Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Too much paranoias

Notes on Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiberoptics, chapter one (pdf)

Was excited to read this, given my recent interest in paranoia as a social-media state of mind, but ended up disappointed by this chapter, and may not read the rest of the book. But a few things struck me as worth preserving here for future reference.

The gist of it seems derived from the Deleuze essay on "control societies," though with a dubious emphasis on sexuality as the chief basis of subjectivity. Social technologies implement the control society, which makes freedom less a matter of open-ended possibility (freedom to) and more a matter of safety (freedom from). The attractiveness of the predominance of "freedom from" hinges on generalized paranoia.

The end of the Cold War has not dispelled paranoia but rather spread it everywhere: invisibility and uncertainty—of the enemy, of technology—has invalidated deterrence and moved paranoia from the pathological to the logical. This twinning of control and freedom subverts the promise of freedom, turning it from a force that simultaneously breaks bonds and makes relation possible to the dream of a gated community writ large. 
The internet medium becomes the field in which these affective shifts can occur.

Is the Internet a tool of freedom or control? Does it enable greater self-control or surveillance?... These questions and their assumptions are not only misguided but also symptomatic of the increasingly normal paranoid response to and of power. This paranoia stems from the reduction of political problems into technological ones—a reduction that blinds us to the ways in which those very technologies operate and fail to operate
I bolded the part that seems key. The kind of paranoia social technologies instigate aren't political; they are personal. They don't prompt users to become suspicious of state or corporate power so much as present an illusion of radically decentralized power where all peers are potential enemies, and privacy is the preserve of the elite and the status aspiration of everyone else.

I'm most interested in Chun's suggestion that "the delusion of constant surveillance" is performing certain ideological work; she doesn't say this in the chapter, but this delusion is at once the fantasy of becoming a celebrity, of being worthy of being watched, as it is a paranoid fear. This is reminiscent of Althusser's classic interpellation theory, which holds that we are enjoy being singled out by institutional power (or "ideological state apparatuses") because it individuates us. When the advertisement, says "Hey, you," and we are flattered and impressed with our own importance. Individuation feels like a recognition of our autonomy, but it is a manifestation of the way we are controlled. (I suppose you could trace a lot of that back to Foucault as well.)

Every moment we are afraid for our privacy, we are thrilled by our celebrity. We can fantasize about people following our every move captured in social media, but that is not the point. Most shit we put up is ignored or vanishes from people's consciousnesses. What does matter though is the way the data persists and its context degrades, leaving it available to pop up in search queries and be put to whatever use the social-media companies or the state decide.

Chun argues that "Digital language makes control systems invisible: we no longer experience the visible yet unveriļ¬able gaze but a network of nonvisualizable digital control." I think that sounds right, but I would modify that to speculate that we imagine control as gossipy neighbors spying (which diminishes its threat to a degree and makes it partly appealing), making us overlook how control is systemic and sustained by digital networks' ubiquitous data capture (regardless of whether any human ever reads all of it). The point is not that our privacy is invaded by this or that person; it's that no one is permitted to be private by default. It's a privilege of power.

Not only are we individuated by receiving attention on social media; we are also individuated by giving it. Chun notes that "Even when ‘lurking,’ you constantly send information. It is impossible to resist subjectivity by doing nothing (as Baudrillard once argued and encouraged) if we jack in or are jacked in." That seems like something we can easily overlook in an effort to use social media to our ends without having it warp our subjectivity.

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