License

Recent Comments

Blogroll

Search

Archive for Surveillance Society

The Military-Surveillance Complex

February 10, 2013 by and tagged , ,

It is rather scary:

“A multinational security firm has secretly developed software capable of tracking people’s movements and predicting future behaviour by mining data from social networking websites.

video obtained by the Guardian reveals how an “extreme-scale analytics” system created by Raytheon, the world’s fifth largest defence contractor, can gather vast amounts of information about people from websites including Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare.

Raytheon says it has not sold the software – named Riot, or Rapid Information Overlay Technology – to any clients.

But the Massachusetts-based company has acknowledged the technology was shared with US government and industry as part of a joint research and development effort, in 2010, to help build a national security system capable of analysing “trillions of entities” from cyberspace.

The power of Riot to harness popular websites for surveillance offers a rare insight into controversial techniques that have attracted interest from intelligence and national security agencies, at the same time prompting civil liberties and online privacy concerns.

The sophisticated technology demonstrates how the same social networks that helped propel the Arab Spring revolutions can be transformed into a “Google for spies” and tapped as a means of monitoring and control.

Using Riot it is possible to gain an entire snapshot of a person’s life – their friends, the places they visit charted on a map – in little more than a few clicks of a button.

(…)

Riot can display on a spider diagram the associations and relationships between individuals online by looking at who they have communicated with over Twitter. It can also mine data from Facebook and sift GPS location information from Foursquare, a mobile phone app used by more than 25 million people to alert friends of their whereabouts. The Foursquare data can be used to display, in graph form, the top 10 places visited by tracked individuals and the times at which they visited them.”

This is the part that is always missing in cyber-utopian and cyber-centrist accounts: the part when new technologies turn out to – surprise, surprise – not all be used for good and populist goals.

Posted in Surveillance Society, Technology | No Comments »

Book Review – The Googlization of Everything

January 14, 2013 by and tagged , , ,

I was initially suspicious of this book because of its title and how reminiscent it is of similarly coined words, like “McDonalization” or “Disneyification”. But, I finally picked up Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) because, after all, we should all know more about Google. It has become such a major part of our Internet experience that it deserves some critical examination.

And critical it is, right off the bat:

“This book describes the nature of that devotion as well as a growing apostasy, and it suggests ways we might live better with Google once we see it as a mere company rather than as a force for good and enlightenment in the world.

We may see Google as a savior, but it rules like Caesar. The mythology of the Web leads us to assume that it is a wild, ungovernable, and thus ungoverned realm. This could not be further from the truth. There was a power vacuum in the Web not so long ago, but we have invited Google to fill it. Overwhelmingly, we now allow Google to determine what is important, relevant, and true on the Web and in the world. We trust and believe that Google acts in our best interest. But we have surrendered control over the values, methods, and processes that make sense of our information ecosystem.

This book argues that we should influence—even regulate—search systems actively and intentionally, and thus take responsibility for how the Web delivers knowledge. We must build the sort of online ecosystem that can benefit the whole world over the long term, not one that serves the short-term interests of one powerful company, no matter how brilliant.” (Loc. 67).

Vaidhyanathan’s also acknowledges the great deal of good that Google has done to our Internet experience. We should just never forget that, despite its “Don’t Be Evil” motto, Google is a for-profit corporation that feeds on data that we provide.

But what is the Googlization of Everything?

“Googlization affects three large areas of human concern and conduct: “us” (through Google’s effects on our personal information, habits, opinions, and judgments); “the world” (through the globalization of a strange kind of surveillance and what I’ll call infrastructural imperialism); and “knowledge” (through its effects on the use of the great bodies of knowledge accumulated in books, online databases, and the Web).” (Loc. 141)

In that sense, Google is way more than a search engine. The multiplication of its applications means that one’s experience of the Internet may be completely inseparable and indistinguishable from Google if one uses Gmail for emails, Youtube as video service, Reader for aggregator, Google + for social networking, and Google Docs, as well as Nexus devices. Then you are thoroughly embedded in the Google universe.

The price to pay for access to all these goodies that truly do make our lives easier is our privacy, our surrendering to this private and corporate aspect of the surveillance society. And that is Vaidhyanathan’s main critique of Google, how it contributes to our loss of privacy and our invisible surrendering of our data if we want the ordered experience of the Internet rather than the chaotic mess it would be without Google. After all, we are not Google’s users. We are its product.

In effect, for Vaidhyanathan, Google is doing what should have been (and still could and should be) the job of an organization (or organizations) dedicated to the public good. But there was never much political will to establish that, so, Google stepped in and ordered the Internet for us. This public failure is a BIG problem.

But Google’s actions, algorithms and practices are far from neutral and that is something we should be concerned about considering how dominant it is:

“If Google is the dominant way we navigate the Internet, and thus the primary lens through which we experience both the local and the global, then it has remarkable power to set agendas and alter perceptions. Its biases (valuing popularity over accuracy, established sites over new, and rough rankings over more fluid or multidimensional models of presentation) are built into its algorithms.12 And those biases affect how we value things, perceive things, and navigate the worlds of culture and ideas.” (Loc. 233)

An interesting perspective that Vaidhyanathan uses to examine Google is what he calls the Technocultural Imagination (not coincidentally reminiscent of C. Wright Mills’s Sociological Imagination). The technocultural imagination strives to answer the following questions:

“Which members of a society get to decide which technologies are developed, bought, sold, and used? What sorts of historical factors influence why one technology “succeeds” and another fails? What are the cultural and economic assumptions that influence the ways a technology works in the world, and what unintended consequences can arise from such assumptions? Technology studies in general tend to address several core questions about technology and its effects on society (and vice versa): To what extent do technologies guide, influence, or determine history? To what extent do social conditions and phenomena mold technologies? Do technologies spark revolutions, or do concepts like revolution raise expectations and levels of effects of technologies?” (Loc. 247)

Those are indeed central questions and they are often ignored in the cyber-utopian literature.

And there is another rather ominous aspect to Google and its charismatic leaders:

“The company itself takes a technocratic approach to any larger ethical and social questions in its way. It is run by and for engineers, after all. Every potential problem is either a bug in the system, yet to be fixed, or a feature in its efforts to provide better service. This attitude masks the fact that Google is not a neutral tool or a nondistorting lens: it is an actor and a stakeholder in itself. And, more important, as a publicly traded company, it must act in its shareholders’ short-term interests, despite its altruistic proclamations.” (Loc. 256)

At the same time, Google and its leaders provide ideological cover for the fall of the idea of public good (replaced by the fuzzy concept of corporate responsibility).

“Of course Google is regulated, and Schmidt knows it. Google spends millions of dollars every year ensuring it adheres to copyright, patent, antitrust, financial disclosure, and national security regulations. Google is promoting stronger regulations to keep the Internet “neutral,” so that Internet service providers such as telecommunication companies cannot extort payments to deliver particular content at a more profitable rate. But we have become so allergic to the notion of regulation that we assume brilliant companies just arise because of the boldness and vision of investors and the talents of inventors. We actually think there is such a thing as a free market, and that we can liberate private firms and people from government influence. We forget that every modern corporation—especially every Internet business—was built on or with public resources. And every party that does business conforms to obvious policy restrictions.” (Loc. 923)

The other social issue relating to Google then is what Vaidhyanathan calls techno-fundamentalism: the belief that all social problems have technological solutions (an iPad for every pupil in the US!).

After these general framing comments, Vaidhyanathan goes into deeper details of Google’s activities whether it’s the search algorithms and monetization system, Streetview or Google Books as well as the Google Buzz fiasco related to a central aspect of Google’s way of doing things: the power of default (all systems are turned on by default and one has to actually opt out of those, but at the cost of degraded Internet experience). All of these relate to the massive issue of privacy.

For Vaidhyanathan, we have five privacy interfaces that we have to negotiate and maintain in order to preserve our privacy and reputation (among other things):

  1. Person to peer: our family and friends
  2. Person to power: our teachers, employers, professional superiors, administrators. There is information about us we generally don’t want to share with them.
  3. Person to firm / corporation: the information we agree / don’t agree to share with the businesses we patronize.
  4. Person to state: the state gets to know some things about us through our tax returns, car registration forms, census responses,  immigration information, etc.
  5. Person to public: this last one is the least understood but has become crucial as we live our lives online.

“At this interface, which is now located largely online, people have found their lives exposed, their names and faces ridiculed, and their well-being harmed immeasurably by the rapid proliferation of images, the asocial nature of much ostensibly “social” Web behavior, and the permanence of the digital record. Whereas in our real social lives we have learned to manage our reputations, the online environments in which we work and play have broken down the barriers that separate the different social contexts in which we move.” (Loc. 1806)

Of course, one of the issues is that data collected in one corner of the Internet usually does not stay there. It is not simply that the government can access it but also other “partners” of the companies we use. as a result, the Googlized subject, as Vaidhyanathan puts it, voluntarily surrenders her information – in bits and pieces – as she goes about her business (public and private) to a variety of public and private entities, each getting its relevant chunk of data. The Panopticon has become a public-private partnership on steroids. This segmented subject fits the needs of market segmentation where customization is essential.

Vaidhyanathan also goes into some details in the controversy related to Google and its Chinese adventure to demonstrate the uneasy relationship between such companies and non-democratic regimes and to renew his plea for a truly global civil society and a global public sphere (obligatory invocation of Habermas included) and the ways in which Google is not contributing to that.

“But the most significant gap separating potential citizens of the world is not necessarily access to Internet technologies and networks. It is the skills needed to participate in the emerging global conversation. Being able to use a search engine, click on a link, and even post to Facebook does not require much skill or investment, but producing video, running an influential blog, participating in the Wikipedia community, hosting a proxy server, and even navigating between links and information sources on the Internet demand much more  money and knowledge than most people in the world have. To acquire such skills, people need at least minimal free time and significant means, and many with disabilities are excluded regardless of education or means. The barriers to entry for such productions are lower than ever in human history, but they are far from free, open, and universal.

(…)

Despite its global and universalizing ambitions and cosmopolitan outlook, Google’s search functions are not effective in connecting and unifying a diverse world of Web users. Instead, its carefully customized services and search results reinforce the fragmentary state of knowledge that has marked global consciousness for centuries. Over time, as users in a diverse array of countries train Google’s algorithms to respond to specialized queries with localized results, each place in the world will have a different list of what is important, true, or “relevant” in response to any query.” (Loc. 2601)

Vaidhyanathan also spends a great deal of space discussing the controversy over Google Books and the legal intricacies that might lead to a settlement between publishers and Google in the context of the fear of the privatization of knowledge if Google were to replace public libraries. This leads Vaidhyanathan to the exposition of what seems clearly to be he thinks should be the public response to Google: the Human Knowledge Project.

This is a very pleasant read but my main issue with the book is this: it already feels dated. Google has already evolved since this book was published. As a result, some of the controversies mentioned by Vaidhyanathan are somewhat forgotten, and other issues are not mentioned: not much on the Buzz and Wave fiascos, nothing on G+, nothing on Vevo.  Things seem to be ever-changing for Google:

Google is abusing its dominant place in the search market, according to Europe’s antitrust chief Joaquin Almunia.

In an interview with the Financial Times of London, Google could be forced to change the way that it provides and displays search results or face antitrust charges for “diverting traffic,” in the words of Almunia, referring to Google’s self-serving treatment to its own search services.

Despite the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s move earlier this month to let off Google with a slap on the wrist – albiet, a change to its business practices, a move that financially wouldn’t dent Google in the short term but something any company would seek to avoid — the European Commission is looking to take a somewhat different approach: take its time, and then hit the company hard.”

And last December (which kinda seems to prove Vaidhyanathan’s point:

“Google’s Eric Schmidt went all out yesterday, saying he was “very proud” of his company’s tax “structure”, and that “it’s called capitalism.”

Inevitably, this had led to calls for a boycott of Google until it starts to pay its fair share of corporation tax.

Of course, these calls have also marked out part of the folly of such boycotts. It’s easy to boycott Starbucks: within 30 seconds walk of most UK branches you’ll find more coffee. We are basically a nation of people selling coffee to each other with a bit of banking on the side.

Google is… harder. If you use any of its web services, you are likely to feel locked in (everyone knows your gmail address! Think how much work it would be to change your address books!); if you have an Android phone, you are probably contracted in without even a choice to leave; and if you use their web search, you’ll probably have finished the search and clicked on a link before you even remember that you were supposed to be boycotting in the first place.

On top of that, of course, a boycott doesn’t look like it would be as effective for Google as it was for Starbucks. Within days of the first allegations about the coffee company coming out, it had posted an open letter on its website; and then even before the big UK Uncut protests, it had already agreed to radically restructure the way it declares its taxes. Comparing that to Schmidt’s bombastic comments, we can infer that Google might put up a bit more of a fight.

The thing is, people ought to be boycotting Google, especially their main cash cow, web search. Not because of tax avoidance, but because it makes a terrible product used only through exactly the same inertia which will kill any political action.

Once upon a time, Google search was the unambiguous best. Its page-rank system, which replaced manually editing search results with an ingenious methodology which used links to a site as guarantors of that site’s quality, meant that it gave more accurate results than many of its now-defunct (or nearly so) competitors like Alta Vista or Yahoo! Search; its simple UI made it easier to use, as did its massive step up in speed, a fact reflected in its show-off display of how many hundredths of a second the search took.

Most importantly, Google refused to offer paid placement, a relatively common practice at the time which mixed advertising with editorial content: companies would literally pay to appear in the search results for a given keyword.

Those principles lasted a long time; even when Google started “personalising” searches, it was still aimed at reducing bad results. Someone who always clicks on cars after searching for “golf” probably wants different results than someone who clicks on sports sites.

Then came Google+. Terrified by Facebook, the company launched a rival social network, and in an attempt to catch up, decided to leverage its existing businesses. Personalised searches are no longer based just on what you have previously searched for. They’re also based on your Google+ contacts, and what they’ve posted about and discussed.”

So, as necessary as this book is, (1) there is too much reference to faith, (2) it is in dire need of an update, and (3) I’m not convinced about the Human Knowledge Project and this needs an update too. Has it stayed as Vaidhyanathan’s dream of a global civil society or have there been developments? Without a new edition soon, this book, which should be important, is in danger of losing relevance even though it makes important points beyond the specific case of Google.

Posted in Book Reviews, Corporatism, Surveillance Society, Technology | No Comments »

The Surveillance Society: A Public/Private Partnership of Prudes and Panty-Sniffers

November 18, 2012 by and tagged ,

First, the private prudes:

“A BASTION of openness and counterculture, Silicon Valley imagines itself as the un-Chick-fil-A. But its hyper-tolerant facade often masks deeply conservative, outdated norms that digital culture discreetly imposes on billions of technology users worldwide.

