- Surveillance and the Surrender of the Free Autonomous Self
As the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law, professor of political science, director of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought at Columbia University, and human rights lawyer, Bernard Harcourt maintains a scholarly interest that lies at the intersection between social and political theory, the sociology of punishment, as well as penal law and procedure. His publications include empirical and theoretical contributions in areas such as policing, incarceration, crime, and punishment.
In this, his most recent book, Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age, Harcourt engages in a critical perspective regarding digital exposure of the self in contemporary US society and beyond, which he labels an "expository society." He suggests that since individuals willingly surrender personal data and metadata to multinational technology corporations in exchange for minor digital distractions and stimulus, the mass compilation of this information enables unprecedented levels of data mining, tracking, and ever more complex psychological profiling. This, in turn, the author explains, endangers citizens who may be punished for who they are and who alter their behavior accordingly, thereby reducing their autonomy. By scrutinizing the power relations between citizens and a complex surveillance amalgam of private and public institutions, with reference to the erosion of humanist conceptions of selfhood, Harcourt addresses issues such as the right to privacy, dignity, and freedom to be let alone. His work [End Page 263] thereby contributes to debate in the field of cultural politics, particularly with respect to digital cultures, new media interactions, and the value of human rights.
Harcourt's work is divided into four main sections, each of which is broken down into three corresponding chapters. Part 1, "Clearing the Ground," takes as its starting point the National Security Agency mass surveillance programs leaked by whistle-blower Edward Snowden in June 2013. Three popular visions of control and the extent of their relevance to our current digital condition are analyzed. The first is in relation to George Orwell's dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), its portrayal of the all-powerful Big Brother in a world where love and desire are to be eradicated and the contrast with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's concept of desiring-production in Anti-Oedipus (1972). The second concerns the shift from Thomas Hobbes' vision of a protector state in Leviathan (1651) to that of the tentacles of an oligarchy including intelligence, security interests, and multinational technology corporations. The third is in connection with Michel Foucault's appropriation of Jeremy Bentham's eighteenth-century panoptican and issues of disciplinary power—that is to say, the impact of surveillance and punishment.
Having considered the limits of these three visions with respect to contemporary society, the author proceeds to part 2, "The Birth of the Expository Society," in which he offers an alternative analysis of our digital condition, by borrowing from Dan Graham's pavilion artwork—steel-and-glass structures that invite viewers to actively expose themselves in the process of mirroring transparencies and reconfigured reflections within a given space. To illustrate the extent to which citizens freely surrender their right to privacy and associated power, it explores the sources and composition of virtually costless mass data collection. It then examines what Harcourt describes as a new ever-looping Doppelgänger logic, according to which a quantifiable and mineable construction of the digital self is compared with others in a constant back-and-forth movement. In this way, the amalgam of multinational technology corporations, intelligence, and security interests may predict and influence future patterns of behavior of all digitally connected citizens from any device. Finally, it denotes a shift in the conception of human subjectivity from the ethic of humanist values and agency toward economic rationality and commodification of rights in a fluctuating space where privacy becomes negotiable, quantifiable, and mineable.
Part 3, "The Perils of Digital Exposure," highlights the dangers of developments in the rationale behind the digital economy for democratic governance. It examines various definitions of...