Irresistible Surveillance?

Bernard Harcourt’s Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age offers many intriguing insights into how power circulates in contemporary society.  The book’s central contribution, as I see it, is to complicate the standard model of surveillance by introducing the surveilled’s agency into the picture.  Exposed highlights the extent to which ordinary people are complicit in regimes of data-monitoring and data-mining that damage their individual personhood and the democratic system.  Millions upon millions of “digital subjects,” Harcourt explains, have come to embrace forms of exposure that commoditize their own privacy.  Sometimes people do this because they want more convenience when they navigate capitalist culture or government bureaucracies.  Or because they want better book recommendations from Amazon.  Other times, people wish to see and be seen online—increasingly feel they need to be seen online—in order to lead successful social and professional lives.

So complicit are we in the erosion of our collective privacy, Harcourt suggests, that any theory of the “surveillance state” or the “surveillance industrial complex” that fails to account for these decentralized dynamics of exhibition, spectacle, voyeurism, and play will misdiagnose our situation.  Harcourt aligns himself at times with some of the most provocative critics of intelligence agencies like the NSA and companies like Facebook.  Yet the emphasis he places on personal desire and participatory disclosure belies any Manichean notion of rogue institutions preying upon ignorant citizens.  His diagnosis of how we’ve lost our privacy is more complex, ethically and practically, in that it forces attention on the ways in which our current situation is jointly created by bottom-up processes of self-exposure as well as by top-down processes of supervision and control.

Thus, when Harcourt writes in the introduction that “[t]here is no conspiracy here, nothing untoward,” what might seem like a throwaway line is instead an important descriptive and normative position he is staking out about the nature of the surveillance problem.  Exposed calls on critics of digital surveillance to adopt a broader analytic lens and a more nuanced understanding of causation, power, and responsibility.  Harcourt in this way opens up fruitful lines of inquiry while also, I think, opening himself up to the charge of victim-blaming insofar as he minimizes the social and technological forces that limit people’s capacity to change their digital circumstances.

The place of desire in “the expository society,” Harcourt shows, requires rethinking of our metaphors for surveillance, discipline, and loss of privacy.  Exposed unfolds as a series of investigations into the images and tropes we conventionally rely on to crystallize the nature of the threat we face: Big Brother, the Panopticon, the Surveillance State, and so forth.  In each case, Harcourt provides an erudite and sympathetic treatment of the ways in which these metaphors speak to our predicament.  Yet in each case, he finds them ultimately wanting.  For instance, after the Snowden disclosures began to garner headlines, many turned to George Orwell’s novel 1984 to help make sense of the NSA’s activities.  Book sales skyrocketed.  Harcourt, however, finds the Big Brother metaphor to be misleading in critical respects.  As he reminds us, Big Brother sought to wear down the citizens of Oceania, neutralize their passions, fill them with hate.  “Today, by contrast, everything functions by means of ‘likes,’ ‘shares,’ ‘favorites,’ ‘friending,’ and ‘following.’  The drab blue uniform and grim gray walls in 1984 have been replaced by the iPhone 5C in all its radiant colors . . . .”  We are in a new condition, a new paradigm, and we need a new language to negotiate it.

Harcourt then considers a metaphor of his own devising: the “mirrored glass pavilion.”  This metaphor is meant to evoke a sleek, disorienting, commercialized space in which we render ourselves exposed to the gaze of others and also, at the same time, to ourselves.  But Harcourt isn’t quite content to rest with this metaphor either.  He introduces the mirrored glass pavilion, examines it, makes a case for it, and keeps moving—trying out metaphors like “steel mesh” and “data doubles” and (my favorite) “a large oligopolistic octopus that is enveloping the world,” all within the context of the master metaphor of an expository society.  Metaphors, it seems, are indispensable if imperfect tools for unraveling the paradoxes of digital life.

The result is a restless, searching quality to the analysis.  Exposed is constantly introducing new anecdotes, examples, paradigms, and perspectives, in the manner of a guided tour.  Harcourt is clearly deeply unsettled by the digital age we have entered.  Part of the appeal of the book is that he is willing to leave many of his assessments unsettled too, to synthesize a vast range of developments without simplifying or prophesizing.

