The defence minister's new philosophy

12 February 2010
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In the emergent "panspectric" order, human society is seen in terms of "information traffic". It is not the actions of individuals that are observed, as in the Foulcauldian panopticon, rather those of the mass. Degrees of corporate and state surveillance are unprecedented; yet panspectric subjectivity also brings new forms of resistance.

On 9 September 2008, the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter published an op-ed that marked a shift in the contemporary art of government. Defence minister Sten Tolgfors was commenting on the debate that arose around the National Defence Radio (Försvarets Radioanstalt – FRA), which had claimed the right to intercept all communications passing through Sweden’s fibre-optic cable network. This surveillance, he said, would “never target a specific actual person. No comprehensive mapping of Swedish citizens by means of signals intelligence is permitted.” No surveillance practices “based on an individual” would be allowed. The FRA would only search for “traffic patterns” in “traffic flows”, “regardless of who or what is communicating”.

The purpose of the article is to reassure readers: cold and inhuman “traffic flows” that circulate through various channels, “regardless of who or what”, is quite different from “an individual”, “a specific actual person” – the human subject. However, Tolgfors’ reasoning avoids a crucial point: more and more actors – the security services and large companies, but also academics and activists – have started to see human society as nothing more than “flows” of influences. The more information channel flows are logged in detail, the better insight we gain into people’s psyches.

The defence minister’s comments comes at a time when states are finding new ways of imposing order on the intimidating hordes that are its citizens. These same citizens, on the other hand, still believe that society is held together by the familiar control mechanisms established two centuries ago. The work of Michel Foucault can be seen as a description of this “old” way of order-generation. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes the emergence of “disciplinary” logics, based on the situation in Bentham’s panopticon: in disciplinary social institutions, citizens are constantly subjected to visual surveillance by a central authority.

The term “art of government” can be misleading. It covers much more than what our rulers and intelligence agencies are doing to monitor and protect their citizens, for it is not necessarily citizens that are being governed and organized, and the “ruler” might well be of a more modest nature – a teacher or scientist, for example. Discipline and Punish is not just about prison, but about how the panoptic method of organizing the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries came to be introduced in several social institutions – from the army to the factory, from schools to hospitals.

Enclosed in these institutions, the human subject is an object of inspection. In the panopticon, it our behaviour as individuals that can be observed – by a prison warden, an Orwellian “Big Brother”, a lieutenant, a foreman, a teacher, or a doctor. Importantly, it is enough for the subject merely to believe that they are being monitored for order to be created effectively. A panopticon is essentially a subjectivity-creating machine: “panopticism” produces our understanding of ourselves as coherent individuals.

Gilles Deleuze, in his famous Postscript on the Societies of Control (1989), identified new methods of order-generation, new modes of what he calls “stratification”. In emergent societies of control, he says, we are not only observed when we are in panoptic institutions; our behaviour is recorded even when we move around in the open, outside these enclosed institutions.

Today we can say that the art of government has, in many respects, followed the path outlined by Deleuze twenty years ago. Foucault’s “disciplinary society” has adopted a new monitoring paradigm. In the 1990s, there were rumours of existing systems based on a logic different to that of Bentham’s panopticon. It was said that the American NSA had started storing all the radio traffic it had vacuumed up from the ether and was getting computers to search for patterns, in order to identify threats to national security.

This system was christened Echelon. It has also come to be known as “panspectron”, because it gathers information across the spectrum of electromagnetic signals: the computer’s “gaze” registers more than just visible light, the frequencies that the human eye can perceive. Just as the panopticon was emblematic of Foucauldian panopticism, today the panspectron symbolizes the emerging order of “panspectrocism”. It is no longer a human being that “watches” your behaviour, but a computer that predicts your behaviour by searching for patterns across a much broader register of information.

According to Deleuze, in emergent societies of control, we are dispersed individuals: “We no longer find ourselves dealing with the ‘mass-individual’ dyad. Individuals have become dividuals and masses, samples, data, markets, or banks.” The computer is more interested in finding patterns in the huge amount of data currently generated by the human multitude: increasingly extensive areas of our everyday analogue experience are being transferred and stored as digital data. “Data mining” is able to detect terrorist cells or – even better – monitor and predict terrorists-in-the-making.

Panspectric order-generation records the ecologies of thoughts, expressions and impressions circulating among people, based on the hypothesis that these ecologies produce certain behaviours. From the perspective of the pattern-searching computer, no coherent, autonomous entity is acting. On the contrary, it is the whole context that is acting; the individual is its context, no more, no less.

