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Dispossession by Surveillance

Published onNov 24, 2020
Dispossession by Surveillance

Start with 100 points as a blank, generic human. Deduct from your score if you: do not live in the global north, are a woman or person of color, are trans or disabled or elderly. There’s no end to the permutations on how these point deductions can concatenate.

Bodies have to be constantly under surveillance. Have your phone on you at all times, so that it gives off a steady stream of telemetry. Your velocity, your purchases, your moods as registered in your subtweets. It’s all data for the mill.

This is a seemingly benign-sounding version of the surveillance that generates rankings. Bodies can also be under video surveillance, with facial recognition. Or under audio surveillance, the algorithm primed to detect some alleged mood change as measured through intonation. At work, every action can be monitored, generating an “inactivity report” if you pause to draw breath. Real-time activity measures can even be fed back to the worker, as if it were a game, with some paltry prize held out for the one who works the hardest.

Maybe you have to wear an electronic shackle. Maybe you have to blow into a breathalyzer to start your car. Maybe you are “known to the police” for supposed gang activity. Maybe.

As you go down in rankings they become measures of abjection. More and more liberties may be taken by others with your body and with those data traces it produced. You are treated as if you do not merit care, as if you do not have a right to live, as if you do not have a right to the autonomy of your own body. As if you do not even have the right to be mourned.1

Economic migrants are especially subject to ever-mutating principles of subjection. The border has for a long time functioned as a lab for testing out both high-tech ambient as well as old-fashioned surveillance and control.2 The condition of the migrant is that of constant scrutiny. Slaves and migrants have always been scrutinized; they have been treated as data assemblages to govern; they have never been invisible. And whenever they were able to hide their presence, actors and technologies worked hard to make slave and migrant bodies into perceptible matter. In this sense, algorithmic power extends and strengthens the prejudices, the alibis for violence, of another era. Algorithmic surveillance became a scandal for those who assumed that they had a right to privacy. Subjects managed by the white-settler states, however, are used to this lack of privacy. In the era of generalized digital surveillance, those who used to feel safe in the dormitory suburb that is the enriched world are getting a taste of seemingly ordinary modes of governance.

The generalization of digital surveillance is bringing to the enriched zones a level of exposure formerly only felt by the most precarious. It is producing an affronted class, led by panicky white boys and Ivy League worthies afraid of losing their sovereignty and privacy. The affronted class shake their fists while ignoring their own complicity in the (re)production of precarity or their distracted glances when confronted with depletion zones.

Take, for example, panic about surveillance capitalism.3 It does indeed seem the case that all of human existence is now processed as the raw material for observation and evaluation. To the affronted class, this appears as an unprecedented form of power, as if it had emerged in the last decade. Indeed, it may have several novel features, though subjecting certain bodies to surveillance is not one of them.4 Current fears of the “end of privacy”5 emerge out of the anxiety of the affronted class, eliding the fact that privacy is a luxury that racialized bodies rarely enjoy.

The affronted class becomes nostalgic for a pre-neoliberal form of capitalism that is fancifully imagined as inclusive, responsive to the needs of consumers (workers are rarely mentioned), democratic, competitive, and based on the production of high-quality products. Critics of this or that hyphenated form of capitalism are invested in rescuing capitalism from its crisis of legitimacy by taking as their object of critique neoliberal capitalism, surveillance capitalism, monopoly capitalism, platform capitalism – as if the object of analysis could be captured in a modifier.

There are indeed novel features to how the proliferation of the digital generalizes surveillance and renders more and more bodies potentially precarious. The transformation of the business model first used by tech firms has now been adopted in virtually every other industry. In the product or service-based business model, revenue was generated by fees and the sale of goods. Industries are now committed to a business model based on the commodification of behavioral data and the sale of predictive products to actors from advertisers to the state who have a stake in predicting future human behavior.

Claims that surveillance capitalism’s process of dispossession is unprecedented ignore the roots of contemporary surveillance practices in techniques developed within the contexts of slavery, settler-colonialism, and empire. Technologies of observing and tracking workers have developed side-by-side with techniques of control intended to exploit new terrains of accumulation. Colonial and racialized subjects have been objects of surveillance since the advent of chattel slavery and settler-colonialism. Their movements, actions, behaviors, feelings, and bodies were zealously observed, guarded, and documented – not least in case they showed signs of revolt. But there were technical limits to how much this information could be gathered, processed, transmitted, and enacted. The tens of thousands of fugitive slave notices appearing in the American newspapers of the 1800s at least left some margins of time and space through which the fugitive slave could disappear.6

In the laboratories of slavery, surveillance was an overhead, a form of friction, resulting from its inherent forms of violence but counting as a cost against the value of the products produced. What is distinctive about the age of generalized digital surveillance is that surveillance becomes itself a form of control of value production. Surveillance is no longer a byproduct; it is a business model, one that generates its own laboratories of experimentation with the rendering precarious of more and more classes of bodies, reaching up even into the privileged ranks of the affronted class – at least in their panicky imagination.

In settler colonies from South Africa to Palestine, prisons and police are used to both displace and control the indigenous inhabitants. Such conflicts catalyze the creation of new instruments of repression and control. This is a space of experimentation Wang calls the “carceral laboratory.” It is a zone where new techniques of control are tested out on society’s “others”: women, minorities, criminals, queers, the underclass, and colonial subjects. For example, the West Bank and Gaza function as a carceral laboratory for Israel, which then exports technologies of repression to states around the globe.7 At the same time, laboratories of repression also become test zones for resistance. In Palestine, the laboratory of resistance can be found riddled with incendiary balloons let loose into Israel,8 with Palestinian youth returning to live in depopulated villages,9 or in the continuous rebuilding of razed Bedouin homes. The scientists in laboratories are not the only ones conducting experiments – their test subjects sousveille as the scientists surveille.

