Simulacral Democracy in the Age of Big Data – Big Surveillance (PRISM Thoughts)


Some inchoate thoughts about the use of data-mining by the U.S. government.

–The State is not the dead dog that some have said it is in this age of global capitalism. For all the power of transnational corporations to shape political landscapes, it’s they who bend to the State, not vice versa. Jaron Lanier is right. The dominant group is the one with the biggest computers. There’s all this talk now about metadata, which means that the subject in question is not the State, but rather the meta-State.

–I’m willing to bet that these surveillance programs have less to do with terrorism, and more to do with cyber-spying, counter-cyber espionage, and cyber-war. If the entire infrastructure of the country (electricity, water, etc.) and other basic systems (banking and finance) are now dependent upon the internet, than safeguarding those systems represents an overarching state interest. Like big banks, the state is another system that is simply too big to fail.

–It’s all about scale. The impact of the data-mining programs has less to do with individual privacy and other civil rights and more to do with data – big government – big surveillance. That the government does this kind of thing because it can, that much I understand. What’s truly mind-boggling, though, is the sheer scale of the knowledge-power equation, measured in trillions of bits and bytes, and emergent patterns. This has nothing to do with content of this or that phone conversation or email communication. I’m guessing it’s 98% form? Foucault comes to mind here, but also Leibniz –the infinitization and system coordination. I don’t think the system is out to get “me.” The vast scale of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

–About the imbalance of things. Here’s the problem as I’m beginning to understand it. I’m made uncomfortable by the claim that “if I have nothing to hide then I have nothing to fear.” This is a half-truth at best, maybe a quarter-truth, if even that. There may very well be plenty to fear even if there’s nothing or almost nothing to hide. At stake is not privacy per se, but rather the structural imbalance between what the government can know versus what we as citizens do not and cannot know. Open to abuse, the other side of the knowledge-power equation is ignorance-impotence, and the values are relative and proportionate to each other. This is the point made by Rebecca Rosen at the Atlantic, citing a piece by Daniel J. Solove, which was also cited in today’s editorial at the New York Times. Rosen explains, “In Solove’s formulation, we should ease off the privacy hand-wringing and turn our attention to something much more fundamental: how we relate as citizens to our government and how much power we have in that relationship.” . And this is why David Brooks doesn’t understand the world in which we live. In a recent op-ed, he made mention of “gently gradated [social] hierarchies,” when in the fact the hierarchies that define global capital and big data surveillance are savagely unequal and abysmally asymmetric.

— A bit of jaw dropping hypocrisy out of Silicon Valley as reported in the New York Times. I sort of understand why it might be okay to monitor people to make a buck as opposed to trying to keep them safe; sort of; okay not really. The privatization of big data and the socialization of big surveillance are part of the same system and structure. .

— What’s private and what’s public in the age of big data-big government, and big-surveillance? Is the internet a private service or a social place or public utility? I’ll assume that “most people” don’t like the idea of policing things that are or should be private, and that “most people” don’t feel the same about society. Against Foucault, “society must be defended,” but which comes first, the public chicken or the private egg?

— I don’t think one can separate these things out from each other. It’s impossible to separate data-mining programs from technology, technology from society, society from some form of surveillance-knowledge-power. This I think is a “fact” about which there is nothing one can do. It belongs to “the order of things.” But nor should you separate surveillance-knowledge-power from public-civic values like democracy, citizenship, and oversight; at least I wouldn’t want to. The first set of claims is descriptive, while the second claim is normative.

–Can democracy work at this level of scale or does democracy belong, as Strauss and Arendt both seemed to have thought, to the smaller scale of the Greek polis? We’re going to find out, but I don’t recommend fear and paranoia as the affect with which to frame these debates. My guess is that what Derrida called the democracy to come will be a form of simulacral or simulated democracy, a copy that builds upon old models, not so much a copy of the Greek polis idealized by Strauss and Arendt, but a copy of the bourgeois social sphere idealized by Habermas. Unlike most critics of simulacra, simulations, and the society of spectacle, I am not convinced that the copy will be necessarily unworthy of the demos. It might even be better, meaning more expansive and inclusive. That will depend upon the political design elements that go into it the simulation.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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