What is the vehicle for this new prudishness? Dour, one-dimensional algorithms, the mathematical constructs that automatically determine the limits of what is culturally acceptable.

Consider just a few recent kerfuffles. In early September, The New Yorker found its Facebook page blocked for violating the site’s nudity and sex standards. Its offense: a cartoon of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eve’s bared nipples failed Facebook’s decency test.

That’s right — a venerable publication that still spells “re-elect” as “reëlect” is less puritan than a Californian start-up that wants to “make the world more open.”

And fighting obscenity can be good for business. Impermium, a Silicon Valley company that helps Web sites deal with unwanted reader comments, has begun marketing technology that identifies “all kinds of harmful content — such as violence, racism, flagrant profanity, and hate speech — and allows site owners to act on it in real-time, before it reaches readers.” Impermium will police the readers — but who will police Impermium?

Apple, too, has strayed from its iconoclastic roots. When Naomi Wolf’s latest book, “Vagina: A New Biography,” went on sale in its iBooks store, Apple turned “Vagina” into “V****a.” After numerous complaints, Apple restored the title, but who knows how many other books are still affected?

(…)

The proliferation of the Autocomplete function on popular Web sites is a case in point. Nominally, all it does is complete your search query — on YouTube, on Google, on Amazon — before you’ve finished typing, using an algorithm to predict what you’re most likely typing. A nifty feature — but it, too, reinforces primness.

How so? Consider George Carlin’s classic comedy routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” See how many of those words would autocomplete on your favorite Web site. In my case, YouTube would autocomplete none. Amazon almost none (it also hates “penis” and “vagina”). Of Carlin’s seven words, Google would autocomplete only “piss.”

Until recently, even the word “bisexual” wouldn’t autocomplete at Google; it’s only this past August that Google, after many complaints, began to autocomplete some, but not all, queries for that term. In 2010, the hacker magazine 2600 published a long blacklist of similar words. While I didn’t verify all 400 of them on Google, a few that I did try — like “swastika” and “Lolita” — failed to autocomplete. Is Nabokov not trending in Mountain View? Alas, these algorithms are not particularly bright: unable to distinguish between Nabokov’s novel and child pornography, they assume you want the latter.

Why won’t tech companies let us freely use terms that already enjoy wide circulation and legitimacy? Do they fashion themselves as our new guardians? Are they too greedy to correct their algorithms’ mistakes?”

Yes and yes.

The public panty-sniffers, as illustrated by the case of Petraeus:

“But what it has blown into is an egregious over-reach of federal law enforcement, and yet another example of the astonishing incompetence of the Attorney General. An AG who thinks “national security” investigations don’t need to be brought to the attention of the president, the congress, or anyone else.

It is, at the end of the day, an extension of the long-running feudbetween the FBI/Justice Department and the CIA that dates back to Watergate, if not further. It was basically Mueller/Holder’s chance to sandbag the CIA director for what is turning out to be nothing more than lousy behavior. And they used every available tool necessary to make sure Petraeus got run (btw, I’m no fan of the general).

“Law enforcement officers conducting a legal search have always been able to pursue evidence of other crimes sitting in “plain view.” Investigators with a warrant to search a house for drugs can seize evidence of another crime, such as bombmaking. But the warrant does not allow them to barge into the house next door.

But what are the comparable boundaries online? Does a warrant to search an e-mail account expose the communications of anyone who exchanged messages with the target?

The scope of the issue is considerable, because the exploding use of e-mail has created a new and potent investigative resource for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Law enforcement demands for e-mail and other electronic communications from providers such as Google, Comcast and Yahoo are so routine that the companies employ teams of analysts to sort through thousands of requests a month. Very few are turned down.”

And that’s part of the problem, dating back to the bad old days of 9/11 and the broad powers the government demanded from internet service providers in the name of “national security.” Frankly, most of these demands for email and other forms of electronic communications should be turned down barring court-ordered (thus proved) mandates, but the Patriot Act took court-approval out of the ball game.

As it stands now, all law enforcement does is ask and the ISP delivers mounds of data on the user.

“Once Broadwell was identified, FBI agents would have gone to Internet service providers with warrants for access to her accounts. Experts said companies typically comply by sending discs that contain a sender’s entire collection of accounts, enabling the FBI to search the inbox, draft messages and even deleted correspondence not yet fully erased.

“You’re asking them for e-mails relevant to the investigation, but as a practical matter, they let you look at everything,” said a former federal prosecutor who, like many interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition on anonymity because the FBI inquiry is continuing.

FBI agents can then roam through every corner of the account as if it were their own.

Law enforcement officials said the FBI never sought access to Allen’s computer or accounts. It’s unclear whether it did so with Petraeus. But through Kelley and Broadwell, the bureau had amassed an enormous amount of data on the two men — including sexually explicit e-mails between Petraeus and Broadwell and questionable communications between Allen and Kelley.

Petraeus and Broadwell had tried to conceal their communications by typing drafts of messages, hitting “save” but not “send,” and then sharing passwords that provided access to the drafts. But experts said that ruse would have posed no obstacle for the FBI, because agents had full access to the e-mail accounts.”

None of which, folks, is a crime. None of it. Sexually explicit emails between persons who are having an affair are no more a crime than some middle-aged dude taking shirtless pictures of himself and sending them to friends (and Florida socialites…snicker).”

We are ruled by techno-inquisitors and they are no more fun than the old-fashioned brand.

Posted in Surveillance Society, Technology | No Comments »

Book Review – Networked

August 8, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

With Networked: The New Social Operating SystemLee Rainie and Barry Wellman offer a very readable introduction to networks and their social consequences. This is a book that aims to reach a larger audience beyond academic walls. So, even though it extensively relies on research (quite a lot from Pew, unsurprisingly), it is not a tedious read at all as the data alternate with narratives and stories that facilitate comprehension. At the same time, the book is not full of jargon. It also seems that this book aims to convey the message that the sky is not falling because we are spending more time on Facebook and other social networking platforms. No, we have not stop interacting face-to-face with each other (or should I write f2f, as the cool kids do). No, we are not bowling alone. No, we are turning into sociopathic recluse.

What the book explores is all the different ways in which social networking (and related technologies) have woven their way into our lives and reorganized and re-shaped some aspect of them, but not in the socially-disintegrating ways that the usual prophets of doom have been warning us against. As a result, the book conveys a relatively optimistic perspective on networks without being totally on the cyber-utopian side. There is not much in the book about the “dark side” of networks. That is Evgeny Morozov‘s turf. I actually think both books should be read in parallel: where Rainie and Wellman are more micro and optimistic, Morozov is more macro and critical. In all, there is not much in the book that will surprise those of us who read regularly on networks (or are already familiar with Wellman’s work) but we are not really the target audience. This is a book that is perfectly readable for undergraduate students and the general public and I think it is a nice piece of public sociology that demonstrates what sociology can do and tell on current topics. At the same time, it is rigorously researched (tons of end notes and sources), which is important because one of the points that Rainie and Wellman make is that a great deal of the doomsday scenarios on social networking are based on not much in terms of data. Very often, it is just columnists fears.

As much as the book does not rely on academic and technical jargon, it does revolve around a few concepts: networked individualism, the triple revolution, the social operating system. So, the book is

“the story of the new social operating system we call “networked individualism” in contrast to the longstanding operating system formed around large hierarchical bureaucracies and small, densely knit groups such as households, communities, and workgroups. We call networked individualism an “operating system” because it describes the ways in which people connect, communicate, and exchange information. We also use the phrase because it underlines the fact that societies— like computer systems— have networked structures that provide opportunities and constraints, rules and procedures. The phrase echoes the reality of today’s technology: Most people play and work using computers and mobile devices that run on operating systems. Like most computer operating systems and all mobile systems, the social network operating system is personal— the individual is at the autonomous center just as she is reaching out from her computer; multiuser— people are interacting with numerous diverse others; multitasking— people are doing several things; and multithreaded— they are doing them more or less simultaneously.” (Loc 341)

[All emphases mine. I read this in kindle edition and all the endnotes were turned into notes at the end of each chapter, which messed up the page numbers and therefore, kindle only identifies locations.]

So, the general shift is this:

“In generations past, people usually had small, tight social networks— in rural areas or urban villages— where a few important family members, close friends, neighbors, leaders and community groups (churches and the like) constituted the safety net and support system for individuals.

This new world of networked individualism is oriented around looser, more fragmented networks that provide succor. Such networks had already formed before the coming of the internet. Still, the revolutionary social change from small groups to broader personal networks has been powerfully advanced by the widespread use of the internet and mobile phones.

(…)

Our research supports the notion that small, densely knit groups like families, villages, and small organizations have receded in recent generations. A different social order has emerged around social networks that are more diverse and less overlapping than those previous groups. The networked operating system gives people new ways to solve problems and meet social needs. It offers more freedom to individuals than people experienced in the past because now they have more room to maneuver and more capacity to act on their own.

At the same time, the networked individualism operating system requires that people develop new strategies and skills for handling problems.

(…)

A major difference between the past and now is that the social ties people enjoy today are more abundant and more easily nourished by contact through new technologies. We will show throughout this book how the internet and other forms of information and communication technologies— what scholars call “ICTs”— actually aid community.” (Loc 401)

But the central concept, the one concept to unite them all is that of the Triple Revolution (social networking, Internet, mobile technologies):

“First, the Social Network Revolution has provided the opportunities— and stresses— for people to reach beyond the world of tight groups. It has afforded more diversity in relationships and social worlds— as well as bridges to reach these worlds and maneuverability to move among them. At the same, it has introduced the stress of not having a single home base and of reconciling the conflicting demands of multiple social worlds.

Second, the Internet Revolution has given people communications power and information-gathering capacities that dwarf those of the past. It has also allowed people to become their own publishers and broadcasters and created new methods for social networking. This has changed the point of contact from the household (and work group) to the individual. Each person also creates her own internet experiences, tailored to her needs.

Third, the Mobile Revolution has allowed ICTs to become body appendages allowing people to access friends and information at will, wherever they go. In return, ICTs are always accessible. There is the possibility of a continuous presence and pervasive awareness of others in the network. People’s physical separation by time and space are less important.

Together, these three revolutions have made possible the new social operating system we call “networked individualism.” The hallmark of networked individualism is that people function more as connected individuals and less as embedded group members. For example, household members now act at times more like individuals in networks and less like members of a family. Their homes are no longer their castles but bases for networking with the outside world, with each family member keeping a separate personal computer, address book, calendar, and mobile phone.

Yet people are not rugged individualists— even when they think they are. Many meet their social, emotional, and economic needs by tapping into sparsely knit networks of diverse associates rather than relying on tight connections to a relatively small number of core associates. This means that networked individuals can have a variety of social ties to count on, but are less likely to have one sure-fire “home” community. Looser and more diverse social networks require more choreography and exertion to manage. Often, individuals rely on many specialized relationships to meet their needs.” (Loc. 460)

This is the central thesis of the book and all the subsequent chapters explore the consequences of the Triple Revolution in our social institutions, intimate lives, and interactions. In many ways, this is highly reminiscent of Bauman’s liquidity thesis. Individuals are less members of fixed and (more or less) rigid groups and more likely to belong to a variety of loosely connected networks that are always in flux. What social networking technologies have added to the mix is an incredibly greater capacity to actually network beyond borders and geographical distances which is why social networking does not generate isolation. The different nodes in these networks are both relationships and resources that can be activated for a variety of purposes. And as we already know, there is strength in weak ties. At the same time, networks do not kill strong ties. If anything, they may intensify them since we can be in contact more extensively and intensively.

We also know that social networks involve participation. To be on Facebook or Twitter involves some degree of putting “stuff” out there, be it pictures, videos, blog posts, or just status updates. These social networking platforms turned a lot of us into content creators and sharers. In addition, the number and types of devices through which we can do all these things have expanded as well. All this can generate a sense of empowerment not just because we can become content creators but also because we get to define our identities across networks as we participate in different communities (virtual or not). Throughout institutions, networks have changed hierarchies and the ways in which individuals interact. Interestingly, common boundaries (between home and work, public and private, for instance) have become a lot blurrier.

The book also has some development on the history of the Triple Revolution, tracing its origins and trends that are social and technological. This also means that the story being told is that of Western (and mainly American) trends. After all, all the goods and capacities open by social networking are available to only those who can afford them and who live in societies that are rich enough to provide the infrastructure necessary for ICTs. The digital divide is a bit too underplayed in this book for my taste. But that second chapter is a really great primer on networks that stands on its own and where the main concepts of network analysis are clearly explained. At the same time, if the Internet did not invent networking, it certainly contributed massively to its expansion. The book also contains a quick history of the Internet in combination with the impact of the spreading of personal computers as well as the different subcultures that emerged along with the Internet (techno-elites, hackers, virtual communautarians and participators). The final layer of the Triple Revolution is mobility. Portable computers (ultrabooks), tablets and smartphones, along with reliable wifi everywhere ensure that we are continuously and reliable connected, which means that we have to devise strategies to manage the volume and types of social interactions and these technologies give us the tools to do just that but this changes the ways we do a lot of things:

“Before the mobile-ization of the world, time and space were critical factors for in-person contact. People needed to specify when and where they would meet. Coordinating a rendezvous, a party or a business meeting was a formal negotiation yielding firm coordinates. Early in the twentieth century, sociologist Georg Simmel pointed out that a similar, large-scale change occurred with the nineteenth century’s Industrial Revolution. With the coming of big machines, cities, bureaucracies, stores, and railroad lines running on strict timetables, people had to be at precise places at precise times— or else the machines wouldn’t be operated, papers wouldn’t be pushed, customers wouldn’t be served, and trains wouldn’t be boarded. Public clocks— and private wristwatches— regulated the industrialized world. This was a profound change from preindustrial village life, where people went to their farms, shops, or pubs according to their needs— not their clocks.

