Last week, I held a short talk at the workshop “Surveillant Antiquities and Modern Transparencies:Exercising and Resisting Surveillance Then and Now” at the Excellence Cluster TOPOI in Berlin, which was organized by Tudor Sala and Seda Gürses.
For the workshop I submitted the following abstract:
Modern, organized social information processing – the new surveillance (Gary T. Marx) – is certainly different from older forms of surveillance: within the last three or four decades it has been steadily industrialized. The industrialization of information processing is the process of socialization of ‘mental functions’: they are taken from the individual context of the individual and put into formalized machine-processable procedures (Wilhelm Steinmüller); it’s a transformation of a subjective into an objective process (Andreas Boes et al. with reference to Karl Marx).
Against the backdrop of this industrialization process, the presentation will challenge two assumptions commonly held in privacy research and Surveillance Studies alike: first, that one can ignore the fundamental difference between a community and a society in analyzing surveillance, and second, that social interaction theory is an adequate means for the analysis of modern, industrialized surveillance.
The community–society (Gemeinschaft–Gesellschaft) dichotomy is a very basic sociological concept (Ferdinand Tönnies, Max Weber). Social collectives that are held together by emotional ties, personal social interactions, and implicit rules are called communities, whereas society are held together by more rational decisions, indirect interactions, impersonal roles, and mechanisms such as contracts and explicit legal rules (Christoph Lutz and Pepe Strathoff). Additionally, due to the increase of complexity modern society has developed from a segmentary to a stratified-hierarchical and then to a functionally differentiated (Talcott Parsons, Niklas Luhmann). In contrast, many privacy and surveillance researchers seem to share a strong commitment to identity politics, seeking for an abandonment of modern society and a return to community-style social collectives. The question is, however, whether this is an adequate starting point for analyzing modern surveillance.
Most privacy and surveillance theory also share a common theoretical foundation: Erving Goffman’s sociological role theory. According to Goffman, social interaction is “all the interaction which occurs throughout any one occasion when a given set of individuals are in one another’s continuous presence.” Addressing the relationship between organization and individual with this theory is highly problematic, especially if the organization has industrialized its own information processing and decision making – there simply is no interpersonal relationship between a user (or better: usee) and Google’s computers. Therefore, it’s highly implausible if focusing on persons as possible attackers is adequate for understanding modern industrialized information processing.
In the presentation, I talked about three issues: (1) the relationship between the sociological concepts of community and society, (2) the relationship between privacy and surveillance theories based on interpersonal relationships and modern, organized social information processing practices, and (3) the relationship between the division of labor and the concept of informed consent in privacy theories and laws.
The conclusions of my presentation relate especially to the question whether and how we can compare “ancient and modern systems of surveillance”. With respect to the first issue mentioned above, I concluded that we can compare communities with communities, but we should not compare communities with societies. The conclusion for the second issue is highly similar: we can compare sensitivities towards or actions against surveillance practices and surveillance systems, but we should not compare pre-industrialized and industrialized surveillance systems and practices. My third conclusion is a bit more related to practical considerations for governing the privacy, surveillance and data protection problem in our society: We can – and we should – demand the education of the public to enhance its understanding of modern information processing, but we certainly should not create a (legal, technical, economic, social) protection system that only works if and only if the data subjects do understand modern surveillance practices and the risks they pose for individuals, groups, organizations and the society.