[Talk] U. Milano-Bicocca

I will be at the University of Milano-Bicocca next week to give a talk on surveillance, self-tracking and the data-driven life. It will overlap significantly with my presentation last week at the Affect Theory conference; I’ll be posting the full text and slides afterwards. Abstract below.

The Data-Driven Life: The Parameters of Knowing in the Online Surveillance Society

‘Information overload’ is an old cliché, but when it was still fresh, it conveyed a broad and fundamental liquidity in the parameters of our experience. What it meant – and felt like – to remember, to know, was changing. Surveillance today is not simply a question of privacy or governmental power, but a practical extension of such liquidity. Surveillance’s fevered dream of total prediction hinges on its ability to subtend human sensibility – with its forgetfulness, bias, and other problems – to reach ‘raw’ and comprehensive data. This data-hunger, shared by states, corporations and individuals alike, betrays a ‘honeymoon objectivity’. The rise of new technologies for knowledge production is being misconstrued as a discovery of pure and unmediated information. The result is a profound shift in what qualifies as knowledge; who, or what, does the knowing; what decisions and actions are legitimated through that knowledge. Surveillance practices and controversies today host a reparametrisation of what ‘knowing’ entails.

In this talk, I will address two specific cases: the state surveillance of the Snowden Affair, and the self-surveillance of the Quantified Self (QS) movement. I draw on interviews, ethnographic observation and archival research that is part of a larger, ongoing project.

  1. I know we are being watched, Snowden told us so – but I don’t see it, and I don’t feel it. A vast surveillance program withdraws into the recesses of technological systems, denying our capacity to know and experience it. Conventional forms of proof or risk probabilities elude both arguments for and against it. This situation provokes two major patterns of ‘knowing’. First, subjunctivity leverages the recessive unknowability surrounding surveillance as if it were in some way true and certain, producing hypothetical, provisionary bases for real, enduring actions and beliefs. Statistical measures of danger become mathematically negligible, yet affectively overwhelming. Second, interpassivity projects others (human and nonhuman) who believe and experience what we cannot ourselves in our stead. Even if the world of surveillance and terror is not real in my back yard, these interpellated others help make it ‘real enough’. Technology’s recession thus provokes an existential dilemma; how do I ‘know’? What is it supposed to feel like to ‘know’?
  1. We cannot stand guard over our judgments without machines to keep us steady. If our knowledge of our own bodies, habits and affects were previously left to unreliable memories and gut feeling, QS promises a data-driven existence where you truly “come into contact with yourself” – through persistent, often wearable, self-surveillance. The Delphic maxim know thyself is applied to a very different existential condition, where my lived relationship with technology becomes the authoritative site for an abstracted relationship with my own body. Yet QSers also acknowledge that data is always incomplete, raising new uncertainties and requiring the intervention of subjective judgment. Here, it is technology’s protrusion which forces the question: how will you ‘know’ yourself through a digitality that subtends your memory and intention?

[Conference] ICA 2014

I will be at the International Communications Association’s 2014 conference in Seattle, 22-26 May. I will stand up and talk to some people (and possibly large swathes of empty chairs) about:

From Visibility to Presence: Theorising Aesthetic-Affective Communication in Digital Space
The notion of presence conceptualises the aesthetic and affective dimensions of digital experience. It describes the phenomenally experienced quality of being-there and being-with other(s) – not merely knowing or ‘imagining’ a digital multitude, but a sense of imposing my presence on others, and equally, feeling the presence of others upon me. Presence problematises and complements visibility as a dominant, rational-technical mode in which we theorise questions of digital sociability, publicity and political participation. The concept of presence seeks to re-organise our knowledge of different lived experiences of online connections under a coherent conceptual umbrella. How are we more visible, and yet more anonymous than ever in digital space? How do the embodied aspects of visibility work in digital space – such as its ability to provoke powerful emotional responses? What does it even mean to be ‘visible’qua the body in the age of big data and predictive analysis? Presence provides a unique perspective to these enduring questions by connecting the affective-aesthetic dimension with critiques of algorithmic power.
This essay articulates presence as an aesthetic-affective lens, and demonstrates its analytical utility, through three short cases: (1) our speculative, felt senses of sufficient and probable visibility on Twitter; (2) distant and digital communication of embodied political presence, exemplified by contemporary acts of self-immolation; (3) data mining and the emergence of ‘trace-bodies’ composed of data, where the key paradox is that I know my data (self) is being exploited, but I often do not feel the presence of my own trace-body – an affective alienation.
Now You See It, Now You Don’t: On Codes, Screens, Visibility, and Erasure | Monday May 26, 9.00am | Ravenna C Room


The Other-Publics: mediated othering and the public sphere in the Dreyfus Affair

This article analyzes mediated invocations of ‘the people’ / ‘the public’ in the Dreyfus Affair, and directly orients this historical analysis towards contemporary debates on public spheres and digital media. If the ideal Habermasian public sphere never historically existed, how did the ‘imperfect’ public spheres of the past nevertheless contribute to democratic political participation? The late 19th century is a particularly salient point of comparison, being a time of transition from one set of media technologies and notions of publics to another. Focusing on newspapers, posters and other print-based communicative practices, I identify two general and consistent modes by which the ‘other-public’ is produced: (1) the ‘other’ audience as the target of persuasion, influence and commentary, and (2) the speaker as a distinct ‘other’ from the crowd. This othering was not a pathological barrier to ‘full participation’, but a constitutive part of publicity in an age of nascent mass media.

Communication History High-Density Panel | Sunday May 25, 10.30am | University Room