To some extent, mobile phones allow us a slight return to this more casual negotiation of time. In the age of mobile connectivity, time is more fluid and people’s expectations have changed. In the felicitous phrase Ling uses, “hyper-coordination” is now possible and preferred, especially by younger mobile users.” (Loc. 2662)

In a way, one could argue that location is making a comeback as we more or less automatically update our locations at all times on social networking platforms. Technologies and platforms then give more flexibility in our opportunities for interaction and how we present ourselves in these interactions (Goffman would have a field day with this stuff), something that Rainie and Wellman call connected presence (interaction through technology without physical presence), absent presence (the annoying habit of checking one’s email / texts / Facebook timeline / Twitter feed while interacting with someone f2f), or present absence (incorporation of absent people to f2f interactions through technology). So, we are more or less always on at multiple levels but there is a bit of cultural lag as we try to figure out the proper norms to navigate these interactions. Is it rude to check your email while in f2f interaction with someone (a BIG one for teachers!)? How long and loud are you expected to gab on your cell phone in a public space? Etc. We are still working those out. And a lot of us as guided by a new anxiety: FOMO (fear of missing out). How many ultra-important tweets have I missed while writing up this blog post? Answer: none, I have my iPad on with a Twitter client open. I am typing this in Chrome with tabs open in Facebook, Google Reader, and others.

Having those basics in place, then, the book follows with a series of chapters on the ways the Triple Revolution has worked its way (as cause and effect) into our relationships and social institutions (such as family and work). That is where the main message of “the sky is not falling” comes through loud and clear. The authors also address why the digital dualism persists. Digital dualism refers to the preeminence of f2f interaction as “real” interaction and virtual ones as a defective, debased form of sociability because it does not involve all the bodily stuff that enrich interaction and all the other layers of subtle interactive clues that give rich texture to encounters. Digital dualism assumes the absence of all these dimensions of interaction and therefore declares it a poor substitute. The underlying assumption here is that individuals interact with different people f2f and online, which is simply not the case. It also ignores the fact that there are various ways of enriching virtual interactions (smileys come to mind) and that individuals integrate them in their communication toolkit and use them depending on the context of the interaction. But all of this does not lead to isolation but to what the authors call flexible autonomy:

“The personalized and mobile connectivity enhanced by the Triple Revolution and the weakening of group boundaries have helped relationships move from place-to-place networks to individualized person-to-person networks. Most have private internet connections and personal mobile phones, and their own cars. Lower numbers of children mean parents need to spend less time at home raising them. There are fewer children to keep parents housebound. The loosening of religious, occupational, and ethnic boundaries also encourages interpersonal free agentry.

Rather than ties between households or work groups, people connect as individuals to other individuals, in person-to-person networks. They maneuver through multiple sets of ties that shift in importance and contact by the day. Each person engages in multiple roles at home, with friends and relatives, and at work or school. Their networks are sparsely knit, with friends and relatives often loosely linked with each other. These loose linkages do not imply a complete untethering of social relations: There are only a few isolates “bowling alone.” Most people are connecting in shifting networks rather than in solidary groups. Such networks provide diversity, choice, and maneuverability at the probable cost of overall cohesion and long-term trust.

While place-to-place networks show how community has transcended local boundaries, person-to-person networks show how community has transcended group boundaries. It is the individual— and not the household, kinship group, or work group— that is the primary unit of connectivity. The shift puts people at the center of personal networks that can supply them with support, sociability, information, and a sense of belonging. People connect in person and via ICTs. Their networking activities shift as their needs shift. While network members relate to each other as persons, they often emphasize certain roles. They are bosses to their employees, husbands to their wives, friends to their friends, and so on— with somewhat different norms for each network.

Networked individualism means that people’s involvement in multiple networks often limits their involvement in and commitment to any one network. It is not as if they are going to the village square every day to see the same crowd. Because people can maneuver among milieus, their multiple involvements decrease the control that each milieu has over their behavior. Yet limited involvements work both ways. If a person is only partially involved in a milieu, then the participants in that milieu often are not as committed to maintaining that person’s well-being.” (Loc. 3234)

The idea of the networked self then, I think, is very close to Beck and Bauman’s notion of individualization that the condition of liquid modernity and risk society and flexible autonomy also refers back to the idea of the self as aself-constructed project where individuals have to assemble their own capital (including social) and resources in the absence of the institutional and structural support (i.e. generalized precarization). Individualization is a concept much less benign than flexible autonomy but the authors are not naive:

“Living in person-to-person networks has profound implications both for individuals and for the social milieus and overall societies that they are in. Networked individualism downloads the responsibility— and the burden— of maintaining personal networks on the individual. Networked individuals often have time binds, since they are constantly negotiating plans with disconnected sets of individuals within their expanding network. Active networking is more important than going along with the group. Acquiring resources depends substantially on personal skill, individual motivation, and maintaining the right connections.” (Loc 3257)

So, it is up to the networked individual to manage her networks and social capital. But these changes have also affected families (in addition to the changes brought about by changes in gender roles, the economy, etc.). The family itself now has porous boundaries and can be considered a network in itself. Family scholars will not be surprised by any of this. ICTs have accompanied and amplified these structural changes more than they have caused them but they are now thoroughly embedded in family dynamics both in terms of bonding and bridging links, within the family and outside of it. Here again, the sky is not falling and texting is not destroying families.

“Networked families have adapted to the Triple Revolution. They use ICTs to bridge barriers of time and space, weakening the boundaries between public and private life spaces. The mounting and interrelated changes in the composition of households— such as the life-cycle complexities of marriage and divorce and decisions to have children— mean that today’s households are varied, complex, and evolving. Networked families use ICTs to mediate these complexities and adapt ICTs to their varied needs.

(…)

Not only have families changed in size and composition, they have also changed in their lifestyles. ICTs have become thoroughly embedded in families’ everyday lives, helping them stay connected and in motion. The internet and mobile phones connect family members as they move around, help them find each other, and bring them together for joint work and play. The result is that ICTs— often in conjunction with personal automobiles— have paradoxically provided household members with the ability to go their separate ways while at the same time keeping them more connected. Families have less face time, but more connected time, using mobile phones and the internet.” (Loc 4461)

Similar changes have affected the organization of work and there has been a lot of ink spent already on the networked organization in the context of economic globalization, so, no need to belabor that point. But on a more micro level, we have seen the emergence of the networked worker, taken out of the office or the cubicle in a less hierarchical organization, capable to work everywhere at any time thanks to ICTs and for whom boundaries between home and work, between private and public time are blurry. 

And then there are the ways in which ICTs and social networking technologies revolutionize the way media and news content is produced and consumed:

“In the print-dominant era of news, news stories could have a handful of elements: headlines, narrative texts, photos, graphics, sidebar stories, and “pull quotes” that featured people cited in the article. In the digital age, the number of features of a news story could rise to over fifty items as websites could contain links to other stories and primary resources, spaces for readers to add their own comments, tags and pictures, links to archives of stories and timelines, full transcripts of interviews, audio material, video clips, background material from the reporter about the process of gathering the story, photo albums, details about the reporter such as a biography and an archive of her previous work. In other words, web treatment of news provides fuller context than print media because of the associations that can be built into a story such as links to background material, other stories, archives of past coverage, as well as newsmakers and organizations mentioned. Among other things, the digital, linked format invites browsing and “horizontal” reading through links, rather than linear “vertical” reading.

This display of digital material also invites challenge, amplification, and adjustment by users of the news site. Networked individuals can now respond to stories more easily and in more ways than they ever could in the “Letters to the Editor” sections of newspapers. With commenting features embedded within news stories, readers can immediately post their thoughts and opinions— not only for the editorial team to see but also for anyone else who happens to be reading that same article. With links to the writers’ email addresses or Twitter accounts, readers can communicate directly with journalists and may sometimes receive a response with greater speed than they would have in the days when readers would mail in their comments and await their publication— if they even made it to publication. Online follow-up chat sessions also give readers the opportunity to discuss matters directly with the journalists in real time.

(…)

Compared to the print environment, then, data in the digital environment are denser, broader, and deeper. The digitalization of news thus offers the potential for richer coverage and therefore deeper understanding. Moreover, decisions about the structure and hierarchy of content found online, on how to allocate attention, and on how to respond are now likely to rest in the hands of both the traditional editorial professionals and ordinary networked individuals. ” (Loc 6034)

This is an experience familiar to anyone who consumes their news online not through media outlets per se but through Newsreaders, Twitter and other filtering and curating technologies. Talking back to “experts” is also a new experience. To experience the news outside of traditional media is also new. One only has to think of the Arab Spring and similar social movements to realize that networking also creates news, as much as media organizations.

The authors also touch upon a topic that is important: that of surveillance. Even though that topic is not really developed, they do bring in a couple of additional concepts: where surveillance usually refers to governments and corporations monitoring what we do, produce and consume, co-veillance refers to mutual surveillance and monitoring of behavior online. We google people. We check out their Facebook profiles, etc. And there is sousveillance, that is, the riff-raff watching the elites, politicians and organization and reporting to online communities (often for the purpose of public shaming). But all this overall means we have all learned to live without much privacy and we need to factor that in to what we do online.

The book then ends with a set of recommendations on how to thrive in the networked context that is more and more shaping our lives, such as “segment your identity”, “learn to function in different contexts” or “be aware of invisible audiences”… maybe I should give that (fairly extensive) list to my students. But the authors also argue that in order to thrive and succeed, individuals need (and sometimes already have) new forms of literacy:

  • Graphic literacy
  • Navigation literacy
  • Context and connections literacy
  • Focus literacy
  • Multitasking literacy
  • Skepticism literacy
  • Ethical literacy
  • Networking literacy

Because the Triple Revolution is not quite over and the trends noted throughout the book are still unfolding. Legislations are still being drafted and avidly debated, especially things having to do with Net Neutrality and privacy. Informal norms of online etiquette are far from settled (especially, I might add, in the context of online rabid misogyny).

Again, as I mentioned above, this is a relatively optimistic book so there is limited critical examination of the dark side of all these things. This is something that will frustrate readers as the idea of networked individualism seems to erase issues of class, race and gender (among others) that are not addressed in the book. So, this is not by any means a complete examination of networking but it is a solid and engaging starting point.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Globalization, Identity, Labor, Networks, Organizational Sociology, Privacy, Public Policy, Social Capital, Social Change, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Research, Socialization, Sociology, Surveillance Society, Technology | No Comments »

The Visual Du Jour – The Surveillance Society as Public / Private Partnership

July 2, 2012 by and tagged

If you are a government and you need data on people you’t don’t like, like Twitter users related to dissident groups, you ask or you go to Court:

And check out who the big information requesting states are… Yup.

It is also important to remember Evgeny Morozov’s warning that states are pretty good at using social media and the data they can derive from them for repressive purposes. They are not clueless about social media.

Posted in Surveillance Society | No Comments »

Book Review – Games of Empire

December 10, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter‘s Games of Empire – Global Capitalism and Video Games is a very interesting and well-written book that uses the conceptual apparatus laid out by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (with a touch of Deleuze and Guattari thrown in for good measure) in Empire and Multitude and apply them to the social world of video games as they are embedded in the global capitalist system. The book might be a bit advanced for an undergraduate audience with constant references to more abstract theories but is ultimately fascinating in relating the ins-and-outs of the videogame industry and culture to the workings of the world system.

The main argument of the book is this:

“The “militainment” of America’s Army and the “ludocapitalism” of Second Life display the interaction of virtual games and actual power in the context of Empire, an apparatus whose two pillars are the military and the market (Burston 2003; Dibbell 2006). Consider that the virtualities of Second Life feed back into the actualities of capital via the medium of the Linden dollar, and that the virtualities of America’s Army cycle into the actualities of combat via the Web link to the U.S. Army home page. Add, moreover, that the two games are connected: the high energy consumption and consumer goods of Second Life are what America’s Army recruits soldiers to fight and die for.  The two games reassert, rehearse, and reinforce Empire’s twin vital subjectivities of worker-consumer and soldier-citizen: Second Life recapitulates patterns of online shopping, social networking, and digital labor crucial to global capitalism; America’s Army is but one among an arsenal of simulators that the militarized states of capital – preeminently the United States – depend on to protect their power and use to promote, prepare, and preemptively practice deadly operations in computerized battlespaces (Blackmore 2005). Yet the examples of digital dissent in Second Life and America’s Army show that not all gamers accept the dominion of what James Der Derian (2001) terms “MIME-NET” – the military-industrial-media-entertainment network. Minor gestures that they are, these protests nevertheless suggest a route from game virtualities to another sort of actualities, that of the myriad activisms of twenty-first-century radicals seeking to construct an alternative to Empire.

Our hypothesis, then, is that video games are a paradigmatic media of Empire – planetary, militarized hypercapitalism – and of some of the forces presently challenging it.” (xiv – xv)

This connection is pretty obvious to make, after all, virtual games, along with the computer and the Internet, were products of military research. And more than just universes where otakus spend their lonely lives, virtual environments have gone legit by being used in the corporate world as training and surveillance tools.

Of course, Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter go over Hardt and Negri’s conceptual apparatus and provide some clear definitions and examinations, especially Empire (the planetary regime of economic, military and technological power with no outside) whose global governance is multilayered, involving global institutions, nation-states and various agencies. The counterreaction to the power of Empire is Multitude, which covers all the forms of activism that, also in a multilayered and decentralized fashion, challenge the logic and processes of Empire. This is TINA (there is no alternative) versus AWIP (another world is possible).

A major process of empire is its capacity to extract energy from its subjects: as workers, as consumers, as soldiers, and as gamers, through immaterial labor, that is, the labor that involves use of information and communication and produces the affective component of commodities. Immaterial labor reveals the centrality of marketing, advertising and media in creating new products and managing workplaces that produce them.

Why virtual games?

“Virtual games are exemplary media of Empire. They crystallize in a paradigmatic way its constitution and its conflicts. Just as the eighteenth century novel was a textual apparatus generating bourgeois personality required by mercantile colonialism (but also capable of criticizing it), and just as twentieth-century cinema and television were integral to industrial consumerism (yet screened some of its darkest depictions), so virtual games are media constitutive of twenty-first century global hypercapitalism and, perhaps, also lines of exodus from it.” (xxix)

The first part of the book is a pretty extensive history of video games and the rise of the corporate giants that currently dominate the market (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo). In that section, the authors deal with the issue of gender in video games. Two main developments are central to this: (1) with the massive entry of women in the workforce and the relative absence of equalization of domestic work by men (the whole Second Shift thing), the deficit in care work has been compensated through technology (including game consoles that are perfect for latchkey kids). (2) As deindustrialization pushed men away from manufacturing into the computer and information technology sectors, it left women stuck in the service sector that involved most of the emotional work. These service jobs pay less, are more physically demanding and are less prestigious. Even when women got into the ICT sector, it was in different, less “fun”, functions than men and the gendered division of labor persisted.

