Opt Out

By Dennis TenenFebruary 5, 2016

Exposed by Bernard E. Harcourt

LAST SUMMER I spent a few short hours at Rikers Island Correctional Facility together with a small group of volunteers from Columbia University. We were there ostensibly to run an educational program. Wanting to move away from traditional classroom arrangements, we conceived of our project, Rikers Bot, as a digital storytelling event, combining elements of a programming workshop and a writers group. The idea was to get folks excited about programming, to give a measure of voice to those housed at Rikers under sometimes appalling conditions, and to give the public at large a glimpse into an otherwise opaque institution. Most importantly, we were there to spend a bit of time with the young people of Rikers: an encounter with the penal system in the midst of our community.

Even in the best of times, entering Rikers is not easy. One goes through a series of gates and checkpoints. One laminated card is exchanged for another. The guard stamps a mark on your wrist using invisible ink.

The jail was also not what I expected. I thought that once inside, I would observe a state of total surveillance. Conditioned by the Foucauldian image of the panopticon, I expected to see docile bodies, the control of activity, and the swarming of disciplinary mechanisms. Instead, many in the group were struck by the dilapidated, almost abandoned feeling of the grounds. At one point, something was the matter at the main gate and we were ushered through an alternative entrance. A guard led us through rooms filled with well-used riot gear, past other guards eating breakfast, and through hallways lined with hand-written bills about job safety, potlucks, and charity football games.

We were on the way to a wing of the building that housed the classrooms. But at some point, while walking up the stairs, our guide ducked out into a side door, which locked behind her. We waited in the stairwell. We knew where we had to go, but the doors ahead of us and behind were locked. Standing there quietly, together, we understood something about the jail. Despite the guards and the cameras, it was not a place of total surveillance. The building stood in isolation from the outside world. Our presence here was registered in a notebook by hand. We traded our state issued identification for a piece of paper and a stamp. We left no digital trace. In short, no one really knew we were here.

A moment of silence on the stairs punctuated the paradox at the center of Bernard Harcourt’s recent book, Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age. Real and imaginary panopticons of incarceration from centuries past pale in comparison with those that surround us today. Rather than acquiescing to structures of command and surveillance by force, against our will, and in confinement, we have surrendered to them voluntarily, without duress, and at scale. The condition of willful exposure Harcourt describes in his book challenges well-worn tropes of critical theory. Harcourt begins by noting that we inhabit neither Guy Dubord’s “society of spectacle” nor Michel Foucault’s “punitive society.” Rather, the book documents the emergence of a “new architecture of power relations,” “knots of state-like power,” and “mini-theaters of consumption.”

A new logic of watching and being watched brings with it novel companions: the body double in the reflection of our devices; the quantified self; the ever-vigilant, artificially intelligent personal assistant. Where some wear tracking ankle bracelets in punishment, others strap on tracking wrist bracelets in the name of health and self-discovery. Absent the noise of cell phones and Twitter feeds, the momentary quiet of a stairwell somewhere at Rikers evoked a visceral feeling of isolation. Rikers was scary not because it represented order but because compared to my usually compartmentalized and hyper-connected life it gave space to violence and disorder. “It sounds like I’m in a zoo with all of the birds chirping,” wrote one of the young people. “Jail makes us feel deprived and cause vagueness — lacking definite form or character,” the bot tweeted. “All the birds outside the windows make it so hard to hear anything.”

The expository society, as Harcourt calls this emerging assemblage of technology, practice, norms, and institutions, frustrates long-held intuitions about spectacle and surveillance, inside and outside, public and private. We live in an expository society, Bernard writes, in a society of willful exposure and exhibition. In this perverse light, the inability to expose oneself seems like punishment. And the reward for being watched — liked, favorited, followed — is personal affirmation. Under the emerging regime there is no need for metal bars, cells, or watchtowers. We enter into the hall of mirrors willingly. We demand entrance. And we expose ourselves in return.

To make sense of exposure, Harcourt suggests metaphors that open as yet unexplored critical possibilities. The state is no longer one thing, but many. It is an oligarchic amalgam comprised of the intelligence community, retailers, Silicon Valley, military and corporate interests, social media, politics, banking, and telecommunication. No longer a big brother, it looks rather like an octopus from the badge of the US National Reconnaissance Office, one of the country’s 17 intelligence agencies. Instead of the panopticon, we have a pavilion of glass and mirrors. More than an observation tower, the pavilion offers glimpses: it reflects, distorts, and provides for “pockets of obscurity.” Like the ivory tower, the panopticons of the past represented remote power. The metaphorical pavilion is close at hand. It is a place to watch and be watched; to play and to surveil. Instead of the uncanny body of the impostor double, Harcourt gives us the diligent data double. The data double lives in the spreadsheets of criminal justice statistics and advertising data used to train algorithms. It dutifully embodies our social media habits, our moods, movements, and our “click through” ratios.

