L. Roughton, ‘Human Data Collection and the Societies of Control ‘

Author: Lloyd Roughton

In today’s society, our entire lives are documented and posted online. Our personal data is constantly being recorded in a wide variety of ways, such as applications in our phones, GPS trackers in our cars, and face scanners at airports. This data is compiled, stored and used by governments and corporations for almost any purpose they wish. Public awareness of this has gained traction in the past few years and an underlying feeling of animosity has come with it. The idea of intimate information being stored in order to create profiles on us, and influence our daily lives, is an uneasy one. However, we have failed to truly acknowledge the growing threat posed to our privacy, our autonomy and our society. One way to better understand this threat is to turn to the field of Biopolitics and, in particular, Gilles Deleuze’s 1992 essay titled ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’.


Biopolitics seeks to analyse the way power manages the lives of human subjects, by using calculated techniques to facilitate the administration and ordering of mass populations. This power has taken many forms such as monarchy, government and corporation. In the history of the western world the structure of biopolitical power has taken three forms – the societies of sovereignty, which were followed by the disciplinary societies, succeeded then by the societies of control. In order to fully understand the societies of control, a brief outline of this historical development is required.


As Michel Foucault observes, in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, following the fall of feudalism and the rise of modernity, we transitioned from societies of sovereignty to disciplinary societies.  Under sovereignty, the law was enforced in the name of the monarch, production was taxed and punishment often came in the form of public execution. Power was overbearing, constantly present and imposed itself in a direct and brutal fashion. In a disciplinary society power takes a subtler form, as the institutions that exercise power do not necessarily present themselves as doing so. Foucault identifies environments of enclosure – the family, the school, the factory – through which disciplinary power is imposed. The human subject is always situated within one of these environments and their thoughts and behaviour are disciplined and managed. The purpose of the disciplinary society is ‘to concentrate, to distribute in space; to order in time; to compose a productive force’. All of these environments of enclosure function to serve this purpose. In the factory, work is concentrated and distributed in order to maintain an equilibrium of high production and low wages. Deleuze acknowledges Foucualt’s ‘brilliant’ analysis of the environments of enclosure before saying ‘everyone knows these institutions are finished… to be succeeded by the societies of control’.


There are two key aspects of societies of control which require discussion here. Firstly, it is a more advanced form of the disciplinary societies. The techniques employed present themselves as opportunities for more freedom, yet they impose further control. The factory has been replaced by the corporation, where employees are engaged in contests, challenges and team building sessions which modulate their salaries. What is presented as an opportunity to learn and make career progress has the effect of pitting employees against each other. In the factory the power divide between the workers and the bosses would often lead to mobilisation through trade unions but in the corporation this rivalry is presented as a motivational force, dividing the workforce as a means of improving the corporation’s performance.


In addition to being more advanced, control is more continuous than discipline. Discipline is achieved within separate environments of enclosure but control is imposed throughout a subject’s lifetime. The institutions of control are connected, even in school we are introduced to the idea of the corporation as part of a regime of ‘perpetual training’. We can also see this at university, where career progression is increasingly becoming the focus while academic research is taking a step back.


Even in 1992 Deleuze recognised advancement in technology as a major force in the creation of the societies of control and identifies computers as playing a key role in this. Since then, these fears have materialised into a form that perfectly encapsulates societies of control, human data collection through the internet.


Typical to the societies of control, advanced modern technologies are presented and sold to us as opportunities for more freedom. We have a vast expanse of information at our disposal. We can connect with our friends, keep up to date with current affairs, track the food we eat and make online payments with incredible ease. But this freedom comes at a cost. Our data is collected by companies such as Facebook and Google and used to market products and services to us more effectively. In disciplinary societies workers were organised in order to be more productive but now societies of control influence and manage our personal lives so that we consume more.


Data also plays a key role in the continuous presence of the societies of control. A child born today will have their entire lives documented, able to be processed and collated. It is no longer the case that we will be disciplined within whatever distinct environment we are in at a given time. Data collection provides institutions of power with the means to exercise control over our thoughts and actions both constantly and indefinitely. This has enabled interference in democratic process. The consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica claimed it was able to collect 5000 ‘data points’ on every American voter. They used their resources to manipulate the outcome of the election of President Trump and the 2016 EU referendum. The ability to influence democracy in such a way is an unprecedented level of control, capable of drastically altering our society on a fundamental level.


Gilles Deleuze presents a disconcerting, if not dystopian, account of the way power relations control and manage the lives of large populations. He himself acknowledges that some may consider it a ‘work of science fiction’, but in 2019 this ‘fiction’ is beginning to look a lot like reality. Data recently surpassed oil to become the world’s most valuable commodity. Facebook, which played a key role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal and is facing investigations over their data collection activity, is attempting to launch its own currency. Elections around the world are being decided by complex data manipulation rather than honest political debate. This is not to say that we live in a dystopia, but we can no longer afford to ignore these developments and willingly surrender our data to powerful institutions. As Deleuze tells us in his concluding remarks, it is up to us to discover what we are being made to serve.


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