The Latin individuum means indivisible. Yet the individual is not indivisible at all – hence Deleuze’s “dividual“. Our bodies are the result of interactions between several bodies – such as the micro-organisms that enable digestion – which live their own lives. Similarly, our subjectivity arises from the ideas and beliefs that we have been “infected” with, and which – like viruses – live their own lives. Conversely, we are a part of a context that is larger than the individual – just look at the unfortunate group behaviour that Ruben Östlund portrays in his film, Involuntary. The individual is nothing more than a randomly chosen figure taken out of context. There are no individuals, only dividuals.

The panspectric paradox is that we can say more about individuals’ behaviour if we stop seeing them as individuals. This idea – that we are “configured” by our context – is hardly new. But what distinguishes the current era is our ability to record and analyse the impressions made on our minds: what we have read and consumed, where we have been, who we are communicating with. But is it really possible to predict behaviour based on an analysis of the “traffic” of impressions that passes through our minds? Here we can turn to large corporations, which stratify the economy and, along with the state, are society’s main centres of power.

In the late 1990s, web retailers began touting products with the line “If you liked that, you’ll probably also like this.” This type of analysis has now reached new levels of sophistication. Retailing has become better at predicting future consumption: Wal-Mart knows a week in advance which goods will sell at a particular store. Some economic subsystems even require panspectric monitoring in order to work: banks continuously monitor our buying and movement patterns in order to prevent card fraud. A bank can call a customer and say: “Someone has been buying things with your card, and we know that it isn’t you.”

Airlines are another example: today it is no longer the loyal customer that gets upgraded to first class. By interpreting all the available data, companies try to work out which individuals on a given flight it would be most profitable to impress. Similarly, there are casino chains that estimate each visitor’s pain threshold (how much they can lose before giving up), offering “freebies” before this is reached. This micro-management of our feelings is something new; there are no free lunches when corporation know more about your needs and desires than you do yourself.

In business economics, this trend is called “analytics” or “data mining”. A couple of years ago, the influential Harvard Business School Press published a bestseller, revealingly entitled Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning. Note the reference to “science”: the Fordist welfare society – characterized by mass production and mass culture, uniformity and homogeneity – was the creation of social engineers who employed panoptic modes of governing. Today’s social scientists, adopting the “dividuated” model of the human subject, may well be leading us into a new form of social engineering, based on panspectric means of ordering the world.

For the sociologist, then, it becomes increasingly difficult to resist the temptation to play the FRA game. Web links are a good example of how contemporary society creates digital records of micro-behaviours that previously went unnoticed. Last year, I analysed the links in and around my blog in order to describe how male power networks form. Men have always indulged in mutual backslapping; today, however, social scientists can access logged data relating to these behaviours. Based on the type of traffic flows Tolgfors discussed in his op-ed, I created a variable visualisation of this “male slime” formation.

The concept of “male slime” – originally coined as gubbslem in Swedish by Joanna Rytel and Fia-Stina Sandlund – is useful for describing “homosociality”. In particular, it leads us towards an understanding of the role of the dispersed individual in the emergence of male power structures. The slime metaphor suggests a hidden, unexpected relationship between male networks and the unicellular organism dictyostelium discoideum, or “slime mould”. Slime mould is often used as an example of how a new, more or less autonomous organism can arise from a multitude of smaller organisms.

This creation is spontaneous and requires no central authority or planning: when individual cells are exposed to stress – colder weather or reduced access to food – they send out a signal substance and, at the same time, start to move towards signal substances emitted by other cells. The cells then accumulate to form a mucus lump, fully visible to the human eye, which can act as a coherent “individual”. When the cells feel less stressed they stop sending out the signal substances, and the mucus formation is dispersed again.

The genesis of this large, slimy organism is a latent tendency in the multitude of microscopic cells. However, the resulting mucus lump is not a static entity, but a dynamic process maintained by the cells coming together according to some simple heuristic (“when stressed, send signal substance”). Here we can refer back to Deleuze, who says that among a multitude of players, there is an immanent capacity for order to occur, and this happens when the players fall in step with a certain logic. This “logic” of becoming, which Deleuze calls an “abstract machine”, is invisible and “virtual”, but has nonetheless a very real impact on our daily lives. Once again, in today’s digitally mediated world, these micro-behaviours and everyday logics can be captured in detail. It is now possible to monitor and visualize the effects of male slime’s abstract machine in real time.