And despite technology, the second shift was still there, leaving women with less leisure time than men, and therefore less time to invest in video games that involve long hours of practice and involvement in building characters, accumulating goodies and reaching level after level. In other words, male privilege may have been challenged in a lot of spheres of social life but video games created a domain of “remasculinization” where the in-game experience is thoroughly based on the tropes and cultural scripts of hegemonic masculinity where sexism is rampant. As a result, there are fewer women gamers, a fact then used to claim that women are “naturally” less into gaming, a convenient justification that avoids looking into the structural dynamics of gaming. Actually, when given the opportunity and not drowned in sexist and misogynistic abuse, a lot of women love to game.

How does that fit with Empire?

“The world market is a dynamo at drawing people into the circuit of production and consumption, but it neglects, to a catastrophic degree, social and ecological reproduction – care for households, community, and environment. The ongoing sexism of virtual play mirrors this imbalance. Reproductive work, material and immaterial, has historically been performed overwhelmingly by women, and this, even after successive waves of feminism, still largely continues to be the case. The virtual play industry addresses itself to an ideal male subject, a ‘digital boy’ (Burrill 2008, 15) who can spend hours at game play and game production, and positions women, of not now as completely invisible other, still as a subsidiary participant, a ‘second sex’, making the dinner, sustaining relationships, and gaming occasionally, ‘casually’. It is precisely this non-universality, this prioritization of consumption and production over social and ecological reproduction, that males virtual play so symptomatic of Empire.” (23)

What is especially introduced by virtual play is the concept of playbor (play as labor as a form of immaterial labor). Players are free laborers, toiling for fun and for a price but they offer their free labor. Playbor has four aspects;

  • microdevelopment ( a lot of games are created by small teams in someone’s garage, being micro-developed until a select few get bought by giant corporations while millions of others just crash and burn)
  • modding (modifications and improvements on already commercialized and released games by altering the codes)
  • MMOs (massive multiplayer online games where the players are running massive experiments in community- and team-building for free)
  • machinima (players creating cinema from games)

Playbor is the version 2.0 of the hacker culture based on autoproduction, networked cooperation and self-organization. All four modalities of playbor are free labor provided by the players to the companies commercializing the games. Playbor is now also a tool used in corporate training and the knowledge economy in general.

Similarly, the virtual game industry is paradigmatic of cognitive capitalism:

“Cognitive capitalism is the situation where workers’ minds become the ‘machine’ of production, generating profit for owners who have purchased, with a wage, its thinking power.

(…)

To speak of cognitive capitalism is specifically to suggest the recent rise to prominence of a set of industries for whom the mobilization, extraction, and commodification of advanced forms of collective  knowledge are foundational: the computer hardware and software industries; the biotechnology, medical, and pharmaceutical sectors; the financial analysis sector, marketing, and data mining; and an array of media and entertainment enterprises, including video games. All these industries, in turn, presuppose a socially ‘diffuse intellectuality’, generated by an increasingly vast educational apparatus. (Vercellone 2007b).” (37-8)

Cognitive capital has specific characteristics:

  • production of software to record, manipulate, manage, simulate and stimulate cognitive activity;
  • intellectual property rights, patents, trademarks, and copyrights become the main mode of revenues in an increasingly rent economy, or turning living knowledge into dead knowledge (studied unoriginality)
  • globalization: sectors of cognitive capital aim for the global market in both production and consumption;
  • dependence on the cognitariat: a workforce with intellectual, technological and affective skills that needs to be organized, disciplined, and ultimately exploited (through three devices: creativity, cooperation and cool)
  • cognitive capital is also the terrain where owners and workers conflict.

In that respect, the whole chapter dedicated to EA is highly enlightening.

Another aspect of Empire is the use of social machines:

“A social machine is a functionally connected assemblage of human subjects and technical machines, people and tools.” (70)

In the case of virtual games, the assemblage goes as follows:

  • technical machine: the console (replaced by the human body with Wii and then Kinect)
  • corporate machine: the EULA, patents and copyrights attached to any device, the flows of capital, labor and technology
  • time machine: the profitable using up of software and other virtual commodities that have a limited life (consoles are sold at a loss, all the money is in the software that have a planned obsolescence)
  • machinic subjects: the mobilization of hard core gamers (mostly in the trope of  the hypermasculine “man of action”)
  • transgressive war machines of hacking and piracy
  • machine wars between the three corporate giant of the gaming world
  • global biopolitical machine of Empire:

“The Xbox, the PS3, and even the charming Wii are machines of Empire; their technological assemblages of circuitry and cell processors build the corporate territories of Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, which in turn are components in the worldwide capitalist machine.

(…)

Consoles are intimate machines, seamlessly inserted into our domestic or personal space or even carried close to our skin, responsive to our skills and prowess, becoming, with the Wii, remote body extensions.” (93)

Hence is extended a society of control or surveillance society, with our consent and enjoyment.

Having laid out the structural context of gaming in the first part of the book, the authors move on, in the second part, to the actual games that banalize the idea of permanent war by socializing boys early on through war play. This is especially crucial in the aftermath of the War on Terror, which officialized a state of permanent conflict everywhere against elusive, never quite clearly defined enemies. For Hardt and Negri, after all, war is not for conflict resolution between countries but for control and order in the global system.

In this context, war is

  1. interminable and therefore becomes a general phenomenon and a permanent mode of social relations
  2. lacking boundaries as ‘security’ becomes the rationale for incursions everywhere and anywhere and where the boundaries between domestic and international become blurry
  3. legitimizing a permanent state of exception, which requires the suspension of rights
  4. the new normal

Virtual games provide an important agent of socialization to all of this. War becomes part of the culture of everyday life and joins, again, the video game culture and the military apparatus and the overlaps are rather obvious. For instance, developments in military thinking involve Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT), a scenario that is often played out in different games (such as the Full Spectrum series) and in real life (in the cities of Iraq, for instance or the US cities by a more and more militarized police).

Banalization of war not only habituates and socializes the population to permanent war, but it also maintains its will to fight. Through the exercise of virtual violence, the games train, discipline and disinhibit deadly aggression against enemies, or at least, socialize people to indifference to torture, mass killing of these “others”. The mass media play their part in that process as well.

And then, there was World of Warcraft as illustration of biopower. The makers of the game try to control the game “from above” and in most aspects of the game while the gamers organize themselves “from below”. Running an MMO requires tight governance in the face of constant violations, hacking and modding with specific sanctions and surveillance mechanisms while being careful to not kill the fun out of the game through too much control and sanctions. And this gets trickier as the gaming population increases with a gaming boom in Asia, especially China.

In WoW, Gold is what matters and gold farming is booming but gold farmers are reviled and stigmatized by other players as fake players. At the same time, one forgets that gold farmers are also real-life super-exploited workers by corporations that supply a demand, mostly from wealthier players. This is a rather perfect illustration of the relationship workers / consumers of core countries have to workers from the periphery and semi-periphery.

This phenomenon (along with the exploitation of peripheral workers to work up the levels – power leveling – by western players) was nicely illustrated in Cory Doctorow’s novel, For The Win.

“Here the intersection of Blizzard’s [the company that produces WoW] digital biopower with the material biopower of Chinese capitalism snaps into sharp focus. Wgen Blizzard polices the digital realm of Azeroth (a kingdom created from the commercial enclosure of cyberspace) for virtual gold farmers, the offenders it seeks are likely to be actual peasant farmers who have left or been thrown off their fields by Chinese capitalism’s enclosures, abandoning an impoverished and ecologically devastated countryside for its cyber-connected cities. Some have probably been displaced by megaprojects such as the Three Gorges Dam, supplying insatiable demand for electrical power, primarily for industry, but also for Internet servers, in China’s eastern’s coastal cities.” (145)

And corporations do not like gold farming because it impedes on the free labor provided by paying players. And so, the super-exploited players bear the brunt of exploitation AND discipline so that playbor can prevail and continue to provide massive quantities of free labor. As a result, the production relations of the real world are reproduced in virtual world as well in hyper-subsumption (the gradual full colonizing of every sphere of life by capitalist social relations).

If there is one thing that is clear, whether with the success of Slumdog Millionaire or the current occupation movement, it is that the city (especially the global city) is a key site of Empire, and Grand Theft Auto is a perfect illustration of the centrality of the urban environment. The global cities are where we can see the full spectrum of global stratification and the consolidation of global hierarchies, where massive wealth but also surveillance and repression take place. GTA is a perfect representation of the neoliberal urbanism:

“GTA’s constitution of a metropolitan entirely enveloped by, and subsumed within, crime also performs a normalization of corporate criminality. Its game world asserts that crime is the way the universe is – the way money changes hands, business is done, society organized; it is the nature of reality. Why be outraged when the financial rulers of the world disregard the pettiness of the law, since all of this just reveals their superior grasp of the rules of the game? The omnipresence of crime in Liberty City is thus one more cultural contribution to the generalized indifference that greets the news of corporate crimes in Empire,  an indifference whose rational kernel is perhaps, as David Harvey observes, the popular assumption that criminal behavior is hardly ‘easily distinguishable from the normal practices of influence-peddling and making money in the marketplace.’ (2007, 166)” (178)

And if GTA presents a world that is thoroughly corrupt, it does not offer any alternative than to be really good at the rotten game. There is no way out of Empire. GTA may be satirical but it also normalizes the state of affair as “that’s just the way it is”.

But for the authors, there are alternatives to the games of Empire, the games of Multitude, which are the subject of the final part of the book. Multitude is the counterreaction to Empire, all the forms of resistance and activism to the logics of Empire. Multitude manifests itself in different ways:

  • through new subjectivities, new forms of producing, cooperating and communicating on a global scale and mobilizing skills to subvert Empire – subjective capacity
  • through new social movements opposing global capital – social movements
  • through the development and protection of alternatives such as open source, indymedia and other forms of freeing information from global capital – political project

The key is to have all three coalesce.

In the case of video games, resistance from the multitude takes a variety of forms all subsumed under the concept of countergaming:

  • Counterplay: acts of contestation within the established games of Empire and their ideologies
  • Dissonant development: emergence of critical content in a few mainstream games, dissident infiltration
  • Tactical games: dissemination of radical social critique through game designed by activists
  • Polity simulators: serious educational and training projects
  • Self-organized worlds: independent production of game content in MMOs
  • Software commons: challenges on the whole intellectual property rights regime

This follows rather closely the logic of “another world is possible” made famous by the World Social Forum. And all six paths are part of repertoires of contention within the game world. And all of them may contribute potential paths to exodus from Empire. The authors present a whole variety of examples of the ways this can be accomplished. After all, Empire is a contested terrain and multiple forms of resistance are always at work in the minutiae of social life as well as the major social institutions.

It is a very dense book but a very important one to understand the logic of Empire, as a good introduction to the work of Hardt and Negri, as well as new social movements.

Highly recommended.

Posted in Book Reviews, Corporatism, Culture, Globalization, Ideologies, Mass Violence, Media, Militarism, Neo-Colonialism, Networks, Precarization, Racism, Sexism, Social Inequalities, Social Movements, Social Privilege, Social Theory, Surveillance Society, Technology | 2 Comments »

Paging Donna Haraway

December 4, 2011 by and tagged ,

Cuz the Cyborgs are a’comin’:

““Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and art)ficial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.”

Except that the cyborgs above get into action when we stop being inert.

The surveillance society is all about control before things happen or to make things happen (like us buying our Amazon recommendations). But if these mechanisms do no work, and interestingly, things done in meatware are less easily controlled than those done on cyberspace, then, let the cyborgs have at it.

Interestingly as well, the cyborgs are deployed only against those crowds that are perceived to be systemic protesters in a context of legitimation crisis.

Posted in Surveillance Society, Technology | No Comments »

The Internet Superhighway to Serfdom

November 2, 2011 by and tagged , ,

As I have argued before, web 2.0 technologies have extended the reach and depth of the surveillance society, as public-private partnership. In that sense, I’m a cyber-crank of the Morozov kind. But my analysis of this is only confirmed by what transpires in the a variety of source.

First, someone actually used the term feudalism, which kinda gave me the idea for the title, even though I have wanted to use it for a while as a way of thumbing my nose at the libertarian crowd.

Anyhoo:

“To use Google+ and Facebook, people yoke themselves to the providers by handing over their data in exchange for use of the services. It’s like a feudal system: the social-networking companies are sustained by the data flooding into them, and gain in power from the exchange. People upload their photos, their messages and other data from their personal life, but the service providers control how that information is presented to the world.

“The users contribute their own content to you for free. You sell it back to them with banner ads put on there. And on top of that, you spy on them to gather profiling data,” says Michiel de Jong, of the Unhosted project to decentralise user data.

Compare this with feudal lords in the Middle Ages — ‘the castles’ — who took in taxes in the form of wheat, cattle and other resources, consumed them and then demanded more. The castles held all the political power and could talk to other castles, while the peasants who lived on their land had little influence, even though the resources they produced kept the castles going.

The online form of feudalism is more insidious. With Google and Facebook, the resources these castles take in — images and search terms, for example — are not used up, as they were in the original system. Instead, the data is analysed again and again, and the castle grows in power with each bite of information.

(…)

What makes this modern feudalism powerful is that the key parties are keeping their methods of control from the users.”

That is for the private side of things. On the public side, Morozov’s fears seem to come true as government get savvier as using web 2.0 technologies for their own purposes (and that is not exactly good for democracy, transparency and dissent).

Case in point, Top Secret America:

Part 1:

Watch Top Secret America on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Part 2:

Watch Top Secret America on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Part 3:

Watch Top Secret America on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Part 4:

Watch Top Secret America on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Welcome to the Panopticon 2.0 (I have wanted to use that one for a long time as well but it does fit).

And where public and private meet, expect massive and militarized expansion of surveillance mechanisms, applied to the civil society, all in the name of security:

“Even most members of Congress are unaware of the extent to which both the military and intelligence community have come to depend on private contractors to provide the software and ingenuity necessary for both conventional and information warfare in the 21st century. In 2005, experts estimated that 30% of the US intelligence budget was being outsourced, and this intelligence contracting industry has grown markedly since.

On the surface, this practice makes sense; the modern military tends not to attract sufficient technical talent for its needs, and in a few notable cases, the once-legendary hackers who run crucial firms have felony convictions that would prevent them from doing equivalent work from inside the state. Meanwhile, competition for projects promotes the incubation of new and more powerful capabilities from within the industry, and the bidding system ensures that the US gets the best of these for the least money – at least, in theory.

But as evidenced by the drone virus affair and other, more serious incidents, the overall contracting process is deeply flawed. The “free market” competition for contracts that would otherwise bring gains is corrupted by the industry’s thorough overlap with its state customers. Former Department of Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff joined the board of directors of contractor BAE Systems ahead of that firm being awarded a $270m contract last week, followed by another US Army contract for $67m; before bringing on the well-connected ex-secretary, the firm was becoming notorious for losing such crucial business.

