Category Archives: social sorting

Oligoptica: Why Surveillance Isn’t Perfect?

We have all likely heard of the panopticon. An architectural design of a prison, thought up by Jeremy Bentham, that was suppose to maximize surveillance capacities so that prisoners always felt as if they were being watched. Even when they weren’t. It consisted of prisons revolving around a central guard tower that could watch every move of every prisoner, all the time. However, the guard tower is made to be opaque—so the prisoners can’t watch the guards.

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In 1975, Foucault borrowed this idea to illustrate his concept of disciplinary power in one of his most famous books—Discipline and Punish. The basic idea around Foucault’s use of the panopticon is that when people feel as if they are constantly being watched, they begin to self-discipline. The panopticon can refer to a prison. But it is meant to refer to society in general. Or many of the institutions in a society. The more people feel that they are being watched, the better they act. This watching could be through authorities, or even, your neighbors.

Though Foucault’s concept of disciplinary power is super important to many who study sociological theory—his example of the panopticon is overused and often misleading. It does not accurately represent the nature of surveillance in contemporary society.

The idea of the panopticon better characterizes a society of “total surveillance”. A completely, balls-to-the-walls, 1984, Big Brother-type (dys)utopia. Thankfully, there is currently no technology on earth that can allow for total surveillance.  We may be a society of ubiquitous surveillance, but not a society of total surveillance.

So how do we “move beyond the panopticon”, as so many social and cultural theorists have been calling for? There is one useful theoretical framework that builds on Foucault’s work. This is the concept of the oliopticon. A concept that was proposed by Bruno Latour during his incredibly critical arguments of Reassembling the Social.

Latour criticizes Foucault for drawing up a total surveillance “utopia” that is made of “total paranoia and total megalomania”.

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He writes,

“We, however, are not looking for utopia but for places on earth that are fully assignable. Oligoptica are just those sites since they do exactly the opposite of panoptica: they see much too little to feed the megalomania of the inspector or the paranoia of the inspected, but what they see, they see well…”

 

Latour is staunchly reminding us that something that is everything is nothing at all. The panopticon is made to be too perfect. It is made to see all. It’s something, that as academics, we can’t possibly empirically record or understand. But the oligopticon is the existence of countless scopes meant for watching. Countless surveillance devices. They only see everything together, but because they rarely communicate it could hardly be called “total surveillance”.

Latour continues,

“From oligoptica, sturdy but extremely narrow views of the (connected) whole are made possible—as long as connections hold. Nothing it seems can threaten the absolutist gaze of the panoptica, and this is why they are loved so much by the sociologist who dream to occupy the center of Bentham’s prison: the tiniest bug can blind oligoptica”.

However, this does not entirely rule out the panopticon. As Kitchin and Dodge in their book Code/Space assert, the power of codes and algorithms may some day be able to unite many of the streams of the oligoptica to create a menacing panoptic machine. However, due to the unstable nature of the practice of scripting code, running code, and working hardware—it is liable to bugs, errors, and absolute mutiny. So don’t hold your breath.

The panopticon, for now, has its place—but it’s a more appropriate theme for a science fiction novel than a good work of social science or philosophy. It serves as a powerful reminder of where a ubiquitous surveillance society could lead us, but not as a very good characterization of surveillance today.

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Affinity and Algorithm: A sociological review of Robert Charles Wilson’s The Affinities

Preface: Read the book first 😉

The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson is a science/speculative fiction about a man named John Fisk, whom gets caught up in the whirlwind of a new, emerging social order.

The affinities, a group of 22 technologically and scientifically engineered social groups, were created by a man named Dr. Meir Klein, a social psychologist whom discovered the ‘socionome’ through a fictional scientific field call ‘teleodynamics’.

Klein names twenty two affinity groups, and they are all reserved only for those who are preselected to belong to such groups through rigorous psycho-socio-technical testing.

A collection of neurological, psychological, and sociological data are collected from social actors and entered into a computer program that has an advance algorithm that sorts patients into different affinity groups that are based on essential qualities of the individual that the actor has no control over.

