In this lecture, I will introduce the concept of ‘control society.’ We will examine the management of surveillance and privacy in contemporary time and space. In the end, I’ll ask if we can imagine a ‘New Weapon’ by subverting the mechanisms of surveillance.
You may be familiar with Michel Foucault’s critique of the panopticon, a structure where an all-seeing eye gazes at the subjects. There, the subjects cannot know if and when they are being watched.1 They internalize the surveillance and discipline. This architectural manifestation of surveillance became the predominant forms of prisons from the early nineteenth-century onward. Take, for example, Millbank Prison in London, a place that held prisoners before they were sent abroad. We can see from the floor plans that panopticons like these were not simply an architectural plan to maximize surveillance, but also a political statement for the sovereign. They were an instruction for the sovereign to exert its power and command subjects to become disciplined.
Foucault found the same disciplinary mechanisms in schools, factories, hospitals and armies. In these spaces, there were clear distinctions between things you could do and things you couldn’t do, and if you did the wrong thing, you’d get punished. But there were gaps between these spaces of discipline, unregulated and unorganized areas where ‘everyday life’ could take place. Imagine a Parisian cafe in the early 20th century, where creative writers would come and discuss the politics.2 There’s a romantic notion that authentic human relationships could flourish in these spaces that escaped regulation, spaces free from the confinement of rules.
However, contemporary society lacks such zones for free association as public spaces are turned into privately owned ones (i.e. community spaces being carefully converted into shopping malls) and mechanisms of surveillance proliferate. It’s not just that surveillance cameras are everywhere and workplaces are synchronized through high-speed internet, but our friends constantly and instantly share via devices their whereabouts and images as status updates on the social network. Is this a multiplication of surveillance?
It maybe no coincidence that about hundred years after the Millbank Prison, the spatial mechanics of panopticon were employed by the U.S government in the construction of the Pentagon in 1941. The Pentagon’s architectural design is basically a recursive panopticon. Its design reflects different layers of surveillance in tightly knit systems. In this myriad of panopticons, we find the core mechanics for the present day – a society of control.
Gilles Deleuze offers his take on underlying contemporary mechanisms of public and private spaces in “Postscript on the Society of Control.”3 It is a special text that reads like an unassuming Anti-Manifesto for the Digital era. First, in his analysis, he associates late 19th-century capitalism with the disciplinary society just mentioned, which manifested in spaces such as schools, factories and prisons. To convey the character of a disciplinary society, Deleuze finds a metaphor in the mole, a small earthbound animal that makes mazes underground. The mole’s environment represents traditional capitalism, a hierarchical structure in which the mole builds its centralized dwelling. This hierarchy is presided over by a patriarchal figure who manages the distribution of labor among the workforce. The distinction between the oppressor and the oppressed is clear in disciplinary society because they occupy different spaces and functions.
Deleuze contrasts disciplinary society with ‘control society,’ associated with the 20th-century capitalism. He uses another metaphor, the serpent, or snake, to convey the systemic conditions that produce the self-contradicting bodies in a highly industrialized society. The serpent moves smoothly between the terrains, both above and underground. This movement represents free-flowing control mechanisms that operate both in and outside of traditionally defined capitalist spaces. With these metaphors, Deleuze encourages us to pay attention to the changing forms of power from discipline to control as we move from analog to digital, module to modulation, and from the barracks of a prison to stacks of code. As Deleuze remarks in “Postscript”:
The numerical language of control is made of codes that mark access to information, or reject it.4
Code, here, means both computer programming languages and passwords. Code is the language and rules of a control society. How exactly does code become a form of power in a ‘society of control’? Alexander Galloway offers insight about the word ‘control,’ a term whose subtle meaning can easily be lost in translation:
Recall that the French contrôle carries stresses in meaning that are slightly different from the English control. Contrôle means control as in the power to influence people and things, but it also refers to the actual administration of control via particular monitoring apparatuses such as train turnstiles, border crossings, and checkpoints. The notion, in English, of having to pass through "passport control" gets at the deeper meaning of the word. So when Deleuze talks about les societes de contrôle he means those kinds of societies, or alternately those localized places within the social totality, where mobility is fostered inside certain strictures of motion, where openings appear rather than disappear, where subjects (or for that matter objects) are liberated as long as they adhere to a variety of prescribed comportments.5
The security screening and passport control in airports are key rituals in our ‘society of control.’ The same mechanism of control is at play whenever the movement of bodies is managed such that they can circulate but only in a circumscribed way. It’s not surprising Deleuze mentions the highway as another metaphor for control society. Highways, especially in popular culture with films like Easy Rider(1969), give the impression that one has the ability to go anywhere and decide where they want to be in the world. In reality, highways multiply the forms of control via policing, speed limits and checkpoints at every entrance and exit. Even in the rest areas where one can consume food and gas, credit card purchases are reported to financial institutions in real time. In a society of control, it’s unclear where the monitoring begins and ends as one’s complicity in systems of real-time tracking is built into the infrastructure. The term ‘control’ hints that Deleuze might have been inspired by William S. Burroughs 6 as well as cybernetics, the study of self-regulating systems sustained by a series of feedback loops. Cyberneticians, such as Nobert Wiener, found such self-regulating systems in machines, animals and humans alike.
