Rezension: Media, Surveillance and Identity

Rezension: zusammen mit Criminologia-LogoKopie

André Jansson and Miyase Christensen (Hrsg.). Media, Surveillance and Identity: Social Perspectives. New York: Peter Lang, 2014.

von Birgit Däwes, Wien.

When Jaron Lanier received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in Frankfurt in October, he emphasized in his acceptance speech that “[c]urbing government surveillance is essential to the future of democracy, but activists need to keep in mind that in the big picture what is going on at the moment is a gradual weakening of governments in favor of the businesses that gather the data in first place, through the mechanisms of wealth disparity and austerity.” This significant shift in power and control also necessitates new methodologies and perspectives in surveillance studies. While it has become a commonplace to point to the shortcomings of Foucault’s panoptic metaphor as a model of contemporary governance, new tropes of surveillance culture are still to be found.

In the present volume, expertly edited by Swedish scholars Andre Jansson and Miyase Christensen, this task is approached from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, including media and communications studies, sociology, politics, cultural studies, and geography. As the editors summarize in their highly informative foreword, even though more recent concepts have taken into account the transformations and complexities of surveillance culture (in terminologies such as Mathiesen’s “synopticon,” Haggerty and Ericson’s “surveillant assemblage,” Vaidhyanathan’s “cyptopticon,” Andrejevic’s “lateral surveillance,” Albrechtslund’s “participatory surveillance,” or—explicitly addressed in this volume—“complicit surveillance,” “collaborative surveillance” and “interveillance”), there is still a tangible lack of research at the practical sites of these concepts, and of research that provides “not only contextuality but also historicity” (3). By contrast, Jansson and Christensen focus on the interplay between media, surveillance, and identity in order to rethink “the very concept of surveillance” as such, especially “at the juncture of macro-social elements and individualized processes that currently shape and define the overarching manifestations and structural absorption of surveillance” (3), and, not least, to “brin[g] it into dialogue with associated social phenomena” (4). The volume is structured into three nicely alliterative and entirely symmetrical parts entitled “Perceptions”, “Practices”, and “Politics”, which unite, in a truly transnational effort, perspectives from nine different nations from around the globe.

The first four contributions in “Perceptions” focus on the role of social actors in increasingly mediatized and commodified environments. In the opening article, Miyase Christensen argues, based on a project of qualitative interviews, that surveillance depends more than ever “on the compliant exchance of information and services through various mediated practices, giving surveillance a complicit character” (17). This complicity caters to both what she terms “geographies of visibility” (28) and the centers of control behind them, and in spite of varying degrees of awareness of the implications for privacy, consumers tend to either lack concern over the paths of collected data, or they prioritize practical considerations over ethical concerns. The same phenomenon of complicity drives the system of loyalty cards that many customers use for shopping, which Nils Zurawski reads in the context of social theories of reciprocity and gift exchange. The fact that the “seemingly commodity-oriented transaction” of information and benefits is embedded in a logic of “reciprocal exchange” (45)—and thus linked to questions of identity—helps to explain why many consumers remain unconcerned about the protection of data and privacy: loyalty card surveillance is perceived as a “mod[e] of social formation” rather than a means of control (45). Thomas Allmer et al. then use an online survey conducted among some 5,000 Austrian students to document the public perception of social media networks. Whereas privacy is a contested idea, sometimes criticized as “an individualistic Western-centric concept that harms the public good” (51), they argue, the high degree of uncertainty among users with regard to the specific operational principles of Facebook and the long-term consequences of posting data compels a much more critical awareness of the intersections between social and economic surveillance.

In the concluding article of this section, David Lyon convincingly deduces the current normalization of surveillance culture (and the increasing compliance of its participants) to two key factors, which he calls the “fear factor” (which originated in the academic discovery of risk culture in the twentieth century and which has grown particularly strong since 9/11) and the “fun factor” (the roots of which can be found in radio and television culture, and which has transformed into a widely uncritical “excitement and enjoyment of engaging with social media” [74]). Both of these factors propel a “liquefying but not evaporating” surveillance culture (82), contributing to what Bourdieu would term the “habitus” of surveillance, and necessitating, as he warns, “a new politics of personal information, based on a fresh ethics, focusing on the human face and on human flourishing” (78).

