Category Archives: Participatory Surveillance

The DIY Gender Police: doxxing through visibility and ubiquitous presence

This is the second post of a small series on DIY gender police, or anti-trans activists who take it upon themselves to police and harass trans writers, advocates, and scholars in order to reverse our access to human rights, public space, and pride and dignity.

Read part one here: The DIY Gender Police: the surveillance of trans folks by anti-trans activists.


CW: transmisogyny, harassment, suicide

After coming out of the closet as a trans woman, my ability to engage in public discussions as a writer radically shifted. My new identity substantially intensified the stakes of publishing critical ideas as I was forced to come up against anti-trans hate groups on the left and the right.

I mustered up the courage to transition a few weeks before the Lindsay Shepherd controversy at Wilfrid Laurier University which would rapidly become a rallying cry for the far-right, who manipulated arguments in support of free speech to dog whistle white supremacy and (trans)misogyny across the Canadian mediascape. I wrote an article for Vice Canada called For Trans Folks, Free Speech Can Be Silencing to address how open debates about trans and non-binary pronouns often dehumanize and silence trans students in undergraduate classes. I mean, imagine being made to debate your own existence in a classroom setting!

This was the first time I had an encounter with the trolly hate group known as Kiwi Farms. I remember getting a Google notification not long after I published my Vice article informing me that my name had been mentioned on the Internet. I was blissfully unaware of doxxing groups before checking my gmail account that day and I was appalled by their cruelty. I had been doxxed, and I felt violated and vulnerable in the visibility and exposure afforded to me by the Internet.

Along with bemoaning that social justice warriors (SJWs) who wanted nuanced discussions about free speech were somehow ushering in a dark era of Orwellian or Huxley style totalitarianism, Kiwi Farm trolls also attacked me based on my appearance and my gender.

One post read, “If accommodating the 0.1% or so of people who are trannies involves destroying free speech for everyone else, fuck trannies”.

Another followed up, “I thought he just kind of an ugly girl, not a troon”.

This was my first time getting doxxed. As I mentioned in the previous article in this series, doxxing involves active lateral surveillance and intelligence techniques used by a person or group to scour the Internet for any publicly available information that is collected into rough dossiers and posted to cyberspace to engage in punitive “name and shame” tactics. Doxxing is the primary strategy in the  DIY policing toolkit, and it’s widely used within the Kiwi Farms community.

In fact, I will likely get doxxed again for mentioning my experiences with Kiwi Farms as they thrive on negative press. It took me a while to decide whether or not I should tell this story as it will give these trolls more ammunition to shoot back at me. But these assholes need to be challenged, and silence, I feel, is no longer an option.

Another user wrote, “They do it to escape their insecurity or their mistakes from their male self. Unfortunately, the Internet never forgets, nor does their body, which is male”.

They’re right, the Internet never forgets. Trolls and bigots are able to exploit the visibility and ubiquitous presence provided to us by our reliance on social media platforms and near constant connection to the Internet. Kiwi Farms is a prime example of DIY policing in that it has allowed for home brewed vigilantes to play both spy and police officer by weaponizing our visibility to threaten us into silence. It’s also worth noting that they also take joy in attacking people with disabilities and plus size women.

Visibility and ubiquitous presence

Though folks engage in social media to varying degrees, it is safe to say that most of us spend a great deal of time producing and consuming user-generated content. Many of us use social media like Facebook and Twitter to build online social identities and we curate those accounts to give off impressions of who we are. Social media platforms have become synonymous with communication in the contemporary Western world, and this has massive consequences.

Sociologist danah boyd offers us a useful concept to think about our engagement with social media platforms. She draws attention to how social media become “mediated publics” where folks communicate through technologies that shape (or mediate) our interconnections with each other. In line with physical public spaces, mediated publics allow for people to interact with each other, but these interactions are augmented by features unique to cyberspace.

Navigating mediated publics are characterized by persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences. In other words, interactions in mediated publics endure through time, are easily searchable, can be copied outside of its original context, and are seen by an unknowable number of strangers.

For instance, Kiwi Farms homed in on embarrassing thoughts that I posted to Reddit during a time where I was confused and questioning my gender. Though I won’t go into the nitty gritty details, I posted these thoughts several years ago without foresight that they would be found and used to embarrass me years later. The details that I posted on a trans subreddit were eventually archived, copied by trolls, removed from their original context, and used in a doxx meant to embarrass me in a public full of hostile strangers.

Because social media platforms have become a constant staple in how we communicate, our presence in mediated publics become ubiquitous. We are exposed to publics that might seem harmless, but can quickly dissolve in a cacophony of vitriolic bullshit.

As we navigate mediate publics, overtime we produce substantial social exhaust. This is a form of seemingly innocent enduring data that can be brought together in countless ways and to varying effects. Surveillance scholar Daniel Trottier, notes, “No single act seems risky or malicious, but when taken together overtime, maintaining an online presence can have damaging consequences”. It is this social exhaust, the fragments of a person’s digital identity, that become the weapons of DIY gender police.

Doxxing as political violence

As I mentioned in the first article in this series, activists, scholars, and journalists often focus on the dangers of state-level hierarchical surveillance while neglecting the impact of lateral surveillance practices used in everyday life by everyday people. This is often done in a way that obscures or obfuscates attention to the violences involved in lateral surveillance practices. For a lot of folks, the damaging impacts of DIY gender policing are opaque, and thus, rarely discussed outside of the marginalized groups who face the blunt of such tactics.

Earlier this summer a trans game developer named Chole Segal ended her life after substantial harassment from trolls and doxxers over Kiwi Farms. Though Segal’s tormentors weren’t the sole cause of her dying by suicide, they played a terrible role, and this marks some of the more extreme consequences of doxxing in the trans community.

Gay Star News reported, “Kiwi Farms linked to her death. On the thread there was no regret, only misgendering and mocking”.

Doxxing in inherently violent in that it violates the assumed privacy of a person by collecting disparate forms of social exhaust given off by a lifetime using social media in order to cause a person personal damage.

While speaking about surveillance, Fuchs and Trottier observe, “Surveillance gathers data about humans in order to exert actual or potential direct, structural, or cultural violence against individuals or groups. The violence involved in surveillance either operates as acutal violence or as the threat of violence in order to discipline human behavior”. Doxxing isn’t a mundane or inconsequential act, it is an intentional act of violence that is meant to do harm to people.

The communities that engage in DIY policing are accountable to no one but themselves, which sets them apart from state agencies who are at least marginally tied to a legal system. There are few ways that a person can seek justice after being victimized by anonymous and pseudonymous vigilantes who enact extreme forms of discriminatory violence.

