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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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Affective privacy and surveillance

William Bogard’s The Simulation of Surveillance (1996) has the misfortune of being a book about ubiquitous surveillance written a decade before the emergence of social media. So it anticipates some recent developments, like 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 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 off. There is nothing private about interactive screens that log every way we interface with them. Bogard is eager 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). And the “stupor” he posits sort of seems like a residue of the rhetoric of reactionary critics of television, decrying it as a stupefying, pacifying medium. Of course,  as reactionary critics of our day (like me) are quick to note, smartphones are pacifiers. They create a comforting zone of privacy that isn’t actually private but feels like it is. Privacy, as danah boyd and Alice Marwick explain in this paper, is a goal with strategies, not  a condition.

Since 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,” Bogard insists. 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.

So his claim that we will need screens to feel privacy (as a kind of reified consumer experience) seems especially prescient. When you consider how people seem to escape into their phones and abandon public space (people absorbed in their phones on the subway or during lulls in conversation at parties, people who withdraw into virtual worlds of games, people who check out from family time and look at Facebook Home, are all pursuing privacy strategies of a sort), then Bogard’s underlying point seems obviously true. Smartphones afford a feeling of control over space that we might readily recognize as privacy, if privacy wasn’t so strongly associated with control over our data.

After all, we can’t control the data. The belief that we can lends support to things like self-quantification practices — surveilling ourselves on our own terms and for our own apparent ends. Like diving into the smartphone space, self-quantification can seem like an assertion rather than a surrender of privacy. But no data is ever “private.” Putting experience into data form means preparing it to circulate, to be processed, to go public in the sense of entering statistical aggregates. Not only that but the mere process of formatting experience so that it can be quantified imposes codes of control on that experience. The surveillance is baked in to the data format in advance. Once something exists as data, it’s already been effectively “seen,” whether that data circulates widely or not.

That’s key for translating Bogard’s book for contemporary use: recognizing that when he talks about surveillance “as simulation,” he essentially means surveillance as datafication, representing life as code so that events can subsequently be effected at that level as well. The process of watching is the process of creating standardized information; this allows surveillance to occur not only in real-time by recording events, but ahead of time, through predictive analytics and data profiling.

Just as privacy isn’t about escaping the gaze, publicity isn’t really about courting it. “The sensation of publicity is not produced by a gaze,” Bogard claims, “but by the mere fact of connection, and of the powerlessness to disconnect, the totalization of the simulated gaze.” Merely being on social media is sufficient to make users feel microfamous, regardless of the particular number of likes or reblogs attracted. Virality is implicit in everything that gets coded: “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 don’t need to be watched, because we don’t exist until after we’ve been seen — we exist only insofar as we are surveilled, and the profile posited by the processing of surveillance data is subsequently the “real” object of inquiry.

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,” Bogard claims, “is its record” — the point of work is to produce self-referential documentation of its occurrence. Work discipline is built in when workers are making information. To put that in contemporary terms: 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 work meaningful. That’s how work discipline and social control are built into the work process itself, which then requires no external oversight. As a bonus for capital, 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, Bogard 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.”

For-profit, surveillant social media is, no surprise, just capitalism writ small, then. Capitalism is the most comprehensive of systems that posit their own form of value and reorder life and user incentives accordingly. This is “real subsumption” in action, the condition in which capitalism dictates the forms of life and what makes life valuable for subjects constituted within it, so that the meaning of life appears inseparable from the accumulation of capital. Economic growth appears 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, a new site for capitalist exploitation.

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