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

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


Communicative Capitalism and Digital Labour

“Affective Labor” by Micheal Hardt, published in 1999,  traces the “changing role of affective labour in the capitalist economy” (p. 89) through the processes of economic postmodernization from industrial economies, to postindustrial economies to informational economies, in which immaterial labor – the labour involved in production of services, knowledge and communication rather than material goods – relies upon the manipulation of affects to produce collective subjects through biopower which is a term he uses to refer to the creation management and control of populations through governmentality. (p. 98) And so the question I want to pose is whether a changing labour landscape call for a change in political organization and mobilization?

I’ve been thinking lately about Jodi Dean’s concept of communicative capitalism, which she describes in an interview prior to the publication to her book The Communist Horizon as a contemporary material condition:

Communicative capitalism is the merger or capitalism and democratic ideals in a material form and space. The material form and space are computers, smartphones, fiber-optic cables, cell phone networks, and the basic idea is that democratic ideas of access, inclusion, participation, in fact are running a particular form of capitalism… it takes away the political efficacy of… formations of resistance or political interventions…

Dean, drawing from psychoanalytic language, describes the relationship of the subject to desire and drive. Desire is an ideal toward which we want to reach, it is open; although one may never reach it, we still strive for it. Drive, on the other hand is also a form of pleasure, but it is compulsive and functions in a loop from which one can’t escape. In communicative capitalism, action no longer becomes a goal, but rather a condition — a setting — in which communication becomes the target of pleasure, a fetish, in which drive replaces desire.  There are a two frameworks operating here that are worth exploring: one is the assertion that what we ought to be aspiring to – our goal – is not a post-capitalist but rather a capitalist horizon. This is worth exploring in The Communist Horizon, in which Dean outlines the contrasting ways in which this horizon has come to be theorized, for example, by Hardt, Antonio Negri, and Zizek, as revolutionary politics:

Instead of a politics thought primarily in terms of resistance, playful and momentary aesthetic disruptions, the immediate specificity of local projects, and struggles for hegemony within a capitalist parliamentary setting, the communist horizon impresses upon us the necessity to abolish capitalism and to create global practices and institutions of egalitarian cooperation. (p. 11)

The second framework, and the one I take more issue with, is the framing of desire as negative rather than a positive construct. While I don’t wish to take this up in detail now, I do wish to suggest that this may be the point of divergence for theorists.

Dean’s focus on communicative capitalism as contemporary condition takes social media as her primary target; however, I thought Trebor Scholz’s  talk on digital labour at the re:publica 2013 conference provides another perspective from which to analyse the operation of communicative capitalism.  Digital labour is defined as “a human activity sometimes undertaken solely for pleasure that has economic and symbolic value and can be performed at anytime.” Scholz focuses on the crowd-sourcing industry which he asserts is wiping out all the gains of the labour struggle. He spends the greatest length of time discussing Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, one of the largest exploiters of digital labour, in which workers’ identities are unknown; the work they perform is unknown; the employer is unknown; and the labour is invisible. As a result, “cloud-workers” are not only exploited, on average being paid $2 an hour, but also alienated from her product. He also discusses other examples of unwaged digital labour, such as those ‘volunteers’ who collaborate to build on Wikis; Huffington post, which doesn’t compensate its contributors; and the ‘cognitive labour’ of social media platforms, in which users’ data are the product.  The argument is that digital labour blurs the lines between work and life; leisure and labour; playing and work.  What I would like to ultimately take up in my own research is the specific ways in which digital labour is manifested in Learning Management Systems. In such systems, students are being prepared to participate in a ‘global knowledge-based economy,’ (KBE) in which Canada seeks to take up an ‘innovative’ and ‘productive’ role as the “Northern Tiger.” Yes, this is the language used in Canada’s officially published ‘Policy Horizons’ for 2017.

So if one of the aims of pedagogy is to prepare students for the workforce, how does this next phase of capitalism produce a shift in practices in education? I’ll leave that’s for another post