When talking about the politics of the social Web and particularly online networking, the first issue coming up is invariably the question of privacy and its counterpart, surveillance – big brother, corporations bent on world dominance, and so on. My gut reaction has always been “yeah, but there’s a lot more to it than that” and on this blog (and hopefully a book in a not so far future) I’ve been trying to sort out some of the political issues that do not pertain to surveillance. For me, social networking platforms are more relevant to politics as marketing rather than surveillance. Not that these tools cannot function quite formidably to spy on people, but it is my impression that contemporary governance relies on other principles more than the gathering of intelligence about individual citizens (although it does, too). But I’ve never been very pleased with most of the conceptualizations of “post-disciplinarian” mechanisms of power, even Deleuze’s Post-scriptum sur les sociétés de contrôle, although full of remarkable leads, does not provide a fleshed-out theoretical tool – and it does not fit well with recent developments in the Internet domain.

But then, a couple of days ago I finally started to read the lectures Foucault gave at the Collège de France between 1971 and 1984. In the 1977-1978 term the topic of that class was “Sécurité, Territoire, Population” (STP, Gallimard, 2004) and it holds, in my view, the key to a quite different perspective on how social networking platforms can be thought of as tools of governance involved in specific mechanisms of power.
STP can be seen as both an extension and reevaluation of Foucault’s earlier work on the transition from punishment to discipline as central form in the exercise of power, around the end of the 18th century. The establishing of “good practice” is central to the notion of discipline and disciplinary settings such as schools, prisons or hospitals serve most of all as means for instilling these “good practices” into their subjects. Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon – a prison architecture that allows a single guard to observe a large population of inmates from a central control point – has in a sense become the metaphor for a technology of power that, in Foucault’s view, is part of a much more complex arrangement of how sovereignty can be performed. Many a blogpost has been dedicated to applying the concept on social networking online.

Curiously though, in STP, Foucault calls the Panopticon both modern and archaic, and he goes as far as dismissing it as the defining element of the modern mechanics of power; in fact, the whole course is organized around the introduction of a third logic of governance besides (and historically following) “punishment” and “discipline”, which he calls “security”. This third regime is no longer focusing on the individual as subject that has to be punished or disciplined but on a new entity, a statistical representation of all individuals, namely the population. The logic of security, in a sense, gives up on the idea of producing a perfect status quo by reforming individuals and begins to focus on the management on averages, acceptable margins, and homeostasis. With the development of the social sciences, society is perceived as a “natural” phenomenon in the sense that it has its own rules and mechanisms that cannot be so easily bent into shape by disciplinary reform of the individual. Contemporary mechanisms of power are, then, not so much based on the formatting of individuals according to good practices but rather on the management of the many subsystems (economy, technology, public health, etc.) that affect a population so that this population will refrain from starting a revolution. Foucault actually comes pretty close to what Ulrich Beck’s will call, eight years later, the Risk Society. The sovereign (Foucault speaks increasingly of “government”) assures its political survival no longer primarily through punishment and discipline but by managing risk by means of scientific arrangements of security. This not only means external risk, but also risk produced by imbalance in the corps social itself.

I would argue that this opens another way of thinking about social networking platforms in political terms. First, we would look at something like Facebook in terms of population not in terms of the individual. I would argue that governmental structures and commercial companies are only in rare cases interested in the doings of individuals – their business is with statistical representations of populations because this is the level contemporary mechanisms of power (governance as opinion management, market intelligence, cultural industries, etc.) preferably operate on. And second – and this really is a very nasty challenge indeed – we would probably have to give up on locating power in specific subsystems (say, information and communication systems) and trace the interplay between the many different layers that compose contemporary society.

Post filed under epistemolgy, social networks, surveillance, technological determinism.