Social scientists’ interest in the dispersed individual, and the ability to understand a society of no-longer-individuals, coincides with renewed interest in Gabriel Tarde. Over a hundred years ago, the French lawyer and sociologist and argued that we should base our understanding of how social structures emerge as a result of “mental contagion” – notions and prejudices, perceptions and expressions, knowledge and desires that replicate throughout society.

According to this perspective, which deviates significantly from Durkheim’s sociology, there is no “social environment” within which individuals are immersed. The only thing that exists is a multitude of minds, which are interconnected through speech and other communications technologies. This makes them susceptible to mental contagion, which in turn generates social order. The structure does not explain anything; it is the structure itself that has to be explained. Ask not how the eternal patriarchy structures individuals; ask how the patriarchy is continuously generated as mental contagions radiate through our interconnected minds.

Tarde also paints a picture of the individual as dispersed. For him, the individual human brain is less interesting than the veritable “distributed network” of brains that emerged as soon as people became communicatively interconnected with each other. The opportunity for communication and mental contagion is rising steadily: Tarde was interested in how the modern telegraph and mass media linked minds together to a whole new extent; today we can see how the Internet and file-sharing networks are taking this trend further.

The human subject is a brain, which is part of the larger brain that emerges through communication technologies. According to Tarde, the mind is completely open to the world – there is no difference between what happens inside and outside the human skull. In other words, the intra-psychological reflects the inter-psychological. Seen thus, sociology and psychology are the same subject. Building on the work of theorists such as Isabelle Stengers and Lisa Blackman, social scientists are now trying to understand how suggestion contributes to the emergence of social structures.

States and corporations have already managed to examine these mysterious aspects of the human mind. Academics are forced to admit that the most interesting Tardean studies are currently being carried out by intelligence agencies and industry, not universities. It is not only the spontaneous creation of male slime that can be mapped and prevented; the same applies to the spontaneous formation of various configurations which the state finds unpleasant. It is not just Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri who have wondered about the “multitude”; security services and military strategists are also researching the human multitude’s immanent capacity to organize itself spontaneously into an “organism” that turns against the given order.

Social scientists therefore need to reflect on their own responsibility in the emergent modes of ordering the world, and the “microbiopolitics” (Nigel Thrift) they give rise to. Are today’s specialists on Deleuze and Tarde the social engineers of our time? Will they, like the social engineers of the twentieth century, be condemned by posterity?

A world in which the individual is dispersed, along with the theories about this world, also has the potential to disperse power structures. Indeed, this perspective on the human subject may be deployed for “destratifying” purposes: a world of interconnected minds is also a world in which a multitude can be formed more easily. The philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato belongs, along with Hardt and Negri, to a circle that has worked on the concept of the “multitude”, and he is also one of the thinkers who promoted Tarde in the 2000s. When it comes to analysing contemporary capitalism, Lazzarato sees Tarde as more relevant than Marx. He claims that Tarde is leading us towards a new, more hopeful vision of how a different economic order can emerge.

According to Lazzarato, society is characterized by interconnected minds that show an increasing capacity for collaboration – “the cooperation of minds”. In the contemporary economy, economic value is created by this cooperation; yet capitalism requires this interconnected brain to be broken up. Producers must be separated from consumers, and the products of the cooperating minds must be locked up in new forms of intellectual property. The role of the corporation is increasingly to reap the fruits of these cooperating minds. This process undermines the creative process, thus making capitalism increasingly anti-productive.

What militates against the continued progress of this arrangement is that the cooperating minds pre-date the corporation. Marx assumed that the workers need the factory in order to produce, but in the contemporary economy that is no longer the case. Capitalism is now forced constantly to chase after a frenetic creative process that occurs spontaneously, and that no longer needs the corporate hierarchy. In this process, new opportunities to escape the capitalist system are constantly opening up – what Deleuze calls “lines of flight”. The question, according to Lazzarato, is how long can capitalism keep pace with this increasingly intense creativity? It is here – in the sluggish hierarchy’s pursuit of the force of interconnected minds – that progressive no-longer-individuals can find new strategies.

Published 12 February 2010

Original in Swedish
Translation by Kevin Halliwell
First published in Arena 1/2010 (Swedish version)

Contributed by Arena
© Karl Palmås / Eurozine Eurozine


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