Another aspect of Exposed that enhances its effect is the prose style.  Now, I wouldn’t say that Harcourt’s Foucault-fueled writing has ever suffered from a lack of flair.  But in this work, Harcourt has gone further and become a formal innovator.  He has developed a prose style that uncannily mimics the experience of the expository society, the phenomenology of the digital subject.

Throughout the book, when describing the allure of new technologies that would rob us of our privacy and personhood, the prose shifts into a different register.  The reader is suddenly greeted with quick staccato passages, with acronyms and brand names thrown together in a dizzying succession of catalogs and subordinate clauses.  In these passages, Harcourt models for us the implicit bargain offered by the mirrored glass pavilion—inviting us to suspend critical judgment, to lose ourselves, as we get wrapped up in the sheer visceral excitement, the mad frenzy, of digital consumer culture.

Right from the book’s first sentence, we confront this mimetic style:

Every keystroke, each mouse click, every touch of the screen, card swipe, Google search, Amazon purchase, Instagram, ‘like,’ tweet, scan—in short, everything we do in our new digital age can be recorded, stored, and monitored.  Every routine act on our iPads and tablets, on our laptops, notebooks, and Kindles, office PCs and smart-phones, every transaction with our debit card, gym pass, E-ZPass, bus pass, and loyalty cards can be archived, data-mined, and traced back to us.

Other sentences deploy a similar rhetorical strategy in a more positive key, describing how we now “‘like,’ we ‘share,’ we ‘favorite.’ We ‘follow.’ We ‘connect.’ We get ‘LinkedIn”—how “[e]verything today is organized around friending, clicking, retweeting, and reposting.”

There is a visceral pleasure to be had from abandoning oneself to the hyper-stimulation, the sensory overload, of passages like these.  Which is precisely the point.  For that pleasure underwrites our own ubiquitous surveillance and the mortification of self.  That pleasure is our undoing.  More than anything else, in Harcourt’s telling, it is the constant gratifications afforded by technologies of surveillance that have “enslaved us, exposed us, and ensnared us in this digital shell as hard as steel.”

*  *  *

I hope these brief comments have conveyed some of what I found so stimulating in this remarkable book.  Always imaginative and often impressionistic, Exposed is hazy on a number of significant matters.  In the hope of facilitating conversation, I will close by noting a few.

First, what are the distributional dimensions of the privacy crisis that we face?  The implicit digital subject of Exposed seems to be a highly educated, affluent type—someone who would write a blog post, wear an Apple Watch, buy books on Amazon.  There may well be millions of people like this; I don’t mean to suggest any narcissism in the book’s critical gaze.  I wonder, though, how the privacy pitfalls chronicled in Exposed relate to more old-fashioned forms of observation and exploitation that continue to afflict marginalized populations and that Harcourt has trenchantly critiqued in other work.

Second, what about all the purported benefits of digital technology, Big Data, and the like?  Some commentators, as Harcourt notes in passing, have begun to argue that panoptic surveillance, at least under the right conditions, can facilitate not only certain kinds of efficiency and security but also values such as democratic engagement and human freedom that Harcourt is keen to promote.  I share Harcourt’s skepticism about these arguments, but if they are wrong then we need to know why they are wrong, and in particular whether they are irredeemably mistaken or whether they might instead point us toward useful regulatory reforms.

And lastly, what would dissent look like in this realm?  The final, forward-looking chapter of Exposed is strikingly short, only four pages long.  Harcourt exhorts the reader to fight back through “digital resistance” and “political disobedience.”  But remember, there is no conspiracy here, nothing untoward.  Rather, there is a massively distributed and partially emergent system of surveillance.  And this system generates enormous perceived rewards, not just for those at the top but for countless individuals throughout society.  It is something of a puzzle, then, what would motivate the sort of self-abnegating resistance that Harcourt calls for—resistance that must be directed, in the first instance, toward our own compulsive habits and consumptive appetites.  How would that sort of resistance develop, in the teeth of our own desires, and how could it surmount collective action barriers?

These are just a few of the urgent questions that Exposed helps bring into focus.

*  *  *

David Pozen is an associate professor at Columbia Law School.

You may also like...

