Surveillance: Virtual Identity and the Control Society

What is more real in this age of late capitalism: your physical presence or the data double of your virtual identity inscribed into the global networks of our information control society? One scholar, David Lyon, and the philosopher of society, Zygmunt Bauman, tell us that in this age of liquid surveillance our information is a proxy for the person, and in the legal sense is made up of ‘personal data’ only in the sense that it originated with a person’s body and may affect their life chances and choices. The piecemeal data double tends to be trusted more than the person, who prefers to tell their own tale.1

That you have become unreal and a sort of supplementary appendage of your own virtual traces inscribed within these systems may seem on first thought utterly absurd, but for the world of border patrols, airport canvases and screenings, DNA and medical imaging profiles, and instant videos that watch the open markets of our major cities nonstop 24/7 we are mere blips of data to be mined, analyzed and controlled. These systems of surveillance are continuously monitoring, tracking, tracing, sorting, checking and systematically watching our movements through this liquid maze of the global world. There is also the ever present threat that this information could be stolen, tampered with, hijacked by information pirates and manipulated for nefarious ends is a part of the risk society we’ve not only created but have unconsciously begun to conform to its logistical rules of movement (Virilio).

Even now there are those that may wake up today and find that their lives have changed forever, that they have become untouchables sought out by the authorities as criminals; or, that they have been stripped of their livelihood, safety, bank accounts. The thought that our ‘identities’ are connected more to our data than our actual real bodily presence is part of the present horror of our own liquid society and culture. We ourselves have become liquid bits of data dispersed among the lightfolds of an electronic ocean that continuously monitors our data rather than in the old Panoptic world, our bodies. Our bodies no longer count in this new world of liquid selves except as the end point of a legal systems final justice.

As Lyon reminds us it is easy to read the spread of surveillance as a technological phenomenon or as one that simply speaks of ‘social control’ and ‘Big Brother’. But this puts all the stress on tools and tyrants and ignores the spirit that animates surveillance, the ideologies that drive it forward, the events that give it its chance and the ordinary people who comply with it , question it or who decide that if they can’t beat it, they’ll join the game.(Kindle Locations 152-155). In a world of barcodes and RFID tags we discover that its no longer just about classifying and selling products, but also to finding out exactly where they are at any given moment within a just-in-time management regime. This goes for that last viable commodity the human person as well. We have all become commoditized, digitized packages bound to a temporal regime of control and management that is for the most part invisible to even our political and social fields of reference. We are blind to its power over our lives because we are immersed in this new environment like fish in the sea.

Bauman tells us that the world that Foucault studied in his conception of the ‘Panopticon’ after Benthem spoke of the prisoners as creatures who ‘could not move because they were all under watch; they had to stick to their appointed places at all times because they did not know, and had no way of knowing, where at the moment the watchers – free to move at will – were’. But in our time the opposite is true we live in the age of speed in Paul Virilio’s sense we are always living under the sign of emergency in which the “violence of speed has become both the location and the law, the world’s destiny and its destination” (167).2 As the details of our daily lives become more transparent to the organizations surveilling us, their own activities become less and less easy to discern. As power moves with the speed of electronic signals in the fluidity of liquid modernity, transparency is simultaneously increased for some and decreased for others (Kindle Locations 204-206).

One concept introduced is social sorting which is as always a part of the global control systems way of filtering and excluding in a sort of transparent virtual ethnic cleansing. More and more minorities both in racial and religious sense are screened and excluded from free movement in this global system. As one scholar Oscar Gandy puts it social sorting achieved by contemporary consumer surveillance constructs a world of ‘cumulative disadvantage’.3

If you haven’t read this new little work Liquid Surveillance: A Conversation between Lyon and Bauman its well worth the effort. I spend Monday’s on my continued tracing of the Control Society which Deleuze/Guattari spoke of in their late essay. Bauman believes we live in a post-panoptic society of control and buys into aspects of Focault’s reading but adds his own further explorations from many of the takes he gathered from Deleuze/Guattari. His writings are not that conceptually interesting, but his sociological readings are of value to anyone interested in this late capitalist era.

I’m still reading this work and may append notes along the way… read my original post on Deleuze’s thoughts: here.

1. Bauman, Zygmunt; Lyon, David (2013-04-03). Liquid Surveillance: A Conversation (PCVS-Polity Conversations Series) (Kindle Locations 145-147). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
2. Paul Virillo. Speed and Politics. (Semiotext(e), 2006)
3. Oscar Gandy, Coming to Terms with Chance.(Ashgate; Har/Ele edition (December 28, 2012))

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