A glance at the boards and executive listings of similar firms, replete with former military officers and government officials, reveals the revolving door that connects potential clients with a state customer for which money is no object, such money being taxed from an electorate too distracted by other offenses to notice.

(…)

This familiar tendency on the part of the US government to spend money it doesn’t have on things it doesn’t get is now directed at developing procedures it shouldn’t use. The intelligence contracting industry, which includes firms that provide security applications to the entire US government and military, has been encouraged lately to direct more of its collective time and capabilities to the task of monitoring, misinforming and sometimes outright attacking American citizens and others abroad – and benefit from the protection of the state and the incompetence of the media in order to make such attacks with impunity.

The Team Themis affair, which united three such firms to go after journalists, activists and WikiLeaks was revealed by Anonymous earlier this year thanks to the seizure of 70,000 emails from coordinating firm HBGary Federal. The little-known and sinister persona management capability – a state-sponsored “sockpuppet” propaganda program – has been found in widespread development; the National Security Agency-linked Endgame Systems has been revealed to offer comprehensive offensive cyber capabilities, with targets in place, to customers other than the US government; a few months ago, I released a report on a worrying surveillance apparatus known as Romas/COIN.

The shift from infrastructure defense to surveillance and offensive capability comes in the wake of the Chinese-orchestrated Aurora attacks against US state and corporate targets – an operation that continues to reveal itself as even more damaging than initially thought as additional targets admit theft of crucial data. The problem with the changing priorities of the US’s cyber-contractor complex are two-fold: by neglecting government systems’ vulnerabilities – and the drone virus provides a perfect instance – the state loses face with adversaries, real or potential, who respect only force; and by treating its own citizenry as the leading threat to its security, it loses the loyalty of those who respect truth and the rule of law.”

The legitimation crisis is a topic I have discussed here repeatedly but it is an important feature of the post-2008 political arena and of what I have come to call the new sociopathy. Combine that to the very real militarization of law enforcement on the ground and you have the ingredients for major social disturbance in reaction to the loss of authority (in the Weberian sense of legitimate power) of the state, see as the coercive arm of corporate entities and a wealthier oligarchy.

And our fear of cybercrime, cyberterrorism or privacy-shattering hackers should not make us forget this:

“In a luxury Washington, DC, hotel last month, governments from around the world gathered to discuss surveillance technology they would rather you did not know about. The annual Intelligence Support Systems (ISS) World Americas conference is a mecca for representatives from intelligence agencies and law enforcement. But to the media or members of the public, it is strictly off limits.

Gone are the days when mere telephone wiretaps satisfied authorities’ intelligence needs. Behind the cloak of secrecy at the ISS World conference, tips are shared about the latest advanced “lawful interception” methods used to spy on citizens – computer hacking, covert bugging and GPS tracking. Smartphones, email, instant message services and free chat services such as Skype have revolutionised communication. This has been matched by the development of increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology.

Among the pioneers is Hampshire-based Gamma International, a core ISS World sponsor. In April, Gamma made headlines when Egyptian activists raided state security offices in Cairo and found documents revealing Gamma had in 2010 offered Hosni Mubarak’s regime spy technology named FinFisher. The “IT intrusion” solutions offered by Gamma would have enabled authorities to infect targeted computers with a spyware virus so they could covertly monitor Skype conversations and other communications.

The use of such methods is more commonly associated with criminal hacking groups, who have used spyware and trojan viruses to infect computers and steal bank details or passwords. But as the internet has grown, intelligence agencies and law enforcement have adopted similar techniques.

(…)

Another company that annually attends ISS World is Italian surveillance developer Hacking Team. A small, 35-employee software house based in Milan, Hacking Team’s technology – which costs more than £500,000 for a “medium-sized installation” – gives authorities the ability to break into computers or smartphones, allowing targeted systems to be remotely controlled. It can secretly enable the microphone on a targeted computer and even take clandestine snapshots using its webcam, sending the pictures and audio along with any other information – such as emails, passwords and documents – back to the authorities for inspection. The smartphone version of the software has the ability to track a person’s movements via GPS as well as perform a function described as “remote audio spy”, effectively turning the phone into a bug without its user’s knowledge. The venture capital-backed company boasts that its technology can be used “country-wide” to monitor more than 100,000 targets simultaneously, and cannot be detected by anti-virus software.

(…)

Concerns remain, however, that despite export control regulations, western companies have been supplying high-tech surveillance software to countries where there is little or no legislation governing its use. In 2009, for instance, it was reported that American developer SS8 had allegedly supplied the United Arab Emirates with smartphone spyware, after about 100,000 users were sent a bogus software update by telecommunications company Etisalat. The technology, if left undetected, would have enabled authorities to bypass BlackBerry email encryption by mining communications from devices before they were sent.

Computer security researcher Jacob Appelbaum is well aware what it is like to be a target of covert surveillance. He is a core member of the Tor Project, which develops free internet anonymising software used by activists and government dissidents across the Middle East and north Africa to evade government monitoring. A former spokesman for WikiLeaks, Appelbaum has had his own personal emails scrutinised by the US government as part of an ongoing grand jury investigation into the whistleblower organisation. On 13 October he was in attendance at ISS World where he was planning to give a presentation about Tor – only to be ejected after one of the surveillance companies complained about his presence.

(…)

Jerry Lucas, the president of the company behind ISS World, TeleStrategies, does not deny surveillance developers that attend his conference supply to repressive regimes. In fact, he is adamant that the manufacturers of surveillance technology, such as Gamma International, SS8 and Hacking Team, should be allowed to sell to whoever they want.

“The surveillance that we display in our conferences, and discuss how to use, is available to any country in the world,” he said. “Do some countries use this technology to suppress political statements? Yes, I would say that’s probably fair to say. But who are the vendors to say that the technology is not being used for good as well as for what you would consider not so good?”

Would he be comfortable in the knowledge that regimes in Zimbabwe and North Korea were purchasing this technology from western companies? “That’s just not my job to determine who’s a bad country and who’s a good country. That’s not our business, we’re not politicians … we’re a for-profit company. Our business is bringing governments together who want to buy this technology.”"

That’s nice.

Although this does not need to be so complicated since our phone companies and ISPs are more than willing to provide our data to a variety of agencies. But in this mix of Panopticon and capillary surveillance, it is the global civil society that is the biggest loser.

So, it is logical that some of the resistance to this come from the civil society as well:

“Computer networks proved their organizing power during the recent uprisings in the Middle East, in which Facebook pages amplified street protests that toppled dictators. But those same networks showed their weaknesses as well, such as when the Egyptian government walled off most of its citizens from the Internet in an attempt to silence protesters.

That has led scholars and activists increasingly to consider the Internet’s wiring as a disputed political frontier.

For example, one weekend each month, a small group of computer programmers gathers at a residence here to build a homemade Internet—named Project Byzantium—that could go online if parts of the current global Internet becomes blocked by a repressive government.

(…)

He is not the only one with such apprehensions. Next month The­Doctor will join hundreds of like-minded high-tech activists and entrepreneurs in New York at an unusual conference called the Contact Summit. One of the participants is Eben Moglen, a professor at Columbia Law School who has built an encryption device and worries about a recent attempt by Wisconsin politicians to search a professor’s e-mail. The summit’s goal is not just to talk about the projects, but also to connect with potential financial backers, recruit programmers, and brainstorm approaches to building parallel Internets and social networks.

The meeting is a sign of the growing momentum of what is called the “free-network movement,” whose leaders are pushing to rewire online networks to make it harder for a government or corporation to exert what some worry is undue control or surveillance. Another key concern is that the Internet has not lived up to its social potential to connect people, and instead has become overrun by marketing and promotion efforts by large corporations.”

And we are back full circle as the activists want to create a bazaar 2.0 to fight the new feudalism:

“One organizer of the Contact Summit, Douglas Rushkoff, compares the disruptive power of the Internet to the impact of bazaars in the Middle Ages.

In his latest book, Program or Be Programmed (OR Books), he argues that the earliest bazaars helped transform feudal society by allowing vigorous information sharing—a low-tech peer-to-peer network. “Everyone was speaking with everybody else, and about all sorts of things and ideas,” he writes. “All this information exchange allowed people to improve on themselves and their situations,” allowing craftsmen to form guilds and share techniques. “As the former peasants rose to become a middle class of merchants and crafts­people, they were no longer dependent on feudal lords for food and protection.”

The Internet has created a bazaar 2.0, says Mr. Rushkoff, accelerating information exchange and giving people the power to organize in new ways.”

As some famous sociologist would say, we have never been modern.

Posted in Networks, Surveillance Society, Technology | 1 Comment »

Globalizing Minimalist / Repressive Governance, One Surveillance Technology at a Time

September 2, 2011 by and tagged ,

One of the important things, I thought, in Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (review here) is the debunking of the idea that young cool and hip activists are outsmarting big, bulky, clunky, bureaucratic and uncool and unhip governments all over the world. The Cool Kids are using Twitter and other social networking technologies to take down oppressive governments. Actually, shows Morozov, governments are rather savvy in the web 2.0 department, maybe not when it comes to writing snappy tweets, but certainly when it comes to using technology to extend the reach and depth of the surveillance society.

Case in point, by Morozov himself:

“AGENTS of the East German Stasi could only have dreamed of the sophisticated electronic equipment that powered Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s extensive spying apparatus, which the Libyan transitional government uncovered earlier this week. The monitoring of text messages, e-mails and online chats — no communications seemed beyond the reach of the eccentric colonel.

What is even more surprising is where Colonel Qaddafi got his spying gear: software and technology companies from France, South Africa and other countries. Narus, an American company owned by Boeing, met with Colonel Qaddafi’s people just as the protests were getting under way, but shied away from striking a deal. As Narus had previously supplied similar technology to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it was probably a matter of public relations, not business ethics.

Amid the cheerleading over recent events in the Middle East, it’s easy to forget the more repressive uses of technology. In addition to the rosy narrative celebrating how Facebook and Twitter have enabled freedom movements around the world, we need to confront a more sinister tale: how greedy companies, fostered by Western governments for domestic surveillance needs, have helped suppress them.

Libya is only the latest place where Western surveillance technology has turned up. Human rights activists arrested and later released in Bahrain report being presented with transcripts of their own text messages — a capacity their government acquired through equipment from Siemens, the German industrial giant, and maintained by Nokia Siemens Networks, based in Finland, and Trovicor, another German company.

Earlier this year, after storming the secret police headquarters, Egyptian activists discovered that the Mubarak government had been using a trial version of a tool — developed by Britain’s Gamma International — that allowed them to eavesdrop on Skype conversations, widely believed to be safe from wiretapping.

And it’s not just off-the-shelf technology; some Western companies supply dictators with customized solutions to block offensive Web sites. A March report by OpenNet Initiative, an academic group that monitors Internet censorship, revealed that Netsweeper, based in Canada, together with the American companies Websense and McAfee (now owned by Intel), have developed programs to meet most of the censorship needs of governments in the Middle East and North Africa — in Websense’s case, despite promises not to supply its technology to repressive governments.”

Jillian York, over at the Electronic Frontier Foundation makes a similar point:

“Last week, Bloomberg reported on Bahrain’s use of Nokia-Siemens surveillance software to intercept messages and gather information on human rights activists, resulting in their arrest and torture. A Wall Street Journal article published this week alleges the use of products in Libya created by the French company Amesys and the South African firm VASTech SA Pty Ltd. New evidence uncovered by hacktivists suggests that American-made Bluecoat technologies have been used for deep packet inspection by Syrian authorities, and a report from Reporters Without Borders alleges that Canadian web hosting company Netfirms, Inc., which also has offices in the United States, turned over sensitive information about a US citizen of Thai origin that resulted in his arrest upon entering Thailand.

In the past, EFF has documented the sale of surveillance equipment by several companies, including Cisco and Nortel, to China. Two ongoing cases allege that surveillance technology sold to China by Cisco enabled human rights violations.

What’s chillingly clear is that significant portions of the worldwide Internet are under surveillance using invasive technologies produced by American and European companies, who are in large part free to export technology that could be used for censorship or surveillance. The general lack of meaningful controls means that the privacy and safety of individuals has been left to corporations, through the promotion of the “corporate social responsibility” concept, and also through the rule of law. But clearly, important questions remain about the kind of pressure that it takes for corporate social responsibility to be meaningful, as well as the validity in relying on the rule of law in countries where it is weak or non-existent.

In 2010, we applauded the stance of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in calling on American companies to take a principled stand and urging U.S. companies to take “a proactive role in challenging foreign governments’ demands for censorship and surveillance”. We also noted her endorsement of the Global Network Initiative, which brings together companies like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft and organizations like EFF, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Human Rights Watch to address issues of privacy and free expression.

But despite progress on these issues from social networking sites, we have seen few changes in respect to the sale of surveillance and filtering tools to authoritarian regimes by companies based in the United States and other democratic countries. Leading companies like Cisco are in the process of developing policies to help guide their business choices, but even those policies feel flat when the end result is still censorship and surveillance. And that’s just Cisco – there’s little public evidence of smaller technology companies incorporating human rights into the decision-making process.”

That is not entirely surprising though. This is the same logic that allows Western governments to, on the one hand, claim to want peaceful resolutions to current conflicts, especially in the Global South, while, on the other hand, Western TNCs are free to supply weaponry to whoever can afford it. This is no different.

Posted in Surveillance Society, Technology | No Comments »

Zygmunt Bauman on The Surveillance Society

June 29, 2011 by and tagged

Zygmunt Bauman highlights two trends in the surveillance society:

“One item, authored by Elisabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker, informed of the spectacular rise in the number of drones reduced to the size of a dragonfly, or of a hummingbird comfortably perching on windowsills; both designed, in the juicy expression of Greg Parker, an aerospace engineer, “to hide in plain sight”. The second, penned down by Brian Stelter, proclaimed the internet to be “the place where anonymity dies”. The two messages spoke in unison, they both augured/portended the end of invisibility and autonomy, the two defining attributes of privacy – even if each of the two items was composed independently of the other and without awareness of the other’s existence.”

This reflects something I have already blogged about already: the surveillance society is not just ‘Big Brother is Watching You”, although there is that aspect and the “little drones are watching you” is the 21st century equivalent, much cheaper, probably, than having a lot of informants.

The surveillance society is also of the capillary nature, discussed by Foucault, as in “all your clicks belong to us” Every aspect of our Internet activities is information to companies. Every bit of content we put on Facebook is sold as valuable to advertisers. We are the products that companies sell to each other.

