Written for HACU-0237 - Power: Philosophy, Politics, Art taught by Christoph Cox at Hampshire College, October 11, 2019
SMARTPHONE SURVEY APPS IN CONTROL SOCIETIES
As history has shown, different modes of power have continuously bled into and superseded one another, making the inner functions of these techniques opaque to those entangled in them. Michel Foucault analyzes the transition from what he calls sovereign power to what he calls disciplinary power in his series of lectures at the Collège de France from 1975 to 1976, transcribed in his book Society Must Be Defended, as well as in his book Discipline and Punish. Gilles Deleuze then theorizes, in his “Postscript on Control Societies,” that at the time of his writing in the late 20th century European societies were actively transitioning out of a disciplinary society and into one of “control.” Both of these authors help illuminate the various mutating webs of power that grasped humanity for so long. Following in this train of thought, I hope to reassess these theories and analyze the example of smartphone apps that pay the user to take surveys. Deleuze’s writing perfectly predicts the emergence of transactional technologies such as these. Drawing from the writing collective Tiqqun and the anonymously written text Desert, we can understand these apps within the control society they operate in.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, European societies transitioned from sovereign to disciplinary power.(1) Sovereign power is that mode in which the monarch holds absolute power and is able to absolutely expend that through taking the life of their subjects.(2) It is defined by the monarch’s right to “take life or let live.”(3) This manifests in public acts of extreme violence against those who transgress against the sovereign. At the beginning of Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes a gristly example of one of these displays occurring on March 2, 1757.(4) It includes disturbing details of the forms of violence that were commonplace at this time, like the “flesh being torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and calves with red-hot pincers [...] and on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire.”(5)
He then turns to a more contemporary example of punishment, occurring just eighty years later: a timetable of the daily activities of an imprisoned individual. Contrasting these two, Foucault argues that they each “define a certain penal style.”(6) While, under sovereign power, punishment manifested as the absolute expenditure of power, disciplinary power appears to focus more on confinement as a means of disciplining the bodies of transgressors.
On the transition from sovereignty to discipline as modes of power, Foucault argues that this turn occurs through a “democratization of sovereignty.”(7) It is distributed from the King into the hands of citizens. But this democratization, one which appears to grant subjects greater freedom and thus greater power, goes hand in hand with the new forms of domination, namely, discipline:
"We have then [...] on the one hand, a legislation, a discourse, and an organization of public right articulated around the principle of the sovereignty of the social body and the delegation of individual sovereignty to the State; and we also have a tight grid of disciplinary coercions that actually guarantees the cohesion of that social body. [...] the two necessarily go together."(8)
In order for power to keep its hold on its subjects while apparently loosening its sovereign grip, it must discipline the bodies of these subjects so that their newfound power is wielded in limited ways. Society must exhibit a normalizing function, so that the sovereignty of individuals does not have totally free reign. “‘Enlightenment’, which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines,” Foucault summarizes beautifully.(9)
But the hand of discipline is not limited to just the prison, he continues, but is seen also in every discrete institution that aims to produce acceptable subjects. “Is it surprising,” he writes in Discipline and Punish, “that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”(10) All these institutions, and others as well, act as zones of confinement, where subjects are taught the appropriate ways of functioning in society: they “characterize, classify, specialize; they distribute along a scale, around a norm, hierarchize individuals in relation to one another and, if necessary, disqualify and invalidate.”(11) The examination, ubiquitous in schools, workplaces, and hospitals is a concrete manifestation of this normalizing function.
The school, for example, is the place where children learn behaviors deemed appropriate in the other zones of discipline that they will enter later in life. They are taught to raise their hand before speaking, to ask permission to use the bathroom, in short, to be good little subjects for when they grow up and move into the factory or the barracks. The factory as well is a territory where one is disciplined. The worker is made to repeat a task, to not ask questions or complain, and their use of time is managed constantly. They then, at the end of the day, return home: what happens at work stays at work; each territory is distinct from others.