It is important that we begin to address these issues in ways that will provide us with tools and strategies to resist DIY gender policing, ubiquitous presence, and (trans)misogynistic violence. Furthermore, we need to strategize ways of building tighter communities of support over cyberspace, as well as queer, feminist security practices that we can utilize to protect ourselves from forms of weaponized visibility. In the next addition to this series, I will explore how far-right groups use media manipulation and forms of digilantism to actively work towards the marginalization of people of color, LGBTQ folks, and women.


In the coming weeks, I will be exploring some key concepts and ideas around how trolling, doxxing, e-bile, and vigilantism over digital platforms have been seriously impacting trans communities in extraordinarily violent ways. DIY policing, and its vast arsenal of techniques, seems largely opaque in cishet (cisgender, heterosexual) society, and because of this, is mostly ignored as a form of active discrimination. We need to make this form of political mobilization visible and start having a serious conversation on how we might collectively address it.

References

boyd, d. (2007). Social Network Sites: Public, Private, or What? Knowledge Tree 13. https://www.danah.org/papers/KnowledgeTree.pdf.

Fuchs, C., and D. Trottier. (2015). Towards a theoretical model of social media surveillance in contemporary society. Communications 40(1): 113-135.

Trottier, D. (2017). Digital Vigilantism as Weaponisation of Visibility. Philosophy and Technology 30, 55-72. https://doi-org.proxy.library.carleton.ca/10.1007/s13347-016-0216-4.

The DIY Gender Police: the surveillance of trans folks by anti-trans activists

This is the first post of a small series on DIY gender police, or anti-trans activists who take it upon themselves to police and harass trans activists, writers, and scholars in order to reverse our access to human rights, public space, and pride and dignity.

Read part two here: The DIY Gender Police: doxxing through visibility and ubiquitous presence.


Part one: DIY Gender Policing

To be transgender is to be exposed to constant surveillance. Much of the scholarly work exploring the surveillance of trans folks has been fixated on hierarchical forms of watching conducted by state, carceral, and medical institutions. These institutions spy into the everyday lives of folks at various stages of their transition. This form of institutional watching is often rolled out by various experts who act as gate keepers to accessing basic forms of medical treatment and funded aid. Many of these experts are cisgender, heterosexual doctors, psychologists and state bureaucrats who claim knowledge of transgender issues without having ever experienced it.

As Julia Serano illustrates in her book Whipping Girl,  these forms of expert intervention gives way to a system premised on ensuring an “authentic” transition (i.e. informed by cisgender expectations) that lead trans folks to overcompensate their gender performance (like, 120% femme) to convince the expert that they are indeed transgender just to get access to medical care, such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

Trans folks are exposed to a profound amount of suspicion ranging anywhere from police and prison guards to friends and family. This suspicion could be as banal as an extra layer of scrutiny when you present your ID card to a liqueur store employee or as extraordinary as rousing suspicion at the border when crossing through airport security. There is an overwhelming sense that a trans person must constantly prove their transness while they are exposed to invasive watching, and if this is not done properly, they can be denied access to important social and medical resources.

A recent example, as reported by journalist Katelyn Burns, is the spike in US government officials revoking passports from trans folks and offloading sometimes extra-legal bureaucratic weight on identity changes.

Though it is important to have conversations about these forms of institutional surveillance, oftentimes these conversations happen in ways that obscure other forms of surveillance which have a great deal of impact on trans folks. Oftentimes, the most impactful forms of surveillance that we face is the surveillance that comes from our friends, family, and peers, and even worse, from Internet trolls, trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), and far-right bigots.

Lateral surveillance

This is what the sociologist Andrejevic calls lateral surveillance: “not the top-down monitoring of employees by employers, citizens by the state, but rather the peer-to-peer surveillance of spouses, friends, and relatives.” The use of lateral surveillance in everyday life relies on the hyper-visibility of a networked social media culture where we are all willingly tethered to various social media platforms where we share intimate details of our private lives. These digital publics allow us to post user-generated content for other users to browse through and has led to the normalization of watching each other.

Though I would argue that being constantly watched by friends, family, and peers does have a disciplining effect on people (i.e., you are more likely to act according to societal norms if you’re aware that you’re being watched), that is not what I am interested in here. I am interested in how lateral surveillance can be taken up by trolls and TERFs as a form of political violence that deeply impacts the trans community.

This is often done through doxxing which is commonly defined as the collection of private, identifiable information and its subsequent publication online. It is usually used in harassment campaigns where the person being doxxed receives a slurry of death threats, harassment, and abuse. For a lot of folks, doxxing is limited to actual names, home addresses, and phone numbers. However, I think it’s necessary to expand its definition to include the collection of publicly available information about and by a victim throughout the Internet.

Doxxing as a political violence

As a trans person involved in the public sphere through activism and writing, I’ve been doxxed several times for expressing important issues in the trans community. What caught me off-guard was the fact that all three times I was doxxed, a profound amount of information about my browsing and Internet history was scooped up into amateur  dossiers that were subsequently posted to forum boards. Literally, a person (or a group) spent an enormous amount of time and energy scrutinizing my life in order to cause me embarrassment, shame, and to ultimately silence my dissent. This has become a common practice across the political spectrum.

I’ve been working on a concept called do-it-yourself (DIY) policing, a form of digital vigilantism, practiced in left and right digital communities, that harness and weaponize the ubiquitous visibility afforded to us by our constant need for social media attention. The Internet, and the mobile technologies that tether us to each other, allow for the most inexperienced watchers to take on intelligence techniques to interrogate the lives of the people around them by collecting user-generated content that victims have produced over the media they used throughout their life.

It’s pretty damn awful.

In practicing DIY policing, digital vigilantes take on the punitive role of state policing in order to dole out forms of punishment and take justice into their own hands. They conduct intelligence work, google social media posts, plunder public records, build dossiers of potentially embarrassing information, and post those dossiers to their forum boards to encourage their members to harass, intimidate, assault, and dehumanize their victims.

Justice, of course, is entirely relative to the political and cultural orientation of the people orchestrating the doxx. For an instance, antifa groups often use DIY policing in order to doxx nazis and white supremacists to cause embarrassment, public shaming, and loss of work and social connections. The goal behind this form of political violence is to remove their capacity to organize against marginalized communities. This form of DIY policing can seem entirely acceptable as the groups being targeted are literally attacking marginalized folks for merely existing. It can be a form of collective self-defence in the absence of protection from state intelligence and policing agencies.

What I am especially interested in exploring in the next few blog posts I will be writing is how anti-trans groups have taken up DIY policing to embarrass, silence, and intimidate trans activists, writers, and scholars who engage in publicly facing advocacy. DIY policing, in this context, is used as a form of political violence to disrupt the so-called “transgender agenda” put forward by “social justice warriors (SJWs)”. What these vigilantes are working against are gains and protections won for trans rights via the often difficult and tumultuous work of activists engaged in protest and lobbying. They are working to actively marginalize us from public participation and lobbying to have us downgraded to second class citizens.