But there is a difference that Bauman notes between the small drones and Internet privacy (or lack thereof):

“Everything private is now done, potentially, in public – and is potentially available to public consumption; and remains available for the duration, till the end of time, as the internet “can’t be made to forget” anything once recorded on any of its innumerable servers. “This erosion of anonymity is a product of pervasive social media services, cheap cell phone cameras, free photo and video web-hosts, and perhaps most important of all, a change in people’s views about what ought to be public and what ought to be private”. And let me add: the choice between the public and the private is slipping out of people’s hands, with the people’s enthusiastic co-operation and deafening applause. A present-day Etienne de la Boétie would be probably tempted to speak not of voluntary, but a DIY servitude.”

Except, of course, the choice is only between Mac/PC, IOS or Android, Chrome or Firefox because being online is now mandatory for everything, education, e-government, work, etc. But an online presence is quasi-automatic and getting off-line and off-the-grid is practically impossible. And turning one’s computer into an fortress is only a stopgap measure.

And let us not forget that this is the global era and national privacy-protecting legislation is relatively irrelevant:

“The question put forward:

“Can Microsoft guarantee that EU-stored data, held in EU based datacenters, will not leave the European Economic Area under any circumstances — even under a request by the Patriot Act?”

Frazer explained that, as Microsoft is a U.S.-headquartered company, it has to comply with local laws (the United States, as well as any other location where one of its subsidiary companies is based).

Though he said that “customers would be informed wherever possible”, he could not provide a guarantee that they would be informed — if a gagging order, injunction or U.S. National Security Letter permits it.

He said: “Microsoft cannot provide those guarantees. Neither can any other company“.

While it has been suspected for some time, this is the first time Microsoft, or any other company, has given this answer.

Any data which is housed, stored or processed by a company, which is a U.S. based company or is wholly owned by a U.S. parent company, is vulnerable to interception and inspection by U.S. authorities.”

And so, if the government does not need your data (for now), you’re still not home free, obviously.

Posted in Surveillance Society | 2 Comments »

The Visual Du Jour – LOL Your Surveillance State (and Private Cooperation)

June 27, 2011 by and tagged

Via:

The amount of compliance is amazing to me. So much for protecting user data.. As I’ve said before, the surveillance society is a public-private partnership.

Posted in Surveillance Society | 4 Comments »

This Is The Future

June 26, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , ,

All explained through three items, that have been extensively discussed on this blog.

1. The global casino, ruled by bankers and drug cartels:

” Juarez has imploded into a state of criminal anarchy – the cartels, acting like any corporation, have outsourced violence to gangs affiliated or unaffiliated with them, who compete for tenders with corrupt police officers. The army plays its own mercurial role. “Cartel war” does not explain the story my friend, and Juarez journalist, Sandra Rodriguez told me over dinner last month: about two children who killed their parents “because”, they explained to her, “they could”. The culture of impunity, she said, “goes from boys like that right to the top – the whole city is a criminal enterprise”.

Not by coincidence, Juarez is also a model for the capitalist economy. Recruits for the drug war come from the vast, sprawling maquiladora – bonded assembly plants where, for rock-bottom wages, workers make the goods that fill America’s supermarket shelves or become America’s automobiles, imported duty-free. Now, the corporations can do it cheaper in Asia, casually shedding their Mexican workers, and Juarez has become a teeming recruitment pool for the cartels and killers. It is a city that follows religiously the philosophy of a free market.

“It’s a city based on markets and on trash,” says Julián Cardona, a photographer who has chronicled the implosion. “Killing and drug addiction are activities in the economy, and the economy is based on what happens when you treat people like trash.” Very much, then, a war for the 21st century. Cardona told me how many times he had been asked for his view on the Javier Sicilia peace march: “I replied: ‘How can you march against the market?’”

(…)

Narco-cartels are not pastiches of global corporations, nor are they errant bastards of the global economy – they are pioneers of it. They point, in their business logic and modus operandi, to how the legal economy will arrange itself next. The Mexican cartels epitomised the North American free trade agreement long before it was dreamed up, and they thrive upon it.

Mexico’s carnage is that of the age of effective global government by multinational banks – banks that, according to Antonio Maria Costa, the former head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, have been for years kept afloat by laundering drug and criminal profits. Cartel bosses and street gangbangers cannot go around in trucks full of cash. They have to bank it – and politicians could throttle this river of money, as they have with actions against terrorist funding. But they choose not to, for obvious reasons: the good burgers of capitalism and their political quislings depend on this money, while bleating about the evils of drugs cooked in the ghetto and snorted up the noses of the rich.

So Mexico’s war is how the future will look, because it belongs not in the 19th century with wars of empire, or the 20th with wars of ideology, race and religion – but utterly in a present to which the global economy is committed, and to a zeitgeist of frenzied materialism we adamantly refuse to temper: it is the inevitable war of capitalism gone mad. Twelve years ago Cardona and the writer Charles Bowden curated a book called Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future. They could not have known how prescient their title was. In a recent book, Murder City, Bowden puts it another way: “Juarez is not a breakdown of the social order. Juarez is the new order.”"

Emphases mine.

2. Extensive surveillance from public / private partnerships against people:

“Last February, three of these firms – HBGary Federal, Palantir and Berico, known collectively as Team Themis – were discovered to have conspired to hire out their information war capabilities to corporations which hoped to strike back at perceived enemies, including US activist groups, WikiLeaks and journalist Glenn Greenwald. That such a dangerous new dynamic was now in play was only revealed due to a raid by hackers associated with the Anonymous collective, resulting in the dissemination of more than 70,000 emails to and from executives at HBGary Federal and affiliated company HBGary.

After having spent several months studying those emails and otherwise investigating the industry depicted therein, I have revealed my summary of a classified US intelligence programme known as Romas/COIN, as well as its upcoming replacement, known as Odyssey. The programme appears to allow for the large-scale monitoring of social networks by way of such things as natural language processing, semantic analysis, latent semantic indexing and IT intrusion. At the same time, it also entails the dissemination of some unknown degree of information to a given population through a variety of means – without any hint that the actual source is US intelligence. Scattered discussions of Arab translation services may indicate that the programme targets the Middle East.

Despite the details I have provided in the document – which is also now in the possession of several major news outlets and which may be published in whole or in part by any party that cares to do so – there remains a great deal that is unclear about Romas/COIN and the capabilities it comprises. The information with which I’ve worked consists almost entirely of email correspondence between executives of several firms that together sought to win the contract to provide the programme’s technical requirements, and because many of the discussions occurred in meetings and phone conversations, the information remaining deals largely with prospective partners, the utility of one capability over another, and other clues spread out over hundreds of email exchanges between a large number of participants.

The significance of this programme to the public is not limited to its potential for abuse by facets of the US intelligence community, which has long been proverbial for misusing other of its capabilities. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect is the fact that the partnership of contracting firms and other corporate entities that worked to obtain the contract was put into motion in large part by Aaron Barr, the disgraced former CEO of HBGary Federal who was at the centre of Team Themis’s conspiracy to put high-end intelligence capabilities at the disposal of private institutions. As I explain further in the linked report, this fact alone should prompt increased investigation into the manner in which this industry operates and the threats it represents to democratic institutions.

Altogether, the existence and nature of Romas/COIN should confirm what many had already come to realise over the past few years, in particular: the US and other states have no intention of allowing populations to conduct their affairs without scrutiny. Such states ought not complain when they find themselves subjected to similar scrutiny – as will increasingly become the case over the next several years.”

I should mention that this kind of initiatives is exactly what Evgeny Morozov warns against in his book, The Net Delusion. The naive view that only the cool kids know how to use the tools provided by ICTs and that big and bulky corporations and governments are going to sit by, watch with incomprehension while faxing each other, is more than naive but downright dangerous.

As I have mentioned before, the surveillance society is thoroughly a public / private partnership and we are the data, which is why, really, no government will ever shut down the Internet, no matter what, because, otherwise, where would government agencies and businesses get the information they so desperately need about us.

3. The Cloud-Minders… stimulating the economy through their consumption… or maybe not:

“What is believed to be the only surviving authenticated photograph of Billy the Kid fetched $2.3m (£1.4m) at an auction in Denver, Colorado.

The tintype photograph was sold on Saturday to Florida billionaire and private collector William Koch at Brian Lebel’s 22nd Annual Old and West Show & Auction.

Auction spokeswoman Melissa McCracken said the image of the 19th-century outlaw of the Wild West was the most expensive piece ever sold at the event.

Mr Koch said after the auction that he plans to allow some small museums to display the photograph. “I love the old West,” he said. “This is a part of American history.”"

So, this is why we need to cut taxes for the über-wealthy? So they can “collect” incredibly expensive and exclusive items. Such purely status-related, conspicuous and recreational consumption does nothing for the economy (if you exclude the limited activities related to having the auction itself) but it does contribute to the ever-growing gap in lifestyle between the very top of the social ladder and the rest of us Troglytes.

Posted in Corporatism, Global Governance, Globalization, Hollow States, Organized Crime, Risk Society, Social Change, Social Inequalities, Social Stratification, Surveillance Society | No Comments »

Book Review – The Net Delusion

June 18, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom is an important book that aims to make us think about networking technologies beyond the simplistic and utopian delusion that the Net = freedom. It is also very compelling, but then, I’m a cyber-crank, so, what do I know. Sarcasm aside, this book is a great read for anyone interested in the intersections between networking technologies and ideologies as well as political power. And Morozov provides quite a bit of historical context to let us know that we have been there before, that is, proclaiming a bit too quickly the emancipatory power of a new communication technology: faxes in the days of the Cold War, Twitter now.

His book is a call to not make the same mistake and exercise a bit of nuance and critical thinking regarding the new ICT tools. Part of the problem, according to Morozov is that we have not yet learn to “think” about these tools. The neoconservative view of promoting democracy (kinda) via the Internet (like Voice of America used to do) may be discredited but there is no compelling alternative to account for the multiple layers of interaction between governments, social movements, social institutions and their uses of networking technologies.

The other major problem is that Western thinkers are stuck in a Cold War mode of thinking (all quotes from Kindle edition):

“Lost in their own strategizing, Western leaders are pining for something that has guaranteed effectiveness. Many of them look back to the most impressive and most unambiguous triumph of democracy in the last few decades: the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly—and who can blame them for seeking to bolster their own self-confidence?—they tend to exaggerate their own role in precipitating its demise. As a result, many of the Western strategies tried back then, like smuggling in photocopiers and fax machines, facilitating the flow of samizdat, supporting radio broadcasts by Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America, are given much more credit than they deserve.

Such belated Cold War triumphalism results in an egregious logical fallacy. Since the Soviet Union eventually fell, those strategies are presumed to have been extremely effective—in fact, crucial to the whole endeavor. The implications of such a view for the future of democracy promotion are tremendous, for they suggest that large doses of information and communications technology are lethal to the most repressive of regimes.

Much of the present excitement about the Internet, particularly the high hopes that are pinned on it in terms of opening up closed societies, stems from such selective and, at times, incorrect readings of history, rewritten to glorify the genius of Ronald Reagan and minimize the role of structural conditions and the inherent contradictions of the Soviet system.

It’s for these chiefly historical reasons that the Internet excites so many seasoned and sophisticated decision makers who should really know better.” (Loc. 141 – 149)

And that is precisely the ideological positioning that Morozov beats back throughout the book. Just like Cold Warriors thought the free flow of goods would automatically lead to democracy, they think the same about the free flow of information. For them, the revolution (of the market-friendly kind) will be blogged and tweetered and tumblred (or choose your favorite platform).

This belief Morozov calls the Google Doctrine:

“The Google Doctrine—the enthusiastic belief in the liberating power of technology accompanied by the irresistible urge to enlist Silicon Valley start-ups in the global fight for freedom—is of growing appeal to many policymakers.” (Loc. 166)

That is, the naive belief that Internet is always on the side of the underdog. Morozov also uses the phrase “cyber-utopianism” to describe the view that the Internet is always and ever a force of good without recognizing that it does have dark sides (such as the ubiquitous surveillance society, whether it comes from the public or the private sector). Morozov reserves its harshest criticism for cyber-utopianism, such as this:

“Cyber-utopians ambitiously set out to build a new and improved United Nations, only to end up with a digital Cirque du Soleil.” (Loc 173)

Ouch.

And cyber-utopians both overestimate the capacity of the Internet to promote democracy while at the same time underestimating its capacity to penetrate all aspects of life, for better and for worse. So, for Morozov, we need to be able to overcome cyber-utopianism to think clearly about the role and potential of the Internet.

But cyber-utopianism is not the only approach that leads to thinking badly about the Internet. Morozov also attacks Internet-centrism:

“While cyber-utopianism stipulates what has to be done, Internet-centrism stipulates how it should be done. Internet-centrists like to answer every question about democratic change by first reframing it in terms of the Internet rather than the context in which that change is to occur. They are often completely oblivious to the highly political nature of technology, especially the Internet, and like to come up with strategies that assume that the logic of the Internet, which, in most cases, they are the only ones to perceive, will shape every environment that it penetrates rather than vice-versa.” (Loc. 214)

In this sense, The Net Delusion is a very sociological book that places technology (the Internet) in its proper social context and examines how it operates under different social conditions, as used by different kinds of social actors. It takes a somewhat more sociologically deterministic to fight a strong technologically-deterministic approach that has so far prevailed. Why, because Morozov thinks Internet-centrism is dangerous:

“Their [Internet-centrists'] realistic convictions, however, rarely make up for their flawed methodology, which prioritizes the tool over the environment, and, as such, is deaf to the social, cultural, and political subtleties and indeterminacies. Internet-centrism is a highly disorienting drug; it ignores context and entraps policymakers into believing that they have a useful and powerful ally on their side. Pushed to its extreme, it leads to hubris, arrogance, and a false sense of confidence, all bolstered by the dangerous illusion of having established effective command of the Internet. All too often, its practitioners fashion themselves as possessing full mastery of their favorite tool, treating it as a stable and finalized technology, oblivious to the numerous forces that are constantly reshaping the Internet—not all of them for the better. Treating the Internet as a constant, they fail to see their own responsibility in preserving its freedom and reining in the ever-powerful intermediaries, companies like Google and Facebook.” (Loc. 221)

And the price of such stance is to ignore how much the Internet has served the powerful very well so far, at the expense of the powerless. At the same time, as Morozov shows, for a brief moment, the Iran Revolution seemed to validate the Internet-centrist view that Twitter was going to liberate Iran and that better information could be obtained from the micro-blogging site than from traditional media. This was where we were going to see the liberating power of technology. Truly, the revolution was twittered. No authoritarian government would be able to resist its power.

