Translated by Hendrik Koger
Quite a bit has been written about Timo Toots’ Memopol, but the author of this article has not yet come across a text that has attempted a close reading of the piece, so to say. The following attempts to fill that blank.
For starters, let’s say a few words about the work itself. Memopol is an apparatus that measures its user’s so-called digital footprint by scouring the internet, along with various official databases, for relevant information which it then visualizes. To start the data collection process one must insert their ID card and PIN number, or scan their passport. Several technological innovations, such as, bank cards, ID cards, electronic banking, mobile phones, and social networks, have changed the ways data can be collected about people. Exploiting the possibilities these innovations offer leaves traces, the subsequent utilizations of which are often outside of the user’s control. The publicly available information about ourselves includes the data we willingly make available to others via online profiles, blogs, photos, etc., all disseminated in various social networks. One of the success stories of Estonia is the Estonian State Portal — collecting large amounts of personal data and making it available via the Internet. Toots points out that it may not (yet) be possible to create an apparatus like Memopol in some other country. The name of the device is written in Cyrillic so as to associate it with the concept of the Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984.
The data displayed by Memopol can conditionally be divided into three categories: firstly the data made public by the user (profiles in social networks and — to make a generalization in some respects — other matches and keywords provided by search engines); secondly the user data acquired by different institutions, the amount, extent and accessibility of which are at best only partially dependant on the user (data concerning health, education, criminal record, income, date and place of birth, party membership, and information about various permits); the third and more obscure category consists of astrological data. In the following analysis I will first center on the data of the second category and then on the rest of it.
A new expression for the historical theories of power
Firstly, the data of the second category is noticeably detailed. Secondly, also worthy of note regarding this data is the generous amount of the different aspects of an individual’s life it brings to the government’s attention; this is due to the fact that a great deal of personal data can be accessed via institutional databases or search engines. What best describes government interest in the data belonging to the second category is a term called biopower. The subject of biopower is life itself, which is related to a certain statistical knowledge about populations (3). Biopower is rooted in the 17th century, when nascent ways of making governing more efficient and rational started to become more clearly outlined. Both the knowledge about state powers and ways of developing them gained in prominence. The reason of state, as Foucault calls it, takes shape within two ensembles of political knowledge and technology. The first —a diplomatic-military technology — is the development of state power through various inter-state alliances along with the strengthening of the war machine. The second is policy [police] in its 17th century sense, that is, the set of means necessary for internally increasing state powers. These means where called Polizeiwissenschaft in 18th century Germany. Such style of government (which is the essence of biopolitics) treats the population as a mass of living and coexisting creatures (4), paying heed to their health, hygiene, fertility rates, and life-span, as well as the political, economical and security matters concerning them. (5) A great deal of the user data displayed by Memopol is primarily biopolitical.
The extensive collecting on this kind of data requires increasingly efficient surveillance along with the technological solutions making it all possible. Modern surveillance-oriented society has five socio-historical layers that could be compared to geological strata, where previous layers — in their altered form — continue to have an effect on the subsequent strata:
I The first layer developed in the West during the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in Great Britain, because of the changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution. In order to facilitate control over the workers, their activity was monitored in their workplaces. In the 19th century, the idea of monitoring the behavior of workers was inspired by Taylorism. It was an exercise of control over the human body, its functions divided into segments derived only from a single type of action or activity. Fordism continued the trend towards the greater mechanization of human behaviors. This was motivated by the pursuit of greater economic efficiency as well as better monitoring of the workers. The will to control human behavior has usually gone hand in hand with the desire to govern the human mind, or at least to better anticipate its thoughts.
II The second layer developed in the late 19th century, when the management of the population was extended beyond the factory in order to be implemented nationwide. During the age of Imperialism monitoring technology in European countries was increasingly applied in the field of everyday life, manifesting itself, for instance, in the socio-political changes which co-opted the unemployed and low-income classes into the nation state. Criminology, which in time became ever more concerned with the genetically conditioned physical peculiarities of criminals, was also devised in this period. Fingerprinting and other identification methods that are widely known today were first put to use during that time.
III The third layer emerged during the Cold War. The pursuit to control the human mind was added to the existing objectives of the surveillance technology. The attempt was made to use identity politics in order to integrate various social minority groups, whose civil rights where on the increase, into consumer society.. Surveillance became the means to construct the consumer’s life. It was still difficult to identify each individual subject; therefore the individual was treated as an unknown member of the masses which needed to be monitored. Mass media and advertising became the main instruments for guiding the minds of the population.