We have only begun to understand the personal and political implications of the expository society in which surveillance is both more total and more voluntary than was ever imagined. The nightmare of George Orwell’s 1984 is in some ways less intrusive than the reality of 2016. Harcourt’s book ultimately points to the desire at the root of our need for exposure. Total surveillance turns out to be pretty enjoyable: Watch people do weird shit online! Share your love for perfectly stacked pancakes with friends! We trade privacy in return for these small bits of fun. Harcourt’s work points to the dynamics desire that lead to voluntary exposure. It is a staggering insight: soon, there will be no need to incarcerate. “[W]e will all be watched so closely,” he writes. “We won’t need to confine anymore, because we will be able to see everywhere” and will be able to “control behavior from a distance.”

The banal realities of today’s surveillance surpass even the tin foil conspiracies of yesterday. Consider the following several footnotes of my own, not found in Harcourt’s book. A lapsed software engineer among humanists, I continue to regularly follow news and review literature from the tech world. Two devices that help illustrate Harcourt’s argument have caught my attention in 2015. The first is called OnHub made by Google. The marketing materials describe it as a “new type of router for the new way to WiFi.” It is supposed to help you stay connected to the internet at home. The device is remarkable for its “innovative circular antenna design,” which “provides reliable Wi-Fi coverage in more directions in your home.” A tear-down of OnHub by engineers at IFIXIT revealed 13 antennas, along with an ambient light sensor inside.

The second is called Echo, by Amazon. This one is a bit trickier. It is an artificially intelligent personal assistant, similar to Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana, but housed in its own sleek speaker cabinet, meant for the living room. It listens, plays music, and answers questions. “Amazon Echo is designed around your voice,” the marketing materials read:

It’s hands-free and always on. […] Tucked under the light ring on Echo is an array of seven microphones. These sensors use beam forming technology to hear you from any direction, even while music is playing. […] Echo is also an expertly tuned speaker that can fill any room with immersive sound […] Echo is built in the cloud, so it is always getting smarter. The more you use Echo, the more it adapts to your speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences.

Uncharacteristically for such gadgets, both OnHub and Echo occupy a central place in the home. Routers and speakers of this sort are usually unsightly, rectangular affairs. They are commonly hidden out of sight, under desks or on top of shelves. The Echo speaker and the OnHub router differ in that they cut an attractive tower-like figure. Both are packed with sensors. The advertisements show them placed on coffee tables and kitchen counters.

I submit two further pieces of evidence for your consideration. Two recent papers in computer science give us an idea of the potential for surveillance enabled by the above devices. In 2014, researchers from UC Berkley published a paper titled “SoundLoc: Acoustic Method for Indoor Localization without Infrastructure.” The researchers write that: “SoundLoc is a room-level localization system that exploits the intrinsic acoustic properties of individual rooms and obviates the needs for infrastructures.” Calling it the “Room Impulse Response measurement system,” the researchers develop an algorithm that uses ordinary microphones found on our laptops and cell phones to create a “sound fingerprint” for each room and to identify the location of its occupants. One would surmise that the seven microphones and the powerful speakers that the Echo carries would make the device particularly well suited for such echolocation, tracking, and fingerprinting of domestic spaces.

In 2013, a group from MIT published a similar paper titled “See Through Walls with WiFi!” “For many years humans have fantasized about X-ray vision,” the authors write. Could it be possible today, using wi-fi signals emitted by an ordinary router? As it turns out, yes: “We present Wi-Vi, a wireless technology that uses Wi-Fi signals to detect moving humans behind walls in closed rooms.” Just a few years ago, the very idea of mapping rooms with microphones or tracking humans behind closed doors with wireless signals would be relegated to the pages of novel by Ian Fleming. The suggestion that consumers would voluntarily place such capable devices in the middle of their living rooms defies belief still, despite the evidence. Where a bug in a hotel room caused scandals in the Nixon era, inviting a beastie that carries 13 antennas to the bedroom is now something customers will pay $170 for. The fact that the Samsung Smart TV, the United States’s best-selling television set, is routinely recording conversations, even when powered off, barely made the news. The terms and conditions policy that comes with the device simply states: “Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition.”

Exposed sounds a timely alarm about the proliferation of such seemingly banal but powerful surveillance mechanisms. If we are to be watched, we must also be able to return the gaze. Forces of capital and control have to grow transparent in proportion to our own transparency. Who will watch the watchers? Acts of whistle-blowers like Chelsea Manning and publishers like Julian Assange suggest a way forward. So do strategies of obfuscation described in the recent volume by Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum. But can these isolated strategies amount to a broader movement for digital resistance? Because the erosion of privacy and the rise of the expository society happens through countless small, personal decisions, the answer must involve a collective response with the participation of us all. The book ends there, calling the reader to action.

But what is actually to be done? Compelled by Harcourt’s call to action I suggest the following several avenues for exploration in the search for viable models for digital dissent.

