iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era
Author: Mark Andrejevic
Publisher: Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2007
Review Published: September 2009
While I want to thank the reviewers who took the time to read the book and offer their thoughts, I am a bit disappointed that the lead review (decided alphabetically) is based on a misreading of the argument and sensibility of iSpy. Given that the book makes clear its alignment with the commitments of those who support the potential for democratic forms of empowerment associated with digital media, there are little grounds for accusing it of the conservative critique of technology associated with nostalgia for pre-modern society. Whence the misunderstanding? The book's introduction states clearly that one aspect of the commercialization of new media and the marketing of interactivity is, "the invocation of nostalgia for a lost sense of community, and the forms of participation, customization, and authenticity retroactively associated with pre-mass society" (24). Perhaps Kramer-Duffield missed the import of the word "retroactively" in this sentence, but the clear meaning is that the celebration of such society amounts to a form of after-the-fact romanticisation. If that isn't clear enough, the following paragraph makes the point explicitly when it notes that the promise of digital interactivity is haunted by, "a romanticized vision of pre-mass society in which consumers had greater control over their consumption" (24). As the review itself concedes, when the book describes power relations in pre-mass society, far from romanticizing feudal relations as idyllic, it focuses on the exploitation and inequality that characterized both feudalism and industrial capitalism. In this regard, Kramer-Duffield's reminder of the pathologies of village life misses the mark -- the book does not seek to reproduce the forms of romanticisation it analyzes.
iSpy explores the way in which the mobilization of the promise of interactivity draws, in part, upon a rehabilitated and romanticized vision of pre-mass society; it does not buy into this vision, as will be clear to most readers. On the contrary, it approaches the mobilization of nostalgia as a form of marketing. Nowhere does iSpy argue that "modern life is a sucker's bet." I suspect the book is more vulnerable to the opposite critique: that it clings to the hope that there might be a way for modernity to live up to its unfulfilled promise. Nowhere does the book issue a conservative call to eschew the benefits of technology and retreat to the unspecified utopia of pre-mass society, nor does it dismiss the democratic and empowering potential of digital media technologies. As the introduction puts it, the goal of the book's critique is to "rehabilitate rather than write off the democratic potential of interactive media" (8).
By way of explanation it is worth looking more closely at the passage in which Kramer-Duffield describes me as lashing out at my critics: "When I have had the opportunity to present arguments critical of the deployment of interactivity to academic and general audiences, I am frequently accused of being too negative. American culture is deeply imbued with the utopian optimism of the technological sublime, and we cherish fond hopes -- all too frequently disappointed -- that new communication technologies will resolve political conflicts, educate the masses, and deliver on the democratic promise. I have no interest in dismantling such hopes. On the contrary, my contention is that they can only be realized when we no longer depend on technology to sidestep political conflicts, when we engage in a political struggle over the development of the technology" (49). The goal here was not to denigrate those who found my approach negative -- and on rereading this passage, it doesn't sound like an attack to me -- but an attempt to highlight what I see as the positive part of the book's agenda: to consider the terms for realizing the potential of new media. I don't see this as a "basically conservative" project.
The invocation of the potential of digital media recurs so frequently in iSpy that Kramer-Duffield's review strikes me as something more than simple misreading. Perhaps it is a reflex reaction to the book's occasionally polemic tone, or maybe it is symptomatic of a certain response to critique in the contemporary era. There is a persistent Bushian binarism in the review: either I'm with the celebrants of digital media technology or I'm against them and the technology. I'm always astounded and frustrated when those who critique the United States for failing to live up to the promise of its stated values are dismissed as hating the country and its values. The (conservative) goal of such attacks is to deny the difference between a stated commitment and its realization in practice and thereby to thwart any attempt to bridge the gap. I was similarly nonplussed to learn that because iSpy critiques new media for failing in many ways to live up to the hype that it must be some kind of conservative, anti-technology, anti-modern polemic. I don't believe that to be the case, and I view many of those whom Kramer-Duffield calls my opponents as thinkers who share the same commitments and hopes that I do. In the end, the review fails to distinguish between a critique of the promise of new media for failing to live up to their political promise and the dismissal of that promise altogether.
This misreading runs through Kramer-Duffield's review in ways that, to my mind, misrepresent the arguments. I think it helps explain why the following quote, "It is perhaps possible to discern in the savvy self-criticism of the media a certain resentment over a failed promise: that information would double as a form of power sharing -- that once the secret of power was exposed, it could be shared" (160) gets boiled down to a dismissal of online TV fans for being "full of 'resentment.'" This is a movie-poster parody of the argument that transforms a claim about political awareness and frustration into elitist denigration. The isolated citation of words and short phrases that Kramer-Duffield engages in only works if the reviewer has a basic feel for the book's argument and commitments. In this case, such observations do little more to illuminate the arguments of the book than does the transposition of the adjectives "celebratory" and "unreflective" from a characterization of an argument (the equation of participation and empowerment) to descriptions of individuals. For the record, I find many of those framed as my opponents to be interesting and useful thinkers whose interest in democracy and citizen empowerment I share.
Beyond that, the review is riddled with characterizations that are hard for me to recognize. It came as a surprise to learn that my lengthy descriptions of the ways in which powerful economic entities "could" (why the scare quotes?) use personal information in ways that belie the promise of consumer and citizen empowerment are nothing more than sensationalist innuendo. The pages devoted to describing social sorting, target marketing, and strategies of state surveillance may not be particularly sunny, but they're more than "hints" ("darkly" presented) of "abuse." They're descriptions of what some state and commercial entities see as the proper uses of digital technology. I'm not quite sure what Kramer-Duffield means by the "feudal analogy" given that iSpy's project is to note the continuity between industrial capitalism and the digital era, nor is it clear to me what Kramer-Duffield would expect from an "explicitly Marxist" account. In fairness, I think it's worth pointing out that after I avoid defining "interactivity" in the abstract, I go on to note that the book will be looking at concrete examples of interactivity in practice. As for the dupes -- it is true that my sympathy lies with them. As A. Freya Thimsen's review observes, it is the figure of the non-dupe that worries me.