IV The fourth layer developed after the transformation of mass consumption and democracy, which were based on control and surveillance. Until now, the manufacturers and distributors did not have a clear idea of the consumers’ preferences. The use of computer technology in the field of distribution — in order to effectively guide and profile the consumers — has changed the situation. The rapid spreading of information technology and developments in information processing has significantly altered production. The mass consumers could now be divided into consumer groups and individuals, potential buyers of low-volume niche products. For marketing, the individual with his or her peculiarities, which could be profited from, became pivotal. Specific individuals were reduced to abstract data, which was then categorized according to commercial demands. After the data was processed, every consumer or user group was reconstructed on the basis of this newly processed data.
V The fifth layer, the crux of which is surveillance based on information and communications technology, emerged after the Cold War and is prevalent to this day. The extensive dissemination of cell phones and the Internet has brought with it, in one form or another, the re-emergence of several by now familiar elements from the previous layers. The use of information and communications technologies for identifying individuals and confirming their identities quickly spread to the fields of surveillance and national security. (6)
In the fourth and fifth layer there was a transition towards increasingly individual monitoring and data collection. In the form of pastoral power, this change too has a precedent in the technologies of power. Pastoral power is, essentially, the relationship between the governed and the governor(s) conceived as a relationship between a flock and the good shepherd. It is characteristic that the shepherd wields power over a flock instead of a land. The shepherd has to account for the doings of every member of his flock, especially for their good and bad deeds. He assembles the flock, i.e. he forms it by gathering around himself the formerly scattered individuals, whom he then guides and leads; the presence and actions of the shepherd are the prerequisite of the flock’s existence — without him it disperses. The shepherd has to look after the welfare of every single member of the herd. He guards them and keeps track of any one of them separately; this requires that he knows both the flock as a whole and the peculiarities of every member of the flock, by paying attention to them. According to Foucault, it is characteristic of Western societies that a few are considered shepherds whilst the majority is seen as a flock. (7) For example, Rousseau criticizes Hobbes because he divides mankind into flocks and single shepherds who surpass the flock by nature (8). Pastoral power is individualizing, because, by centering on individuals, it allows power to focus on them more than ever.
New technologies implemented for biopolitical purposes, and in order to facilitate surveillance, are frequently ushered in by pastorally themed rhetoric. The justifications often revolve around the need for security, comfort, greater transparency, speed, greater individual-centeredness etc. The data of the second category in Memopol’s data report points at the biopolitical nature of user data, its pastoral use, and the role of technology in all this. Toots’ apparatus brings out the contemporary manifestations of power techniques from earlier socio-historic layers.
If we turn our attention to the data of the first category, then we’ll see that when it comes to the user’s online identity, the statistical profile comprised of the traces of his or her online activity supersedes his or her actual offline identity. (9) Memopol takes these peculiarities into account when computing the user’s digital footprint. On the one hand, we can witness the re-emergence of technologies familiar from the surveillance-oriented societies mentioned in the fourth layer here —individuals are reconstructed on the basis of the data that is obtained about them. On the other hand, an important additional dimension is constituted by that subset of the data that has been willingly made public by the users themselves. The question about the variations in the general sense of privacy is interesting, but at this point I will leave it aside.
The data of the third category —horoscopes — are perhaps the most difficult to interpret. Why has the author decided to add this element into his work? While all other data is relatively rational, astrology sticks out as the only irrational subset of the overall data; it is incompatible with contemporary knowledge of natural sciences. Similarly to religion, the defining force of human life in astrology is transcendent, but, unlike religion, impersonal, abstract, inaccessible i.e. material-like. According to Adorno, this kind of irrationality resembles the irrationality that manifests itself in the complexity of contemporary society, where the processes that guide human life have become opaque for the majority of people. In this kind of environment, the individual is often compelled to accept the effects of unknown and outside forces, which is, in some ways, similar to the mysterious influence of the celestial bodies. On the one hand, the individual’s behavior, according to astrology, is determined by the external forces affecting their choices, which also shape the individual’s personality. On the other hand, the final decision, whether to take these forces into consideration or not, is still the individual’s own to make. Moreover, astrology calls on us to make decisions even in the most mundane everyday situations. At the same time, the choices are limited by the position of the planets. Basically, freedom consists of accepting the inevitable: if the individual acts in accordance with the position of the planets, then they will do fine; if they neglect it, there will be trouble. When the state of affairs is already predestinated, then there is no need for personal responsibility or initiative which would strive for something over and above small mundane matters. One just has to believe in that which already is, because eventually the planets will take care of the problems too. The prerequisite is that the individual conforms to the existing norms, whether they are determined by the planets or by society. Therefore, with reference to Adorno, it might be said that astrology conveys an attitude that is characterized by passive acceptance of the existing and compliance with it, whereas the external forces (position of the planets, societal norms) regarding the individual will never be subjects to criticism. (10) This interpretation might be compatible with what has so far already been said in this text. To what extent does it apply to the actual readers of horoscopes, is another matter.
