The “We” That Haunts Our Digital Age

“Seen from this angle, the emphasis on what we must do as ethical selves, each and every one of us—us digital subjects, with our desires and our disobedience—may be precisely what is necessary for us to begin to think of ourselves as we. Yes, as that we that has been haunting this book since page one.”

                                                                           — Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age, p. 283.

In her brilliant post, Mary Ann Franks highlights the unequal exposure at the heart of our digital age and puts her finger on the most important sentence of Exposed: there is indeed a “we” that haunts this book, that haunts our digital age in fact, and it is precisely that “we” that we must keep at the very heart of our digital debates.

As Franks highlights and as David Pozen and Olivier Sylvain earlier suggested, the digital world is by no means an undifferentiated space. In Exposed, I underscore those differences. In the “The Mortification of the Self,” I underline how our digital world cuts deeply along lines of class and gender. In “The Steel Mesh,” I emphasize how our digital exposure is deeply differentiated by race and ethnicity. In “The Collapse of State, Economy, and Society,” I detail the labor, wealth, and disability effects. The NYPD social media unit does not simply target anyone, it targets minority suspects, especially “crew members…. They listen to the lyrical taunts of local rap artists, some affiliated with crews, and watch YouTube for clues to past trouble and future conflicts.” (Exposed, 243) The cameramen behind the CCTV’s don’t target anyone, but women sunbathing, and the “police officers radio each other to say ‘oh there’s a MILF over here, come over here.’” (230) Many of the women respondents in studies recount being “seen on camera and identified as not having had a top on in a park, even though they had a bikini top on— with the police saying repeatedly, ‘We just saw you on camera’” (230) The surveillants also target those in “hoodies, tracksuits, or trainers,” signs of the more popular classes. And of course, the NSA targets Muslim radicalizers. (247)

The steel mesh that surrounds us is by no means color-blind, and neither are the new forms of GPS monitoring. “In 2008, one out of nine young adult black men between the ages of twenty and thirty four—or approximately 11 percent of that population— was incarcerated in prison or jail in the United States. As of 2011, more than 2 million African American men were either behind bars or under correctional supervision (that is, had been arrested and processed by the criminal justice system and were on probation, on parole, or behind bars). That too represents about 11 percent of the total population of black men—one out of nine.” (235) And there are increasingly gender disparities in the carceral sphere: “The Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field office in New York dramatically increased the number of women monitored by GPS-enabled ankle bracelets, up roughly 4,000 percent in 2104 alone, from 18 to 719.” (238)

Indeed, our digital world is becoming, for many, a steel mesh. “We watch and are watched, we knowingly strap surveillance devices on our bodies— and then some of us are arrested, some of us are disconnected, some of us are extracted.” (253) Yes, some of us, but of course, not all, and we tend to know who. As I suggested in my last post on the “Damn Daniel!” phenomenon, the digital space elides all kinds of race and class distinctions, but we need to resist that and bring it to the surface.

Despite all the unequal exposure, we need to speak as a “we,” not as that “they” that Franks concludes with. Not only because even those of us who are being surveilled and punished are at times exposing ourselves and also watching others, but because it is only as a “we” that we will be able to address the excesses of our expository society, each and every one of us—us digital subjects, with our desires and our disobedience.

This has been a thrilling symposium and I thank my interlocutors—Lisa Austin, Ann Bartow, Mary Ann Franks, Solangel Maldonado, Frank Pasquale, David Pozen, and Daniel Solove—immensely. I have learned a lot.

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