And so, from the Western power centers, all that is needed is the proper funding to the right dissident groups. After all, just five days ago, one could read this in the New York Times,

“The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy “shadow” Internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.

The effort includes secretive projects to create independent cellphone networks inside foreign countries, as well as one operation out of a spy novel in a fifth-floor shop on L Street in Washington, where a group of young entrepreneurs who look as if they could be in a garage band are fitting deceptively innocent-looking hardware into a prototype “Internet in a suitcase.”

Financed with a $2 million State Department grant, the suitcase could be secreted across a border and quickly set up to allow wireless communication over a wide area with a link to the global Internet.”

Of course, commentators quickly pointed out the irony of this considering the way Wikileaks was treated by the same government, with the helpful assistance of the private sectors, especially ISPs. And, as Morozov notes, Al-Qaeda has also been quite adept at using the Internet, a far cry from an emancipation movement.

And ultimately, as of time of writing, the Iranian regime seems more solidly in place than other authoritarian regimes in the Middle East although the so-called Arab Spring has also led to the same Western pronouncements. Just today, for instance:

“The Arab Spring owed much to the internet and the mobile phone; social networking sites nurtured, co-ordinated and shaped revolutions. But these instruments of modernity also bore witness to revolution’s ugly twin: government suppression – tanks sent in against protesters in Banias, Saudi snipers on the rooftops in Bahrain, tear gas in Tahrir Square.”

And though there has been recognition that ultimately, revolutions require people taking to the streets and facing state repression, and though the jury is still out as to what will follow the collapse of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism persist because (1) they involve quasi-religious beliefs, and (2) they make Westerners feel good because, after all, we (the West) created these technologies and look at the good they are doing. And after all, if dictators are censoring the Internet, that means it must be a 100% force for good.

As Morozov notes,

“But refusing to acknowledge the Internet’s darker side is like visiting Berkeley, California, cyber-utopian headquarters, and concluding that this is how the rest of America lives as well: diverse, tolerant, sun-drenched, with plenty of organic food and nice wine, and with hordes of lifelong political activists fighting for causes that don’t even exist yet. But this is not how the rest of America lives, and this is certainly not how the rest of the world lives.” (Loc. 559)

In addition, both cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism involve a lack of examination of the role of corporations in these technologies, ignoring the fact that invasions of privacy, control of information and forms of authoritarianism can come from corporations as much as governments, if not both.

And at the same time, Western diplomats, commentators and policy-makers may make life more difficult for dissidents when they talk up the emancipatory and revolutionary power of the Internet so much so that dictators become keen on using the technologies themselves for repressive purposes.

Indeed, another misguided cyber-utopian belief is that authoritarian governments around the world, are composed of uncool, unsavvy idiots who sit on their thumbs and are clueless regarding ICTs whereas the cyber-dissidents are the cool kids who will always be able to outsmart them, if only we give them the proper tools. I would argue that such as extremely naive view is plainly exposed in Robert J. Sawyer’s Wonder.

But, of course, authoritarian governments have done no such thing. Indeed, they have used the very same technologies to find and neutralize dissidents. As Morozov notes, the Internet can actually strengthen a regime rather than simply, and by default, undermine it. In a variety of social, economic and political contexts, the effects of the Internet are far from simple and straightforward. As Morozov puts it,

“The Internet does matter, but we simply don’t know how it matters.” (Loc. 711)

Why not? Because a whole lot of people are quite satisfied with a combination of Cold War triumphalism and handy metaphors (“the Great Firewall of China”) that give the illusion of full understanding of what is going on. Either way, what is lost in the process is a focus on structural, historical and institutional conditions under which activists, NGOs, civil society actors and governments operate. And because the Internet still relies on a physical infrastructure often controlled by governments, those can still turn it off when they feel threatened (as did happen in Egypt). And after all, it is also naive to think that authoritarian governments have not adapted to a world where information circulates widely.

Indeed, Morozov shows how governments sometimes have no need to exercise heavy-handed censorship on the Internet to stifle dissent: just put a bunch of cat videos on. More seriously, the entertainment component is what has allowed the Russian government to have little need for censorship. The idea that simply giving people access to more information will automatically make them want consumerist democracy and act upon such want is naive as well.

After all,

“Most Americans were exposed to political news not because they wanted to watch it but because there was nothing else to watch. This resulted in citizens who were far better politically informed, much more likely to participate in politics, and far less likely to be partisan than today. The emergence of cable television, however, gave people the choice between consuming political news and anything else—and most viewers, predictably, went for that “anything else” category, which mostly consisted of entertainment.” (Loc. 1177)

This is also why East German leaders used to allow their citizens access to West German television: escapism, depoliticization and pacification and, as Morozov notes, greater support for the regime because West German TV programs made life more bearable. Many an authoritarian leaders have figured out that consumerism and Western popular culture more generally have a depoliticizing effect and are willing to capitalize on that. And, of course, global capitalism easily accommodates such combinations of political authoritarianism and neoliberal economic policies.

There is another way in which the Internet may actually undermine the possibilities of dissent:

“The real reason why so many scientists and academics turned to dissent during Soviet times was because they were not allowed to practice the kind of science they wanted to on their own terms. Doing any kind of research in the social sciences was quite difficult even without having to follow the ideological line of the local communist cell; collaborating with foreigners was equally challenging. Lack of proper working conditions forced many academics and intellectuals either to immigrate or to stay home and become dissidents.

The Internet has solved or alleviated many of these problems, and it has proved excellent for research, but not so excellent for bringing smart and highly educated people into the dissident movement. Collaboration is now cheap and instantaneous, academics have access to more papers than they could have dreamed of, travel bans have been lifted, and research budgets have been significantly increased. Not surprisingly, by 2020 Chinese scientists are expected to produce more academic papers than American ones.

(…)

This has happened at the expense of severing their ties to local communities.

(…)

Their connection to politics in their native countries has also been severed; paradoxically, as they have gotten more venues to express their anger and dissent, they have chosen to retract into the nonpolitical.” (Loc. 1388 – 99)

So, for Morozov, we need to find more and better ways of making people care so that we don’t exchange just videos of cats and celebrity gossips. There is a need to nurture more critical thinking (I would argue that this would require changes in the way academia relates to society, social movements and ICTs as well, but in the current context, more critical thinking will not be happening).

In this sense, Morozov thinks we may be getting aspects of both Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (with the pacification of the masses with cheap entertainment and of George Orwell’s 1984 (with the massive surveillance) and not just in authoritarian regimes but in democratic ones as well, and quite a bit of this has come to us courtesy of the Internet which has made surveillance, censorship and propaganda easier. And many of the tools to do so may come from Western corporations, such as Facebook never-ending quest to invade the privacy of its users.

And let us not forget, as the Wikileaks episode has shown us, that censorship might take the form not of government action, but of private entities denying access to content or destroying online communities and it is quite cheap to do as well:

“Before the advent of social media, it took a lot of effort for repressive governments to learn about the people dissidents are associated with. The secret police may have tracked one or two key contacts, but creating a comprehensive list—with names, photos, and contact information—was extremely expensive. In the past, the KGB resorted to torture to learn of connections between activists; today, they simply need to get on Facebook.” (Loc. 2678)

And similarly,

“The private sector will surely continue churning out innovations that can benefit secret police everywhere. Without finding ways to block the transfer of such technologies to authoritarian states or, even more important, the kind of limits that should be imposed on such technologies everywhere, the West is indirectly abetting the work of the secret police in China and Iran.” (Loc. 2747)

More than that, it is now clear that many of us are quite comfortable providing information that is available to everyone on the Internet. We post photos and videos on Facebook and Twitter, we “tag” people on these photos, we provide location informations and leave all sorts of traces all over the Web or via our mobile phones. Who needs the KGB or that guy in “The Lives of Others“.

In addition, as Morozov notes, sociologists have shown that many Facebook users use Causes application and join group more as a Goffmanian device for the presentation of self than actual activism, hence the rise of the slacktivist at the expense of actual advocacy. Mobilizing might have become easier but mobilizing is different from organizing and acting:

“It’s not so hard to imagine how any protest movement might be overstretched by the ease of communications. When everyone can send a tweet or a Facebook message, it’s safe to assume that they will. That those numerous messages would only increase the communication overload and may slow down everyone who receives them seems to be lost on those touting the virtues of online organizing.” (Loc. 3335)

For Morozov, the real danger is this:

“The danger that “slacktivism” poses in the context of authoritarian states is that it may give young people living there the wrong impression that another kind of politics—digital in nature but leading to real-world political change and the one underpinned entirely by virtual campaigns, online petitions, funny Photoshopped political cartoons, and angry tweets—is not only feasible but actually preferable to the ineffective, boring, risky, and, in most cases, outdated kind of politics practiced by the conventional oppositional movements in their countries.” (Loc. 3397)

Am I the only one reminded of the Obama Fan Base and the 2008 presidential election campaign?

Now, what of the real Internet activism of the Anonymous kinds? The kind where cyber-guerilla attack government or corporate sites with DDoS as a means of dissent (something that some European courts have ruled to be a legitimate form of dissent)? Morozov argues for a more nuanced approach rather than the quick labeling of such actions as terrorism. After all, who would mind if an authoritarian regime were hit by such attacks? So, why is it any different when it’s Lufthansa or Vodafone?

At the same time, the Web is far from being a utopia itself as it is home to anti-democratic groups and individuals. Free flow of information says nothing about the quality of information that circulates and it does not automatically equate greater demand for democracy, tolerance and equality. Far from it.

And of course, we conveniently forget that none of this entirely free:

“Just as today’s Internet gurus are trying to convince us that the age of “free” is upon us, it almost certainly is not. All those free videos of cats that receive millions of hits on YouTube are stored on powerful server centers that cost millions of dollars to run, usually in electricity bills alone. Those hidden costs will sooner or later produce environmental problems that will make us painfully aware of how expensive such technologies really are. Back in 1990, who could have foreseen that Greenpeace would one day be issuing a lengthy report about the environmental consequences of cloud computing, with some scientists conducting multiyear studies about the impact of email spam on climate change? The fact that we cannot yet calculate all the costs of a given technology—whether financial, moral, or environmental ones—does not mean that it comes free.” (Loc. 4738)

So, the bottom line, for Morozov is we have not really thought about the Internet yet, and we certainly have not paid enough attention to the social embeddedness of technology:

“Throughout history, new technologies have almost always empowered and disempowered particular political and social groups, sometimes simultaneously—a fact that is too easy to forget under the sway of technological determinism. Needless to say, such ethical amnesia is rarely in the interests of the disempowered.” (Loc. 4814)

It indeed remains to be seen whether the Internet has affected the balance of power in various societies or if the digital divide has entrenched stratification systems. And any discussion that is imbued with technological determinism tends to de-socialize and de-politicize the impact of such technologies, something which, de facto, benefits current power holders.

As Morozov notes,

“Every new article or book about a Twitter Revolution is not a triumph of humanity; it is a triumph of Twitter’s marketing department.” (Loc. 5004)

And with that, the temptation is strong to re-formulate social problems as technological problems for which technological solutions (rather than public policy) are to be found. To discuss social issues in terms of technological fixes then evacuates social, economic and political factors that might lead to questioning the larger social structures.

So assuming that we could get rid of cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism, what should we have in their place? Morozov offers a kind of cyber-realist manifesto:

“Instead of centralizing decision making about the Internet in the hands of a select few digerati who know the world of Web 2.0 start-ups but are completely lost in the world of Chinese or Iranian politics, cyber-realists would defy any such attempts at centralization, placing as much responsibility for Internet policy on the shoulders of those who are tasked with crafting and executing regional policy.

Instead of asking the highly general, abstract, and timeless question of “How do we think the Internet changes closed societies?” they would ask “How do we think the Internet is affecting our existing policies on country X?” Instead of operating in the realm of the utopian and the ahistorical, impervious to the ways in which developments in domestic and foreign policies intersect, cyber-realists would be constantly searching for highly sensitive points of interaction between the two. They would be able to articulate in concrete rather than abstract terms how specific domestic policies might impede objectives on the foreign policy front.

(…)

Cyber-realists wouldn’t search for technological solutions to problems that are political in nature, and they wouldn’t pretend that such solutions are even possible.

(…)

Cyber-realists wouldn’t allow themselves to get dragged into the highly abstract and high-pitched debates about whether the Internet undermines or strengthens democracy. Instead, they would accept that the Internet is poised to produce different policy outcomes in different environments.” (Loc. 5229 – 49)

As I said above, an important book.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Ideologies, Media, Networks, Politics, Power, Social Change, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Movements, Surveillance Society, Technology | 3 Comments »

Book Review – The Culture of The New Capitalism

January 12, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

CoNC

[This is a repost but a relevant one as I chose Richard Sennett as my sociologist of the semester.]

Richard Sennett’s The Culture of the New Capitalism should be read as one more chapter in Sennett’s exploration of the transformation of labor and institutions, something he started in the 1970s with The Hidden Injuries of Class and continued more recently with The Craftsman (review to come).

“All that is solid melts into air.” This quote from Marx has been used and reused by Bauman (see his whole “liquid” conditions series of books) and it is also a recurring theme in Sennett’s book: the progressive dismantling of what Pierre Bourdieu might call the structuring structure and the structured structures of labor.

Bureaucracy

The first part of Sennett’s book is a comparison between the modern Weberian bureaucracy both in its positive aspects (social integration, what Sennett calls its contribution to social capitalism, militaristic efficiency and organization of time, its predictable promotional paths) and its negative traits (the famous Iron Cage, its ritualistic and alienating tendencies). The bureaucratic model pervaded modern society in multiple institutional incarnations. So, what is changing?

“The fresh-page thesis asserts that the institutions which enabled this life-narrative thinking have now “melted into air.” The militarization of social time is coming apart. There are some obvious institutional facts on which this thesis is founded. The end of lifetime employment is one such, as is the waning of careers spent within a single institution; so is the fact, in the public realm, that government welfare and safety nets have become more short-term and more erratic.” (25)

And then, of course, there is globalization both in its deterritorialized and deeply territorial forms.

Sennett outlines three aspects in which the iron cage comes apart:

  1. the shift from managerial to shareholder power in large companies
  2. this shift in power involves a demand for short-term results (“impatient capital”)
  3. the development of new technologies of communications and manufacturing

Giant pension and investments funds have generated enormous amounts of capital in search of profitable returns all over the world, both cause and effect of globalization since the late 1970s. This is when shareholder power emerges in corporate governance, as opposed to executives.

And with this development comes short-termism.

