Brian Holmes on Thu, 27 Jun 2002 23:01:08 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Privacy Won't Help Us (Fight Surveillance)

Thanks and praise to Felix Stalder and Jesse Hirsh. This is a great and
succinct_ paper, which puts together in a few pages some of the key issues
that I developd in my absurdly long text on the "Flexible Personality".

I think the crux is this:

>Our physical bodies are being shadowed by an increasingly comprehensive
>"data body." However, this shadow body does more than follow us. It has
>also begun to precede us. Before we arrive somewhere, we have already been
>measured and classified. Thus, upon arrival, we're treated according to
>whatever criteria has been connected to the profile that represents us.

That's what the jargon-people call "simulational surveillance."  Means,
reality conforming to the image we make of it. But that in itself,
Baudrillardean apocalypses aside, is just another way of saying that
society actively reflects on itself, shapes itself through reflexive
action. What is the principle guiding the reflexive action of the
surveillance society?

The first answer today will be state control. And this is painfully the
case. Snooping through Echelon, Carnivore, Visionics and related systems
is real (even if one must remember that ballooning data-collection
capacities don't necessarily imply effective data-analysis).

But equally important to the development of the surveillance society are
issues of risk management (i.e. insurance contracts, which are always
accompanied by demands for personal data) and targeted advertising
(loyalty cards, direct mail, etc.). And both these issues focus on and
reinforce the predominance of the individual, not just in his or her
privacy, but above all in his or her isolated fear and desire.

Intimate fear for one's own health and safety, grasping desire for the
possession of exclusive products: that is how the contemporary individual
confronts the public realm. When you consider the relation today between
acccess to superabundant wealth and maintenance of exclusionary borders,
between personal, existential death-anxiety and the get-tough rhetoric of
police and military solutions, then you see that the two sides of the
surveillance society - the reinforcement of state control and the
exaltation of the individual, contractual subject - go hand in hand. The
reflexive action carried on through surveillance shapes a society which is
at once jealously individualistic and increasingly authoritarian. This is
what I call liberal fascism.

Now, if you think like that - I mean, if that particular form of pessimism
and black foreboding afflicts you - then you don't just see every
political issue in terms of heightened control or personal freedom. You
begin to wonder about what kinds of collectivity could configure a
different kind of state, a different, more democratic relation to the
public realm. You begin to wonder look around for social experiments, new
forms of political society.

Of course, Felix is a pragmatist and seemingly unafflicted by black
forebodings. On the brighter side I note that the last brilliant text he
and Jesse published here was called "Open Source Intelligence,"  and
basically concerned the formation of communities of discourse -
communities which, in the case of the No Logo site, clearly have a
relation to political society. A question has been knocking around in my
mind about this, which also concerns the model of hypertext generally. In
the communities described, two basic strategies seemed to emerge as
innovative (correct if I'm wrong, Felix). One is transparency: the ability
to access different versions or states of a discussion, to see how it's
being moderated, to connect directly to all the people involved. But the
other (related to hypertext) seems to be just the capacity to opt out of
one thread whenever you fundamentally disagree or get bored with what you
see, and then join or create another one. This second capacity (a version
of what A.O.  Hirschman calls "exit") seems to be the fundamental strategy
adopted in all networked communities, as a way to insure that at least
some form of ongoing collaboration will survive in the face of the extreme
individualism of contemporary society.

Felix and Jesse, none of the examples you dealt with in the "Open Source
Intelligence" paper really showed individuals engaged in the reflexive
action of attempting to surmount conflict within their own open
communities. The possibility was suggested about nettime itself - that the
ability to compare nettime bold with moderated nettime might lead to
debates about moderation, or even the creation of new sublists - but as we
know, these debates (instances of Hirschman's "voice") are pretty rare,
and the new sublists haven't been created (we all seem to get a kick out
of those occasional messages from people we love to hate). But let's face
it: intermittent community is great for fun, fantasy, inspired polemics,
making friends and enemies and boosting your ego - but it doesn't really
foreshadow new forms of political society.

Or does it?

What are the social forms today that go beyond the dilemma of voice or
exit? Can hypertext communications lead further than to love on a beach,
brief flashes of dionysian protest, or just life in one's own narcissistic
corner? Are the social forums and global days of action - basically
constructed of these easily bifurcating communities - ever going to be a
match for the discipline and disappointments of organized parties and

Is there politics on the Internet?

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