Tag Archives: Michel Foucault

A New Privacy, Part 3: Documentary Consciousness

Documentary consciousness entails the ever-present sense of a looming future failure.

In Part I this essay, I considered the fact that we are always connected to digital social technologies, whether we are connecting through them or not. Because many companies collect what I call second-hand data (data about people other than those from whom the data is collected), whether we leave digital traces is not a decision we can make autonomously. The end result is that we cannot escape being connected to digital social technologies anymore than we can escape society itself.

In Part II, I examined two prevailing privacy discourses to show that, although our connections to digital social technology are out of our hands, we still conceptualize privacy as a matter of individual choice and control. Clinging to the myth of individual autonomy, however, leads us to think about privacy in ways that mask both structural inequalities and larger issues of power.

In this third and final installment, I consider one of the many impacts that follow from being inescapably connected in a society that still masks issues of power and inequality through conceptualizations of ‘privacy’ as an individual choice. I argue that the reality of inescapable connection and the impossible demands of prevailing privacy discourses have together resulted in what I term documentary consciousness, or the abstracted and internalized reproduction of others’ documentary vision. Documentary consciousness demands impossible disciplinary projects, and as such brings with it a gnawing disquietude; it is not uniformly distributed, but rests most heavily on those for whom (in the words of Foucault) “visibility is a trap.” I close by calling for new ways of thinking about both privacy and autonomy that more accurately reflect the ways power and identity intersect in augmented societies. (more…)

The Atemporality of “Ruin Porn”: The Carcass & the Ghost

This is the complete version of a previously posted two-part essay. Part one is here; part two is here.

Photo by Matthew Christopher

Objects have lives. They are witness to things. –This American Life, “The House on Loon Lake”

Atlantic Cities’ feature on the psychology of “ruin porn” is worth a look–in part because it’s interesting in itself, in part because it features some wonderful images, and in part because it has a great deal to do with both a piece I posted previously on Michael Chrisman’s photograph of a year and with the essay that piece referenced, Nathan Jurgenson’s take on the phenomenon of faux-vintage photography.

All of these pieces are, to a greater or lesser extent, oriented around a singular idea: atemporality – that the intermeshing and interweaving of the physical and digital causes us not only to experience both of those categories differently, but to perceive time itself differently; that for most of us, time is no longer a linear experience (assuming it ever was). Technology changes our remembrance of the past, our experience of the present, and our imagination of the future by blurring the lines between the three categories, and introducing different forms of understanding and meaning-making to all three – We remember the future, imagine the present, and experience the past. The phenomenon of “ruin porn” is uniquely suited to call attention to our increasingly atemporal existence, and to outline some of the specific ways in which it manifests itself.

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Technology and the Power of the Injured Body

The image of injured war veteran Scott Olsen used as a call to further Occupy action.

The idea that bodies are the loci and the focus for the movement of power is a well-established one in sociological thought. In this sense, bodies are inherently political things – they are not just sites for the production and reproduction of social power but they also have political significance. What they do matters; what happens to them and why matters. In social theory this is often centered around Foucauldian concepts of discipline and the production of knowledge, but for the purposes of this post I want to go back to a previous post, where I made an argument specifically about the political significance of bodies in contexts of violent protest:

[B]odies have symbolic weight and power, and often they have the most symbolic weight and power of any other part of the movement. A dramatic flush of international outrage was generated around the film of Neda Agha-Soltan bleeding to death in a Tehran street, but it was the physical suffering and death of her physical body that generated that rage. Outrage grew exponentially out of the footage and images of Lt. John Pike pepper-spraying seated UC Davis students, but again, that outrage was generated by and situated around the physical suffering of physical bodies.

It’s important to emphasize the aspect of physical suffering in itself; the body carries political, discursive significance not only when it is intact but when – sometimes especially when – it is in the process of being damaged and destroyed. And the context of this damage and destruction – the circumstances under which it occurs – is part of what imbues the  body with its significance and alters what nature it already has.

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The Atemporality of “Ruin Porn” – Part I: The Carcass

This is the first part of a two-part essay; the full version of the essay — both parts — can be found here.