We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become “dividuals,” and masses, samples, data, markets, or “banks.”7
What is meant by ‘dividuals’? While individuals are separate from each other, they are coherent entities unto themselves; ‘dividuals,’ on the other hand, are not only separate from others but also divided within themselves, split by the desire to oppress and the desire to resist. In the total surveilling environment, the question of “who is exploiting who?” cannot be answered easily, further promoting conflicting desires for exploitation and comradery. In the emptiness created by this division of self, in the ensuing emotional gap, companies take over.
Deleuze says corporations are like a gas and that companies have a soul. Consider the fact that many people anthropomorphize corporations – “Ask Google about something” or “We are Facebook friends” – or equate status updates with presence. Furthermore, technologies in societies of control promise extreme personalization. Machine interfaces, operating systems and content are designed to maximize individual addiction to communication. We communicate constantly and reside in a feedback loop comprised of likes, retweets and comment threads. We live for an ecstasy of communication. We dream of a seamless connectivity.
The continuousness of instant communications is integral to control society. Meanwhile, social networks produce profit by monetizing our attention span and emphatically blurring the boundary between work and leisure. These features are often experienced as convenience and pleasure, but there is a dark side to this. Let’s consider other ways we as individuals, or rather, as ‘dividuals,’ are impacted, managed and monitored by control society. First, let’s look at the idea of privacy. I'd like to give you about 5 minutes to think and write your definition of privacy.
Taeyoon: Can we define privacy in our own words?
Student 1: For me I think the most important thing about privacy is that it functions as this kind of insulation from social norms that may be reactionary. So maybe you have some behaviors, and there’s nothing wrong with them, but people in society would consider them wrong for whatever reason. So privacy kind of allows for this bubble to act out those behaviors and be yourself in that sense. I see that as being important along two axes of development. It’s important for your own personal development, insofar as it gives you space to make mistakes without anybody holding you to them. It also affords you the space to develop ideas and practices that may be against the social norm but later might become the social norm. So you need this space insulated from judgement or control.
Student 2: I kind of say that exact same thing, but in three words. Those being personhood, boundaries, and seclusion. Essentially you have the ability to be something as a person, be yourself. The boundaries are between you and everything else in reality.
Student 3: I would like to add that there is a sense of control, because you are the rightful owner of whatever it is that you are doing or exploring and you are the only person who can then allow people into that world you’ve created for yourself. So there is a choice. It’s not just that you can have a secret, but that you can choose to keep something.
Francis Tseng(Special guest)8: Privacy for me is opacity, distance, reserve, attachment, the right not to be defined as a person via social networks; not being defined by your physical tastes or things you watch, this is privacy as well…
Student 5: Maybe privacy in the sense of what Francis is talking about, that it is a productive kind of thing. Privacy can be used to dig deep into seclusion, but privacy can be a creative thing that allows one the space to grow.
Student 3: I think we can also talk about how when you invoke privacy, that would be an intimate or vulnerable situation.
Taeyoon: I think of privacy as a human right more than anything else.
Francis: Then you have doctors in medicine, about how patients have the right to privacy. There is professional privacy that has to do with conduct.
Taeyoon: How about the privacy of families? For me, privacy comes down to the question of intimacy. What’s the role of technology in intimate relationship? How pervasive is technology in our daily life? And how do these technologies facilitate and enable the intimacies in our personal lives? Can we can have both intimacy and privacy, or do certain modes of communication (social media, smart phone messaging) risk forgoing privacy?
1Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Random House, 1975).
3Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59 (1992): 3-7.
4Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control.”
5Alexander R Galloway, Laruelle: Against the Digital (United States: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 106
6 William S. Burroughs, The Limits of Control, Semiotext(e): Schizo-Culture, vol. III, no. 2, 1978, pp. 38-42