Surveillance and legibility: systems of seeing

“Networks weird people.” Quinn Norton and Ella Saitta explain the yin-yang nature of network effects — and the complicity of hackers and “geek culture” in such — to the Chaos Communications Conference.

This is of considerable interest to me, for two reasons. First of all, because legibility is a big part of what my doctorate is about: the systems on which we depend are illegible to us, and in the same way that the state needs to “see” its citizens to interact with them effectively, we need to “see” our infrastructure; however, this would be counterproductive for those who own and control infrastructure, leading to the ironic endgame of the atemporal, wherein the illusion that society is separate from nature is both sustained by and projected upon the very metasystem which binds them inseparably together.

Secondly, because I’m increasingly convinced that an unexamined methodological positivism is at the root of solutionism and geek exceptionalism alike; it’s the dark side of scientific epistemology, a faux-empiricist position wherein that which cannot be quantified cannot exist. It’s also a central plank of neoclassical economics, and neoliberal political theory. Ironically, however, it has created the ultimate machine for forcing humans to confront the subjectivity of the human experience, namely the internet. This is the ideological paradox at the heart of atemporality: the more finely the metanarratives are shredded by our distrust, the more desperate we are for someone to stitch us together a comforting and authoritative story from the fragments. In such an environment, curatorship is power, as Rupert Murdoch knows very well; curation imposes a narrative on the fragments it collects together by excluding the ones it discards.

But what if you gave an exhibition and nobody came? Curation with no visitors is like art with no audience, a scream in the wilderness. So the complementary power to curation is that of distribution: the ability to not only shape the narrative, but to get it in front of the right audience.

He who owns the pipes controls the flow.



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One response to “Surveillance and legibility: systems of seeing”

  1. Dan Abelow avatar

    A corollary: He who sees the data flow is in the most powerful position.

    There are those who don’t own the pipes, but Know even more than those who own them. They see the data, are able to interpret it and act on what they Know.

    These include certain parts of governments (surveillance/tax collection/police) and global companies that collect this directly (Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc.) It’s part of their governance or business model to Know. This also includes others who know what parts of Knowing they need to buy and how to use it. This data is for sale too, not just free to those who can collect it.

    The missing piece is everyone. If being connected made you Knowing and Aware, everyone could be powerful too. But that takes a different kind of tech, but it’s the kind of empowering system that can now be built.

    Of course, that technology creates a different kind of future… one where everyone is a Know it All, and Knows what to do about it. It’s a future where everyone can rise to the top.

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