A short review of technology and power
by Martin Hare Michno
Jeremy Bentham designed a prison in 1791. The circular design made all prisoners visible and exposed to a single security guard who stood at the centre. The gaze was unilateral; the inmates could not see the security guard, nor could they know when or if the guard was watching. Thus, the burden of the gaze was constant. They behaved as if they were under constant surveillance. Even if there was no guard, the inmates regulated their own behaviour. Big Brother – He Who Is Always Watching – was interiorised. Power was visible but unverifiable. Jeremy Bentham called his design the Panopticon.
Jeremy Bentham’s prison was never built. Yet the panopticon should not be understood as a building, but as a mechanism of power. The philosopher Michel Foucault identified the panoptic structure in modern institutions such as prisons, psychiatric wards, workplaces, schools and hospitals. Built upon a panoptic structure, force and repression become redundant. Observation will constrain the prisoner to good behaviour, the madman to silence, the worker to work, the schoolboy to study and the patient to regulations. The panoptic structure thus became a disciplinary power.
iii. Discipline · [disciplina: instruction, knowledge]
For Foucault, power in our society is exercised through disciplinary means. Discipline is a mechanism of power which regulates the thought and behaviour of social individuals through subtle means. The panoptic nature of discipline is found in the fact that disciplinary power is invisible while its subjects are imposed compulsory visibility. It is the subjects who must be seen. Discipline functions through the construction of space (e.g. the way a prison or classroom is built) and time (e.g. expected work hours). Disciplinary power is woven into our everyday activities. When its force is internalised and turns habitual, it becomes invisible. Instead of torturing the body, disciplinary power yokes it into a system of norms. Thus, unlike the sovereign forces of antiquity, power today works quietly.
iv. Power · [potēre: to be able]
a. Antiquity [coercive]
Coercion and violence are the most direct and immediate forms of power. They are the explicit negation of freedom. It uses force to restrict and to command. In this definition, powerholders impose their own will against the will of others through force. This form of power is of the lowest order as it relies on violence. It is only violence which is necessary to confront and overthrow it. This weakness has caused this form of coercive violence to be forgotten in antiquity.
b. Enlightenment · [disciplinary]
Disciplinary power is normative power. It subjects the individual to a set of rules, and eliminates deviations from the norms. Although not explicitly coercive, disciplinary power is still based on restriction – it still inhibits. It is a power which manifests itself in the architecture and dailiness of society. It becomes habitual and internalised. Working quietly but efficiently, it is the subtle negation of freedom. The Enlightenment took as principle that through observation, new knowledge is produced. In Foucault’s view, knowledge and power are interconnected. In the Enlightenment, to study is to dissect, compartmentalise, atomise and categorise. Power is thus attained through fragmentation, as it allows every movement to be supervised and all events to be recorded. Surveillance then becomes normalised and results in acceptance of regulations and docility.
c. Neoliberalism · [permissive]
Traditional power is coercive. Disciplinary power is restrictive. Today, neoliberal power is assuming increasingly permissive forms. It says ‘Yes’ more than it says ‘No’. Through its appearance of friendliness, power is shedding its negativity and presenting itself under the guise of freedom. Neoliberal power does not operate against the will of individuals, it is seductive. It is a surveillance camera with a sense of humour. It is a form of power which utilises freedom for its own ends.
v. Biopolitics · [βῐ́ος (“life”) + Πολιτικά (“affairs of the cities”)]
Disciplinary power has discovered the population as a productive mass to be administered and regulated. Biopolitics is a technology of power for regulating the masses. It socialises the body in its productive capacity. Capitalist production necessitates biopolitics to sustain itself. The corporal and the biological must be observed, subjected and controlled to convert the global mass – the disorderly population – into an orderly and categorised organisation of bodies.
vi. Psychopolitics · [ψυχή (“soul”) + Πολιτικά (“affairs of the cities”)]
While capitalism focuses on the organisation of bodies, neoliberalism – as a developed or mutated form of capitalism – has discovered the psyche as a productive force. Neoliberalism enhances productivity not through the discipline of the body, but through the optimisation of the mind. Neoliberalism promotes self-optimisation to function within the system. Neoliberal psychopolitics is a technology of domination that perpetuates the dominant system by means of psychological steering.
vii. Auto-Subjugation · [αὐτός (“self”) + sub- (“under”) + iugum (“yoke”)]
In neoliberal psychopolitics, one must eliminate functional weaknesses and inhibitions therapeutically to enhance efficiency and performance. However, such perpetual self-optimisation is destructive. Deterioration in mental health such as depression and anxieties are symptomatic of neoliberalism's exploitation of the psyche. Thus, self-optimisation amounts to nothing but self-exploitation. The individuals require no master because they subject themselves – they are absolute slaves. The spectacle of happiness, fitness and health promoted by social media is the force behind self-optimisation/subjugation. The spectacle is produced, legitimised, sustained and re-produced through a system of ‘Likes’, ‘Followers’ and ‘Shares’. This system also enables the quantification of social communication. Thus, to self-optimise is to quantify oneself.
vii. Dataism · [datum: “thing given”]
All (re-)productions and consumptions have been quantified. Consequently, the self too has been quantified. Quantification is the logic of the neoliberal market; it governs the digital age. The popularity of digital self-tracking and self-monitoring has led to the fetishization of data. Dataism empties the self and life of all meaning, much like Dadaism emptied language of meaning. Dataism is nihilism. Meaning is based on narration, but data is solely additive. It fills the emptied self with numbers. When data is commodified or exchanged, self-tracking becomes self-surveillance. The digitalised subject is a panopticon in itself. Through self-quantification and the quantification of the self, the individual is subject to perpetual auto-surveillance. The panoptic structures of social networks are thus revealed.
viii. Big Data · [01101101 01100001 01100111 01101110 01110101 01110011 00100000 01100100 01100001 01110100 01110101 01101101]
Big Data is the digital panopticon. Big Data is an extremely large database that may be analysed to reveal patterns, trends and associations in human behaviour an interaction. The data collected is willingly shared by us through our self-surveillance. Big Data wears a friendly face. It asks, ‘Hi, how can I help you?’. Bentham designed a panopticon which was confined to the surveillance of the physical; the digital panopticon can peer into the human soul. Big Data has collected all of our quantified activities – our data – and has painted a profile of us. Big Data can use all of our data to conclude our emotional state, our political ideologies and our desires. Big Data can even intervene in our psychic processes and influence or steer our future behaviour. Big Data can render the collective unconscious accessible. Big Data is the Big Brother we never had.
“For human beings to be able to act freely, the future must be open. However, Big Data is making it possible to predict human behaviour. This means that the future is becoming calculable and controllable. […] Indeed, persons are being positivized into things, which can be quantified, measured and steered. Needless to say, no thing can be free. But at the same time, things can be more transparent than persons. Big Data has announced the end of the person who possesses free will.” – Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power
<3 The Event · [?????????]
The event is the rupture from Big Data. It defies all calculation and prediction. Big Data is blind to the event. If the digital panopticon feeds upon patterns quantified patterns of behaviour, then the event is what is statistically unlikely – the singular, the unique – which will emancipate the self-subjugated individual. Freedom comes from the event. Nietzsche writes of statistics, the data of the Enlightenment, “Yes, it proves how vulgar and disgustingly uniform the masses are. You should have kept statistics in Athens! Then you would have sensed the difference!” The event is the overthrow of domination, the revolution, the usurpation of power, the appropriation of a vocabulary against those who had once used it, the possibility of possibilities, the emancipation of the subject, the re-constellation of Being.