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iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era

Author: Mark Andrejevic
Publisher: Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2007
Review Published: September 2009

 REVIEW 1: Jacob Kramer-Duffield
 REVIEW 2: W. Benjamin Myers
 REVIEW 3: Hiesun Cecilia Suhr
 REVIEW 4: A. Freya Thimsen
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Mark Andrejevic

In an era of Facebook, the concept of privacy lacks a certain punch when it is used as a basis for expressing concern about digital monitoring. The concern that many people feel about the potential of new surveillance technologies requires a broader vocabulary for its full expression. iSpy is an effective contribution to the effort to set aside a "right to privacy" as the sole basis for criticism of the heightened availability and management of information about individuals' habits and preferences. Mark Andrejevic's second book is a thoughtful extension of what his first book, Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched, suggested about the political significance of increasingly common forms of voluntary and implicit self-disclosure. While Reality TV generated insight about digital enclosure and interactivity through the lens of reality television, iSpy leaves television mostly behind and focuses on interactive data-gathering techniques. The central argument of this book is that interactivity is not participatory democracy. In fact, the primary function of interactive media is to generate knowledge about consumers for the purposes of politically and economically manipulating them. We should be concerned about invasive data gathering, according to Andrejevic, not because it violates privacy rights but because it guts truly deliberative democratic processes by producing widespread asymmetries of political knowledge and a lack of accountability for powerful institutions. Our social, economic, and political virtual spaces increasingly operate through "digital enclosure," which is "the creation of an interactive realm wherein every action and transaction generates information about itself" (2).

Andrejevic argues that the "tyranny of convenience" makes it nearly impossible to proceed with daily life without giving up vast amounts of data about oneself. Freedom from self-disclosure is no longer possible without massive disengagement from established patterns of social life. Additionally, the promise that self-disclosure will lead to greater fulfillment of one's desires is the ideological lure that legitimates the ongoing process of exploitative data extraction. Although Andrejevic acknowledges that there may be some satisfaction available to consumers via self-disclosure, consumer representation masks the basically manipulative motives of powerful institutions. This fundamentally suspicious posture reflects Andrejevic's persistent commitment to critical theory and the Habermasian ideal of deliberative democracy.

The book frames its analysis in terms of the cultural, economic, and political dimensions of interactivity. All three of these are grounded in the history of scientific management and the logic of improved service or productivity through expanded accumulation of data about individual subjects. After introducing this history and logic, subsequent chapters explore examples of phenomena that demonstrate how the logic plays out in each of the three topological arenas. The first chapter navigates the popular claim that interactivity is a positive political development inherent in new technology. The provocative second chapter wanders passingly through a series of fascinating cultural examples of how the promise of interactivity has been used persuasively and ironically. Nike iD, digital artists, forget-me-not panties, US Home Guard, Second Life, Crest toothpaste video contests, The Grey Album, CheckMyMate.com, and Facebook are lightly woven together to vividly preview the variations on the general theme of interactivity as power in commercial, interpersonal, cultural, and political contexts. If historians and sociologists are frustrated by this floating and suggestive series of examples of the cultural logics of interactivity, they will find more to sink their teeth into during the third chapter, where the history of Taylorist scientific management of workers is put in dialogue with the history of mass marketing techniques. Beyond acknowledging the commonplace that the development of industrial production techniques led to an expansion in production and consumption of consumer goods, Andrejevic makes the more novel argument that Taylor's science of managing workers was extended by the rationalization of consumer marketing through detailed quantitative research on human subjects. Detailed research and close observation characterized the continuity between scientific management, marketing, and corporate and political public relations. This type of close observation, or surveillance, is the historical precursor to all types of passive monitoring that are used today in interactive technologies. The main thrust of this genealogy is to argue that new technologies are being used to solve old managerial problems according to established patterns of data acquisition and administration enabled by economic, political, and interpersonal surveillance.

