From Visible to Invisible Control

The paradigm of a surveillance society that prevailed in the understand- ing/perception of the “new domestic order” (nouvel ordre interieur) during the 1970s was strongly influenced by Michel Foucault’s work on the panopticon and prisons in his book Discipline and Punish. When Gilles Deleuze introduced the concept of “society of control” later in the 1990s,32 there is little doubt that he tried to capture the shift—resting on deregulations and privatizations—from disciplinary societies to an art of government in which the managerial rationality was gaining centrality. Deleuze’s society of control would be that in which flexible control mechanisms, leaning on computer systems, would multiply based on the model of the network-centric company of a post-Fordist era characterized by short-term controls, speedily operating through continual and illimited flows. By the time Gilles Deleuze coined the term “societies of control,” this entrepreneurial management became a tutelar reference and was exported towards all institutions with its load of new instruments of result assessment and measure as well as of modalities of citizens’ observation.

What is new compared to when Michel Foucault built his archaeology of the disciplinary society is that compared to the disciplines and their visible dispositifs, the efficiency and acceptability of technologies of control now rest on their invisibility. “Whereas the ‘disciplinary relation’ requires the participation of the one who is monitored, technologies transform the individual into an object of information only. An illustration of this is that while through discipline the individual participated to his own normalization through self-coercion and self-control, he is now liberated from this task thanks to the information that have been collected on him, without him knowing.”33 This being said, some new technologies sometimes perpetuate disciplines. With the electronic bracelet, prison walls and prison guards seem to vanish since the virtual character of intangible limits and internalized obligations suffices. But convicts who do not comply with the constraints will return to confinement.

What has changed since Gilles Deleuze forged the concept of societies of control is that traceability techniques kept becoming more sophisticated, entering all the interstices of society. The collection of traces has become consubstantial with a mode of organization of social relations that needs to anticipate behaviours, identify the probability of certain conducts and build categories based on statistical frequencies. Not only is this collection of trace invisible but it is also mobile and automatic with a deterritorialized treatment of the data collected. The real risk is that automatization goes hand in hand with the autonomy of technique, as Jacques Ellul had warned early on, long before computer science had deployed its full potential.34

The overbid on security and protection that governments maintain in an alarming way remind us of those dystopic worlds of a totalitarian social control imagined by Evgueni Zamiatine and Aldous Huxley in the interwar period, or by George Orwell just after WWII. The difference with these imaginary worlds is that contemporary democratic societies and their social control mechanisms have little to do with the age of industrial, Fordist or totalitarian society. Contemporary societies live at the pace of apparent transparency and fluidity of digital technologies, whereas the other existed at the age of machines, symbol of the ideology of never- ending progress. Contemporary societies drink the ideology of communication, which are deemed limitless. The faith in the power of redemption of communication and of its networks that has accompanied the processes of wild deregulation and toxic speculation is the one that legitimated the dissemination and painless introduction of techniques of intrusion into society. If the exception tends to become the rule and manages to convert to normality and become one with everyday life, it is because there is a firmly rooted belief—in the collective mentality—that technology has the power to solve the fundamental problems of society.

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