The Commodity Fetishism of Surveillance

In order to provide a better service we must know all about you
In order to provide a better service we must know all about you

Have you ever noticed just how much of our day to day lives are set by routines? This isn’t necessarily a criticism mind you; routines represent stability, safety and even a degree of prosperity and economic security. There’s a possibility however that stability and routine are antithetical to proper critical thinking and analysis of what these routines are, how they function and what effect they have on those who operate within them.  The problem as with many of the structures that we exist with is that there is no external to these routines – there is no ground on which we can stand outside and look inward. The complex matrix of constructed social relation and discursive practises are to most of us a comforting and largely invisible monotony.

For all of the invisibility in the ideological operation of late capitalism there are moments when the implicit nature of the system under which we all live becomes just a little closer to being made explicit.

Last week on the way back from a conference I got off a plane. On the way back to the grey terminal building all of the passengers passed a small, yellow sign with black writing.

‘For your comfort, security and in order to provide a better service CCTV is in operation at all times.’

I didn’t think anything of it at the time – why would you? The idea of a surveillance society is one so thoroughly inculcated in all of us makes the realisation that we are being watched in almost all of our public spaces utterly banal. But there’s one phrase there that should have caught your eye – one of those phrases that doesn’t quite fit. In this case that harmless looking phrase,

‘in order to provide a better service’

This innocuous sounding collection of words represents an evolution in the operation of classic capitalism – a sophistication of the previously identified disciplinary discourses that make our society what it is.

A little context.  In 1975 one of the finest theorists of the 20th century published ‘Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la Prison’ –or, ‘Discipline and Punish – The Birth of the Prison.’ In it Foucault outlines an analysis of how society has evolved in its techniques to make sure that you behave exactly as you should. Society has evolved disciplinary intuitions where the behaviour of the individual is shaped so that not only do we perform exactly as we should but we will do so because the space to act otherwise no longer exists.

Institutions and sources of power range from the obvious authority of the police and the military to the subtle control of teachers, priests, shop managers or even the person wearing the high visibility jacket.  All of these separate functions operate so smoothly that just noticing them, not even daring to disobey but just to be aware that they are present requires a conscious act of will.

In the last blog I argued that the service industry is the most obvious example of a capitalist exchange that is desperate to remain invisible. That in order to recognise the operation of capitalism And now we see the logical end point of a society built on the two ideas of capitalism and control.

‘To provide a better service.’

Surveillance is no longer merely a tool of the panopticon that Foucault (and Jeremy Bentham) spoke of – surveillance is now a tool of the market; the eyes for the invisible hand if you will. The conclusion to this can only come to one particular point. What you do is now no longer just to be policed and controlled but, quote literally, capitalised upon.

This grows more worrying still when the rise of a digital information economy is acknowledged. The more of our lives and experiences depend upon the connection and instantaneous sharing of the online world the more we become digital capital. Advertisers, marketing strategists, governments and law enforcement have made your movements a product.

We were told that the digital world was a place where we could all take our spot as members of the cultural superstructure – where our opinions, photos, ideas and memories would remake as a collaborative and connected one. In actuality as stories from just last week prove we’ve just been incorporated into a new, more digital economic base.

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