Criticising Surveillance and Surveillance Critique

New article now available on open access @ Surveillance & Society.

Abstract:

The current debate on surveillance, both academic and public, is constantly tempted towards a ‘negative’ criticism of present surveillance systems. In contrast, a ‘positive’ critique would be one which seeks to present alternative ways of thinking, evaluating, and even undertaking surveillance. Surveillance discourse today propagates a host of normative claims about what is admissible as true, probable, efficient – based upon which it cannot fail to justify its own expansion. A positive critique questions and subverts this epistemological foundation. It argues that surveillance must be held accountable by terms other than those of its own making. The objective is an open debate not only about ‘surveillance or not’, but the possibility of ‘another surveillance’.

To demonstrate the necessity of this shift, I first examine two existing frames of criticism. Privacy and humanism (appeal to human rights, freedoms and decency) are necessary but insufficient tools for positive critique. They implicitly accept surveillance’s bargain of trade-offs: the benefit of security measured against the cost of rights. To demonstrate paths towards positive critique, I analyse risk and security: two load-bearing concepts that hold up existing rationalisations of surveillance. They are the ‘openings’ for reforming those evaluative paradigms and rigged bargains on offer today.

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[ARTICLES] “Subjunctive and Interpassive” and “Presence”

Presence, or the sense of being-there and being-with in the new media society

Open access @First Monday.

This essay argues that the ways in which we come to feel connectivity and intimacy are often inconsistent with and irreducible to traditional markers like physical proximity, the human face or the synchronicity of message transmission. It identifies this non-objective and affective property as presence: conventionalised ways of intuiting sociability and publicness. The new media society is a specific situation where such habits of being affected are socially and historically parametrised. The essay provides two case studies. First: how do we derive a diffuse, indirect, intuitive sense of communicative participation — and yet also manage to convince ourselves of anonymity online? The second describes surveillance and data-mining as a kind of alienation: I am told my personal data is being exploited, but I do not quite ‘feel’ it. Surveillance practices increasingly withdraw from everyday experience, yet this withdrawal actually contributes to its strong presence.

Subjunctive and Interpassive ‘Knowing’ in the Surveillance Society

Open access @Media and Communication.

The Snowden affair marked not a switch from ignorance to informed enlightenment, but a problematisation of knowing as a condition. What does it mean to know of a surveillance apparatus that recedes from your sensory experience at every turn? How do we mobilise that knowledge for opinion and action when its benefits and harms are only articulable in terms of future-forwarded “as if”s? If the extent, legality and efficacy of surveillance is allegedly proven in secrecy, what kind of knowledge can we be said to “possess”? This essay characterises such knowing as “world-building”. We cobble together facts, claims, hypotheticals into a set of often speculative and deferred foundations for thought, opinion, feeling, action. Surveillance technology’s recession from everyday life accentuates this process. Based on close analysis of the public mediated discourse on the Snowden affair, I offer two common patterns of such world-building or knowing. They are (1)subjunctivity, the conceit of “I cannot know, but I must act as if it is true”; (2) interpassivity, which says “I don’t believe it/I am not affected, but someone else is (in my stead)”.

 

[Article] The other-publics

@ European Journal of Cultural Studies.

Or click here to read on this blog (pre-proofread version).

Print Issue coming… soon, I think?

 

Notably, I failed to include acknowledgments after planning to do so at the proofreading stage – perhaps because there were about 120 things to actually proofread. So here is at least an obscure, ghostly imprint in thanks to: Carolyn Marvin, José van Dijck, Deborah Lubken.

 

Abstract

This article analyses mediated invocations of ‘the people’ or ‘the public’ in the Dreyfus Affair, and 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.

[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

[Lecture] Living With Commodities

I presented at Being With…: Affinities, Attachments, Assemblages, hosted by IKKM Weimar, Germany, in April this year. The paper is in progress, but the first few minutes of the presentation is available here in text form.

Next time I do this, I’m getting a haircut.

Other lectures from the conference can be found here.

About

I am a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.

My current research involves the ‘infra-phenomenal’ in digital life. The way we experience digital interfaces and platforms is distinct from the developers or analysts’ specifications of them, and also from society’s own discourse about how such media reportedly work. This phenomenological dimension is strongly modulated by the affordances and obligations digital objects levy upon our perception, attention and habit. All this feeds into internalised impressions and conceptualisations of the digital world – folk understandings of trust and risk, transparency and privacy, connectivity and creativity.

Specifically, current projects include (1) everyday discourse and how communication relies on ‘uncertain’ and semantically negative techniques; (2) the ability of objects to levy ‘obligations’ on their environments and subjects; (3)how crowdfunding participants navigate conceptualisations of trust and risk. I draw on writers including Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Pierre Bourdieu and Slavoj Žižek.