Information: The Ruling Power

Contributor: Bujinlkham Turbayar

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Image credit: "Human nature" by Alexander Bairamis

Introduction

The world is in a state of flux – power looks very different today. Human species have arrived at a Black Mirror age wherein information technology, science, and data take over: we are no longer ‘humans’. In this essay, I explore the changing configurations of power in contemporary society from a digital culture perspective. In doing so, I compare and contrast Deleuze’s Society of Control (1992), Haraway’s Informatics of Domination (1991), and Wark’s Vectoral World (2004). These digital culture theorists have all arrived at an agreement that power equals information and communication technology in contemporary society albeit they provide different frameworks of analysis, which we uncover in the first part of the essay. I introduce and elaborate on different concepts including the dichotomy between disciplinary society (Foucault, 1995) and control society (Deleuze, 1992); modulation and the dividual (Deleuze, 1992); informatics of domination, cyborgs and coding (Haraway, 1991); and vectoral world, vectoralists and hackers (Wark, 2004). The second part of the essay applies these concepts to the criminal justice system, particularly the prison and the use of electromagnetic (EM) technologies in curfew orders. I argue that information and their communication technologies contribute to the marginalisation of past convicts and offenders in an increasingly digitally reliant society we live in today.

Theoretical Framework

Deleuze (1992) articulates in his essay the changing power configurations in contemporary, postmodern societies. He argues that contemporary power formations are shifting from power-as-discipline to that of power-as-control. In doing so, Deleuze extends Michel Foucault’s (1995) concept of the disciplinary society in which human behaviour is controlled through the regulation of space and time. The institutions that discipline individuals in the form of enclosures and timetables were based upon technologies and sites of confinement, whereas these are now displaced by information and communication technologies that shift power to a “system of continuous micro-scaled modulation” (Williams, 2015, p. 210). While disciplinary societies directly mould human behaviour to conform to certain characteristics, control societies modulate behaviour – via intangible forces – to adapt to different places and time.  Deleuze describes this in his writing as “enclosures are moulds…but controls are a modulation” (1992, p. 4). However, discipline and control should not be regarded as relational opposites; control is a more flexible and more mobile form of discipline that allows for a series of deformations and manipulations (Williams, 2015). An example involves education becoming not about obtaining a qualification from a formal institution rather, it has become synonymous with a life-long learning in which the boundaries of school and work are blurred. Hence, control is ultimately a “self-transmuting moulding continually changing from one moment to the next…” (Deleuze, 1992, p. 3).

Deleuze’s conception of control societies corresponds with Haraway’s (1991) informatics of domination: both articulate a shift from disciplinary societies towards a world order dominated by science and technology. Whereas Deleuze conceptualises this shift as modulations producing more or less positive outcomes, Haraway insists that science and technology systems lead to unequal socioeconomic conditions that are specifically destructive for women: “The actual situation of women is their integration/exploitation into a world system of production/reproduction and communication called the informatics of domination” (1991, p. 163). She situates a cyborg as the agent of women’s liberation, and coding – the technology of cyborgs – as the mechanism of their liberation (Liu-Rosenbaum, 2018). This highlights Haraway’s approach to framing power through informatics that then elucidates how such power dominates via technical materiality. She claims that humans are transformed into codes and that the world essentially comes down to a “problem of coding” (Haraway, 1991, p. 164). This is identical to Deleuze’s (1992) conception of individuals becoming dividuals in control societies, where the numerical language of control is determined by codes. In other words, technologies and codes determine one’s access to information thus perpetuating the possibility of a digital divide among certain socioeconomic groups. However, Haraway (1991) proposes that science and technology could also bring new sources of power to an extent ‘the social relations of science and technology’ are restructured to include indicators of race, sex, and class. Inequality in the influencer industry is an example that shows how the architecture of social networking platforms is designed to put more pressure on women. The renowned ‘beauty’ filters of Instagram enlarge the eyes, slim the face, and augment the lips, which are precisely targeted towards female influencers who ‘must’ conform to the beauty standards such filters articulate. A study however finds that male influencers still earn 7 percent more than their female counterparts for promotions in posts, albeit without the pressure to ‘filter’ their appearance (Leighton, 2020).

Media theorist Wark (2004) engages in a relational discussion of three different societies, their subordinate classes, and the types of monopolised properties the ruling classes control: pastoralists-land, capitalists-means of production, and vectoralists-information. The source of power in the vectoral world lies in monopolising intellectual property and the means of reproducing their value through communication (Wark, 2004). Much like Apple owns the patents of iPhones that are produced in Chinese sweatshops, the vectoralists don’t own the means of production anymore – they simply control the value chain. This comes in line with Deleuze (1992) arguing that corporations have replaced factories and that capitalism in control societies has become all about selling services. The hacker class – those who make information but don’t get to own it – play a pertinent role in this new mode of production. They, as a subordinate class, transform information into an intellectual property that helps the vectoralists accumulate class power. To the extent that vectoralists and their competitive advantages depend on the abstractions hackers produce, their interest lies in subjugating the hacker class to infrastructure specifications developed by vectoralists. Confronted by this, Wark calls for a unification of the subordinate classes – farmers, workers, and hackers – to realise their possibility to create a new polity of “multiplicity” in which they can express their “virtuality” (2004, p. 10). The strike of Uber drivers over labour conditions and the alleged reduction of wages is an exemplar of class conflict in the gig economy. Firms in the gig economy oppose unionisation and collective action of workers because this essentially results in higher wages and stock price decreases in the long-run (Magesan, 2019). The vectoral world is dynamic, in this case, as it is increasingly shaped by conflicts between the classes.