In more extreme circumstances, these groups want trans folks to disappear from what they consider their corporeal and digital spaces.


In the coming weeks, I will be exploring some key concepts and ideas around how trolling, doxxing, e-bile, and vigilantism over digital platforms have been seriously impacting trans communities in extraordinarily violent ways. DIY policing, and its vast arsenal of techniques, seems largely opaque in cishet (cisgender, heterosexual) society, and because of this, is mostly ignored as a form of active discrimination. We need to make this form of political mobilization visible and start having a serious conversation on how we might collectively address it.

References

Andrejevic, M. (2005). The Work of Watching One Another: Lateral Surveillance, Risk, and Governance. Surveillance & Society 2(4), 479-497.

Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl: A Transexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Berkeley: Seal Press.

 

The Slender Man, Legends and Cultural Anxieties

Surveillance is being called ubiquitous by most of the leading scholars who study the social, political, and cultural ramifications of surveillance technology. A focus that I have been studying and thinking about is how surveillance is understood by everyday people living everyday lives.

I do this through the lens of Folklore, the study of everyday life. Or the study of the Folk (lay-person). This is obviously problematic—as such a term equates everyday life with peasantry. So for the remainder of this post I will use the term vernacular performance (i.e. everyday performance).

I’ve written about this work in the past. One of the ways that we demonstrate our cultural anxieties and fears is through the collective performance of legend cycles. In this case, I am speaking about the boogieman of the Internet—the Slender Man.

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What is a legend?

Legends are repetitive and variant. Meaning people tell it over and over again, and as it is told and spread it changes form while keeping a central theme. Legends are a performance between storyteller and audience. Meaning that people perform legend cycles. A teller typically recounts a story to a listener or audience. This does include digital legends. Finally, Legends are not constructed by the teller, but by the community. The interaction between the storyteller and the audience constructs the story and allows it to spread. It is a collective process.

The Slender Man is a creature born the performative interactions of a group of users on the forum Something Awful. The Slender Man is a tall, monstrous figure. One that resembles a tall man in a black suit. He has no face, and extraordinarily long arms. He is sometimes depicted with many moving tentacles. All of this, and his many disproportions give it a Lovecraftian appearance. An eldritch monstrosity.

Cultural Monsters

As Tina Marie Boyer (2013) asserts in terms of the Slender Man, “a monster is a cultural construct” (246). And as such, understanding the ‘anatomy’ of a monster sheds light on the problems people face in their day-to-day existence.

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What is the anatomy of the Slender Man? I decided to do some ‘fieldwork’—exploring many of the blogs/vlogs that contributed to its legendary constitution. I found three major themes: Surveillance, Social Control, and Secret Agencies. This returns us to the topic of this blog post: The Slender Man is a vernacular performance that demonstrates our collective anxieties of a culture that is under the constant gaze of massive and complicated networks of surveillance.

Surveillance

The Slender Man is known to watch its prey. It is rarely confrontational, though it seems to relish in making its presence known. One scene that sticks out to me is from the YouTube series Marble Hornets—the main protagonist, after becoming increasingly paranoid of the faceless man in a business suit following him began to leave his camera running while he slept—only to discover that the slender man watches from a crack in his door while he sleeps. The Slender Man watches, seemingly from everywhere—but even when it is seen, the Slender Man has no eyes to watch from. It is as if it sees everything from nowhere. The Slender Man appears and vanishes, seemingly at will, haunting victims with little to no motive. The Slender Man represents the phenomenon of ubiquitous surveillance in the virtual world. A world where anonymity and pseudonymity are quickly disappearing. A world where only the experts understand what to surveil and how to read the data such surveillance produces. And a world haunted by faceless watchers.

Social Control

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The Slender Man also represent themes of social control. The most obvious instance of this is the ‘proxies’, otherwise known as the ‘hallowed’. These are people who have been overcome by the Slender Man’s will. In many instances, the Slender Man legend telling ends in the main protagonists going mad and disappearing. They are either killed by the Slender Man (or its minions), disappear from time and space and sometimes memory, or are turned into a proxy. This means, they lose their minds and begin to do the bidding of the Slender Man. In the blog ‘Lost Within the Green Sky’, the main protagonist Danny describes it as a form of indoctrination that slowly drains the will from its victims. Even as a proxy, once their usefulness dries up – they are often killed. This theme is not surprising as it emerges from a cultural context that is known for its pervasive ability to control through silent software mediators.

Secret Agencies

The Slender Man is also known as The Operator (signified by a circle with an X through it). This name, along with the black suit it wears, makes the Slender Man a clear reference of Secret Agents. Those organizations who haunt the Internet, forcing those who wish to remain anonymous into the depths of TOR browsers and VPN applications. The Slender Man is representative of the NSA, FBI, CIA, CSIS, KGB and other notorious spy agencies operating with little oversight and behind a secretive veil. They are just as faceless as the Slender Man. And just as cryptic. Few understand the significance of their presence. And those who come under its haunting gaze have quite a lot to fear.

More Research

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Folklore is a small branch of the social sciences.  There are few people who work beneath its flag. And fewer of those people study contemporary, digital folklore. However, this does not diminish its importance. Folklore offers us a lens to peer into how everyday people interpret the world through vernacular expression. It is an essential dimension to the surveillance studies canon. An understanding of how people interpret surveillance is essential if we are ever going to take action to educate people about its dangers.

Social Media: Moving beyond the Luddite trope

Social media is neither good nor bad, though this doesn’t mean it’s necessarily neutral as it certainly has the potential to exploit and empower. Nicole Costa’s rendition of her experiences and tribulations with Facebook in her recent article My online obsessions: How social media can be a harmful form of communication were incredibly touching. Her refusal and resistance to appearing and contributing to the Facebook community is empowering. However, I believe it is also misleading. Social media and digital exchange and interaction are here to stay (save for some cataclysmic event that knocks out the electrical infrastructure) and because of this I believe that we need to learn how to engage with it productively and ethically. We need to engage with social media in a way that doesn’t jump straight into a moralizing agenda. By this I mean illustrating social media as the savior of humanity or a dystopian wasteland where people’s communication collapses into self-absorbed decadence.

How do we maneuver this politically charged land mine addled cyberspace? First we need to recognize that a great number (in the billions) of the human race use social media (of all sorts) for many reasons. However, this is far too broad, let’s focus on Facebook. Facebook is among the most popular of social media with over 1.5 billion users and growing. It is built into the very infrastructure of communication in the Western world. If you have a mobile phone, you very likely have Facebook. You might even use Facebook’s messenger service more than your text messaging. Facebook allows us to share information, build social movements, rally people together in all sorts of grassroots wonders. As an activist, I’ve used Facebook to run successful campaigns. Why? Everyone uses it, and because of this, it has the power (if used correctly) to amplify your voice. Facebook, and most social media, can be very empowering.

