This post expounds on just one section of Liquid Surveillance and should not be considered a proper “review” as such, though I have completed a full review for a journal [read it here]. Further, one of the co-authors of this book, David Lyon, is giving the keynote to the Theorizing the Web conference this Saturday in New York City [more info].
In Liquid Surveillance, the theorist of liquidity, Zygmunt Bauman, and the perhaps the preeminent theorist of surveillance, David Lyon, apply their unique perspectives to social media. I’ve already written a general review of the entire book, submitted to a journal; here, I’m expanding on one specific section of the book that was too much for the general review and deserves its own treatment. In any case, this post has more of my own ideas than would be appropriate for a journal review.
To begin, Liquid Surveillance is not a typical study, but, instead, a “conversation” between the two authors; basically, the back-and-forth is like access to the best email chain that ever happened. It convincingly presents a theoretical paradigm, a theorizing of the web from a unique, historical, and critical framework, often lacking in the larger discussions around technology and society. However, while these authors are uniquely suited to making certain points, I’d like to push them towards engaging with the topic of social media a little more. To do so, I’ll outline three provocations to the theory of liquid surveillance as applied to social media. (I say “provocations to the theory” and not “criticisms for the authors” because each of my points is a disagreement with the authors but an agreement with the theory, as, hopefully, will be clear by the end of this.)
The title of the book highlights two themes, each deeply indebted to the authors of this volume. What is novel here is the application of Bauman’s liquidity thesis, something Lyon made a previous call for. In brief, Bauman first popularized the notion of liquidity as a central aspect of modernity, arguing that the world of solid, heavy structures is changing into an infinite set of flows, changing their form, becoming more agile, and, as such, harder to grasp and understand. Bauman has since applied the thesis to many realms, including love, life, fear, time, and much else. Here, the concept is applied to surveillance, under the expert hand of David Lyon, resulting in an illuminating volume that opens many conceptual doors, and, at times, leaves readers, or at least me, wanting much more.
The general thesis is that as people are tracked more and more via new technologies, and as data accumulates to unprecedented levels, “surveillance slips into a liquid state” (vi). Liquid surveillance is described as a softer form of surveillance, especially found in a consumer realm that spreads in unimaginable ways, spilling out all over. Surveillance has become less attached to spatial observation (e.g., the Panopticon) and, as such, has become post-panoptic, contrasting “the fixity and spatial orientation of solid modern surveillance with the mobile, pulsating signals of today’s flowing forms” (15).
The liquid surveillance perspective is indeed useful for understanding many technological developments; however, it is a little strange that drones and social media are tackled together in the first chapter. This is the longest chapter in the book and each topic probably deserves its own take, however, they are brought together seemingly because they are both new topics. Pitting them in the same discussion helps make Lyon’s astute point that social media has normalized surveillance to the point that people will likely be accepting of drone surveillance. However, this arrangement and the subsequent discussion downplays the deep theoretical divergence between how a liquid surveillance perspective should differently understand drones and social media. For example, the Facebook user is both voyeur and exhibitionist while much of the drone discussion is about seeing without being seen. Much, but not all, of the observation on Facebook is social, peer-to-peer, while drones are largely the powerful few watching a less powerful many. The various parallels and differences are left under-explored, and, as such, could be better handled separately, which is what I’m hoping to do a bit here.
This said, there are terrific insights into social media in this chapter, such as the merging of the panoptic nightmare as a sort of dream, that the fear of never being outside of surveillance is “now recast into the hope of ‘never again being alone’ (abandoned, ignored and neglected, blackballed and excluded), the fear of disclosure has been stifled by the joy of being noticed” (23). Ultimately, Bauman argues that people joined Facebook for two reasons: they felt lonely and the site provided an outlet to relive that tension; Facebook as both symptom and remedy to the ills of modernity.
Lyon brings Simmel and Foucault into the discussion of user privacy on social media, the former to point out that our relationship with others is determined by what we know about them and the latter to view Facebook as like a confessional where inner-truths are revealed. Foucault thought that people would take an active role in their own surveillance, a trend that Facebook dramatically illustrates (though, with the difference that the premodern confession was mostly private while Facebook is much more public). This leads Bauman to conclude that we have built a confessional society where publicity is both virtue and obligation.