First, the war. We must not forget that the state of affairs Harcourt describes in his book is linked intimately with the armaments of perpetual warfare. The expository society is born not out of technological contingencies alone, but also out of the extraordinary measures evoked during wartime. The passage of the USA Patriot Act in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Snowden revelations, the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act tucked into the spending bill passed by the Congress at the end of 2015 — these are all connected events the lead to the same source, war. The ill-conceived barter at the heart of all extraordinary measures would trade ideals central to democratic governance for security. War forces our hand. We are told that if we do not comply we would be vulnerable to another terrorist attack. History tells us of a graver danger: tyranny, brought on by rushed measures during seemingly exceptional times. We do not live under a tyrannical regime today. But Harcourt’s book does identify infrastructures that have the potential to invite tyranny.

In light of this danger, no less real or pressing than terrorism, I am puzzled by the decline of the antiwar movement. The antiwar rhetoric that defined a generation of conscientious dissenters is no longer a major motivating force for the politically active. According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans worry most about issues like immigration, terrorism, income inequality, drug use, the size and power of federal government, the economy, and climate change. But not war. Violence is perhaps more palatable now because it is hidden and dehumanized by the use of technologies like “precision” strikes and remote drone warfare. But is it possible to restore, in Harcourt’s words, “lines between governance, commerce, surveillance, and private life” at home without addressing militarization abroad? I do not think so. Everything near will be exposed in the process of reaching for that hidden and remote threat of terrorism. The perceived difficulty of blowing up an Afghani family on the “deposition matrix,” the US kill list, is used to justify the ease of domestic surveillance. The expository reach reveals all, from here to there. Failing to cease the continual projection of violence abroad, we will be forever unable to stop the erosion of civic society at home.

Second, the economy. The dissolution of the Soviet Union heralded the decline of an ideology: namely statist socialism and central planning. We have yet to deal intellectually with the centralizing forces of capitalist economies. Entities like Google and Amazon exert immense centralizing pressures on the marketplace, including the marketplace of ideas. The technologies Harcourt outlines in his book are all in some way related to the massive aggregation of data. They are both the cause and effect of economies in the process of centralization. Again I ask: Is it possible to address massive surveillance programs without dealing with the underlying monopolies in the marketplace of information? From the engineering systems perspective, the alternative to such central structures is distribution. The emergence of distributed technologies is marked by an attempt to decentralize infrastructure. Witness Diaspora, a federated alternative to Facebook; BitTorrent, a system for distributed file sharing; Bitcoin, peer-to-peer money; Library Genesis, community book collection and sharing; and Wikipedia, a peer-produced internet encyclopedia. These technologies follow a resurgent interest in political thought related to peer production, anarchism, and decentralization. Thinkers like Peter Kropotkin, Leopold Kohr, Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, and Murray Bookchin are making a comeback, figuring prominently in the conversation about technological resistance. A wider return to this intellectual tradition could fill the critical void left in liberal thought by the decline of communism.

Finally, Harcourt’s book makes it impossible not to feel personally complicit in the system by which countless small voluntary transactions, in aggregate, bring the expository society into existence. “Our desires and our passions have enslaved us,” Harcourt writes. The emotional affirmation that accompanies exuberant social networking brings with it the very structures of surveillance and control that are used widely by law enforcement and national security agencies. As a community of readers and writers that value intellectual independence, we must begin to align the sharp edge of critical theory with everyday practice. This includes the way we read, write, find, and share information online. For people who spend so much time in front of our computers in search for knowledge, we are remarkably alienated from the material contexts of knowledge production. Exposed reminds us of an uncomfortable truth at work in everyday human-computer interaction. We know so little about the smart machines that observe us in our kitchens, offices, and living rooms. Let us cultivate then a keen interest in their literal deconstruction, to learn how they are made and where their wires lead. To strip the aura of fetishism that attaches itself to such magical devices, we need to develop a healthy level of detachment from dumb and inanimate things.

Judging by consumer behavior, the machines that expose us are, for the moment, worth the asking price. They offer enough of a value to overcome the ethical imperative. I have no evidence that Amazon or Google intend to use their hubs and echoes for the purpose of surveillance. There is no need to search for it either, because it is laid out openly, in the terms of service. We are far past the point of caring about the number of cameras or microphones already deployed into action. The idea is not to vilify technology. Technology merely serves our desires.

Harcourt does a masterful job identifying desire as the engine that powers the voluntary surveillance conundrum. Given the chance to better see ourselves in the digital reflection, we will willingly mount many mirrors. The balance between vanity and civic virtue tilts inevitably toward vanity. The burden of ethical reasoning lies ultimately on the part of an informed public. For now, being informed is still less fun than watching smart TV. Consequently, dissent remains the purview of a select few, until the pain of tyranny overwhelms the pleasure of mass exposure.


Dennis Tenen is an assistant professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is the author of the forthcoming Plain Text: The Poetics of Human-Computer Interaction.

LARB Contributor

Dennis Tenen is an assistant professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is the author of the forthcoming Plain Text: The Poetics of Human-Computer Interaction.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!