But hold your horses! Facebook is still terrifyingly exploitative. Their access to your personal and meta data is unprecedented. Furthermore, they actively use the data that you give them to haul in billions of dollars. Issues of big data and capitalism are finally coming to the forefront of academic and popular discussion, but the nature of such complicated structures are still shrouded in obscurity. The user sees the interface on their computer monitor. But Facebook sees electronic data points that represent every aspect of the Facebook user(s) in aggregate. Through elaborate surveillance techniques, these data points are collected, organized, stored, and traded on an opaque big data marketplace. Furthermore, the user is not paid for their (large) contribution to the product being sold. They are exploited for their data and their labour—as everything you do on Facebook is a part of the data that is commodified and sold.

At the same time Facebook (and other prominent social media platforms) allow for an unprecedented freedom and speed of communication. They have been embedded into our everyday ways of socializing with each other. New social media have become an invaluable and ubiquitous social resource that we engage in from the time we wake to the time we sleep. It has been used to organize events, rallies and protests. It is used to keep in touch with distant family and friends.  It is used for romance, hatred, companionship, and debate. Facebook is playful and empowering.

So if you are like me than you may be absolutely confounded on how to resolve the tensions between Facebook (and other social media) being at the same time exploitative and empowering. We have gone too far down the rabbit hole of social media and digital communication to merely refuse to use it. It is now a intimate part of our social infrastructure. Those who resist through refusal may find themselves at multiple disadvantages in how they engage with the world. My own ethnographic research into why users refused Facebook illustrated that those who abandoned Facebook may have felt empowered by overcoming the “addiction” of social media, however, they also felt excluded and alone. And it must be noted that mostly everyone I talked to who had quit Facebook are now using it again. So clearly, refusal to use these services is not enough to meaningfully challenge problematics in social media.

The Luddites historically were textile workers who were opposed to the invasion of machines into their workplace. Machines that they figured would gouge away at their wages. Today, it is a term used for those who refuse to use certain technologies. In the realm of social media, a Luddite resistance has proved to be incredibly ineffective. It is also important to note that this sort of refusal obscures ways of meaningfully resisting mass surveillance and the exploitation of user data.

I propose the complete opposite. I propose the path of knowledge. We need to learn how to maneuver through social media and the Internet in ways that allow us access to anonymity. Ways of asserting our right to anonymity. This is critical. We need to mobilize and teach and learn through workshops. We need to scour the Internet for free resources on the technical perspectives of social media. We need to also spread awareness of this double edged nature of social media. It is no use to take a stance of refusal, to ignore the importance of social media, and thus remain ignorant to how it all works. When we do this, we actually empower these large capitalist corporations to exploit us that much more. The less we know about the calculus of social media and how it works on a level of algorithm, code and protocol, the more able the capitalists are at disguising and hiding exploitation.

Science Fiction, Mixed Media, and Surveillance

For those of us who have been reading science fiction for some time now—it becomes clear that SF has a strange propensity to becoming prophetic. Many of the themes in science fiction classics are now used as overarching metaphors in mainstream surveillance. Most notably among these is: Orwell’s Big Brother, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Kafka’s Trail. Other common tropes we might refer to is Minority Report, Ender’s Game, and Gattaca.

Though I am not trying to claim that these classics aren’t good pieces of SF literature, they may not do a superb job of covering issues implicit in contemporary surveillance. Imagine George Orwell coming to the realization that the Internet is one humungous surveillance machine with the power of mass, dragnet surveillance. Or imagine Huxley’s reaction to the lulling of consumer affect through branding and advertisement. The power of surveillance tools to control and shape large populations has become a prominent and dangerous feature of the 21st century.

As Richard Hoggart says,

“Things can never quite be the same after we have read—really read—a really good book.”

So let’s stop recycling old metaphors (if I read another surveillance book that references Big Brother or the Panopticon I’m going to switch fields). Let’s look at the work of our own generation of writers and storytellers. What I think we might find is a rich stock of knowledge and cultural data that could illuminate some optics into our (post)human relationship with advance technology.

The reason why I am using mixed media, as opposed to focusing on a singular medium, is that I believe that our relationship with media is not limited to one or the other. Novels, movies, video games, graphic novels and YouTube videos all offer us something in terms of storytelling. Part entertainment, part catharsis premised and constructed through the engagement with the story.  Our generation of storytelling has shifted into the realm of mixed media engagement.  What follows are some stories that I think are critically important to understanding the human condition in our own generational context.

P.S. They are in no particular order.

Disclaimer: Though I tried to be cautious not to forfeit any critical plot or character points, be careful for spoilers:

SOMA 

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SOMA is a survival horror video game released by the developers of Amnesia (another terrifying game), Frictional Games. It is a 2015 science fiction story that both frightens you and an imparts an existential crisis as you struggle to find “human” meaning between the fusion of life and machine. After engaging in a neurological experiment, the main protagonist Simon Jarrett, wakes up in an abandoned underwater facility called PATHOS-II. As opposed to people, Jarrett finds himself trapped with the company of both malicious and benevolent robots—some who believe they are human. The interesting overlap with surveillance here is the focus on neurological surveillance. Scientists (in and out of game) transform the biological brain into a series of data points that represent the original. From this, scientists hope to predict or instill behavior. Or in the case of this game, transform human into machine. This is done by literally uploading the data points of the brain in aggregate to a computer. The game instills a constant question: is there any difference between human consciousness and a copy of human consciousness? SOMA is more than just a scary game—it is a philosophical treatise on the post-human illustrated through an interactive story.

Ready Player One

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Ready Player One, is a novel written by Ernest Cline, which covers a wide breath of themes: notably the uneasy relationship between surveillance and anonymity, visibility and hiding. Cline constructs a world that doesn’t seem very far off from our own. A world where people begin to embrace simulation through virtual reality (VR) as environmental disaster plagues the actual world. People hide in the sublime. The VR game, OASIS, a world of many worlds, is the home of many clever pop culture references. Mostly music, video games and movies. With an extra emphasis on science fiction. Embedded in this world of worlds is several “Easter Eggs” (surprises hidden in videogames) that act as a treasure trail to the OSASIS late founder’s fortune and ultimate control over the virtual world. Anonymity is the norm of OASIS—a utopian world where the original, democratic ideal of the Internet is realized. A place where anyone can be anybody—without reference to their actual identity. However, this world is jeopardized as a the corporation Innovative Online Industries is also searching for the Easter Eggs to take over OASIS and remake it to generate capital. The theme of anonymity vs. mass surveillance for profit is arguably a major fuel for global debate as all “places” of the Internet are surveilled in increasingly invasive ways. Anonymity has almost disappeared from the Internet, to be replaced with quasi-public profiles (Facebook and Goggle+) that exist to make billions of dollars off of people’s identities and user-generated content. The original dream of the Internet, sadly has failed.