Bauman also fruitfully draws from his previous work on consumerism to argue that consumer society has taught us to treat ourselves as a commodity, an attractive one as possible, and social media is precisely about getting the attention needed to stay in the game of socializing. Facebook users,
are simultaneously promoters of commodities and the commodities they promote. They are, at the same time, the merchandise and their marketing agents, the goods and their traveling salespersons (32)
We have to recast ourselves as commodities, that is, “as products capable of drawing attention, and attracting demand and customers” (33). Bauman states that all of society is being reshaped as a marketplace, and there’s no exception allowed. Parallel with PJ Rey’s argument, social media is argued to be non-contractual, indeed, “social fact.” Ultimately, according to Bauman, social media is less about satisfying needs and more about the commoditization of the consumer; that it is exactly in being a commodity one is defined as a member of this society.
With this introduction, let me move to three provocations towards the development and application of a theory of liquid surveillance and social media.
1-The “End of Anonymity” Grand Narrative
The authors discuss privacy, or more specifically, how the Internet will bring a “death of anonymity” (21). Bauman specifically argues that privacy, the foremost invention of modernity, had invaded and conquered public realm, and has now, as a consequence of the Web, begun to fall. He states,
In a startling U-turn from the habits of our ancestors, however, we’ve lost the guts, the stamina, and above all the will to persist in the defense of such rights, those irreplaceable building blocks of individual autonomy” (28)
Bauman’s penchant for hyperbole in this volume sometimes makes the points crystal-clear; however, at times, it obscures the workings of surveillance in its liquid state across these new technologies. There has been a rise in publicity, but there has been no end to privacy. People still think, feel, and do things without them being fully-captured. Bauman claims that having one’s own “complete being” (24) online cannot be resisted, however, one’s complete being is not online, and such resistance is commonplace. Because of the rise in publicness, people are using privacy settings, and in some cases, have become more secretive. Indeed, I have argued elsewhere why I think, drawing on Bataille’s notion of non-knowledge, that it is theoretically impossible for a death of privacy (also see a new chapter co-authored with PJ Rey on “How Privacy Thrives In An Age Of Hyper-Publicity”). Bauman states that “we see no joy in having secrets” which might be exactly wrong; instead, it might also be the case that as secrets become more scare they simultaneously become more valuable.
We must resist the temptation to interpret a rise in publicness as an inevitable, linear, “grand narrative” that will end up in the complete death of anonymity, as I wrote recently about “The Transparent Society”. This sort of totalizing forgets the dialectical interplay of forces—here with privacy and publicity—that post-structural and postmodern theorists have pointed out in critique of modern grand theorizing.
2-The Few and the Many
Perhaps the biggest impediment for many surveillance theorists trying to take on social media is the bias towards describing only how the powerful surveil and control the masses with little attention to how the masses, digitally connected, surveil each other more and more. Tracking scanners, Google recording your browsing history, credit card company databases, automatic toll-collecting on tollways, drone cameras, most the examples that drive the analysis in Liquid Surveillance are about how the few watch the many. This should remind the reader of the most famous theory of surveillance, Foucault’s analysis of Bentham’s “Panopticon” prison whereby the many prisoners are under full observation of the few guards (or potentially no guards at all), a disciplinary gaze that hopes to achieve the normalization of all prisoners towards some ideal. Bauman and Lyon are not stuck in this theory, indeed, they devote much time to moving past the Panopticon, a metaphor both brilliantly useful, but, at the same time, for many, the “mere mention of the Panopticon elicits exasterbated groans” (52).
The authors push for a post-panoptic understanding of surveillance that does not forget the Panopticon, just understands it as only part of the overall field (Bauman states that a problem in the humanities is that we “never solve any issues – we only get bored with them” [55)]. The role of the Panopticon today is to manage the “unmanageable margins of societies”, however the main thrust of surveillance today is not the prison model. As is repeated in the book on many occasions, the model of power that holds today is less of coercion and more one of seduction. As Bauman says, “Everything moves from enforcement to temptation and seduction” (57), a surveillance society that no longer chases its victims but finds its volunteers (73). Thus, if the Panopticon was the few watching the many, the guards watching the prisoners, the authors also bring in the Synopticon, where the many watch the few. This may be a better model of surveillance within consumer society, where, for instance, the many television consumers watch the few cultural gatekeepers, newmakers, and celebrities (a topic Bauman wrote about in Liquid Modernity).
