Month: February 2014

Using the User: Parasites and Hacktivism

On December 5th, 2013, I went to see a talk at the University of Toronto’s iSchool by Anna Watkins Fisher, who is currently an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University, teaching in the Department of Performing and Media Arts. Her talk was titled “Playing the Parasite: The Art of Dependence in a Networked Age.” The talks hosted by the iSchool aren’t available to view online; however, I wanted to make mention of her concept of “parasitism,” which she uses to ‘map’ feminist, performative, interventions into digital platforms. In this two-part post, I want to go over some of the salient points in her presentation and then follow up the next week with a review of Michel Serres’ talk on the Digital Revolution, which is what Serres references to describe a transitory period, a period of crisis, in mankind. I follow up with Serres because Fisher draw her work on the ‘parasite,’ which is an analogy that describes the organization of human relations, primarily from him.

Fisher has developed the term ‘parasitism’ to describe the performative anti-strategies of users, who reconfigure dependency upon neoliberal host systems by essentially ‘using the user.’ The most prominent example she used, amazon-noir, was developed by UBERMORGEN.COM (German for “the day after tomorrow” and “super-tomorrow” ) in which artists Paolo Ceriu and Alessiandro Luduovicio conducted an “experiment:”  they broke into the digital library of Amazon.com using the “Search Inside” function, gaining access to about 3000 copyrighted books. You can read their blurb about the technology they used here. Interestingly, I wasn’t able to find any evidence of English media coverage when searching the newspaper archives on the university database. But here it says the story was covered by papers in Switzerland, Germany, Spain and Austria — the press clippings are listed although links aren’t provided.

Amazon, after offering kick-back bribes, which the artists rejected, ultimately ended up buying this technology back from them for an “undisclosed sum,” thus re-integrating the parasite into their host-system. Fisher’s uses the paradigm of hospitality (she traces back the concept of ‘parasite’ to the 17th century) to argue that users, who were once welcome as guests have now been supplanted in the modern period as parasite who takes, but doesn’t give. The state host conceals its hostility until the parasite exposes the host’s limits, revealing the host as ‘inhospitable’ – Fisher points out that the host is “user friendly but can’t be used in return.” This is a very general (and hopefully faithful) recall based on my very sketchy notes. What is really exciting about parasitism as strategy is that it allows for the development of a feminist, performative, politic in which artists/hacktivists can take advantage of increasingly blurred distinctions between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ so as to expose the hypocrisy of host systems. There are many questions, too, that Fisher raises about the feedback-loop in this strategy, in which the parasite (as in the case of Amazon) gets re-integrated back into the host. I’m looking forward to reading her forthcoming book.

For a more thorough account, see her publication in art&education, in which Fisher recounts her own experience at the receiving end of this strategy, when an artist requests to use her original work in an exhibition without attribution. It is here that you get a sense of how dangerous parasitism can be as a strategy upon which to base a feminist politics. She writes, “The parasite is both dangerous and generative precisely because it does away with the subject/object dichotomy and because there are no guarantees against its mechanisms.” Fisher also anticipates criticism of parasite-as-strategy and responds to anxieties by describing the ways in which artists can disrupt the “accumulative force” of performativity. You can decide if you find it a convincing argument.

If you’re interested in exploring “hacktivist” projects by the artists mentioned, see these projects: Google Will Eat Itself and Face to Facebook.

To conclude I leave you with a great inteview with artists Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico about Face to Facebook. There is a great discussion about the vulnerability of data:

Consumer Data Brokers

data brokers

Listen to the entire podcast here:

Data brokers, numbering in the couple thousand, collect data about our most personal information, which include our name, number, level of education, equity, income, interests. Lists of cancer patients and domestic abuse victims, for example, have been found online, allegedly for sale. Oh, and it’s not against the law. They get this information from what you buy online AND offline — especially from surveys filled in online, such as those targeting health. If a website tells you that they are collecting information that they might share with a third-party, that’s the red flag. Data is important to collect, particularly in marketing; however, the problem is the type of data collected isn’t regulated. If you live in Canada, see The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act to understand your rights. If you live in the United States, check out About the Data to see the type of data collected about you. Don’t forget to “opt-out.”

Control in an Era of Cyber-Surveillance

Keywords: Deleuze, Control, Society

In the second movement of “Control and Becoming,” Gilles Deleuze, in conversation with Antonio Negri, discusses the ways in which disciplinary society is moving toward a control society. To briefly explain: the theory of disciplinary society has been largely attributed to Foucault, who, in Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, discusses how subjects are produced through a particular type of disciplinary power, which targets the body as a site of control. The normative body is thus produced, discursively, by institutions such as the clinic, the school, or the prison. What makes it discursive is that the production of the subject, which is necessarily unexceptional, is constituted through everyday practices — the things we take for granted. We don’t question our relationship with our doctor or our teacher, and as a public we certainly don’t consider that there may be an alternative to the prison system, which disciplines the racialized subject.

In “Control and Becoming,” Deleuze suggests that we are moving from a disciplinary society into a control society, in which institutions are no longer functioning as “closed sites” but rather as “continuous control and instant communication” by extending its reach — what I interpret as the Capitalist arm — into every aspect of our lives. The most recent example I can draw on was published by the CBC today, the headline for which reads: Social media may become spies’ main ‘channel,’ privacy watchdog warns. The summary: although individuals have an expectation that information they publish on social media is private, there is potential for government agencies to tap into these mediums as channels for data. The privacy act, in fact, hasn’t been revised since 1983. The title of the published report is ominous: Checks and Controls: Reinforcing Privacy Protection and Oversight for the Canadian Intelligence Community in an Era of Cyber-Surveillance.

dome-surveillance-cameraWhat is this ‘era of cyber-surveillance’? I suspect it connects directly to Deleuze’s notion of a control society in which ceaseless control is exerted in “open sites” such as “cybernetic machines and computers” (p. 175). In his “Postscript on Control Societies,” Deleuze identifies the language of control societies as digital (178). And while he hasn’t quite worked out  the “sociotechnological principles of control mechanisms” in this new era of domination, he suggests that “[t]he keything is that we’re at the beginning of something new.” We may not agree on what this new thing may be, but it’s at least a common starting point of inquiry. A common starting point of inquiry for me, specifically, in thinking about the transition of schooling (into online and blended spaces of instruction) from a site of discipline to control.

“One can envisage education become less and less a closed site differentiated from the workspace as another closed sight, but both disappearing and giving way to frightful continual training, to continual monitoring of worker-schoolkids or bureaucrat-students. They try to present this as a reform of the school system, but it’s really its dismantelling. In a control-based system nothing’s left alone for long.” (Control and Becoming, p. 175)

References (including embedded links):

Canada. Office of the Privacy Commissioner. (2014). Special Report to Parliament: Checks and Controls: Reinforcing Privacy Protection and Oversight for the Canadian Intelligence Community in an Era of Cyber-   Surveillance. Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada.

CBC News. (March 7, 2013). Aboriginal corrections report finds ‘systemic discrimination.’ CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/

Deleuze, G. (1990). Part Five: Politics. In Negotiations, 1972-1990. (pp. 167-177). New York: Columbia University Press.

Do, T.T. (January 28, 2014). Social media may become spies’ main ‘channel,’ privacy watchdog warns. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/