Nexus

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Nexus is a science fiction novel written by Ramez Naam following characters who are engaged with a new type of “nano-drug” that restructures the human brain so that people can connect mind to mind. There are those who support the drug and those who are against it. This conflict is followed by a slurry of espionage that exposes the characters to incredible dangers. The theme of surveillance in Nexus follows a new fixation on neuroscience. The ability to surveil the very essential, bio-chemical features of the human mind. As well as exposing mind and memory to others participating in this new psychedelic (psychosocial) drug. This is a level of exposure that far supercedes our experiences with the Internet and social media. Imagine being hardwired into a computer network. The book also follows traditional surveillance themes as the main character Kaden Lane becomes entangled in the conflict of private corporations and state government.

The Circle

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Social media in the 21st century has positioned Western society within the context of visibility and exposure. Most people are simultaneously engaged in self-exposure and participatory surveillance—as we post content about our lives and browse and read content about the lives of our friends and family. The Circle by Dave Eggers works this theme through a character, named Mae Holland, who has just been hired by the world’s largest IT company located in a place called the Circle. The Circle is a place, much like a University campus, with literally everything on it. This place boarders utopia—a place where work and play blends. However, following the mantra “All that happens must be known”, social media penetrates the lives of those who exist in the Circle in pervasive and exposing ways. Very quickly, the utopic illusion slips away into dystopia.

Slenderman

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Slenderman was, in its bare skeleton form, introduced to the Internet by Eric Knudson on the (in)famous Something Aweful forum board for a paranormal photo editing contest. However, within a year, Slenderman was sucked into a collective narrative construction across all media platforms. People blogged about it, tweeted about it, YouTubed about it. A massive and ever changing (and unstable) urban legend (or Fakelore) was constructed in the chaos of cyberspace. Slenderman, the paranormal creature, can be described as a tall man with unnaturally long arms and legs (and sometimes tentacles), wearing a black suit, with no face. It is usually depicted as a creature who watches, in other words surveils. It watches from obscure areas, slowly driving its victim to paranoia and insanity. Than the victim disappears, without a trace. Slenderman is the contemporary boogieman. But it also shares a narrative with dangerous, obscure, and mysterious secret police and intelligence agencies. As Snowden revealed to the public, governments, through mass surveillance techniques, watch everyone and everything. Could the slenderman narrative be telling of a deep seeded cultural fear of government surveillance in the 21st century? There are many ways to tap into this story—google blogs, tumblr accounts, and twitter accounts. But also, YouTube series’ like Marble Hornets, EverymanHYBRID, and Tribe Twelve. Also check out the genre called Creepypasta for an extra home brewed thrill.

 

YouTube Red: Google and the double exploitation

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It was recently announced that YouTube, owned and operated by Google, is planning on releasing a paid subscription service. This would entail a prioritizing of services to those who are able to afford it and creating exclusive content for those who are willing to pay. This is all kinds of messed up—but the most nefarious aspect of this is that they are already making money off of you.  Google uses you much like an employee (though unpaid). All of the content you generate, use, or provide “free” to Google, they organize and trade through complicated surveillance systems to swing a profit off of surplus value. This is why services like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are free. They are funded (and make ludicrous profits off of) your personal information.

Reading about Youtube Red prompted me to explore some of Google’s Privacy Policy to understand how Google uses our information to generate a profit. I’d like to note that Google owns a whole lot of Internet applications we tend to use in our everyday life. YouTube is only one of these applications, though a really important one.  These policies are attached to a good many things we do on the Internet.  Though the policies are provided to the user in a way that paints Google as a benevolent partner in your access to good services and relevant advertisements—the truth is that the website profits greatly off the information you provide them. This may seem very obvious—but I think we need to recognize that this definitely changes the face of Google’s intentions. They effectively disguise any exploitative functions of their information use through flowery language. An illustrative example of this is how they cleverly change ‘trading’ information to ‘sharing’ information.  The use of the word ‘sharing’ implies that information is given as a ‘gift’, but it also evokes good feels about Google’s intentions.

An interesting power we grant Google through the Terms of Use is that they have agency over the use of the content we upload, despite saying that we retain ownership of such content. The policy reads:

“When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.”

They use complicated and automated means of surveillance in order to collect, organize, and monetize your data. They also are free to make use of your user-generated content—things you created with your time and effort, though you are not paid for this.  Regardless of how you understand your relationship with Google, you should understand that the relationship is framed in a Capitalistic system. You are a Google piggy bank.

The concept of the cyber prosumer is discussed by many political economists and surveillance theorists. Cohen (2008) introduces the concept of prosumer into her work on surveillance and Facebook. This concept can be used for any Web 2.0 social media application (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.). It is most certainly a part of Google’s political economic structure. Cohen observes, “Business models based on a notion of the consumer as producer have allowed Web 2.0 applications to capitalize on the time spent participating in communicative activity and information sharing” (7). To call a social media user a prosumer is to say that they both produce and consume simultaneously while using Google services. They produce the user-generated content that is then sold to advertisers and used to target advertisements back at the prosumer.

In the process of Google capitalizing off this user-genreated content the prosumer is involved in ‘immaterial labour’. This is a concept devised by Lazzorato (1996) to talk about the informational and cultural aspects of labour exploitation. Though the Internet looked far different in the 90s, his concept has become even more valuable with the advent of social media. Lazzorato (1996) elaborates that immaterial labour is “the labour that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity” (1). He breaks this concept down to two components: informational content and cultural content (ibid 1). Informational content refers to the shift from physical labour to labour organized by computer and digital technology (ibid 1). Cultural content refers to the production of creative and artistic artifacts that were never (and still aren’t) considered in the realm of labour (ibid 1).

This concept is incredibly useful for understanding the role of social media in capitalism—as immaterial labour, often expressed as the realm of fun and social, becomes the unrecognized exploitation of users as corporations utilize their creative potential for capital gain. Bauman and Lyon (2013) express, “The arousing of desires—is thereby written out of the marketing budget and transferred on to the shoulders of prospective consumers” (125). Though it is to be noted that this use of immaterial labour can be said to be a fair trade-off for free use of Google’s services.

The troublesome part of all of this is that if they begin to charge for subscription fees for better services (preferred services) it will take on a doubling effect of exploitation. First, the prosumer engages in immaterial labour through the creation of user-generated content that Google consolidates to produce surplus value from thus generating profit. And then, the prosumer is charged a subscription fee for use. In terms of labour, you will essentially have to pay to provide Google with the fruits of your labour.