“Share price rather than corporate dividends was their measure of results. Buying and selling shares in an open, fluid market yielded quicker – and greater – yields than holding stocks for the long term. For this reason, whereas in 1965 American pension funds held stocks on an average for 46 months, by 2000 much in the portfolios of these institutional investors turned over on an average of 3.8 months.” (40)

Making money quick is nothing new. What changed are the institutional, cultural and technological ways of doing so.

“The combined effect of so much unleashed capital and the pressure of short-term returns transformed the structure of those institutions most attractive to empowered investors. Enormous pressure was put on companies to look beautiful in the eyes of the passing voyeur; institutional beauty consisted in demonstrating signs of internal change and flexibility, appearing to be a dynamic company, even if the once-stable company had worked perfectly well. (…) Institutional solidity becomes an investment negative rather than a positive. Stability seemed a sign of weakness, suggesting to the market that the firm could not innovate or find new opportunities or otherwise manage change.” (40-41)

The willingness to destabilize or stress the system of one’s own organization is a sign of dynamism, flexibility and embrace of change (something expanding beyond corporations into the realm of higher education, for instance, as demonstrated by Marc Bousquet in his book, How The University Works, and also a process described by Sennett himself in The Corrosion of Character, detailing the case of Lou Gerstner leadership at IBM).

The power of impatient capital was of course multiplied by the rise of information and communication technologies as well as revolutions in manufacturing, refrigeration and containerization.

Institutionally speaking, ICTs permitted the removal of middle level bureaucracy and the emergence of a new form of centralization with accelerated power without discussion or interpretation. This came in addition to outsourcing, off-shoring and massive lay-offs. Whereas an essential effect of the modern bureaucracy was social inclusion of the masses (for social, political and economic reasons), the new corporation is lean and mean and can function with fewer people.

The new organization requires a new conception of the self and identity. This is where culture enters the picture. The new self is one adapted to these new social, economic and institutional conditions: a self that eschews dependency upon others or upon companies or institutions or the state. This is not individualism, this is the era of flexible (sometimes virtual) networks and contacts rather than stable and deep relationships.

What is the new institutional reality of corporations (Again, this was addressed at greater length in The Corrosion of Character)? Three main processes define it:

  1. Delayering: getting rid of layers within the organization and having these functions transferred to other places or individuals.
  2. Casualization: short-term, renewable employment within the organization where workers can be moved from task to task.
  3. Non-linear sequencing: task or problem-solving oriented rather than fixed-function labor.

Put together, these characteristics define organizations revolving around shorter time frames devoted to small tasks. Organizations then creates ill-defined conditions and contexts in which human relations and problem-solving skills are key and surveillance (especially computerized) is extensive, generating institutionalized paranoia. These are high-stress systems; their personal product: anxiety.

“Anxiety attaches to what might happen; dread attaches to what one knows will happen. Anxiety arises in ill-defined conditions, dread when pain or ill-fortune is well defined. Failure in the old pyramid was grounded in dread; failure in the new institution is shaped by anxiety. When firms are reengineered, employees frequently have no idea of what will happen to them, since modern forms of corporate restructuring are driven by issues of debt and stock-price value generated in financial markets, rather than by the internal workings of the firm.” (53)

This is reinforced by the widespread use of consultants as perfect illustration of the sociological idea that distance = social inequality. Hiring consultants – increasing social distance – accomplishes certain things that are positively viewed by investors:

  • an ideological signal that power is being exercised
  • potential institutional disruption signalling that “change” (always positive) is afoot
  • a shift in responsibility for painful decisions (“the consultants said we should do it”)
  • command without accountability (see the IMF / WB economists imposing shock economic therapy upon other countries without any accountability for the catastrophic results)
  • power without commitment to the organization

According to Sennett, this dismantling of the iron cage of the modern bureaucracy produces three types of social deficits, which, put together, amount to a decline in social capital (the Putnam thesis):

  1. low institutional loyalty
  2. diminishment of informal trust among workers
  3. weakening of institutional knowledge

Culturally, all these institutional aspects translate into the devaluation of stability and delayed gratification in terms of prestige and the valuation of risk-taking and problem-solving skills. This, in turn, has consequences for the stratification system:

“Class counts for everything. A child of privilege can afford strategic confusion, a child of the masses cannot. Chance opportunities are likely to come to the child of privilege because of family background and educational networks; privileges diminishes the need to strategize. Strong, extensive human networks allow those at the top to dwell in the present; the networks constitute a safety net which diminishes the need for long-term planning. The new elite thus has less need of the ethic of delayed gratification, as thick networks provide contacts and a sense of belonging, no matter firm or organization one works for. The mass, however, has a thinner network of informal contact and support, and so remains more institution-dependent.” (80)

Specter of Uselessness

Sennett sees the specter of uselessness as a major source of anxiety in society, but here again, redefined by institutional change and shaped by distinctive forces:

  • the global labor supply: when one’s skills are easily replaced by another labor force in another part of the world
  • automation (which can generate automated uselessness)
  • the management of ageing

Uselessness is tied to the fear of skills extinction as experience becomes less valued and skills can be bought in a younger worker rather than expending resources on retraining an older, more expensive, worker.  As a result, large numbers are left behind, in situations of marginality due to unemployment or underemployment in a culture that loathes dependency and that the welfare state (diminished as it is) is ill-equipped to deal with.

This leads to a related and essential topic of the book: the declining prestige of craftsmanship.

“Craftsmanship would be: doing something well for its own sake. Self-discipline and self-criticism adhere in all domains of craftsmanship; standards matter, and the pursuit of quality ideally becomes an end in itself. Craftsmanship emphasizes objectification: (…) a thing made to matter in itself. (…) Understood this way, craftsmanship sits uneasily in the institutions of flexible capitalism. (…) The more one understands how to do something well, the more one cares about it. Institutions based on short-term transactions and constantly shifting tasks, however, do not breed that depth. Indeed, the organization can fear it; the management code word here is ingrown . Someone who digs deep into an activity just to get it right can seem to others ingrown in the sense of fixated on that one thing. (…) And he or she stands at the opposite pole from the consultant, who swoops in but never nests. Moreover, deepening one’s skills in any pursuit takes time.” (104-105)

So what does the flexible organization look for? According to Sennett, potential abilities that tend to be amorphous and therefore, applicable to a variety of domains and settings, such as problem-solving or interpersonal skills. For Sennett, this is ultimately what standardized tests are expected to measure: solving a variety of problems with a limited amount of time and no time to think things through in any deep or complex manner. Ability then is detached from learning, experience and achievement. From his studies, Sennett found that evaluations of abilities by management are much more personal and go straight to a sense of self:

“Judgments about potential ability are much more personal in character than judgments of achievement. An achievement compounds social and economic circumstances, fortune and chance, with self. Potential ability focuses only on the self. The statement “you lack potential” is much more devastating than “you messed up.” It makes a more fundamental claim about who you are. It conveys uselessness in a more profound sense. (123)

[Emphasis mine] One can see then how potential ability stands in opposition to craftsmanship and how disempowering it is. What can one do when one lacks abilities? One can work at one’s crafts but not at one’s abilities. And again, in this context, abilities are defined as amorphous and non-specific (ability to work well with other, to think outside the box, to be collaborative, etc… these phrases are, in a way, meaningless and subject to subjective assessment).

What are the implications of all this for politics, and especially for progressive politics? Well, not so good for Sennett as politics becomes an object of consumption as well and politicians package themselves as consumer objects.

Consuming Politics

Ok, let me take a detour here: it seems to me that, as I was reading Sennett’s book, that I was truly reading about the Obama campaign and about Obama as consumption object. Think about it for a second: Obama campaigned on himself, not as a Democrat, liberal, progressive. Actually, he ran away from these labels. He also revealed contempt for experience and promoted his “skills”, especially, his negotiating skills (his claim to be able to bring everybody to the table and reach a consensus… an amorphous skill, applicable to any domain).

He did not provide specific programs and policies (again, when one asked his supporters to provide such information, one would be invariably referred to the website as the immediate response). He also rejected past experience (contempt for the struggles of the 60s). And, of course, he pushed the idea of his “judgment” as his major asset. Finally, charisma was a major asset. In this sense, it was really a campaign packaged for the impatient consumer, with little interest in detailed wonkery as well as major ageism involved (combined with misogyny). No deferred gratification here.

I would argue that Obama was successful in packaging himself in a way that fit the “creative class” (euphemisms for privileged classes), the media, college students who have been socialized in an SAT environment and expect to work in new organizations and see themselves as citizen-consumers. Indeed, as Sennett explains, the citizen-consumer is

  1. offered political platforms which resemble product platforms (the candidate as product in and of himself)
  2. gold-plated differences (what Sennett calls the symbolic inflation of trivia)
  3. asked to discount “the twisted timber of humanity” (concerns of the disadvantaged and complex social and political issues are dismissed as getting in the way of “transformation” whatever that means)
  4. credit more user-friendly politics
  5. accept continually new political products on offer

All these go against progressive politics, according to Sennett (indeed, Obama has never presented himself as progressive or liberal, his supporters have projected these attributes upon him as part of the well-known process of imaging):

“User-friendly makes a hash of democracy. Democracy requires that citizens be willing to make some effort to find out how the world around them works. (…) My point is not that people are lazy but that the economy creates a political climate in which citizens have difficulty in thinking like craftsmen. In institutions organized around flexible labor, getting involved deeply in something risks making the worker seem ingrown and narrowly focused.” (171)

Sennett ends his book by again emphasizing craftsmanship (something I’m guessing he has picked up in his latest book) and focusing on the Dutch solution to broken life narratives (something also heavily present in The Corrosion of Character).

I enjoy reading Sennett but I have to confess that parts of the book annoyed me, especially the ones about consuming desires. I have to confess that Freudian-type sociology bores me and leaves me frustrated mostly because I would like something more empirically grounded. I understand that Sennett is not just a sociologist but also a social thinker or philosopher, and the most philosphical parts of the book are the ones that did slow me down. I much prefer his labor and institutional analyses. I find them more powerful. But again, no one describes institutional realities as he does.

Posted in Book Reviews, Economy, Globalization, Identity, Ideologies, Labor, Networks, Precarization, Risk Society, Social Capital, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Stratification, Social Structure, Social Theory, Sociology, Structural Violence, Surveillance Society, Symbolic Violence, Technology | 8 Comments »

2010 – The Year of Kettling

December 18, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , ,

We’ve all been kettled.

The term, of course, refers to a form of containment used by law enforcement against protestors who are then surrounded by a thick cordon of police, with either one narrow exit or no exit at all as police advances and reduces the space available to those kettled. Once duly kettled, sometimes for hours, protestors can be made to conform much more easily.

Kettling was used at the G8 demonstrations in Genoa, with tragic results. And more recently, it was used against students protesting conservative policies:

“Hundreds of people chanted “let us out” as a line of police officers reduced the size of the Whitehall pen.

Many argued the police were punishing everyone, rather than the handful of troublemakers.

Ben Mann, 24, a London University student, said: “It’s not good. It makes people more angry. I don’t understand how they have the right to hold people in one place.

“It really angered people when they did this at the G20 protests. A policeman just told me this was the end of protests as we know it, which was pretty scary.”

Tom, a 23-year-old Sussex University student who didn’t want to give his surname, said: “They’re trying to deter people from protesting.

“They’re not accusing us of any crimes, so why have they done it? This is preventing us getting our message across.”

Sophie Battams, 17, from Dagenham, Essex, said: “The kettling is causing the violence.

“If you put a lot of angry people in one area, it will escalate to this.”

Rachel Tijani, 18, also from Dagenham, said: “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they coop people up like caged animals, they’ll act like caged animals.

“It was peaceful at first, then it got violent as people wanted to make their point. I just want to go home now.”"

As Phile Shiner – a lawyer defending the rights of kettled students, including his daughter – notes, there are several problems with kettling:

  1. It makes things worse as people get angrier as their space gets reduced. Kettling increases the potential for violence.
  2. Police now go straight to kettling without trying less repressive measures (that is similar to the recourse to teasering by cops at the first sign of not-quick-enough compliance) but these would involve some cooperation with demonstration organizers.
  3. Kettling – as most repressive measure – is now first resort.
  4. The media play a propaganda role by presenting the kettled crowd as composed on violent anarchists.
  5. Kettling highlights the fact that governments seem to take less seriously the right to not be unlawfully imprisoned, freedom of speech and assembly.

As Shiner notes:

“So next up it will be trade unionists, the unemployed, nurses, teachers and local government workers. Prepare to be kettled, insulted, abused, batoned, arrested on a pretext to justify coercion, intimidated and then subjected to a propaganda attack in the media.”

Well, we are already there.

But as Suzanne Moore notes, there is more than physical kettling, there is mental kettling, being beaten into submission to certain ideas (mostly neoliberalism). She writes, regarding the increasing fees and elimination of financial aid to low-income students in British universities:

“To accept the inevitability of this is one thing, but are we to embrace the complete marketisation of all we hold dear? Are we happy to live with the decimation of arts and social sciences? Do we not see this as straightforward ideological attack? Do we think it is acceptable to make one generation pay for the sins of another?”

I would consider propaganda pieces like Waiting for Superman to be forms of mental kettling.

To me, kettling also involves another trend that is just as disturbing and ties into a lot of things that have been happening recently: the state and its corporate masters and allies have now declared open war on the civil society. Whether you think of the massive amounts of money shoveled at the wealthy after they destroyed the financial system (and the recent US tax cuts bill is only one example), or the rabid reaction to the exposure of state and (to come) corporate behavior exposed by Wikileaks, and the repression against the students demonstration, it is hard to reach a different conclusion. It is now plain for everyone to see.

Oh sure, every once in a while, we will be thrown a few crumbs (like the repeal of Dont Ask, Don’t Tell), but such crumbs will have more a symbolic impact and are non-threatening to the project at hand (the complete takeover by the corporate class and the complete precarization for the rest of us).

And so, having abdicated its social responsibilities, the state now acts as the openly repressive arm of the power elite, as socially devastating austerity (translate: inequality-generating and impoverishing) measures are implemented in most Western countries. The role of the state is now largely two-fold: protect corporate and wealthy interests on the one hand, and crush resistance at home (police) and abroad (military). And the media happily provides the soft power side of this through propaganda (mental kettling).

This is not exactly a new phenomenon, but 2010 is the year the curtain got pulled and we got to see the whole thing, in its full ugliness.

Posted in Collective Behavior, Corporatism, Education, Power, Public Policy, Risk Society, Social Institutions, Social Movements, Surveillance Society | 1 Comment »

« Previous Entries