Under Our Skins

It’s two years ago, and I’m at a bar in Wellington. A friend shows me on a map on her iPhone that that is indeed where we are. From within the app we could post this information on our respective Facebook walls, or on Twitter, FourSquare and so forth. This is the Internet now, I realize: no longer just information that travels on the TCP/IP protocol, but also the GPS-enabled handsets that track our locations in real time and enable us to upload photos of ourselves at bars in Wellington. And the social desire to share that information: that too is now part of the Internet. We want these things to be known about ourselves. We want to be followed.

It’s February 2012. A news report comes out of Italy on the traffic of women sold into prostitution from Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Far East. La Repubblica journalists Enrico Bellavia and Vladimiro Polchi need only briefly mention that pimps use microchip implants and cell phones to track these women on the ground and prevent their flight. We can imagine the rest. A microchip, of the kind you might use on a dog. A cell phone, and the injunction to carry it — with consequences no doubt more horrifying and brutal but otherwise not entirely unlike those that would befall many ordinary school-age children and mobile workers, who would also face sanctions if they breached the arrangements with, respectively, their parents and employers, and dropped off the grid without adequate notice or a valid excuse.

We know how it goes. We are intimately familiar with the hardware and the software involved and thoroughly habituated to how our technologies of communication can effortlessly double into instruments of control. This control comes in many varieties, ranging from practical convenience — apps that help you locate your phone in case it is lost or stolen, or that “accompany” your child outside the home — all the way down to enabling the dehumanizing violence of human traffickers. The physical device and the  software I use to update my followers on my current location or make sure that little Jimmy comes straight back after school are the same that the mafia uses to keep track of Natalia, who isn’t much older.

Are we, in fact, inured to this? I suspect so. Soon we shall stop even noticing such things. In the meantime, while we are still marginally sensitized to it, what are we to make of this contiguity? Should it bother us? Could it be that it points to an actual continuity between consumer behavior and criminal behavior, besides what we might be inclined to consider an incidental link — namely that the popularity of, in the case at hand, location services for smartphones translate directly into the availability of off-the-shelf products for those other, perverted purposes?

In asking this particular question, I aim to circumvent the typical response to such issues in mainstream-media commentary, which is to make the key discriminant one of choice versus imposition. According to this view, there is neither contiguity nor continuity: just good and bad, honest and dishonest uses of the same technologies. Technology itself is neutral, and our mode of engagement with it remains free and rational. To wit: engaging in the most remarkable acts of self-surveillance on social networks such as FourSquare is automatically good because we do so of our own free will and are conscious of the trade-offs. We exchange privacy for product discounts, status, or opportunities of social interaction, harming nobody in the process. By contrast, the stealth collection of data by many free smartphone apps or the routine wholesale changes to the privacy settings foisted upon Facebook users by the service are bad because even when the harm is not substantial these are (rightly) perceived as unwarranted intrusions. Within this frame, it’s easy to categorize the use of cell phones and microchips inserted under the skin to track the movements of women sold into prostitution as the horrifying abuse that it is: a grotesque aberration sitting at the extreme end of the spectrum of nonchoice.

This analysis reflects and reinforces a fundamental ideological bias of our times, which evaluates new technologies’ effects on society in terms of quality of the consumer experience — that is to say, through the eyes of a model consumer. This model consumer is a rational agent who makes informed choices and adopts or rejects each innovation based on its relative merits. But since technological innovation is the (by now quasi-mythical) engine of Western affluence, the model consumer must also be a well-disposed early adopter. She must not be too picky, let alone critique the economic and social system that churns out innovations at a brisk rate. If the model consumer didn’t dutifully stand in line for each new iteration of the iPad, an entire way of life, the very confidence in who we are, would be called into question, with potentially catastrophic consequences. So the model consumer must adopt most new products on the market, and adopt them cheerfully. While mobile technologies do make certain everyday tasks easier or more pleasant, soon enough to justify their expense one must take a step further and regard them not just as tools for business, but as conditions for full participation in society.

It starts with the simple questions: Can I afford not to own a cell phone? Would I still be employable if I didn’t own one? Would I still know what is happening and get invited to parties? The next year, it’s owning a smart phone. Or being on Facebook. Or getting an iPad for the children. None of this is about being aspirational. It’s about keeping up, an imperative sharpened by the economic crisis. So we cut expenses, but not when it comes to technology. Perhaps we eat out less, or travel less. But the cell phone — which
by now has become a smartphone — stays. And the thing about smartphones is that in order to be fully functional they need to know where they are — that is to say, where we are. This knowledge defines them. It is what makes them smart.

If you don’t own one of these devices yourself, you will perhaps have had the experience of being shown a map of your current location by an iPhone owner. This has happened to me at least half a dozen times: “See, this is where we are.” It doesn’t matter that I thought that I knew where I was. My mental map was no match for the crisp precision of the iPhone’s. From that moment, being in that place meant something different. The concept of presence had been redefined. And I thought it was cool, every single time. With mobile Internet and dynamic maps come a host of location services that collectively provide greater and greater incentives for allowing the phone to constantly track your position and broadcast it to other people in your networks. In this way we keep tags on each other and keep track of each other’s absences. “X hasn’t checked in for a few days. I hope she’s okay.”