But this does not seem to be entirely true by the latter half of the 20th century, French theorist Gilles Deleuze argues. Deleuze furthers Foucault’s analysis of power in “Postscript on Control Societies” by formulating a new mode of power, one that was becoming readily apparent by 1990— when he wrote— and arguably has become completely ubiquitous when I write this in the latter half of 2019. He uses William S. Burroughs’ proposed term “control” to characterize this new mode of power. According to Deleuze, control functions in far more diffuse and continuous ways than discipline did.(12) Whereas, in disciplinary society, an individual would move from one discrete center of confinement to another— for example, from the school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory, with visits to prisons or hospitals interrupting this disjointed movement from place to place— in a society of control one is not so much confined to as encouraged to move through these porous sites of power. Rather than distinct zones of confinement, “business, training, and military service [are] coexisting metastable states of a single modulation, a sort of universal transmutation.”(13) Deleuze describes changes in the prison, school, and business systems that exemplify the move from discipline to control. In the prison system, there came the push towards reforms that privileged alternatives to custody, at least for minor offenses. This included the ankle monitor as a technological embodiment of deterritorialized confinement. No longer was the prisoner physically confined to the prison, but rather many prisoners were confined to their respective homes, scattered throughout the landscape of power. In the school system Deleuze points to the emphasis on continuous assessment and the infiltration of business into every facet of education. Less centralized to the school, now school and business blend together; boundaries become blurry. Lastly, in the business system, the old factory system has been superseded by new tactics for the manipulation of money and workers.(14) The dominant mode of production, capitalism, retained from the prior disciplinary society, no longer is directed towards production, but toward “metaproduction.” “What it seeks to sell is services, and what it seeks to buy, activities.”(15)
The contemporary example I’d like to bring into conversation with Deleuze’s formulation of power involves a trend in advertisements that has been directed towards me on social media in recent months. In an exciting new business venture, apps have been proclaiming that they will “pay me to take surveys!” As Deleuze suggests, this business is not focused on producing any physical products, but to sell services and buy activities. The apps that perform this exchange are buying the users’ data, opinions, and preferences for what promotional blog posts suggest is “free money,” and selling the user the idea of a more personalized advertising experience over time. The user of these apps sell their labor in the form of their usage-activity which amounts to a valuable commodity in the realm of marketing. The marketing research company “Luth Research,” owner of the SurveySavvy app, claims in its terms and conditions that “continuing participation of members in survey research benefits all parties involved” because members (users of the app) are rewarded for the valuable role they play in market research, and clients (businesses conducting market research via SurveySavvy) receive timely survey responses from a diverse group of respondents.(16) These terms and conditions fail to acknowledge what I, and presumably Deleuze, would argue is the discrepancy between cost and benefit for the user of the app. Surplus value is generated by paying the user of the app less than they are able to sell the data to advertisers, thus generating a profit for the app company. Similarly, advertisers make increased profits by specializing their advertising trends based on the preferences of potential customers. Everyone profits, except the user.(17)
Additionally, in the “Postscript" Deleuze argues that, under disciplinary power, subjects are individuals that make up a mass, whereas under control subjects are “dividuals,” divided against and within themselves.(18) For this app to be marketed to me in the first place on social media, it’s likely that I fall into many of the demographic categories that these apps depend on. I am probably presumed to be a young student, and a member of the post-Fordist precariat class who seeks out flexible sources of income. In this way this app formulates me as a “dividual,” not a particular person with a particular set of interests, but a member of various social, political, and demographic categories which conform to certain market trends. When a user registers on SurveySavvy, personal data is collected by the app in order to determine which surveys are appropriate for them.(19) Any given user is divided into demographic categories and predicated as someone who may have valuable data pertaining to a specific market.
Making explicit the nefarious quality of this pervasive form of power, the anonymously written essay Desert quotes Tiqqun when they write that “our tyrannical enemy no longer draws its power from its ability to shut people up, but from its aptitude to make them talk.”(20) This follows from Deleuze’s writing on power, when he writes on how power no longer confines individuals but encourages their activity.
While apps like SurveySavvy argue that their administration is benign, even beneficial for all parties involved, they play a vital role in the movement towards persuading individuals to talk. Desert continues:
"When these new technologies are combined with old fashioned ‘human intelligence’ gathered by informers and infiltrators operating within resistant communities, states and corporations can gain a level of oversight that would have been unthought-of even a few decades ago."(21)
While modes of power that claim to operate through encouraging freedom of movement and expression of opinion may seem like a step towards greater freedom from the grips of power, (just as the democratization of sovereignty appeared to grant subjects greater power), Deleuze as well as Desert and Tiqqun show how this encouragement works to increase the range of what falls into the purview of power and control. They show how voluntary and incentivized expression of preference by users allows those very preferences to be sold back to themselves at a higher cost than what they were compensated for this data via predictive advertising. Once again, everyone profits, except the user.
So how can we, as subjects traversed by the power of control, resist subjugation? Deleuze writes in the “Postscript” that, when coming up against a new form of power, “it’s not a question of worrying or of hoping for the best, but of finding new weapons.”(22) We need not waste time worrying about the maleffects of control or frivolously hoping that ethical standards will magically erupt out of our present condition. We simply must take up creative techniques that pose a threat to control as a mode of power. Following the example of the app that pays the user to take surveys, I’d like to propose a hypothetical counter-app. I do not claim to purport a specific mechanism by which this app would work, nor do I intend to flesh out the logistics of what implementing this would look like. Rather I’d like to suggest that this hypothetical app exemplifies the need for data obfuscation via over-saturation.