What has been said thus far only concerns the data displayed by the apparatus. Next, it would be a good idea to examine the ways of collecting, storing and distributing this data — something also pointed out by Memopol.
The medium is (a part of) the message
The way the user’s digital footprint is formed in Memopol is based on different bits of information about the user, which are displayed by the apparatus as if they where disjoint, and viewable apart from the whole; as though the subject could be divided into different segments (state of health, education, and economic situation) — all separately assessable. This refers to a certain way of dealing with the subject. The first and second layers of surveillance-oriented society could be called disciplinary, but partly the third and — to a greater extent — fourth and fifth layers should rather come under the title of control society. In a disciplinary society, power functions by means of confinement and individualization. The governed body moves between different enclosed spaces, for example from home to school, and from there to the factory etc. In control societies power functions via modulation. Control is more easily exercised, because the main methods of identification are passwords and computers, which at the same time are historically connected to the emergence of these kinds of societies. The distinction between the individual and the masses is lost, because both are constructed according to random samples and statistics. The individuals themselves, however, are divided based on the different spheres of their lives, which can then be appealed to separately. The relevant data is reflected in statistics, markets and data banks. The aim is to govern and guide the activities of individuals more specifically. Control itself is flexible and works by the gradual inclusion or exclusion of individuals. The suitableness, capabilities and mentality of the individual is constantly tested. (11) As the focus shifts from ownership to access, the distinction between public and private tends to blur. Ownership refers to physical exclusion or, on the contrary, to the existence of a private life relying on inclusion. Access, however, refers to ways of identification that concern patterns, so as to distinguish those who have access from those that do not.(12) These kind of societies are characterized by endless processes (for example lifelong study). By dividing the user’s general portrait into separate, assessable and controllable parts, Memopol too relies on the subject treatment characteristic of control societies, thereby also making it clearly visible.
A vivid example of control society is the rapidly growing number of online services. For Memopol itself, the electronic government, a phenomenon that appears in the fifth socio-historical layer, is of central importance, since it is this artworks very condition of possibility. One might say that the aim of electronic government is to redefine the parameters for identifying individuals through the use of intra-network databases, certification systems, ID cards and other methods. The second characteristic of the e-government is the public sector’s adoption of administrative methods that have proven successful in the commercial sector. The state and its functions are viewed as in some ways similar to a private business: state institutions provide a service, and the citizens are the consumers of that service. All of this noticeably increases the government’s powers of surveillance at the cost of (mass) democracy that allows for anonymity. Mobile phones and the Internet give the average person channels of communication the reach of which can be compared to mass media and government. In order to track these channels, the state institutions use IT-based tracking technologies, a situation which consequently renders these given channels central to the debates concerning privacy and security. In this case, the collection and sharing of digital user data in networks is the main subject of criticism. Some negative consequences of these developments are the exploiting of an individual’s identity by the government and the commercial sectors, a denial of anonymity, as well as the monopoly of public- and commercial sectors over data mining and profiling. (13) In a way, the government becomes the official biographer of the people (14); the state remembers for the people and Memopol allows us to see what is remembered about us. (15)
The principal medium of Memopol is the Internet, the relation of which to one of the piece’s central matters — power — I will now examine. There are several types of network structures. The simplest is the centralized network, which is hierarchical and centers on a single hub. Generally, all activity moves from the centre to periphery and not a single node (host) is connected to any other peripheral host. The decentralized network is a multiplication of the centralized network. It has several hubs, each with a host, but there is no one central hub for managing the entire network. In distributed networking there are no hubs or hosts. In this kind of network every entity is autonomous within the rules of the system and can connect to any other entity without the need for a proxy server. Basically the Internet can be thought of as series of inter-connected networks, a so-called network of networks. (16) This kind of characterization is similar to Deleuze’s and Guattari’s rhizomatic model that opposes itself to central and hierarchical structures. (17) However, the Internet is not a rhizomatic structure, because its hosts connect to each other via different communications protocols; the most well-known of which