I would like to explore critically the often used notion of »surveillance« when it comes to data collections. We currently see a lot of approaches, that address the surveillance aspect of data collection: For example: Branden Hookway’s Panspectron (Hookway/Kwinter/Mau 1999), Mark Poster’s Super-Panoptikon (Poster 1995, 87), Didier Bigo’s Banopticon (Bigo 2006), Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Surveillance (Bauman/Lyon 2013), Shoshana Zuboff’s Information Panopticon and Surveillance Capitalism (Zuboff 2015), and Metahaven’s Black Transparency (Metahaven/Velden/Kruk (Hrsg.) 2015), followed by emerging academic centers and publications on the subject of »surveillance studies«. The discourse about surveillance keeps us busy: In academia, in media art, in mass media and discussing it at home with our partners and friends.

The major argument of surveillanceism follows Michel Foucault’s discussion of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison building concept and the practices in and around it, that Foucault developed in his book Surveiller et punir (Foucault 1976). A lot of the current discussion regarding data, circles around this concept of Panopticism, demonstrating how strong Foucault’s Panopticon-metaphor is. I can only notice, to what extend these arguments rely on one single theoretic impulse – the Foucauldian theoretization of Bentham’s concept. For time and space constraints I cannot go deeper into a possible critique of these theories and will only bring forward a few arguments, why I’m not using the surveillance metaphor.

Surveillance takes place. Data is part of electronic policing and as basis for politics. Human rights activists, political opponents, victims of police actions know that and everybody whose smartphone got confiscated on a demonstration like it happened here in Leipzig in January 2015, and how it happens all over the world, know it too. Amazon’s warehouse workers and Uber drivers know it was well.

Still I would maintain :

  • The distinction of public and private belongs to the narrative of civic democracy and capitalism. While the public was associated with the open, with politics, gendered towards a male norm, the private referred to the enclosing, to care and reproduction, gendered towards the female. The promise of bourgeois society to men was, that in privacy they could relax from their regulated public work life, dominate their wife and children, while ideally no-one would look behind the curtain. Anonymity in large urban aggregations, was a continuation of this promise. This privilege has been being diminished not only through feminism, but also through the ongoing recording of data, both in public and private, opening the privacy enclosure. »Consumers regard their purchases as private, as part of the capitalist system which designates all economic transactions as ›private‹. But databases are a postmodern discourse that traverse and cancel the public/private distinction.« (Mark Poster 1995, 86) From this perspective, the discussion about surveillance can also be understood as a reaction to the diminishing of the privacy as an ideology.
  • The concept of surveillance as »potentially all-encompassing« spreads narcissist fear: »Everybody is concerned, I’m being surveilled, ›they‹ are targeting me.« I think the spreading-fear-aspect is a problem, because the continuous talk about surveillance enforces fear. Unless you are being specifically targeted as in a police investigation, the broad collection of data is always only partial and never ever depicts »who you are«. The data on a single person, collected in databases at distributed locations and under distinct institutional ownership is always incomplete and partial, often even contradictory or simply wrong. It seems as if our collective imagination is better in spectacularly picturing how Facebook can address each participant based on collected statistical data, instead of imagining the agency of each in/dividual in dealing with machinic agency.
  • The impartiality and contradictoriness of combined data is not only infrastructurally grounded in different formats and contexts of overlapping data, e.g. one data collection models two different genders, another databases’ model allows for more differentiation regarding gender. That’s difficult to consolidate. Impartiality and contradictoriness is also based in our ability to act dividually – in the context of OkCupid I’m another person compared to my local bar, Netflix collects another set of references to my actions compared to the company I’m working for, the school I’m studying at or the social services that provide basic subsistence. The dividual works against an all-encompassing data collection.
  • Statistical data creation of labor processes, consumption, leisure activities is communicated as surveillance, as if it were something new. I would argue, that we live with it for about at least one century already. Whatever metrics may represent in the contemporary eye, they are just a diagrammatical variation of the instruction cards, described by Frederick W. Taylor, to optimize labor processes (Taylor 1911, 103f., 127f., 138). Looking further it has been argued by Foucault and others, that statistics as a gouvernmental and managerial technique emerged during the 17th century, on the example of King Louis XIV. The one thing, that is of different quality today, is the amount and immediacy of statistics generated, through machinic formalisation. One could be tempted to read this as »growing surveillance«, yet I would argue that it is a continuation of taylorist methods, for creating more value.

Partially I feel, the surveillanceism has become, against its own good intentions, a fog zone, behind which we might discover other issues if only we would move beyond it. Surveillanceism has become the romanticism of the 21st century. My stake in this discussion is to push the it beyond surveillance towards the question of the production of data, interpreting it as a productive force instead.

30 Sep 2018


Update 1: See further Evgeny Morozov: Capitalism’s New Clothes. Shoshana Zuboff’s new book on “surveillance capitalism” emphasizes the former at the expense of the latter. The Baffler Feb 4, 2019

Update 2: Compare this report by Amnesty International, which could be a counter-argument to the above.

C.f. Epistemic Harvest – The electronic database as means of data production.


→ author: Francis Hunger, published on: 2018-Sep-30