Mobile communications are the focus of the fourth chapter, which includes a somewhat alarmist section on nascent but hardly existent "smart clothes" which would transmit data about bodily processes. But the smart clothes illustrate a broader logic of mobile technologies, which is that they gather data passively. These technologies offer not just convenience but the promise of freedom in exchange for information. The fifth chapter on the interactive web forum "Television Without Pity" suggests that interactive cultural spaces like social networking sites and online fan discussions offer the illusion of democratic co-production of meaning while actually functioning as little more than an unpaid focus group. Even when fans are aware of their lack of influence, this awareness translates into little more than ironic identification with those who do determine the content of television. In the sixth chapter, the military project of enlisting civilians in everyday monitoring activities also facilitates identification with those who are in power. Andrejevic points out that this is a historically effective tactic, but now military monitoring capitalizes on the demand that citizens disclose information about themselves so that "the [state's] information gathering process is made even easier by the current climate of self-disclosure facilitated by interactive technology" (176). Not only is self-disclosure the mechanism of participation in state security, it is also the mechanism of participation in electoral politics, which is the topic of the seventh chapter. Widespread market research is increasingly utilized by political campaigns to sell candidates rather than respond to genuine citizen concerns. The eighth chapter on interpersonal monitoring explores the cultural image of the manipulated dupe. This figure prompts individuals to turn toward keeping track of one another, further suggesting that interactive technologies prompt identification with modes of power as a type of prophylactic against the reality of pervasive manipulation by institutional actors.

In each of the cases he looks at, Andrejevic critiques the idea that providing feedback is a form of power-sharing. While interactive media might have the potential to be used to share power, power-sharing is not inherent in the technological form and must be socially constituted. A key dimension of his critique is the unavoidable and, in the case of this book, lucidly stated fact that access to information is deeply asymmetrical. This lack of transparency and accountability is crucially problematic for democratic social and political life. Andrejevic doesn't avoid his central theoretical commitments; he is willing to claim, almost unfashionably, that masses of people are tricked by the promise of participatory interaction and this pattern is a profound impediment to genuine democracy. His analysis of new media forms carefully details how in each case, claims of enhanced participation in political and social life mask the real labor of interactivity, which is the labor needed by power to sustain itself.

iSpy has an elegantly light touch when it comes to the deployment of philosophical language and theoretical name-dropping. Although one might expect the strong influence of Foucault in a book that is ostensibly about surveillance, the most significant theoretical influence on this book ultimately seems to be Jürgen Habermas. This commitment becomes increasingly clear when the book directly addresses the question of what genuine democratic participation might be. Picking up on an Arendtian strand in Habermas's theories of deliberative democracy, Andrejevic argues that the difference between participation as market research and participation as deliberative democracy is also the difference between participation figured as registering attitude versus participation as spoken action. There is a certain sense in which democracy serves Andrejevic in the same way that it serves many critical scholars: as a vague under-specified foil for the unpleasant, deadening, or hierarchical practices of modern life. Often the ideal of democracy can end up being little more than a criterion for the aesthetic judgment of cultural practices, especially when they are practices that bear no direct relation to the processes of state politics. Although Andrejevic flirts with this tendency, he does make a distinct and sincere attempt to put forward a positive model of democracy with specific features, including symmetry of access to information and accountability of powerful institutions to the public. These features, however, seem to be perpetually defined exclusively in opposition to practices that he is interested in critiquing, leading one to wonder about whether democracy isn't an idealized concept that can be meaningful only in the context of a critique of its absence. In the end, however, it is difficult not to agree completely with Andrejevic's fundamental argument: Whatever democracy might be, American Idol and user-generated advertisements aren't it.

In sum, this book provides an excellent model for moving forward with research on "new media technologies" in the sense that it richly triangulates detailed descriptions of phenomena, a commitment to contemporary politics, and a fresh yet familiar account of the historical context of the intellectual commitments behind the deployments of technologies. While iSpy might not push the boundaries of democratic theory, it certainly pushes us to refuse the intellectual institutionalization of new media technologies as somehow discrete from the media technologies we find more familiar. Andrejevic demonstrates just how important it is to appreciate the particularities of new technologies while maintaining the historical, political, and philosophical attention to context that has made critical cultural studies such a rich basis for the study of media.

A. Freya Thimsen:
A. Freya Thimsen is a PhD student in the Department of Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she studies rhetorical theory, political theory, and popular culture. Her research interest is in the relationship between individuality and collectivity as that relationship is mediated by technology and tropes of subjectivity.  <thimsen@email.unc.edu>

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