In their book This is Not a Program, Tiqqun writes that “greater freedom does not lie in the absence of a predicate, in anonymity by default. Greater freedom results instead from the saturation of predicates, from their anarchical accumulation.”(23) In writing this they suggest that, under control, a tactical mode of resistance is not to try to avoid the data collection that is so ubiquitous and necessary to the functioning of power, but to render it useless and inaccurate by saturating the dataset with false results. Luth Research acknowledges explicitly in their Terms and Conditions that “by responding to market research surveys, registered members of SurveySavvy.com significantly influence the development and marketing of products and services throughout the world.”(24) This same incentivized response transaction that companies rely heavily on can easily be utilized to obfuscate data collected by SurveySavvy and make marketing attempts futile. My hypothetical app would create many accounts on apps like SurveySavvy and automatically send masses of randomized answers to the company. This would serve the dual purpose of not only rendering the companies and state holding this power less capable of widespread surveillance, but also to limit the surplus value generated through this surveillance and returning some power and autonomy to those who rely on using apps like this for their livelihood.
I would like to briefly caution against underestimating the impact of the implementation of apps like this. While they may seem like childish pranks to some, their affective potential is one of their greatest assets. When the cultural imagination is stunted by what Mark Fisher coins as “capitalist realism,”(25) the need for tools (no matter how small) that allow users to embody the evasion of surveillance are more needed than ever. It’s quite easy to forget— in fact it often feels that most encounters we have function to try to make us forget— that it’s possible to counter control. Every act of micro-sabotage reminds us that another world is possible.
Deleuze writes that it’s up to the youth of the world “to discover whose ends these serve, just as older people discovered, with considerable difficulty, who was benefiting from disciplines.”(26) Just as sovereign power was rendered useless— giving way to new forms of power, but also to new freedoms— and discipline transformed in the same way, it is necessary for us to think from the situation we are in, and take the new freedoms we are oh so generously granted into our own hands. With considerable difficulty, I’m sure, but also with the joy and playfulness that comes with destituting an enemy.
(1) Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, ed. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana, trans. David Macey, (New York: Picador, 1997), 37.
(2) Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, 36.
(3) Foucault, 241.
(4) Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 3-6. 5 Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 3.
(6) Foucault, 7.
(7) Foucault, Society Must be Defended, 37.
(8) See note 7 above.
(9) Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 222.
(10) Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 228.
(11) Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 223.
(12) Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies,” In Negotiations, trans. Martin Joughin, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 181.
(13) Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies,” 179.
(14) Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies,” 182.
(15) Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies,” 181.
(16) “Terms and Conditions,” SurveySavvy, Accessed October 11, 2019, https:// www.surveysavvy.com/terms?load_mode=modal
(17) I’d like to briefly distinguish between “profit" and “benefit” in this context. I argue that the user does not profit from the use of this app because there is a necessary discrepancy between the labor expended by the user and the wage provided given the generation of surplus value by the developer. While the user may benefit from this wage, they do not generate a profit for themselves.
(18) Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies,” 179.
(19) “Privacy - Our First Priority,” SurveySavvy, Accessed October 11, 2019, https:// www.surveysavvy.com/privacy_policy?load_mode=modal.
(20) Anonymous, “Anarchists Behind the Walls,” in Desert, (Published Independently, 2011), 130.
(21) Anonymous, “Anarchists Behind the Walls,” 129-30.
(22) Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies,” 178.
(23) Tiqqun, This is Not a Program, trans. Joshua David Jordan, (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011), 195.
(24) “Terms and Conditions.” SurveySavvy. Accessed October 11, 2019. https:// www.surveysavvy.com/terms?load_mode=modal.
(25) Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism, (Winchester: O Books, 2009). 26 Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies,” 182.
Anonymous. “Anarchists Behind the Walls.” In Desert. Published Independently, 2011.
Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on Control Societies.” In Negotiations. Translated by Martin Joughin. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.
Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. Winchester: O Books, 2009.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Foucault, Michel. Society Must Be Defended. Edited by Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana. Translated by David Macey. New York: Picador, 1997.
“Terms and Conditions.” SurveySavvy. Accessed October 11, 2019. https:// www.surveysavvy.com/terms?load_mode=modal
Tiqqun. This is Not a Program. Translated by Joshua David Jordan. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011.
“Privacy - Our First Priority.” SurveySavvy. Accessed October 11, 2019. https:// www.surveysavvy.com/privacy_policy?load_mode=modal