iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era
Author: Mark Andrejevic
Publisher: Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2007
Review Published: September 2009
Forcefully argued and by turns unsettling and deeply frustrating, Mark Andrejevic's iSpy is an account of modern life in a surveillance society that suffers from deep basic limitations. Time and again the reader is reminded that modern life is basically a sucker's bet. Andrejevic's stance is a basically conservative one -- the dissolution of "traditional" communities and forms of social organization is invoked repeatedly and with sorrow. And yet there is no mention that the village-based society being mourned was one where most of society -- women, blacks, workers, gays, etc. -- were under the continual surveillance and power of the white male Christian elite, who controlled social political, religious, and sexual life. This basic framing of the issues discussed substantially limits the persuasive power of the argument advanced more generally.
One of Andrejevic's key theoretical frames is the "digital enclosure," which he defines as the creation of an interactive realm wherein every action and transaction generates information about itself. The term does more work than just the definition -- which at a basic level is merely describing a networked computing environment -- and some of the book's strongest passages are when Andrejevic explores both the analogy of digital enclosures to the enclosure movement of feudalism to capitalism, and the way in which it works to impinge upon individual liberty. He writes, "The invitation to interact is consequently being replaced by the invitation to immerse ourselves in a digital enclosure that takes on the burden of heightened interactivity for us" (111).
At the same time, over-reliance on the feudal analogy to our own time is where Andrejevic begins to run into serious trouble. He proposes that digital enclosures are promoting and reinforcing the same class divisions of the early industrial period, between workers and those who own the means of production, but backs away from an explicitly Marxist reading of contemporary information technology.
Andrejevic throughout the book tends to treat individuals as relatively powerless consumers in an unfettered marketplace. People must "submit" to surveillance (unwittingly or in ignorance) in exchange for services and convenience, and powerful corporations either are or "could" misuse the data gathered in actively malign or darkly hinted ways -- and their agency are largely absent from Andrejevic's account.
I would hardly argue for Google's inherent beneficence, but what is lost in this reading is that individuals are not merely powerless consumers but are in fact citizens with ultimate power over corporations -- not simply in their ability to decline services (which I agree with Andrejevic is increasingly a false choice) but to set the rules for market activity through legislation. Given the absence of the Federal government as citizen advocate on telecom issues during the Bush and late Clinton years, it can be tempting to read this absence as a structural deficit, or view government as merely another malign actor -- and Andrejevic does succumb to these dual temptations repeatedly through the book.
But governments need not be laissez-faire or complicit in corporate (or for that matter, their own) surveillance merely because the first two administrations of the Internet era have been so. Incumbency effects do make it more likely that the status quo continues in this (and any other) case, but that is a different question.
A frustrating tendency through the book is Andrejevic's explicit unwillingness to define his terms or let himself be pinned down, such as when he writes, "Although this book explores various dimensions and proposed definitions of interactivity, it avoids defining interactivity in the abstract" (8). Andrejevic repeatedly notes what the book is "not about," acknowledging and not quite dismissing arguments and examples that run counter to his central thesis. The book would be a more complete and engaging account if Andrejevic spent more than the odd paragraph here and there dealing with counter-examples and instead substantially addressed those arguments in the context of his larger frameworks.
At one point he lashes out against audiences who find him too negative as a way of dismissing their implied criticisms. But both that criticism and its dismissal are not quite right. The central shortcoming of Andrejevic's approach is not negativity but rather that he does not allow competing explanations of the issues a fair hearing or treatment on the page. His own arguments suffer for it. His frame, by virtue of its monopoly over the page and argumentative space, seems neither reasoned nor justified but nearly polemical. He introduces some potentially compelling frameworks and adaptations of others' work, but without the force of opposition they work merely to bludgeon and not convince.
Howard Rheingold, Derrick de Kerckhove, and Nicholas Negroponte are dismissed as "unreflective, celebratory" (16-17) advocates of new technologies, though few examples are specified and none of their arguments are substantively falsified. It is this tendency that is perhaps the book's weakest and most unfortunate tendency -- the author refuses to engage opposing arguments in good faith, and his own thoughts suffer for it, sounding increasingly arbitrary in their isolation.
Andrejevic is at his most incisive when he is discussing not abstract ideas but the behavior of real people, particularly in the "iMedia" chapter with his focus on Television Without Pity forum members. Rather than sarcasm, he employs a sympathetic tone, allowing him to understand the interpersonal social capital motivations for participation even as he analyzes the role that these fans are playing for the TV shows' producers. But eventually Andrejevic frames those TWoP posters as full of "resentment," participating in "self-submission" and "knowing -- with the insiders -- just why things are as bad as they are, and why they couldn't be different" (160). Even those for whom he displays sympathy are ultimately dupes.
The dangers of "digital enclosures" are real enough, and Andrejevic does well to frame them in a novel way. Overall, iSpy would be a more persuasive account if more competing explanations of the issues discussed were given air, and Andrejevic's framework allowed to stand or fall in competition.
Jacob Kramer-Duffield is a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, School of Information and Library Science, where he studies issues of identity and technology. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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