Warning, Danger: Mass surveillance controls without compromising individual privacy.

Great recent essay “No Life Stories”  by Rob Horning in The New Inquiry.

It has occurred to me lately how strange it is that we have gone, in the past two years, from sort of believing the NSA when they said they don’t regularly invade our private communications to now knowing that that they do in fact capture, store, and retain access to the whole kit and caboodle and we are sort of ok with it.  It’s weird when we don’t really know what the national security state and private corporations are checking into us for, we fear a bit.  What they take it all! Ok. Law of large numbers. Infinity. Universal. I ain’t afraid of you no more. But… this can’t be right. Something else is going on and I’m happy to come across Horning’s essay:

Since many people are becoming alert to the surveillance threat because of smartphones’ tracking us individually, we tend to imagine the problem with surveillance is that it can single us out and expose us. Surveillance is conceived of apanopticons panoptic voyeurism that selects us for unfair scrutiny and treatment, requiring us to adopt a superficial conformity as camouflage. It plays on our worry for our personal reputation.

The surveillance apparatus doesn’t care about our individual story. Instead Big Data is interested in broader statistical profiles of populations. Mass surveillance controls without necessarily knowing anything that compromises any individual’s privacy. To the degree that they have access to the devices we use to mediate our relation to everyday life, companies deploy algorithms based on correlations found in large data sets to shape our opportunities—our sense of what feels possible. Undesirable outcomes need not be forbidden and policed if instead they can simply be made improbable. We don’t need to be watched and brainwashed to make them docile; we just need to be situated within social dynamics whose range of outcomes have all been modeled as safe for the status quo.

It’s not: “I see what you are doing, Bob, stop that.” It’s: “Bob can be included in these different data sets, which means he should be offered these prices, these jobs, these insurance policies, these friends’ status updates, and he’ll likely be swayed by these facts.”

The conveniences and connectivity promised by interactive technologies normalize what Andrejevic calls “digital enclosure”—turning the common space of sociality into an administered space in which we are all enlisted in the “work of being watched,” churning out information for the entities that own the databases.

“All that is solid melts into air…”

MemoryCityII7“Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848)


There was no better guide to the lyrical power and vivid imaginary of Marx’s writing on transformative social change and the emancipatory promise of the moment than the recently deceased Marshall Berman of CUNY.  Marx of the Enlightenment, Marx of the Romantic critique of Enlightenment, Berman finds all that combined in Marx of Modernity.

all-thatAll That Is Solid Melts into Air is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest books on modernity. A kaleidoscopic journey into the experience of modernization, it captures the dizzying social changes that swept up and transformed the lives of millions of people. Berman delves into the aesthetic and intellectual controversies of art, literature, and architecture: from the writing of Goethe, Marx and Dostoevsky to the Paris of Baudelaire and Haussmann, the Petersburg of the Tsarist builders and Pushkin, and the New York of devastated wastelands and creative artists.” [Jacket blurb Penguin edition]