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John Fisk is chosen for Tau—one of the largest affinities.

Just as a precursor to this review: Wilson has embedded so many layers of academic and creative work into this novel.  I am only able to focus on a particular dimension—algorithmically engineered social groups.

Once a person joins an affinity, they get drawn in by some psycho-social force that creates bonds stronger than family and a fierce loyalty akin to wolves.

The book begins, following John who is suffering some sort of ambient existential crisis. This character does not belong to his family, his school, nor to his friendships. He is lacking an essential quality that most humans long for: belongingness.

Once he joins Tau and attends his first meeting, he is immediately hurled into a cult like loving embrace with the other Tau members. A sense of belonging emerges so strong that I felt myself becoming overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia for something I’ve never experienced.

Here is the central problem: How do you engineer social relationships to address one of the most prevalent symptoms of late-modernity—loneliness and anomie.

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Wilson’s story explores the power of computer algorithms and social technology to augment and engineer human interaction. Such social engineering has the potential to create a perfect group dynamic powerful enough to accomplish anything. Including bringing about a sense of purpose that dissolves the problem of social anomie.

Though ‘teleodynamics’ and the ‘socionome’ are works of fiction, such algorithms already play such a large role in our lives.

These are the algorithms that organize and structure how we use most social media applications. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tinder utilize complex algorithms that mediate, and sometimes exert control, over our interactions with each other.

This phenomenon is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere, and it’s usually disguised, and made invisibile, in complicated electronic devices.

It’s easy to get bedazzled by the spectacle of affinity groups. The beginning of the story leads us to follow lonely John Fisk get carried away by the social bonds created in Tau. He is no longer lonely. He has found a sense of belongingness that his broken family was unable to give him.

However, as the story progresses we get to see snippets of a dystopia burning away at the overall spectacle. Not everyone can get into an Affinity. After testing, many are turned away as their psycho-social profiles do not match any of the 22 affinity groups.

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They are rendered outsiders. In a move that is reminiscent of eugenics—these outsiders are put into a seriously disadvantaged position as affinity groups ignore their concerns.

Twenty two utopias are formed and they close the door on anyone who doesn’t belong. Furthermore, the hyper-loyalty begins to make pan-affinity tensions as affinity groups begin to push against each other for supremacy.

We are left with a sense of anomie and a lack of belongingness. The very issue that the Affinity groups, constructed by Klein, were supposed to elevate.

There are many layers of inter-personal and inter-group conflict that emerge out of these tensions. The affinities are battling secret battles against each other, not so different from gangs; the politicians of the state oppose the fiery emergence of affinity based governance; and those who don’t belong are asserting their right to belong.

The affinities change everything from the most micro social interactions to the most macro global politics.

However, once this new form of algorithmically engineered social groups take root in the social and economic infrastructures—they are here to stay. Everything is different. Eventually the technology for testing people for affinity groups becomes affordable and public.

Coders and social scientists begin to experiment on alternative affinities. Or at the very least, innovative ways of using algorithms to structure relationships. And of course, like everything on the Internet—an open source version emerges to deal with all those who don’t belong. Everyone left behind.

This project is led by an organization called New Socionome. A decentralized and open-sourced activist group trying to create access to affinities for everyone.

In the end, the social landscape is changed for good and it is uncertain what the future will look like. This book is a useful tool and a powerful story that engages with the developing tensions surrounding emerging algorithmic relationships that are silently shaping the lives of millions.

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Wilson’s work also explores the existential issues of belongingness in a society where family bonds are becoming fractured and falling into a state of anomie. This existential angst that can be elevated with technological assistance. Though he is careful to portray that such assistance is not a perfect, utopic solution.

Science and speculative fiction have an immense power to explore issues between humans and technology. The Affinities does a great job at this. Oftentimes, algorithms are silent mediators of our communication. So silent, that no one seems to notice their prevalence. It’s stories like this that draw attention to a problem that has existed for over a decade.

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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.