Why Do We Expose Ourselves?
Among critics of technological surveillance, there are two allusions so commonplace they have crossed into the realm of cliché. One, as you have probably already guessed, is George Orwell’s Big Brother, from 1984. The other is Michel Foucault’s panopticon — a vision, adapted from Jeremy Bentham, of a prison in which captives cannot tell if or when they are being watched. Today, both of these touchstones are considered chillingly prophetic. But in Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age, Bernard Harcourt has another suggestion: Both of them are insufficient.
1984, Harcourt acknowledges, was an astoundingly farsighted text, but Orwell failed to anticipate the role pleasure would come to play in our culture of surveillance — specifically, the way it could be harnessed, as opposed to suppressed, by powerful interests. Oceania’s “Hate Week” is nowhere to be found; instead, we live in a world of likes, favorites, and friending. Foucault’s panopticon, in turn, needs a similar update; mass incarceration aside, the panopticon — for the rest of us — has become participatory, more of an amusement park or shopping mall than a penal institution. Rather than being coerced to reveal secrets, today we seem to enjoy self-exposure, giving away “our most intimate information and whereabouts so willingly and passionately — so voluntarily.”
Exposed is a welcome addition to the current spate of books about technology and surveillance. While it covers familiar ground — it opens with brief accounts of Facebook’s methods of tracking users, USAID’s establishment of ZunZuneo (a Twitter-like social network) in Cuba, and Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s PRISM program — Harcourt’s contribution is uniquely indebted to critical theory. Riffing on the work of another French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, and his evocative 1992 fragment “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” Harcourt settles upon the phrase “Expository Society” to describe our current situation, one in which we “have become dulled to the perils of digital transparence” and enamored of exposure. This new form of expository power, Harcourt explains, “embeds punitive transparence into our hedonist indulgences and inserts the power to punish in our daily pleasures.”
The expository society has been long in the making. Its roots are in ancient Greece and Rome, where the “age of the spectacle” commenced and began its evolution. It is worth quoting Harcourt’s summary of this history at length:
To render something public was expensive, and so the ancients would gather together, amass themselves to watch, to share, to partake in a public act of entertainment. There was no replay button, nor were there any video feeds and no mechanical arts of reproduction. The modern era of surveillance, on the other hand, gave proof of the cost of security. To render secure was expensive, and so the moderns discovered ways to surveil more efficiently, to see everyone from a single gaze, to turn the arena inside out, to imagine the panopticon. In the digital age today, publicity has become virtually costless and surveillance practically free of charge.
And yet, while spectacles and surveillance may be “costless” and “practically free,” the expository society is fundamentally about profit. On the corporate side, the business models of companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Uber, and Amazon are based on the principle of user enjoyment. Social media, we all know from experience, is addictive; our pleasure is habit-forming by design.
This is the first crux of Harcourt’s argument: The expository society exploits, rather than represses, our desires. The second crux is his observation that government and commercial surveillance infrastructures have wholly merged.
One of the book’s more important chapters takes on the seemingly self-evident nature of the term “surveillance state,” which Harcourt argues is misleading. What we have, instead, is an “amalgam of the intelligence community, retailers, Silicon Valley, military interests, social media, the Inner Beltway, multinational corporations, midtown Manhattan, and Wall Street” that “forms an oligarchic concentration that defies any such reductionism.” Citing Glenn Greenwald, he notes that 70 percent of the United States’ national intelligence budget is spent on the private sector. “Whatever it is that is surveilling us, then, is not simply ‘the state,’” he writes. A more accurate image, he suggests, is a “tenticular oligarchy” — a “large oligopolistic octopus” enveloping the world, neither fully public nor fully private but both.