What may be even more troubling is if Google is allowed to succeed with the implementation of YouTube Red than it will likely provide incentive for other social media sites, such as Facebook, to do similar things.  This is a conversation we should not take lightly.  Surveillance might have its benefits to society, but when used by social media sites through the capitalist framework, two issues come to mind: exploitation and control.  We need to take a critical stance on this or we might slip down the slippery slope of subscription social media.


Bauman, Zygmunt and David Lyon. 2013. Liquid Surveillance. Cambridge: Polity.

Cohen, Nicole S. 2008. “The Valorization of Surveillance: Towards a Political Economy of Facebook.” Democratic Communique 22(1):5-22.

Lazzarato, M. 1996.  ‘Immaterial Labour.’ Generation Online. Retrieved November 5, 2015 (http://www.generation-online.org/c/fcimmateriallabour3.htm).

The #poliecon of Social Media and Surveillance: They are watching you watch others.

 

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Layered surveillance through mass media. GIF created by Kotutohum. Find their tumblr blog here: http://kotutohum.com/

I suppose I should begin with a (very) brief introduction to the study of political economy (from the novice perspective) and then draw out its many connections to how we exchange and produce (big)data through our use of social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.). As far as the development of poliecon in the social sciences is concerned—we begin with Hegel and Marx/Engels. So prepare your head for a quick review of the history of humanity. Ready? Go!

Hegel developed the philosophical concept of dialectics in history. He idealized history as the production of knowledge (thesis) that was then challenged by another form of knowledge (antithesis) and through conflict and debate formed a new body of knowledge (thesis). Dialectics would continue to cycle like this in a back and forth tension between bodies of knowledge until we reached the pinnacle of all knowledge—the perfect society. The notion of a “perfect society” is very well challenged in our era of academic thought. However, this inspired Karl Marx to (dialectically) approach the development of historical materialist methodology which featured dialectic thought in a more empirical fashion (the development of these thoughts led to a fissure in academic thought between the idealists (Hegelian) and the materialists (Marxist).

Karl Marx grounded his research into the development and history of capital (and capitalism). Through his empirical studies he theorized that the mode of production was the foundation of (just about) everything in society. This was the material base from which the superstructure arises. The superstructure is the heterogeneous masses of ideological thought (politics, law, social relations, etc.). It is from the superstructure, which is coordinated by the mode of production (and some argue, mode of exchange), that we get the (unstable and constantly changing) understanding of value. Furthermore, if the mode of production were to change (as it is certainly done in this case), the superstructure would change, along with the meaning of social relations and formations.  It is from this conception of value, as understood by political economy, that I want to spring from to understand how we exchange (big)data through the use of social media. I will use Facebook as the overarching example, because at this point, we all have an intimate knowledge of Facebook. Also, Facebook owns other social media platforms (such as Instagram). It is certainly the current largest social network site.

In order for the entire architecture (both physically and digitally) of Facebook (and other forms of social media) to exist there needs to be value generated for information (big data). Facebook is a capitalistic enterprise that seeks to generate profit from such information. Because of this, Facebook works to proliferate and expand its user base.  The more Facebook’s user base proliferates, the more data they have to draw from.  I am going to highlight that Facebook achieves all of this through two fundamental forms of surveillance: participatory surveillance and capital surveillance.

First value must be generated. Value is generated for big data through its production and consumption. Before we can understand how value is created we need to talk about the prosumer. In the context of Facebook, the user produces and consumes the user-generated content and metadata that is then used as big data in aggregate. So essentially, producer and consumer are collapsed into the user prosumer (Cohen 2008:7). Value is generated because the fruits of the prosumer—data through biography, interaction, and Internet usage—are sold to advertisers who then feed it back into the system as targeted advertisements. According to Fuchs (2012), the prosumer is packaged, commodified and sold (146).

Fuchs observes,

“Facebook prosumers are double objects of commodification. They are first commodified by corporate platform operators, who sell them to advertising clients, and this results, second, in an intensified exposure to commodity logic. They are permanently exposed to commodity propaganda presented by advertisements while they are online. Most online time is advertisement time” (146).

This is obviously problematic. I think it is also pretty important that we acknowledge that the role of prosumer positions the Facebook user as a free labour commodity. Cohen (2008) asserts, “Web 2.0 models depend on the audience producing the content, thus requiring an approach that can account for the labour involved in the production of 2.0 content, which can be understood as information, social networks, relationships, and affect” (8). In this process of production, Facebook repackages user-generated content and sells the data to generate intense profits (in the billions range). The user prosumer remains unpaid in this exchange. Interestingly enough, through my own work in qualitative research, those who participated in my research believed that use of Facebook’s services qualified as a fair exchange for their data. I think an apt thread of thinking that could resolve these problems, van Djick (2012) observes, “Connectivity is premised on a double logic of empowerment and exploitation” (144). With this noted, I would like to focus on the production, consumption and monetization of user-generated content.

The content produced and consumed by the user prosumer is organized through two layers of surveillance. The first layer of surveillance, is participatory surveillance. Albrechtslund (2008), in trying to address the overwhelming dystopic metaphors implicit in the discourse and study of surveillance, he explains that use of hierarchical models of surveillance (like the big brother and panopticon) obscures important sociological processes that occur through the mediation of social media (8).  Furthermore, it treats users as passive agents, unable to resist the oppressive and repressive forces of the Big Brother.  He attempts to frame surveillance as a mutual, horizontal process that empowers users through the sharing of information and creation of elaborate autobiographies. Albrechtslund elaborates that social media offer, “new ways of constructing identity, meeting friends and colleagues, as well as socializing with strangers” (8). In this understanding of social media, the subject is not a passive agent under the oppressive gaze of big brother, but an active subject pursuing empowerment. Furthermore, Albrechtslund frames user-generated content specifically as sharing, not trading. However, in doing this, he ignores that these social media platforms are constructed, shaped and owned by capitalist corporations seeking profit. This is where the second layer of surveillance becomes important—capital surveillance.

During the process of the user prosumer engaging in participatory surveillance, or in other words producing and consuming user-generated content that they share with others, the capitalist captures that data and repackages it to be sold to advertisers. They do this through complicated algorithmic computer software which than stores the data in a large architecture of computer hardware, optic wires, and servers. The fruits that become available through participatory surveillance are commodified (along with the prosumers) and then traded to produce capital. This layer, the hierarchical and oppressive model of surveillance, organizes and shapes how user prosumers generate content. Thus van Djick’s concept of the double logic of connectivity is realized. What is problematic here is that much of capital surveillance is rendered opaque or invisible to the user—who only sees the participatory aspects and the advertisements (repackaged user-generated content).  Also problematic, is that this entire process is automated–though this note will not be taken up in this article.

