Among critics of technological surveillance, there are two allusions so commonplace they have crossed into the realm of cliché. One, as you have probably already guessed, is George Orwell’s Big Brother, from 1984. The other is Michel Foucault’s panopticon – a vision, adapted from Jeremy Bentham, of a prison in which captives cannot tell if or when they are being watched.
Today, both of these touchstones are considered chillingly prophetic. But in Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age, Bernard Harcourt has another suggestion: Both of them are insufficient.
1984, Harcourt acknowledges, was an astoundingly farsighted text, but Orwell failed to anticipate the role pleasure would come to play in our culture of surveillance – specifically, the way it could be harnessed, as opposed to suppressed, by powerful interests.
Oceania’s “Hate Week” is nowhere to be found; instead, we live in a world of likes, favourites, and friending. Foucault’s panopticon, in turn, needs a similar update; mass incarceration aside, the panopticon – for the rest of us – has become participatory, more of an amusement park or shopping mall than a penal institution. Rather than being coerced to reveal secrets, today we seem to enjoy self-exposure, giving away “our most intimate information and whereabouts so willingly and passionately – so voluntarily”.
Exposed is a welcome addition to the current spate of books about technology and surveillance. While it covers familiar ground – it opens with brief accounts of Facebook’s methods of tracking users, USAID’s establishment of ZunZuneo (a Twitter-like social network) in Cuba, and Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s PRISM programme – Harcourt’s contribution is uniquely indebted to critical theory.
Riffing on the work of another French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, and his evocative 1992 fragment “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” Harcourt settles upon the phrase ‘Expository Society’ to describe our current situation, one in which we “have become dulled to the perils of digital transparence” and enamoured of exposure. This new form of expository power, Harcourt explains, “embeds punitive transparence into our hedonist indulgences and inserts the power to punish in our daily pleasures”.
The expository society has been long in the making. Its roots are in ancient Greece and Rome, where the “age of the spectacle” commenced and began its evolution. It is worth quoting Harcourt’s summary of this history at length:
To render something public was expensive, and so the ancients would gather together, amass themselves to watch, to share, to partake in a public act of entertainment. There was no replay button, nor were there any video feeds and no mechanical arts of reproduction.
The modern era of surveillance, on the other hand, gave proof of the cost of security. To render secure was expensive, and so the moderns discovered ways to surveil more efficiently, to see everyone from a single gaze, to turn the arena inside out, to imagine the panopticon. In the digital age today, publicity has become virtually costless and surveillance practically free of charge.
And yet, while spectacles and surveillance may be “costless” and “practically free,” the expository society is fundamentally about profit. On the corporate side, the business models of companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Uber, and Amazon are based on the principle of user enjoyment. Social media, we all know from experience, is addictive; our pleasure is habit-forming by design.
This is the first crux of Harcourt’s argument: The expository society exploits, rather than represses, our desires. The second crux is his observation that government and commercial surveillance infrastructures have wholly merged.