2 Responses

  1. Alan says:

    I’m glad to see Harcourt’s new book is being taken up here. It needs attention. It’s a pity the various posts haven’t generated much discussion yet so I thought I’d throw some thoughts out there on Foucault, metaphors, rationality.

    The panopticon metaphor taken from Discipline and Punish is often used to frame thinking about the surveillance state. However, a few years after the publication of D&P, in Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978 Foucault had already re-positioned the significance of discipline and panopticism. Harcourt makes reference to this on pp.92-93, where he also notes that Foucault did not have a good metaphor for the “other system of power” he discusses in STP.

    The idea of the panopticon is a modern idea in one sense, but we can also say that it is completely archaic, since the panoptic mechanism basically involves putting someone in the center– an eye, a gaze, a principle of surveillance – who will be able to make its sovereignty function over all the individuals [placed] within this machine of power. To that extent we can say that the panopticon is the oldest dream of the oldest sovereign: None of my subjects can escape and none of their actions is unknown to me. The central point of the panopticon still functions, as it were, as a perfect sovereign. On the other hand, what we now see is [not] the idea of a power that takes the form of an exhaustive surveillance of individuals so that they are all constantly under the eyes of the sovereign in everything they do, but the set of mechanisms that, for the government and those who govern, attach pertinence to quite specific phenomena that are not exactly individual phenomena, even if individuals do appear in a way, and there are specific processes of individualization (and we will have to come back to this, because it is very important). The relation between the individual and the collective, between the totality of the social body and its elementary fragments, is made to function in a completely different way; it will function differently in what we call population. The government of populations is, I think, completely different from the exercise of sovereignty over the fine grain of individual behaviors. It seems to me that we have two completely different systems of power. (STP pp.93-94)

    He then goes on to outline the features:

    I think the population no longer appears as a collection of subjects of right, as a collection of subject wills who must obey the sovereign’s will through the intermediary of regulations, laws, edicts, and so on. It will be considered as a set of processes to be managed at the level and on the basis of what is natural in these processes. But what does this “naturalness” of the population signify? What is it that means that the population will henceforth be seen, not from the standpoint of the juridical-political notion of subject, but as a sort of technical-political object of management and government? What is this naturalness? (STP p.98)

    He then lists three ways this “naturalness” of populations appears:
    1. As a series of variables
    2. As desire: “Every individual acts out of desire. One can do nothing against desire. As Quesnay says: You cannot stop people from living where they think they will profit most and where they desire to live, because they desire that profit. Do not try to change them; things will not change. However – and it is here that this naturalness of desire thus marks the population and becomes accessible to governmental technique…”(STP p.101)
    3. As phenomena that can be counted to expose regularities.

    What he’s describing here is the rise of the sciences of man: human biology, human genetics, the social sciences, statistics, economics, public health, criminology, etc. starting in the 18th C. and their involvement in new types of governance (broadly understood) and related subjectivities. This is taken forward in the following year’s lectures, The Birth of Biopolitics in which he takes up a discussion of economic rationality and neoliberalism. What has changed since the 18th C. is not the basic mechanisms of power described in STP–population surveillance has been been there from the very beginning, long before the arrival of the digital age–so much as the scope and efficiency of the tools by which the population variables can be tracked and counted, regularities found, and acted upon through much expanded technologies of seduction. Observers with pencils and paper and filing cabinets have been replaced by sensors, computers, databases, and iPhones. Forty years ago in The History of Sexuality, Foucault had already made the point that power can act through a productive, willing relationship rather than a simply repressive one (D&P). (See also the discussion of enterprise of the self in the The Birth of Biopolitics). In total, we have the “subjects of right” becoming disciplinary objects and willing subjects of googolian data points in databases.

    There is a continuation of a Weberian critique of rationalization in there, the ways in which sciences of man transform our experience and the experience of our selves, both liberating and enslaving.

    For other much earlier writings that try to pickup on some of these themes in Foucault see:
    Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October 59, Winter (1992): 3–7.
    Poster, Mark. “Foucault and Databases: Participatory Surveillance.” In The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context, 2nd ed., 69–98. University of Chicago Press, 1990.

  2. Alan says:

    My post had html tags for blockquotes and italics that don’t appear to be supported here so just a note that the two longer paragraphs ending with (STP p…) are quotes from Security, Territory, Population.