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Públicos Fantasma - La Naturaleza Política Del Libro - La Red (Mexico: Taller de Ediciones Económicas, 2016) - new book, co-authored with Andrew Murphie, Janneke Adema and Alessandro Ludovico. 

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« On the limits of openness V: there are no digital humanities | Main | On the limits of openness III: open government »
Friday
Dec172010

On the limits of openness IV: why Facebook is not a factory (even though it profits from the exploitation of labour)

Could the move toward supplying ever more research, information and data online for free on an open basis be part of the development of what Gilles Deleuze called a control society?  Here we are no longer subject primarily to those closed, disciplinary modes of power Michel Foucault traced historically in Discipline and Punish, and which govern by means of a dispersed and decentralized ensemble of institutions, instruments, techniques and procedures that operate to produce and regulate subjectivity via the interiorization of the law.  Such disciplinary societies are characterized by vast closed environments - the family, school, barracks, factory and, depending on circumstances, the hospital - each with their own laws, through which the individual ceaselessly passes, one to the other. As Deleuze makes clear in his 'Postscript on the Societies of Control', these disciplinary environments or enclaves are about enclosure, confinement, surveillance: their project is to ‘concentrate’, ‘distribute in space’, ‘order in time’, ‘organise production’, ‘administer life’, ‘compose a productive force within the dimension of space-time whose effect will be greater than the sum of its component forces’ . Above all, it is the prison which serves as the ‘analogical model’ for the closed system of disciplinary societies and the manner in which it produces and organizes subjectivity. Hence Foucault’s question in Discipline and Punish: ‘Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?’ 

For Deleuze, disciplinary societies reached their peak at the beginning of the 20th century. His contention is that, just as Foucault saw disciplinary societies as having superseded ‘societies of sovereignty’ from the late eighteenth century onwards so, in a process that has accelerated after WWII, social organisation is ceasing to be disciplinary, if it has not happened already.  To an extent that all the closed spaces associated with disciplinary societies are in now crisis: the family is in crisis, the health service is in crisis, the factory system is in crisis.

These disciplinary societies are in the process of being replaced by societies of control. The latter are our ‘immediate future’, Deleuze writes, and contain extremely rapid, free-floating forms of ‘continuous control and instant communication’, as he puts it in 'Control and Becoming', that operate in environments and spaces that are much more fluid and open.  Witness, to provide some 21st century examples, the way in which increases in computer processing capacity and the associated availability of large, complex data sets have enabled a degree of data mining and pattern recognition to be achieved that makes it possible to automatically anticipate and predict – and thus control, albeit in a comparatively open way – actions on the part of the subject, even before they actually take place. Think of Google News aggregating ‘headlines from news sources worldwide’, grouping  similar stories together and displaying them ‘according to each reader's personalized interests’; Last.fm employing scrobbling software to detail the listening habits of users and provide them with personalized selections of music based on their previous listening history;  or the European Media Monitor system of the European Commission’s Joint Research Center which ‘counts the number of stories on a given topic and looks for the names of people and places to create geotagged "clusters" for given events, like food riots in Haiti or political unrest in Zimbabwe. Burgeoning clusters and increasing numbers of stories indicate a topic of growing importance or severity.’

Whereas the enclaves of disciplinary societies – the family, school, factory and so on - are like different moulds or castings into which individuals are placed at different times and which shape and produce their subjectivity that way, the mechanisms of the societies of control are ‘a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other’. Instead of the prison or factory of disciplinary societies, what we have now is the corporation of the control societies which is likened to a spirit or gas:

The factory constituted individuals as a single body to the double advantage of the boss who surveyed each element within the mass and the unions who mobilized a mass resistance; but the corporation constantly presents the brashest rivalry as a healthy form of emulation, an excellent motivational force that opposes individuals against one another [when it comes to negotiating for a higher salary, for example, according to the  modulating principle of individual performance and merit] and runs through each, dividing each within. 

(Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on Control Societies’, Negotiations: 1972-1990 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995)

Interestingly, given some of the things I wrote earlier about knowledge and learning, this is also the case with the School. Here, too, perpetual training now reigns by means of the introduction of an audit culture, evaluation forms, league-tables, and other forms of monitoring and micro-management; with continuous control, including continuous assessment, training and staff development, replacing the examination.

What’s more, just as the School has been handed over to the corporation in Deleuze’s account so now, I would maintain, has the University. The fundamental transformation in the way universities in England are viewed that has recently been proposed by the Labour government-commissioned Browne Report, and imposed by the Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition, provides only the latest evidence of this. It is a shift from thinking of the university as a public good financed mainly from public funds, to treating it as a ‘lightly regulated market’ (Collini). A market moreover in which consumer demand, in the form of the choices of individual students over where and what to study, reigns supreme when it comes to deciding where the funding goes, and thus what is offered by competing ‘service providers (i.e. universities)’, which are now required to operate as businesses in order to ‘produce the most effective mix of skills to meet business needs’.  Like the School, the University is thus ‘becoming less and less a closed site differentiated from the workspace as another closed site’  in a process of continuous control that is never-ending. For nothing is left alone for long in a control-based system.  While ‘in the disciplinary societies one was always starting again’, as the individual moved from school, to university, to the factory, in societies of control one can never finish anything, ‘the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation’.

It follows that, despite what some of the banners and slogans of those protesting against the marketisation of the higher education system and increase in tuition fees in England have claimed, the contemporary university is not best understood as a factory. Nor, to take another example, is Facebook,  for all the latter’s harnessing of the free labour power generated by social cooperation (Scholz). Facebook’s fluid and relatively open environment, together with its own origins (like Google) in the contemporary university – Facebook was famously invented by a Harvard undergraduate, Mark Zuckerberg - means that it, too, is far closer to Deleuze’s account of the corporation that has replaced the factory in a control society. And, like the university, Facebook can be seen as part of the corresponding reconfiguration of the individual in terms of the dividual and of the mass in terms of coded data that is produced to be controlled:

The disciplinary societies have two poles: the signature that designates the individual, and the number or administrative numeration that indicates his or her position within a mass. This is because the disciplines never saw any incompatibility between these two, and because at the same time power individualizes and masses together, that is, constitutes those over whom it exercises power into a body and molds the individuality of each member of that body…. In the societies of control, on the other hand, what is important is no longer either a signature or a number, but a code: the code is a password… The numerical language of control is made of codes that mark access to information, or reject it. We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become ‘dividuals’, and masses, samples, data, markets, or ‘banks’. 

(Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on Control Societies’, Negotiations: 1972-1990 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995)

 

(An earlier version of some of the material provided above appeared in 'Deleuze’s "Postscript on the Societies of Control"’ (with Clare Birchall and Pete Woodbridge), Culture Machine, 11, 2010.)

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