach and had started to think that while Foucault’s analysis of power is still very useful in some areas it was perhaps somewhat less so when thinking about the digital. However, a book I have been reading and some political developments are making think differently.
The book that has changed my mind a bit is Governing Through Biometrics: The Biopolitics of Identity by Btihaj Ajana. While the book is an investigation into the use of identity cards, fingerprinting, eye scans and other forms of identification for political control it does deal in some detail with the role which digital technologies play in these systems. She shows how these techniques are being used to identify people in terms of a variety of characteristics (often in relation to ethnicity, nationality and political persuasion) in ever more fine grained ways. In particular she identifies the heavy controls which many governments are placing on asylum seekers.
The main theoretical lens which Ajana takes to this topic is “biopolitics” while she draws on Giorgio Agamben, Nikolas Rose and Foucault I will only briefly mention the latter. Central to Foucault’s notion of biopolitics is the power which is exercised over the human body and the species body and how the two levels are intertwined. That is, the biological materiality of the human body is judged and controlled in relation to that of the population as a whole.
A fundamental aspect of this control is ideas about what a healthy or “good” body is and who is considered to be a legitimate or desirable citizen of the body politic. As Ajana and Foucault assert racism and the exclusion of certain people occurs in relation to their (perceived) biology and citizenship.
This year has seen a rise of exclusionary politics in the UK, USA and large parts of Europe. It seems likely that there will soon be strong controls on migration imposed in many countries which will seek to exclude some groups of people based on biological, ethnic, political and national characteristics.
It has also been quite widely reported that China is developing a “social credit system” in which citizens will be allocated individual scores which will be generated through analysis of every area of their lives which can be monitored or measured. These might be minor legal misdemeanours (such as passing a red traffic light), moral transgressions (such as failing to care for their parents) or political resistance (such as criticizing the party). Activities on social networks and online in general will also be feeding this.
This credit system (called “Sesame Credit”) is jointly run by Tencent who own Sina Weibo (the Chinese equivalent to Twitter and Facebook) and AliBaba (the Chinese equivalent to Amazon) meaning that the Chinese stat and their biggest online tech companies are all on board from the start.
The really scary implications of this are outlined in this video:
The ruling Communist Party claims this system will be both a means of encouraging honesty (for individuals and corporations) but also of “social management” ). When the Economist discussed this they were highly critical of the Chinese approach but much more forgiving of similar practices in the West as they took assurance from the likelihood of the access and management of these data being governed by rules. I am less confident.
Last week we saw senior figures from Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Facebook, Microsoft and others scrambling to get round a table with Donald Trump who would no doubt be very keen to use their vast databanks to identify and extradite people who don’t fit with his vision of a great America.
Last month the UK government passed a new Investigatory Powers Act with no opposition which will enable them unprecedented access to citizens’ data. According to Edward Snowden this is ‘the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy. It goes further than many autocracies’.
The political response to concerns over terrorism and immigration combined with rising racism, discrimination and acceptance of authoritarianism seems to be moving in the direction of implementing greater surveillance and control of individuals and populations through digital and online methods. But crucially the biopolitical characteristics of people are going to be a central factor in how (and whom) these controls are implemented.
I do think control (in the Deleuzian sense) rather than discipline (in the Foucauldian sense) is going to be dominant in this new political era. But the monitoring of biological characteristics will be informing the sorting and classifying of legitimate citizens both in order to maximise their social utility and to exclude (the latter of which Ajana discusses in relation to the work of Giorgio Agamben).