These issues—especially the reasons for public compliance and their roots in the TV culture of the twentieth century—are also taken up in Mark Andrejevic’s opening piece to the next section, in which he highlights the logic of debt as a paradigm for surveillance’s functionality. The entire section—“Practices”—provides us with case studies on users’ interactions with (and responses to) the new digital usages of information, such as the Google-owned commercial mobile social network Dodgeball (which Lee Humphreys reads as exemplary for three kinds of surveillance within everyday spaces of sociality: consensual or voluntary panopticism, lateral surveillance, as well as self-surveillance), or the online reputation systems backing travel networks such as Couchsurfing.com or Airbnb.com. The latter, analyzed by Jennie Germann Molz as substantial sites of information exchange within a new sharing economy, testifies to the increasing need for social surveillance in order to establish and benefit from online reputations for ‘real-life’ interaction. Interpersonal surveillance is closely intertwined with social and economic relationships, which also leads beyond the dichotomy of surveillance as being either centralized or decentralized: “it might be more accurate,” according to Molz, “to think of collaborative surveillance as rhizomatic and amplified” (136). In the final chapter of this section, André Jansson takes again a more theoretical turn, discussing the domestic uses of transmedia technologies in the metaphorical framework of the “texture” as a “weave, or a fabric, with a particular pattern and a particular material feel” (152) as a bridge between the material and the social. Based on a study of Swedish households, he argues, the expanding culture of what he terms “interveillance”—a “cultural condition where identity creation, expressivity and mediated peer-to-peer monitoring come together” (146)—does not necessarily result in more open social interaction, but in a reproduction and/or stabilization of values within moral economies and moral geographies.

David Barnard Wills’s essay on “The Non-Consensual Hallucination: The Politics of Online Privacy” opens the third section—Politics—by engaging privacy as a discursive practice (in the sense of Laclau and Mouffe) in contexts of identity and hegemony. Liisa A- Mäkinen and Hille Koskela argue with the example of IE (Internet Eyes, a company based in the UK) that surveillance has become “increasingly understood in terms of hedonism, pleasure, and amusement” (189), so that the relationships between virtual and real have shifted. Five particular overlapping game metaphors (the cat-and-mouse game, the hide-and-seek game, the labyrinth, sleight-of-hand, and poker) are particularly useful for conceptualizations of post-panoptic surveillance practices with their “multiple agents and directions” (197). In geopolitical contexts in which the state is indeed still the major agent of surveillance, such as the People’s Republic of China, subversive discourses and online practices emerge as strategies of resistance. Looking at the distribution and politics of sexually explicit online contents, Katrien Jacobs describes a trend by which “Chinese netizens are strategically rewriting individualism and collectivism to claim their sexual pleasures and rights, [and] to foster a radical departure from a cultural rhetoric of asexuality and intimidation” (207). Along similar lines of countercultural identities and an increasing awareness of surveillance culture, the concluding article of the volume explores in more detail the phenomenon of “cybernauts who are deeply knowledgeable about both kinds of surveillance but who are dismissive of any special privacy claims at all” (219). The post-privacy paradigm, which discards privacy as something “both untenable and socially unrewarded” (218), may serve as an ideological “sense-making exercise” (223) or contribute to coordinates of identity. Through models of praxis, doxa, and knowledge, they differentiate between “(a) the actions of privacy advocates, (b) the beliefs held by them and (c) verifiable knowledge” (233).

In its entirety, the volume highlights a variety of highly topical phenomena that diversify our understanding of surveillance culture and its most recent reverberations. In all its facets, the volume reminds us that, as Jansson and Christensen state in their introduction, surveillance is primarily “a social conduct and phenomenon signifying a particular type of relationship amongst human beings and institutions” (4); and not so much a “condition that emerges at random” (5). Media, Surveillance and Identity offers a broad spectrum of analyses and methods, ranging from the highly abstract to the quotidian and practical; it contains a user-friendly index and allows for casual browsing as much as for linear and in-depth reading. Thus, with just the right balance between complexity and accessibility, this truly transnational collection is both a treasure box of case studies for advanced connoisseurs of the field and a good starting point for readers not yet too familiar with the interdisciplinary field of surveillance studies.

Birgit Däwes, Professor and Chair of American Studies, University of Vienna, Austria

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