Application

There are a widespread usage of electronic monitoring (EM) technologies in enforcements of criminal sanctions and curfew orders, particularly in Australia, the UK, and the US (Jones, 2001). Such monitoring and surveillance of offenders are carried out by electronic (ankle/wrist) tagging that either uses radiofrequency or GPS technologies to transmit signals to a receiver centre. Whereas radiofrequency tagging is common among home curfew orders that restrict offenders for certain hours on certain days, GPS-enabled tagging prescribes ‘exclusion zones’ to offenders along with the potential to track them in real-time. The extent to which such technologies are used in the criminal justice system ranges from the goal to reduce imprisonment, to monitor compliance, and to reduce reoffending. However, their effectiveness is rather contested seeing that a gunman who was released on parole and wearing an electromagnetic bracelet killed four people in Darwin (Vanovac, 2019).

Written before the technological era, Foucault’s (1995) account of the disciplinary society along with their ‘technologies of power’ provides an accurate model for understanding the bureaucratic-administrative aspects of prison. The social techniques of exercising power in the criminal justice system have moved away from analogical enclosures of prison to digital enclosures enabled by EM technologies thus enabling a remote, control-at-a-distance form of monitoring and surveillance. However, this is not to imply that the formal institutions of prison are destroyed instead, they are gradually being restructured by emerging forms of punishment. Such institutional change requires new forms of subjectivity: wherein the ‘individual’ offender was represented by the duality of their birth certificate and signature in disciplinary societies, the ‘dividual’ offender is represented by their PIN within a database of samples. Hence, offenders are merely transformed into codes/simulations that are then brought into an informatics reign Haraway (1991) claims as the informatics of domination.

Image credit: “Human nature” by Alexander Bairamis

Offenders who are released on parole under curfew orders are subject to instant sanctions in case a rule violation occurs. The decisions are algorithmically made by the control system that can lead to more confining curfew orders being imposed or, even, lead to the possibility of being denied the “privilege of participation” in monitoring programmes in the future (Jason, 2001, p. 11). The Home Detention Curfew programme in the UK allows for an early release of short-term criminals to assist their integration back into society. The concept of ‘privilege’ is implicit in this programme as the integration of EM tags to the body is seen as granting ‘freedom’ compared to being confined in a prison cell. While freedom seems to have increased, on one hand, control widens on the other in forms of exclusions and civil disqualifications. Such electronic systematisation of penal measures spills over to social aspects of one’s life even after the conviction has long been expired. For example, offenders may be denied the possibility to participate in the gig economy or carry out immaterial labour on the Internet due to the power that their information yields in a digital society. Haraway described this as a world “subdivided by boundaries differentially permeable to information” (1991, p. 164).

It is interesting to reflect on who gets to control the aggregate information of prior convicts and offenders and whether such information is circulated for commercial and other purposes. This brings us to Wark’s conceptualisation of class conflict and the emerging power of vectoralists who control the pillars of information. If, for example, an ex-convict wants to become an Uber driver, will they qualify for the job when the ride-sharing giant conducts a background check? Or else, will Apple grant them financing on iPhones and MacBook laptops? These are the consequences of a vectoral world in which certain groups face marginalisation and stigmatisation based on their background information. As information is monopolised by tech-giants, hope remains with the hacker class who have the capacity and resources to produce new kinds of relationships and hack out a new politics, beyond the opposition. Ultimately, they are the ones who “make the difference that makes the difference” (Bateson as cited in Wark, 2004, p. 7).

Conclusion

In this essay, I demonstrated the broad trends in changing configurations of power in contemporary society. The digital culture theorists all converge on a point that human beings have shifted to a new society in which ICT, science, and data dominate. In particular, individuals are reduced to data objects within a network that then become easy to manipulate and transform. A constant state of surveillance is another characteristic of this new society in which corporations, who control the pillars of information, constantly pry on us. Such corporations yield power via information and communication technologies that serve as instruments for enforcing meanings. Furthermore, I demonstrated how power is exercised on past convicts and offenders by controlling their consumption of and access to information. This not only results in a digital divide but, also, translates into social and digital marginalisation that have real socioeconomic consequences. Throughout this essay, I argued that information and communication technologies yield enormous power and these contribute to the marginalisation of past convicts and offenders in an increasingly digitally reliant society we live in today. We are passing via road that takes us to a new city via a road on an icy sledge.

References

Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on the societies of control. October, 59(Winter), 3-7.

Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York, NY: Vintage Books.  

Haraway, D. (1991). A cyborg manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century. In Simians, cyborgs, and women: The reinvention of nature (pp. 149-181). New York, NY: Routledge.

Jones, R. (2001). Digital rule: punishment, control and technology. Punishment and Society, 16, 5-22.

Leighton, H. (2020, January 16). Study finds a pay gap between male and female influencers. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/heatherleighton/2020/01/16/study-finds-a-pay-gap-between-male-and-female-influencers/#7345d76c602f

Liu-Rosenbaum, A. (2018). Weaving “eroticism, cosmology, and politics” in early female technopop: Three discourses with the informatics of domination. Popular Music and Society, 41(1), 16-38.

Magesan, A. (2019, May 7). Uber drivers strike: organizing labour in the gig economy. Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/uber-drivers-strike-organizing-labour-in-the-gig-economy-115911

Vanovac, N. (2019, June 4). Darwin shooting: four people killed and another injured, 45yo alleged gunman arrested by police. ABC News. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-06-04/darwin-shooting-people-police-arrest-gunman/11179136

Wark, M. (2004). Class. In A hacker manifesto. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Williams, A. (2015). Control societies and platform logic. New Formations, 84, 209-227.

Contributor bio

Bujinlkham Turbayar is a Media & Communications graduate from The University of Sydney. She is passionate about social affairs, politics, and philosophy. Email: btur0425@gmail.com; twitter: @bujee0425