Geotagging one’s tweets seem to be especially popular at the moment. I wrote this, and I wrote it here. It is no longer simply an utterance, but an utterance with longitude and latitude. This will enrich communication, somehow.
On top of this network of distributed surveillance made up of seemingly benign small brothers and sisters watching (over) one another is another, more traditionally structured layer relating to the adoption of these technologies by companies, families, and schools to track the movements of their employees, children, and students. If I lump these  terms together it’s because they are practically interchangeable. Companies track their mobile workers electronically to ensure operational efficiency; families track their children electronically to make sure that they are safe and don’t venture where they are not supposed to; schools track their students electronically to improve security and discourage truancy. But these aren’t different kinds of surveillance. They are all ultimately about controlling bodies in space. They are about enforcing compliance by making the subjects constantly visible and aware that they are being watched.

It doesn’t matter that not all companies, not all families, and certainly not all schools do this. The fact that some of them do, that what 15, 10, perhaps as little as five years ago would have struck us as dystopian fantasies have become routine arrangements, is what we must account for.

And there are the calls to extend them further, to make them universal, integrated in the system by default. A coronial inquest on the death by suicide of a bullied teenager in Rotorua, New Zealand, has recently heard that spy software by a company called MyFone could be installed on all New Zealand cell phones for $200,000, allowing parents logging onto the company’s website to see any calls or texts made to and from the phone and providing a tracking service so that they can find out where their child is at any time. The coroner hasn’t made such a recommendation — not yet at any rate — but that the advice of MyFone was even sought speaks loudly about the present cultural moment.

We may see in this a return to panopticism, a revival of some of the institutions of the disciplinary society — school, family, workplace — that were judged to be in terminal crisis by Gilles Deleuze when he sketched the outlines of the society of control. But if this is the case, then it is a distributed, fluid panopticism in which the subjects under surveillance are also agents of surveillance — both of themselves and in relation to other subjects. In the meantime, the physical confines of those historical institutions have largely broken down. The workplace, most of all, is wherever — and whenever — you happen to be, so long as you remain visible, present, connected to the network, a configuration that relies on self-surveillance as the chief mode of control.

Thus it is principally through the social networks, as opposed to the technologies that detect, track, and broadcast our physical location, that this control is deployed. There is more value in those subjective utterances (“I have boarded the plane,” “I’m in the meeting” or even “I’m going to bed”) than in the objective real-time logging and plotting of our exact longitude and latitude, for the former also reveal our state of mind as well as the willingness to remain connected and to keep sharing that information — a coded layer of meta-surveillance that is essential to the functioning of the system. We want these things to be known about ourselves. We want to be followed, both metaphorically — for this is the primary meaning that the word has on Twitter — and literally, when we broadcast our coordinates for the world to know. GPS is just an instrument, an adjunct.


You may have noticed, and objected to, the blanket use of the pronoun we in this essay. Ordinarily I would argue that participation in the networks is anything but equal, that they are biased toward describing a certain type of subject. But it is important to recognize that the staggering statistics about the adoption of Internet technologies — say, the number of people who have a Facebook profile (900 million people, at last count) or the number of iPhones sold (the figure of 108 million is over one year old) — indicate the extent to which this distributed-surveillance infrastructure has overlaid the older technologies and modalities of communication and socialization. There is very little outside of this particular text, and non-participation isn’t a meaningful option. Unless we acknowledge the totalizing reach of the networks, we might view the use of microchips and cell phones to track the movement of an enslaved workforce as an aberration as opposed to the seamless extension of the logic of the networks themselves and of the economic system that underlies them.

Because in the final analysis this, too, is neoliberalism, with its global flows of reprogrammable labor and its all-pervading circuits of control. The trafficked women in the La Repubblica exposé were first trained in Cyprus and Serbia before doing an “internship” in Russia, during which their earning capacity was tested and evaluated. Then they were delivered to their final destination, be it Italy, France, the Netherlands, or some other country where they would be exploited for maximum gain. Like in any ordinary, well-functioning modern workplace, technology has helped enable faster communication and make the system more efficient, reducing the lags and the downtime as much as the loss or displacement of staff.

I don’t mean any of this glibly. This isn’t a happy story, but it is an emblematic one and ought to encourage us to question the stubbornly popular myth that the Internet is the place to pursue individual and collective freedom, to socialize, organize and mobilize, to be creative or articulate a more progressive politics. It may be some of those things, some of the time. But it is primarily, and in far more deeply embedded, structural ways, a technology of control suited to the stage of capitalism and the political, social, and cultural moment that produced it. Left alone, it will naturally tend to reproduce the conditions that enabled it to emerge and flourish. Any critique of those conditions — including the feral globalization that makes it possible to source, train, and trade sex slaves by the thousands through a network spanning half the planet — will also have to be nothing less than a critique of the Internet and its distinctive and immensely powerful social configurations.