Photo by Matthew Christopher

Atlantic Cities’ feature on the psychology of “ruin porn” is worth a look–in part because it’s interesting in itself, in part because  it features some wonderful images, and in part because it has a great deal to do with both a piece I posted last week on Michael Chrisman’s photograph of a year and with the essay that piece referenced, Nathan Jurgenson’s take on the phenomenon of faux-vintage photography.

All of these pieces are, to a greater or lesser extent, oriented around a singular idea: atemporality – that the intermeshing and interweaving of the physical and digital causes us not only to experience both of those categories differently, but to perceive time itself differently; that for most of us, time is no longer a linear experience (assuming it ever was). Technology changes our remembrance of the past, our experience of the present, and our imagination of the future by blurring the lines between the three categories, and introducing different forms of understanding and meaning-making to all three – We remember the future, imagine the present, and experience the past. The phenomenon of “ruin porn” is uniquely suited to call attention to our increasingly atemporal existence, and to outline some of the specific ways in which it  manifests itself.

(more…)

Julian Assange: Cyber-Libertarian or Cyber-Anarchist?


Julian Assange, the notorious founder and director of WikiLeaks, is many things to many people: hero, terrorist, figurehead, megalomaniac. What is it about Assange that makes him both so resonant and so divisive in our culture? What, exactly, does Assange stand for? In this post, I explore two possible frameworks for understanding Assange and, more broadly, the WikiLeaks agenda. These frameworks are: cyber-libertarianism and cyber-anarchism.

First, of course, we have to define these two terms. Cyber-libertarianism is a well-established political ideology that has its roots equally in the Internet’s early hacker culture and in American libertarianism. From hacker culture, it inherited a general antagonism to any form of regulation, censorship, or other barrier that might stand in the way of “free” (i.e., unhindered) access of the World Wide Web. From American libertarianism it inherited a general belief that voluntary associations are more effective in promoting freedom than government (the US Libertarian Party‘s motto is “maximum freedom, minimum government”). American libertarianism is distinct from other incarnations of libertarianism in that tends to celebrate the market and private business over co-opts or other modes of collective organization. In this sense, American libertarianism is deeply pro-capitalist. Thus, when we hear the slogan “information wants to be” that is widely associated with cyber-libertarianism, we should not read it as meaning  gratis (i.e., zero price); rather, we should read it as meaning libre (without obstacles or restrictions). This is important because the latter interpretation is compatible with free market economics, unlike the former.

Cyber-anarchism is a far less widely used term. In practice, commentators often fail to distinguish between cyber-anarchism and cyber-libertarianism. However, there are subtle distinctions between the two. Anarchism aims at the abolition of hierarchy. Like libertarians, anarchists have a strong skepticism of government, particularly government’s exclusive claim to use force against other actors. Yet, while libertarians tend to focus on the market as a mechanism for rewarding individual achievement, anarchists tend to see it as means for perpetuating inequality. Thus, cyber-anarchists tend to be as much against private consolidation of Internet infrastructure as they are against government interference. While cyber-libertarians have, historically, viewed the Internet as an unregulated space where good ideas and the most clever entrepreneurs are free to rise to the top, cyber-anarchists see the Internet as a means of working around and, ultimately, tearing down old hierarchies. Thus, what differentiates cyber-anarchist from cyber-libertarians, then, is that cyber-libertarians embrace fluid, meritocratic hierarchies (which are believed to be best served by markets), while anarchists are distrustful of all hierarchies. This would explain while libertarians tend to organize into conventional political parties, while the notion of an anarchist party seems almost oxymoronic. Another way to understand this difference is in how each group defines freedom: Freedom for libertarians is freedom to individually prosper, while freedom for anarchists is freedom from systemic inequalities. (more…)

Epidermal Electronics and The Cyborg Body

Photo Credit: John A. Rogers

I have written before about the (new) cyborg body, mostly in the form of tattoos and body modification, but new technologies are pushing this trend further in the form of epidermal electronics. John Rogers and his research colleagues, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaigne have developed rubbery sheets of “elastometer” that mimic the mechanical properties of the human skin. This allows them to embed circuits and semiconductors into the material and apply it to the human skin much like one applies a temporary tattoo. Jon Cartwright reports that this material (more…)

Surveillance: From the Cloud(s) to the Fog

Last winter, Cyborgology contributor David Banks described the Pentagon’s Gorgon Stare system—a nine-camera flying drone that can stay airborne for weeks at a time—as a “panopticon in the clouds.”  Like Jeremy Bentham’s infamous prison design (later adopted as a metaphor for all of contemporary society by Michel Foucault), the deployment of surveillance drones serves, in part, to limit the actions of militants by creating a perception that the US government was perpetually watching.  Banks argues that, ultimately, these sci-fi-esque surveillance regimes were made possible by recent refinements in automated data management that originally had mundane applications, such as helping spectators follow activity on the sports pitch or producing individualized film recommendations.