It is important to note that participatory surveillance is not typically a capitalist endeavour. Cohen writes, “The labour performed on sites like Facebook is not produced by capitalism in any direct, cause and effect fashion… (it is) simply an answer to the economic needs of capital” (17). So where the user prosumer “shares” their production of user-generated content, the capitalist “trades” it. These are two interconnected, though fundamentally different, processes. We, the user prosumers, don’t often recognized the capital forms of surveillance occurring, because we are so intimately involved in the participatory forms of surveillance. This, I believe, is the root to our apathy about the surveillance issues surrounding social media like Facebook. What needs to be devised next is how we can package these theories in a popular form and export them to those who are shaped by these forms of exploitative commodification. It is the work of social scientists to understand, and then to shape, the world around them.

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Big brother is watching you watch others. GIF created by Kotutohum. Find their tumblr blog here: http://kotutohum.com/

Post-script:

Another lesson we should take from this is that not all surveillance is evil.  We do not live in an inescapable dystopian society.  To say this, we obscure a lot of actual practices of surveillance that are beneficial.  We also render the notion of resistance as a practice in futility.  Surveillance is a neutral phenomenon that is used for better or worse by a plethora of different corporations, governments, non-governmental organizations, activists, and regular everyday people.  But in saying this, we can’t ignore the potential abuse and exploitation that may come from the use of surveillance practices to increase the flow of Capital.


REFERENCES:

Albrechtslund, Anders. 2008. “Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance.” First Monday 13(3). Retrieved Oct 9, 2015 (http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2142/1949).

Cohen, Nicole S. 2008. “The Valorization of Surveillance: Towards a Political Economy of Facebook.” Democratic Communique 22(1):5-22.

van Dijck, José. 2012. “Facebook and the engineering of connectivity: A multi-layered approach to social media platforms.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 19(2):141-155.

Fuchs, Christian. 2012. “The Political Economy of Privacy on Facebook”. Television & New Media 13(2):139-159.

 

Surveillance @ Wayhome Music and Arts Festival: social sorting, capitalism and everyday life

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Festival goers sorted by their bracelets into General Admission and V.I.P

After being apart much of the spring and summer season myself and my friend Rachelle met up in Southern Ontario to on a mission to check out Wayhome Music and Arts Festival in Oro-Medonte. If you have never heard of Wayhome (or similar festivals: Osheaga, Shambala, Bass Coast, etc.), it is a large three-day long music festival on a large strip of farmland just outside of Barrie, Ontario. For some this means a weekend snorting crystals, guzzling beer and dropping M. For others, an ecstatic rhythmic dance experience with thousands of sweaty, scantily clad bodies. For the locals Wayhome was a “misuse of agricultural land and a disturbance”. For us, it was a reunion and a bunch of musical fun. Having gone through the parts of life where dropping copious quantities of drugs was fun and cool, and no longer being prone to getting blackout drunk—we had a brilliant opportunity to observe what we had thought was going to be a colourful hippy dippy experience. However, what we experienced was a far (distant) cry from what our expectations had been. It was nothing like the life changing and spiritually ecstatic festival culture we read about in magazines or experienced over documentaries.

Though it was phenomenal to be able to move our bodies to the live playing Alt-J and Modest Mouse—we fell prey to an overt money-making, capitalist fiasco. Everything was heavily clad in sponsorship and advertisement logos. Even many of the attractions were just public relation campaigns made to hi-jack festival goer’s social media in order expand corporate advertisement reach. A slurry of beer companies, water companies, phone companies and fast food branches had set up booths amid the five main stages. Everything was expensive—especially if it was under the category of a ‘need’. Food damn well set us broke and god forbid you buy a drink from the bar.

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V.I.P Bracelets allowed for access into restricted areas.

Capitalist exploits aside, what caught me as most interesting was the festival’s surveillance infrastructure: RFID bracelets, security check points, cameras (everywhere), and even drones filming the dance pits from above. I need to note here that I am not trying to paint up an illustration of dark, mysterious festival conspiracy theories. Nor am I talking about Big Brother. But I would like to demonstrate just how surveillance is used at Wayhome to socially sort and position festival goers into different socio-economic classes. Being sorted this way—Wayhome uses various strategies to open and close doors of opportunity and shape the very experience of those who are attending and spending large sums of cash to be there. Let’s expose the mundane surveilling structures that comprise the everyday life of festival goers.

According to “The New Transparency“, an interdisciplinary team studying surveillance issues in Canada, we live in a culture that has normalized surveillance—we track, record and analyze just about any data that we can mine or scrape from people’s actions, online identities, and opinions. For better or worse we exist in a time and place that has come to rely on the use of large amounts of personal and interpersonal data. This sort of surveillance has many faces. From the bloated intelligent agencies (NSA) and whistle blowers (Snowden) to street cameras and Facebook. These technologies and strategies of surveillance are so embedded in our everyday life we take them for granted. They are in the realm of common sense. And when something falls into the realm of common sense we are less likely to notice it, let alone look at it with a critical lens.

Using smart phones to snap images and share them on social media such as Instagram or Facebook (with a sweet filter of course) is an example of what sociologist’s call “participatory surveillance“. This sort of surveillance, which may have a whole plethora of social benefits, is something we conduct together physically and digitally. Another form of surveillance, the form that relates to Wayhome, is how people are grouped together and sorted through some form of technological mediation. The technology in this case is the RFID bracelet that everyone at the festival must wear.

These bracelets were little strips of synthetic cloth, with a small RFID chip placed inside, and a locking mechanism so that you can’t take it off your wrist. According to Dr. David Lyon (2007), “These devices (RFID) rely on small tags that may be read wirelessly from a tiny antenna as the tag passes near the sensor” (113). He further elaborates that they perform categorization based on geo-locational data (ibid 113). These bracelets came in many different colours. Each colour represents a social position at the festival. Yellow bracelets were for general admissions—the lowest rung of the social ladder, the proletariat of Wayhome. Red bracelets were for VIP—which just about cost you your left kidney and child’s university savings. This was the bourgeois. There was also a diversity of bracelets for staff, artists, stage crews, media and volunteers. The whole rainbow was covered. Because these bracelets lock when they are put on it freezes any chance of social mobility, in other words, movement between different classes of people. Another important thing to note is that all festival goers were asked to preregister their RFID bracelets to their Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts for social media and security purposes. This linked the physical bracelets to individual, digital information about the festival goer.

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Alt-J light show from the perspective of general admission.

