In the ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, philosopher Gilles Deleuze recognises an apparatus of control that penetrates society, moving forward from the societies of discipline coined by Michel Foucault. Foucault said that the individual passes from one enclosed environment to another, each having its own laws: first the family; then the school; then the barracks; then the factory; from time to time the hospital; and possibly the prison. However, as per Deleuze, previous disciplinary models are undergoing a critical transformation. The control of individuals is no longer limited to confined spaces such as prisons, factories, schools or hospitals, but rather permeates into other common social spaces, functioning as an invasive form of surveillance achieved through the use of sophisticated technologies.
It is more than evident that we are currently living in such a society of control. The signs are all around us. From traditional CCTV cameras, biometric scanning to even smart cards used for public transportation. These methods are so prevalent that we often accept them as a necessity for the way in which our collective society functions. Deleuze mentions that such surveillance mechanisms are never perceived to be controlling but rather exercises of our own freedom.
On the state front, no other country has yet reached the magnitude of surveillance scrutiny the way China has implemented along with its home bred corporations. Social credit score systems working in tandem with facial recognition cameras have become an integral part in the way citizens shop, travel, borrow and even make friends.
Similarly, the scholar Shoshana Zuboff, in her book ‘Surveillance Capitalism’, describes silicon valley giants such as Facebook and Google offering their services to billions of people without charging a fee. Instead, users pay for their services by providing intimate personal data. Tech corporations use this data to analyse, segregate and make predictions about a user’s interests, personality and finally behaviour. They then proceed to bombard us with tailored advertisements, and sinisterly even nudge our behaviour to finally achieve profitable outcomes for their companies. The insights in the book provide an explicit account of what former CEO of Google Eric Schmidt meant when he famously quoted “We know where you are, we know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about”. While the initial beneficiaries of this data were advertisers, governments soon noticed the massive data surpluses these companies possessed and have at multiple occasions made attempts to obtain this information
Little by little, we are seeing the development of a far reaching mode of surveillance and ordinance that creates a world in which personal privacy is almost non-existent with information about our whereabouts, purchases, interactions and behaviour endlessly being collected by corporations and/or governments. It should be noted that silicon valley has attained a degree of data collection from their billions of users that would not have been acceptable for democratic governments to do so directly.
Or would it?
From the start of the year, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down for a lot of people. Across the globe, public health departments are striving to curtail the spread of the virus. Ranging from the usage of drones to contact tracing apps and big data analyses, government agencies are employing several technologies to monitor and control the current situation as it progresses. As you might notice in the examples below, some of these measures lay on the grey area between what is considered ethical and an intrusion into personal privacy, while some others outrightly violate individual freedom and privacy. However, they are still being undertaken in the name of a public health crisis.
In China, health apps are playing an important factor in the government’s race to eliminate a second wave of coronavirus infections. In addition to conventional precautions, citizens are required to scan QR codes before boarding a bus, train, flight and often even to enter their own apartment complexes. Authorities are able to assess a person’s level of risk based on the different colours on the app. To track movements in some cases, the government has even installed CCTV cameras inside houses. The Government of India has launched a smartphone app called AarogyaSetu and has made it mandatory for public and private workers to install. In Hong Kong, new arrivals are required to wear a tracking bracelet. Israel has mobilised its intelligence service, Shin Bet and has teamed up with the controversial cyber surveillance firm NSO Group to track people who may be infected. In South Korea, officials rummage through everything from credit card records to taxi receipts in order to track those infected. We see multiple countries implement invasive surveillance methods to track and curtail the spread of the virus. Even countries in the European Union, known for their moral high ground on personal data protection have been pondering over the possibility of employing such measures. On the private sector front, Google and Apple have jointly created an application program interface (API) that most experts say protects privacy, but face ongoing criticism for falling short on its proposed effectiveness to curtail the spread of the virus.
Like the pandemic itself, the societal implications and political challenges posed by these global transformations are unprecedented to say the least. The data driven surveillance operations mentioned above have unfolded in the midst of a heated debate on the trade-offs between individual autonomy and collective well-being. During the crisis, rapid innovation seems to have surpassed regulation in explaining for increased surveillance measures. A joint letter from close to 300 academics have stressed on the importance to protect user privacy while developing contact tracing apps.
What we see unfolding here is a normalisation of the state of exception. Governments in authoritarian, semi-authoritarian as well as so called liberal democracies are functioning in an increasingly extra-judicial manner, where the state of exception is turning into the presiding pattern of politics today. In addition to developing surveillance measures without an expiration date, it will be tempting for states to procure the immense reserve of data that big tech has accumulated and to establish that ultimate state control is the solution. The historian Yuval Noah Harari goes on to further elucidate on the implications of such a data dictatorship in this timely article. Ultimate state control is especially frightening given the dominance of far-right ideologies and increased authoritarianism in the political mainstream nowadays. The ongoing pandemic has accelerated pre-existing trends such as border closures and nationalism while the more serious long term effects are yet to be seen.
Tech companies possess a set of trade-offs in such a situation: tools and data offered to one country must be offered to all countries unless they wish to discriminate and face potential risks by increased regulation and perhaps even a total ban. This post by Google’s former Head of International Relations provides an account of some of the questionable acts committed by the tech giant. The only admissible form of freedom in modern neo-liberal societies today seems to be the narrow consumerist freedom of the market, which is also constantly being tweaked to favour a small percentage of the population. Thus it is imperative that our understanding of the society of control should not be limited to traditional forms of surveillance but rather include the whole spectrum of modern tools and control measures we see today.
Deleuze tells us that “there is no need to fear or to hope for the best, simply to look for new weapons”. New weapons could come in the form of knowledge and activism around it. Understanding the logic of control and creating new models of resistance. A new collective mechanism that puts people first. While this requires a pluralistic long-term strategy, the most promising short-term solution in light of the ongoing crisis would be for the public and civil society to continuously hold governments accountable on how our data is being collected, used and for what purposes. This is especially important for states without existing data protection laws. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has provided some key points to help with this endeavour.
As postmodernist philosophers such as Foucault and Deleuze have tracked the evolution of societies, from sovereign to disciplinary to control, what does the next evolution hold? While a precise answer is not possible at this time, the Covid-19 pandemic presents us with a turning point with regard to the functioning of global surveillance mechanisms. A much needed time to rethink the subsequent direction in which our society moves.