Compiled by PJ Rey

There is, thus, a double-sense in which the panopticon has entered the cloud(s).  Surveillance devices are not only omnipresent—flying through the air—but these devices are also linked remotely to command and control centers—large, centralized databases that store and process the information produced in surveillance operations.  Thus, unlike the historic spy operations conducted by manned U2 spy plans, drones never have to physically return home for data processing; instead, this information is transmitted in real-time. (more…)

TtW2011 Panel Spotlight: Self and Subjectivity Online

Presider: Jenny Davis

The panel: “Arts of Existence: Self and Subjectivity Online” promises to be both exciting and thought provoking. The papers in this panel explore the complex negotiations of publicity, privacy, inclusion, exclusion, and the meanings that these issues hold for the self. Jessica Vitak’s paper, a theoretical piece, examines the costs and benefits of open versus selective interaction via social media. She juxtaposes her theoretical musings against earlier CMC theories of the self (i.e. SIP and the hyperpersonal model) arguing that interrelated temporal, technological, and cultural shifts require us to think about mediated interaction in new ways. Mark Matienzo, through a case study, explores (everlasting) life and death in a mediated world. Using Zygmunt Bauman, Matienzo examines two opposing strategies for negotiating the potential permanence of the self in the contemporary era of pervasive technology. Finally, Aimée Morrison, through a study of mommy bloggers, explores the complex negotiations of candid-intimacy and open access. Morrison’s work looks at the ways in which bloggers simultaneously present their experiences to an open public, while carving out an intimate community. All of these papers illustrate how our digital selves and physical selves are deeply intertwined, and examine how negotiations of self and community necessarily span multiple spaces, places, and audiences. (more…)

Jasmine Slacktivism and the Chinese Stroll

Twitter users, likely from outside of China itself, are calling for people to “stroll” in Chinese public areas. The strolling protestors are not to carry signs or yell slogans, but instead to blend in with regular foot traffic. Chinese officials will not be able to identify protestors who themselves can safely blend in anonymity. [Edit for clarity: the idea is that foot traffic will increase in the announced area, but officials won't know which are the protesters.]

This tactic is reminiscent of those French Situationist strategies of May ’68 to create chaos and disorder (note that strolling is akin to, but not exactly the same as, DeBord’s practice of “the derive“). The calls to “stroll” have had impact in China with the government shutting down public spaces and popular hangouts. Even a busy McDonald’s was closed. These gatherings announced over Twitter have been highly attended by many officials, police and media, but, importantly, not by many protestors themselves.

This is slacktivism at its best. If this slacker activism is often defined by (more…)

Amber Case: Cyborg Anthropologist (a critique)


Here, Amber Case states something commonly repeated on this blog: we are all cyborgs. As such, she calls herself a cyborg anthropologist, similar to how we conceive of the study of technology and society as Cyborgology (perhaps without such strict disciplinary terms – but that is another discussion).

However, there is much disagreement between Case’s usage of the term and how I (and others) on this blog define a cyborg.

First, Case argues in the video above that the human cyborg is a recent invention. A product of new technologies that compress our mental capacities over time and space. On this blog, however, we tend to use the term much more broadly. For instance, one fundamental technology that structures other technologies built upon it is language. Post-structuralist thinking has long taught us about the power of language to drive what and how people think, how selves are formed, how power is enacted, and so on. Other technologies, such as spatial organization (think the architectural technologies of the amphitheater or panoptic prison) have profound impact on the mental processes of humans. The human mind has never been independent of technology, and, as such, we have always been cyborgs.

My second disagreement surrounds Case’s argument that (more…)