The expository society is indeed a paradoxical beast. Punishment and pleasure have fused, and commerce and surveillance are now one and the same (the convenience of GrubHub, Lyft, Paypal, Instagram, and AT&T is irresistible despite the troubling data-trails). Still, Exposed occasionally collapses categories and situations that are, despite their similarities, crucially distinct. For example, at multiple points Harcourt compares the Apple Watch to an ankle bracelet used for monitoring parolees: “The Apple Watch begins to function as the ankle bracelet. All is seen, all can be seen, all can be monitored — inside or out, where we are, free or supervised, we are permanently surveilled.” It may be true that these tracking devices exist on a data-collection continuum. But the experiences of their respective users could not be more different — and this matters. A person wearing an Apple Watch may be transmitting information, including heart rate and location, that should give them pause, but they are not subjected to the same punitive gaze as a parolee or a prisoner under correctional supervision — or, for that matter, a laborer whose every movement on the job is tracked, or a welfare recipient whose purchases are assessed by a prying social worker. “Privacy,” Harcourt himself writes, “has been privatized.” It is becoming a luxury good, available only to those who can afford it.
Harcourt’s analysis hinges on desire: We want to participate, we are impelled to do so, and we like it. But it seems to me we are as much compelled as we are impelled. In my own work on new media, I have described this as a shift from the old model of “manufacturing consent,” where traditional broadcasters molded public opinion from on high, to one of “manufacturing compulsion,” where we are, at least superficially, in charge of our media destinies, clicking on whatever we choose.
In reality things aren’t so simple: Recommendation algorithms, advertising, and addictive interfaces all chip away at our autonomy in different manners. What’s more, we are forced to participate in online life in myriad ways. Students are advised to manage their social media profiles so they can get into a good college; adults are compelled to groom their LinkedIn profiles in order to secure employment; journalists and other creative professionals are told they must join Twitter to promote their work; and so on. Credit scores are a prime example of this logic of compulsion. We don’t manage our scores for fun but under threat of penalty, in the form of higher interest rates or fees. With a bevy of start-ups innovating new modes of consumer scoring — many of which use information from data brokers in ways that shrewdly bypass inadequate consumer protections — we may soon be induced to adapt our online b
ehavior to accommodate them (for example, by not being “friends” with people the algorithms deem credit risks).
Understanding the degree to which we are compelled to participate, as opposed to lamenting the degree to which we desire our own oppression, is important if we want to devise strategies for resistance. Movements derive more energy from tapping into people’s grievances than chastising them for complacency.
The challenge — and this brings us to the book’s concluding section — is how the “disobedience” of Harcourt’s subtitle can effectively push back against expository power. Exposed closes on a hopeful note, pointing to pockets of resistance and successful rebels, all people worth celebrating: Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks, artists like Trevor Paglen and Laura Poitras, free software advocates such as Eben Moglen. But Harcourt’s proposed solutions are not entirely satisfying. He considers boycotting Facebook a radical act, and I disagree. If our goal is to build a robust movement capable of taking on the new power structure he describes, we will have to meet people, at least initially, where they are. More than 1 billion of them are on Facebook. A movement made up only of those savvy enough to congregate on more obscure and secure corners of the internet is destined to remain small. Mass mobilization is an important component of any serious strategy for social change.
On the final page of the book, Harcourt praises Occupy Wall Street, not for its mission but for its supposedly leaderless form. (Some of us who were involved in Occupy might challenge that characterization.) The better lesson to take from Occupy is not its approach, which was imperfectly implemented and produced mixed results, but its willingness to challenge capitalism and inequality directly. Ultimately, the society of exposure that Harcourt criticizes is a symptom of the oligarchy’s escalating attack on democracy. The best solution may not be to combat surveillance directly, but to attack the disease: the arrangements that have allowed an unaccountable political and economic elite to emerge.
It is true, as Harcourt writes, that the “customary lines between politics, economics, and society are rapidly vanishing and melding into one”; it is true that the state has merged with corporate interests. But it is also true that the state remains one of the public’s most powerful weapons. If compelled by a powerful social movement, the state could aggressively enforce anti-trust regulations, pass a baseline cross-sector privacy law, enforce labor rights for employees of digital disruptors such as Uber, rein in the financial apparatus that has abetted the latest tech bubble with its massively inflated start-up valuations, and invest in public options such as municipal broadband (paid for, perhaps, with the taxes tech companies are currently dodging by sheltering assets overseas). Instead of merely hiding from the oligopolistic octopus, we should strive to free ourselves from its grip.
Astra Taylor is a writer, documentarian, Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow, and EHRP Puffin fellow. Follow her on Twitter: @astradisastra.
Co-published with The Intercept.