Bernard Harcourt’s Exposed is a deeply insightful analysis of data collection, analysis, and use by powerful commercial and governmental actors. It offers a social theory of both surveillance and self-exposure. Harcourt transcends methodological individualism by explaining how troubling social outcomes can be generated by personal choices that each seem rational at the time they are made. He also helps us understand why ever more of daily life is organized around the demands of what Shoshanna Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism:” intimate monitoring of our daily lives to maximize our productivity as consumers and workers.
The Chief Data Scientist of a Silicon Valley firm told Zuboff, “The goal of everything we do is to change people’s actual behavior at scale. When people use our app, we can capture their behaviors, identify good and bad behaviors, and develop ways to reward the good and punish the bad. We can test how actionable our cues are for them and how profitable for us.” Harcourt reflects deeply on what it means for firms and governments to “change behavior at scale,” identifying “the phenomenological steps of the structuration of the self in the age of Google and NSA data-mining.”
Harcourt also draws a striking, convincing analogy between Erving Goffman’s concept of the “total institution,” and the ever-denser networks of sensors and training (both in the form of punishments and lures) that powerful institutions use to assure behavior occurs within ranges of normality. He observes that some groups are far more likely to be exposed to pain or inconvenience from the surveillance apparatus, while others enjoy its blandishments in relative peace. But almost no one can escape its effects altogether.
In the space of a post here, I cannot explicate Harcourt’s approach in detail. But I hope to give our readers a sense of its power to illuminate our predicament by focusing on one recent, concrete dispute: Apple’s refusal to develop a tool to assist the FBI’s effort to reveal the data in an encrypted iPhone. The history Harcourt’s book recounts helps us understand why the case has attracted so much attention—and how it may be raising false hopes.