Colonies, from European territorial colonialism to contemporary settlements, have functioned as laboratories where techniques of surveillance are developed, tested, refined, and then converted into domestic policing infrastructure. What was once known as the “McNamara Wall,” built and designed by the US military to surveil cross-border movements between North and South Vietnam during the 1960s–1970s, was turned in 1970 into an “electronic fence” that monitored unauthorized border crossers from Mexico now imagined as “intruders.” Contemporary calls for “smart walls” hark back to the conditions of possibility set by the “McNamara Wall” and the “electronic fence.” Today, predictive software developed by the Department of Defense for counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan has been converted into the predictive policing software PredPol. Such projects have their roots in the early days of the US’s imperial undertakings. In Policing America’s Empire, Alfred McCoy argues that the modern American surveillance state emerged out of the US’s colonial experiment in the Philippines, beginning at the end of the nineteenth century and into the first half of the twentieth century. In addition to repatriating information-based policing techniques, colonial administrators repatriated conceptions of race and methods for dealing with the nation’s “internal others”: “After years of pacifying an overseas empire where race was the frame for perception and action, colonial veterans came home to turn the same lens on America, seeing its ethnic communities not as fellow citizens but as internal colonies requiring coercive controls.”10

At the same time that the US was developing domestic urban counterinsurgency tactics to put down black radicals and the anti-war Left, the Cold War prompted the US to export its professionalized police tactics to use against communists abroad. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy established the Office of Public Safety (OPS), an agency that worked closely with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to train police in South Vietnam, Iran, Taiwan, Brazil, Uruguay and Greece. Though this Cold War project was disbanded in 1974, similar projects continued to train agents abroad in security tactics for the purpose of crushing communists and facilitating free trade. Many of Latin America’s most notorious despots were trained at the US-operated School of Americas. The military training school was founded in 1946 to secure the Panama Canal Zone, then shifted to the domain of anti-communist counterinsurgency, and whose alibi now, among other things, is the “war on drugs.”

Even when used as a tool of governance by the state, surveillance has been key, not just to the maintenance of capitalism and empire, but to their experimental elaboration. The state’s need to control colonial and racialized subjects and protect the hegemony of capitalism authorizes the expansion of surveillance and policing.

When considering the difference between technology designed for consumption and technology designed for state surveillance, we see two kinds of branding at work. On the one hand, there is corporate branding as a marker of status. On the other hand, there is a kind of branding where subjects are forced to bear a mark of stigmatization. On the consumer side, digital technologies are coveted when they are tiny, powerful, and expensive.

In 2014, Nexus created a new tracking device meant for detained migrants to use as an alternative to detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). We could call this technology an ankle bracelet, but we prefer the word “shackle,” which is how the New Yorker describes it. Nexus’ GPS-enabled shackle, ironically and cynically called “Libre” (Free), costs $420 per month to rent and is often worn for 25 months, which is the time most immigration cases take to be resolved. If “clients” wear it for the duration of their case, as of 2019, “someone with a seventy five hundred dollar bond would pay Libre nearly thirteen thousand dollars in rental and other fees. (The vast majority of the four hundred thousand people detained by ICE each year are deemed automatically ineligible for bond and remain in custody until they win their cases or get deported.).”11

Libre is used to monitor and keep track of the location of detained migrants. The enclosure of the holding cell is extended into the confines of what is meant to be their home.12 Control and surveillance in this sense is modular as it follows the surveilled in their everyday life. Just as border control was reimagined through its engagements with cybernetics thinking in the 1970s,13 immigration control is reconfigured by treating migrants as data assemblages to manage and control. The shackle, however, doesn’t only monitor and attempt to enclose migrants; it also mutilates their bodies. These devices generate intense heat when charging that then burns the skin.14 Here is where the electronic shackle does not hide its long-standing connections to the history of the plantation and of slavery. It echoes the execution of branding as a racializing surveillance.15 The conditions of living under detention go skin-deep for these migrants, underscoring the fact that not all bodies are surveilled the same. Some bodies are rendered markable, shackle-able, while others are not.

The GPS shackle helps transform the bodies and lives of detained migrants – just as it does with parolees – into extractable matter. The monthly rent and fees push those that are shackled into indebtedness while their futures remain uncertain. The coyote (smuggler), long understood by border studies scholars as a product of US immigration policy and operations, is the other side of the same coin. The coyote extracts value from the precarious conditions of unauthorized migrants. The coyote profits by helping such migrants navigate the borderlands without being surveilled; Nexus profits from migrants’ intense vulnerability as surveilled subjects. Precarity is both a product of capital as well as the grounds for the (re)production of extractable matter.

Immigration has often been both a response to precarity and a cause of precarity. Unauthorized migration is a desperate move by desperately precarious people who have been deprived of their livelihoods by the very industries that create the objects they must mortgage their lives to rent. Those whose lives have been scarred by empire’s export of war are trapped in the production of their own displacement and migration.

In the enriched zones, among the panicky liberals of the affronted class, it is mostly consumer-grade surveillance, assessment, and control that generates the opinion pieces. Even white men with jobs and homes who don’t think twice about what can happen to them when they walk the streets start to worry about their Fitbit data, or whether Alexa knows their porn habits.

These enriched zone problems call for two kinds of contexts. One is historical. The forms of surveillance creeping into such enriched lives have precedents, and those precedents might be many and varied, but all of them were laboratories that experimented on “the human” to render it precarious in ever new ways.

The other context is to look at depletion zones all around us today, where the kinds of intrusion of surveillance into everyday life extends far beyond questions of keeping one’s personal browsing habits private. The precarious, both past and present, are both subject and product of laboratories whose techniques are more and more generalizable in the age of digital surveillance and control.


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