Kramer-Duffield's review incorrectly frames the overall project and many of the book's arguments. For those who want more of a sense of what the book is about, I'd suggest focusing on the other three reviews.
Reading through the reviews, I am struck by the way in which the academic response to digital media technologies may have shifted since the post-millennial heyday when this book was conceived. The shift may in part be a result of the way in which the novelty of digital media has been replaced by the uptake of "new media" in critical-theory oriented circles. Perhaps it is also a result of the aggressive development of a commercial model for the online economy and a consequent increase in awareness of its reliance on monitoring, data collection and data-mining. There is, admittedly, a polemical tone to the book, perhaps not least because it took shape at a moment when arguments could be construed as running counter to dominant tendencies in both the field and the culture at large.
I appreciated W. Benjamin Myers and A. Freya Thimsen's references to the role of Taylorism in the analysis -- for me, one of the interesting parts of researching the book was going through the early 20th century material on management, marketing, and ratings. I try to trace the relationship between this formation with its goal of information-based rationalization and the contemporary commercial goal of gathering as much information as possible about consumers -- but there is a dialectical shift involved that iSpy could have done more to illuminate. Taylor portrayed himself as the figure for whom information led to understanding. With his shop-floor experience and his measuring-based approach, he laid claim to knowledge that neither traditional managers nor workers had: he had experienced the labor of the latter, but had come to view it in more systematic, "scientific" terms (or so he claimed). As the archetype of the subject-supposed-to-know, Taylor came across as arrogant and intrusive: constantly prying, monitoring, and controlling. By contrast, the shift in the current conjuncture is from the depth knowledge of the expert manager to the surface pattern discerned by the database program. Taylor could never get enough information; these days, digital capture makes it possible to collect more data than even he could possibly analyze, sort, or comprehend. Pushing Taylorism to its limit, then, means shifting from a depth model -- from the figure of the all-knowing expert to the "blind" surface-level automatism of the algorithm. In this information environment marketers don't need to know why -- they don't even need to know details of particular individuals; rather they rely on increasingly copious data and sophisticated search algorithms to discern predictive patterns. If people who use a particular brand of toothpaste are more likely to vote Republican or buy pickup trucks (or vice versa), this is the operative information. Underlying causal logic becomes largely irrelevant.
This shift might help explain the repeated refrain from the data-gatherers that we needn't be worried about personal privacy: they are not intrusive like the old-school Taylorists -- they don't want to lurk in our cubicles and pantries, counting, measuring directing. They aren't reading our Gmail -- a machine is, and it doesn't even understand; it's just looking for patterns. No individual will read what I'm writing about-- the details exposed about my personal or professional life as I search the internet or compose my email. These will be registered, sorted, correlated, but they won't be known. An unthinking, unjudgemental machine will scan them for patterns that humans could never detect. These might be so obscure that I won't even recognize them when they're turned back upon me in the form of a political appeal or an advertisement based on a seemingly random combination of details about my life that increase the statistical likelihood of my response. Alienation, opacity, and asymmetry become the operative critical dimensions in this context -- in addition to control over and access to the databases.
When I was writing the chapter on smart clothes -- which, in retrospect, look like a very late-90s phenomenon (or else way ahead of their time) -- my working explanation for the project was something along the lines of an exploration of "the capitalist imagination at play in the fields of cyberspace." I was fascinated by the gee-whiz brainstorming aspect -- the marketing "imagineering" on top of the hokey futurism. The very fact that someone might conceive of a suit that would guide its wearer toward particular stores as a desirable commodity was both symptomatic of commercial fantasy unbound and as Thimsen points out, a provocative metaphor for ubiquitous computing.
Given its project, iSpy dwells more on the pathologies of consumer surveillance than on more progressive uses of digital media. In this regard, I agree with Hiesun Cecilia Suhr's observation about the limitations of the argument's applications. In particular, as someone interested in news media with a background in political reporting, I am heartened by the way the internet has contributed to an efflorescence of alternative media (both content and distribution) that helped in part to remedy the appalling failure of mainstream media outlets to hold the Bush administration accountable.
At the same time, while I am a fan of the potential of open-source and collaborative projects, I remain concerned about the privatization and commercialization of the infrastructure that forms the basis for all online endeavors and I am disturbed by the rhetoric of dematerialization that provides ideological cover for this process. On the most brutally obvious level, I'm just not sure that we've fully absorbed or taken account of the fact that significant portions of our social lives, our communications, and our leisure activities have developed in or migrated onto an increasingly commercialized infrastructure, and that this commercialization is too readily taken for granted. It's as if the logical endpoint of internet ubiquity is its disappearance (into the "cloud"?). In media studies much time and effort has been spent exploring the social implications of the commercial models of mass media production and distribution as manifested by industries including publishing, broadcasting, and film. Perhaps these were distinct enough "objects" to attract a certain amount of critical reflection. With the advent of convergence, it would be interesting to see the same level of critical attention devoted to the implications of the commercial infrastructure that supports an increasingly broad (and converged) array of media practices and content. iSpy was conceived as a preliminary attempt to explore this direction of thinking -- at least in theory.
Thanks again to the reviewers who took the time to provide thoughtful analysis of and response to the arguments in the book -- I greatly appreciate it.
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