Applied to sites like Facebook, what this discussion begs for is an analysis of how the many watch the many on social media, which is underdeveloped so far and a missed opportunity for Liquid Surveillance precisely because it works well with the overall argument of increasing liquidity. An additional form of post-panoptic, and post-synoptic, surveillance is what George Ritzer and I have called “omnioptic”, that is, how the many watching the many is not only an increasingly powerful form of surveillance, but also the most liquid. Tellingly, Bauman describes the Synopticon, where the many watch the few, as “surveillance without surviallors”, meaning that the many, by virtue of not being a powerful few, simply cannot be considered surviallors. Instead, what is needed is a better theory of how the surveillant gaze is both enacted by and upon the many (without forgetting the powerful role the few have in watching and being watched). A fruitful starting point for this analysis would be integrating the liquid surveillance thesis with Alice Marwick’s recent work on “social surveillance”, which attempts to remove the top-down bias in much surveillance theorizing and to better integrate lateral, social observation, not as separate from, but in conversation with, watching of and from the top. This work, I think, reinforces a more flowing, nimble, lighter understanding of surveillance consistent with the thesis of the book at hand.
A third critique is a familiar one for readers of this blog: Liquid Surveillance suffers from the common tendency to understand and articulate the Internet as a new, separate, virtual, cyber, space, what I call “digital dualism”, indeed, a common starting point for theorists of the digital. Bauman makes this understanding of the Web most clear when he states, “our life (and to a growing degree as we move from older to younger generations) is split between two universes, ‘online’ and ‘offline’, and irreparably bicentered.” He states that “social life has already turned into an electronic life or cyberlife” (29; emphasis in the original). Within my framework of dualist and synthetic models of the on and offline, Bauman is clearly dualist, however, a mild dualism (or “Interactionist Digital Dualism“) as he does articulate an interplay between these separate worlds, saying that “experience obtained in one universe cannot but re-form the axiology guiding the assessment of the other.” One cannot describe life on one of the two universes without referencing “the share played in its constitution by the second universe” (37-38).
As I’ve argued many times before, this dualist understanding of the Web often leads thinkers into problematic conclusions. Bauman’s digital dualism, positing the digital as some other universe, makes it easier for him to claim that digital communication takes “almost no effort and is almost risk free” (38), even as research (and lived experience) has demonstrated that efforts, risks, and difficulties are indeed experienced, sometimes exasperated, when communicating via digital tools. The digital is not risk-free, one cannot easily “cut one’s losses” (43) as Bauman states, instead, social media is not risk-free precisely because it is not a new, separate universe, but instead deeply integrated into the lived, material reality that Bauman declares the Web is pushing away.
Bauman calls the digital cold, shallow, perfunctory, and superficial while the offline is articulated as deep, profound, warm and heartfelt (a trend I call “the IRL fetish”). He further claims that social media is a place for loose connections, where we acquire a network, not a community, forgetting that a social media user’s strong ties, community, solidarity, also exist online. The assumption made in this volume is that the offline is being traded for the on; meanwhile, research has shown that those using social media more also do more things away from the computer, precisely against the zero-sum assumption. Indeed, there are many trends related to the rise of modernity—consumer culture, suburbanization, television, to name a few—that have done what Bauman has described, so it is unfortunate that he has identified a counter-trend as the convenient culprit.
A theory of liquid surveillance and social media might more profitably begin with the understanding that the Internet is not separate from but part of the same reality that comprises real people with real bodies, politics, bonds, histories, emotions, and the rest. For example, when Bauman says of Occupy, “Wall Street took little note of ‘being occupied’ by offline visitors from the online world” (51), we see the problems inherent in digital dualism. By viewing occupiers as visitors from an online world, we can conveniently blame the so-called trivial nature of this new world for the difficulties inherent in social movements rather than detail the fact that the Wall Street and the state certainly did take notice of the protests as something very real and responded as such, often violently. The occupiers were not visiting from an online world but from a very real world of lived experience, akin to what I have argued elsewhere against this dualist “Twitter revolution” conceptualization of modern protest.
Liquid Surveillance does much more than just discuss social media, which is all I have focused on here. The conversational style makes it a fun read while never ceasing to be stimulating and sharp. For our purposes here, the book is utterly persuasive that liquid surveillance is an important way to discuss social observation online, and it is my hope that others continue this application moving forward. To do this, I’ve outlined three main provocations to the theory: (1) to question the grand narritive of forever-increasing publicity; (2) to question the bias towards “the few” and take better account of how the many watch the many; (3) to question the digital dualist bias and instead begin with the assumption that the digital is part of this one reality. Thus, the biggest weakness of Liquid Surveillance is also one of its strengths: by not providing a fully adequate account of social media, the book creates significant space in surveillance studies literature for projects that begin with social media from the ground up. What might a refined theory look like that more deeply “cooks in” sites like Facebook throughout? The outcome, I think, will demonstrate that Bauman and Lyon are correct to call these trends “liquid surveillance”; just, perhaps, more liquid than they know.