According to Lyons (2007), “playspaces” or places of leisure, such as shopping malls or music festivals, have some of the most intensive surveillance (108). Much of this surveillance categorizes and sorts those who are welcome (those with bracelets) and those who are not (those who sneak in). There is an assemblage of surveillance technologies that are not quite connected, but can be drawn together in various forms to create profiles on individuals and gaze over populations in aggregate. I will write on the assemblage in another future post, but for now, you may want to read The Surveillant Assemblage by Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson. On another note, it would be interesting to know how much data Wayhome mines from the RFID bracelet and Facebook, Twitter, Instagram connections. Likely, it is very profitable for them.

Surveillance is everywhere. Many sociologists our heralding us a surveillance society. It is certainly about time we bring this often hidden aspect of our lives under some critical, public scrutiny. Many of the technologies are still very cryptic and mysterious in their ways of watching, categorizing, and sorting people. But the power for them to mediate our life choices is vast. From music festivals to social media to surfing the web and walking the streets. We are always watched and watching.

Kyle Curlew (@curlewKJ)


 

Related Topics:

The New Transparency – Interdisciplinary report on surveillance issues and trends in Canada – http://www.sscqueens.org/projects/the-new-transparency/about

The Surveillance Studies Center – Interdisciplinary center for studies of surveillance at Queen’s University – http://www.sscqueens.org/ The Varsity – Festival report card:

WayHome – critique of Wayhome written by a critic at The Varsity newspaper – http://thevarsity.ca/2015/08/06/festival-report-card-wayhome/


Sources:

Bennett, Colin J., Kevin D. Haggerty, David Lyon, and Valerie Steeves, eds. Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada. Au Press: Athabasca University, 2014.  Web. 24 Aug. 2015.

Haggerty D., Kevin and Richard V. Ericson. “The Surveillant Assemblage.” British Journal of Sociology. 51.4 (2000): 605-622. Web.  2 Oct. 2015

Lyon, David. Surveillance Studies: An Overview. Polity Press: Cambridge, 2007. Print.

 

Participatory Surveillance: A critique of our focus on big brother

One common misconception of surveillance studies is that by and large those who engage with this academic field study humongous and dangerous macro scale conspiracies and hierarchy based surveillance.  Indeed, this is a sentiment I fell into until I became more familiar with the field (and subsequently fell deeply in love with the literature).  Just the same, state and corporate surveillance is a major topic and theme in sociology—however, there is also a focus on the mundane.

In a folklore methods course I took in my undergraduate—the professor, Dr. John Bodner, lectured that common sense is a dangerous rhetoric.  Common sense embodies the mundane.  The mundane everyday things that we take for granted.  This could be the various privileges we do or don’t enjoy.  The shade of our gender.  The colour of our skin.  The tones of our voices and pronunciations.  All of these common sense social things are vastly complicated and have real consequences on our life choices.  Common sense is in fact a complex sense.  Because this common sense is embedded in our social relations—it is of direct relevance to a sociologist.  The mundane is actually quite interesting and when engaged through sociological methodology, we can learn an awful lot about human nature (and as relevant to this post, technology).

Surveillance as a value neutral activity is very much embedded in our everyday life.  A very capturing report by The New Transparency titled Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada offers an overview of how surveillance is embedded in the everyday lives of Canadians.  This report is written in a capturing way that is accessible to those who are not familiar with heavy and dense academic jargon.  We are surveiled by our digital technology for marketing and national security.  But we also engage in surveiling each other through the use of social media.  An example of this is when you “creep” or engaging in browsing a friends (or strangers) photos and status updates.  Anyone with a social media connection (Facebook, Instagram or Twitter and many others) engages in this activity.

The point I really want to touch on is that surveillance isn’t always terrible, scary, invasive and big brother(ish).  However, I am not proposing the opposite either.  Surveillance is not inherently good or useful.  Surveillance does not necessarily translate into safety.  One of my favorite sociologists, José van Dijck (2012), maintains that, “connectivity is premised on a double logic of empowerment and exploitation” (144).  I’d like to approach this topic with a curious excitement, as well as caution.  Though we may use communication technology and social media in empowering ways—the Internet is run by powerful corporations who are mandated to swing (large) profits.

I would like to talk about one interesting piece of literature in particular—Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance written by Anders Albrechtslund.  It is an informative and fun read that sets out to address some of the more conspiracy driven surveillance theories.  It can be found here for free published by First Monday.  Albrechtslund, among other things, addresses the dystopian discourse of surveillance.  So what is ‘participatory surveillance’?  According to Albrechtslund, “The practice of online social networking can be seen as empowering, as it is a way to voluntarily engage with other people and construct identities, and it can thus be described as participatory”.  Rather than surveillance in its original dystopic conception as destroying and rendering the subject as powerless and watched over, Albrechtslund suggests that surveillance in social media sites actually produces subjectivity (identity and community) and empowers users in a social realm that flattens (gets rid of) power relations.  In other words, surveillance is not the work of Big Brother, but the interactions of people, strangers and friends, in producing and sharing content online.

In a short and sweet summary of Albrechslund’s conception of participatory surveillance—it galvanizes the user to participate in the construction of identity, through identity construction it empowers the user to grow as a human being, and allows a sense of interactive community through the sharing of user-generated content.  We construct our identities through the use of user-generated content (posting photos, updating statuses and writing autobiographies), we engage in watching and surveiling other user’s content through our feeds or the act of ‘creeping’ while at the same time other users are engaged in surveiling us.  And finally, we are building an information economy of shared content.  All of this occurs through a horizontal power dynamic where instead of surveillance being situated in some state or corporate center—it is spread out in a complex collection of networks that are comprised of us.

I’d like to end this blog post with a thought about human nature (likely a thought that will charge the topic covered in my next post).  Engaging in participatory surveillance and social networking sites are inherently ‘anarchistic’ interactions.  I would like to proceed with caution with this word ‘anarchy’ as it is incredibly media saturated by negative latent meaning.   By anarchistic I mean that the sharing of user-generated content occurs outside of the normalized capitalist ontology of profit (we only do things to make more cash).    Think of all of those interest groups on Facebook where people share ideas with strangers and volunteer there time to generate content for free.  The Internet offers us so many great examples of human nature as inherently cooperative, and not strictly competitive.  Just a thought, but perhaps the Internet provides us with the context to shape human nature itself.


 

Sources:

Albrechtslund, Anders. “Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance.” First Monday 13.3 (2008). Web. 24 Aug. 2015.

Bennett, Colin J., Kevin D. Haggerty, David Lyon, and Valerie Steeves, eds. Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada. Au Press: Athabasca University, 2014.  Web. 24 Aug. 2015.

van Dijck, José. “Facebook and the engineering of connectivity: A multi-layered approach to social media platforms.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 19.2 (2012): 141-155. Web. 24 Aug. 2015.