are TCP/IP. Communications protocols are regulations or collections of rules that determine different technological standards, as well as the adoption and usage of these standards. In a way these protocols are the precepts of a system; they can manifest themselves in various forms, for example in the different network structures that were already mentioned, by limiting the extent of potential activities in a given system. These regulations operate on the encoding level by encoding information, so that it could be transferred to other machines that are connected to the network. The protocols are formal; that is to say that they encapsulate the information to be communicated on the basis of a certain regulation, but are generally not concerned with the contents of the information. This is a certain shared administrative system that is not centre-based, but manifests itself locally in every single system-embedded unit or relation, in order to achieve the voluntary control of technology, and its use in an unstable and changing environment. (18)
Biopower and biopolitics could be seen as protocols that apply to living organisms — they refer to the ways of making the masses statistical, which, in turn, makes it possible to normatively compare every single being and its function as a part of the whole, to the whole of obtained data. It is similar to the protocol that administrates autonomous agents. It applies to every object individually and yet brings each single entity in line with the whole by way of standards. (19) Biopolitics and the flexible governing methods of control society are merged in this kind of technology that is characteristic of the fifth phase of surveillance-oriented societies. In Memopol, one of the first levels that this phenomenon manifests itself in is during the insertion of the ID card and PIN number; by doing that, the users identify themselves and give permission to start the data collection process. The PIN number allows the user to verify their identity via certification systems. Such systems essentially have a monopoly over defining individuals. (20) The prerequisite and the environment in which Memopol (like the electronic government) operates is the Internet, the information and communications network based on authentication through protocols. Therefore, it might be said that Toots does not only comment on the contemporary surveillance-oriented society, but the installation itself is a vehicle for the control technology that is characteristic of today.
Toots says that the apparatus’s Cyrillic name is supposed to refer to the concept of the Big Brother in Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. The novel warns of the hazards of utopian programs in politics by demonstrating the fictional consequences of one such program. (21) Perhaps Toots is trying to achieve a similar effect with the retro-futuristic visuals of the installation. The rhetoric that accompanies the use of modern monitoring technologies is often permeated by utopian visions. The Cyrillic name of Toots’ apparatus can first and foremost be associated with Soviet totalitarian rule, which, in turn, should perhaps refer to the implicit totalitarian tendencies of surveillance-oriented society. Referring to historical totalitarian regimes is in itself a popular method of criticizing utopian intentions. (22) Although, considering the local context of the work, the reference to the Soviet Union is appropriate; Toots turns it into a synecdoche of totalitarianism in general. If the previous analysis of control technologies is correct, then there is a contradiction between the work’s form and its content. The Soviet Union should rather be considered a disciplinary society, Memopol, on the other hand, points out the technologies of power used in control societies. It is clear that the author is referring to contemporary tendencies via analogies from the past, but despite this, and the spectacular form of the work itself, the tension between the form and content still remains. This makes one unintentionally think of other kinds of solutions — which would carry the same message and would rely on the same technology — that would bear a better resemblance to contemporary protocol-based control technologies in their form. Currently, disseminated control is largely referred to via a form that signifies hierarchical and centralized control.
A subject made of bytes
If Memopol depicts contemporary power relations, then what is the subject of this power like? What is, according to the installation itself, Memopol’s user like? Dividable, quantifiable, flexibly governed, comparable to (statistical) norms — all of that I have already mentioned. What kind of model of human beings underlies all this?
The large scale introduction of informatics and the decoding of the human genome have contributed to the creation of a new myth, according to which, human beings, as well as life in general, are first and foremost information systems, not physical organisms. (23) In the historical scale, this change of understanding could be tracked to the Turing test, which linked a machine’s capability for exhibiting intelligent behavior with its ability to confuse the human observer via symbol manipulation. Such an understanding of the intellect, together with Claude Shannon’s and Norbert Wiener’s theories on information, which conceived information as being independent of the mediums that carry it (24), helped to decrease the importance of corporeality and the body in thinking about life and human beings. Information theory was initially a link between mathematics, electrical engineering and computation, but it soon spread to other scientific fields. For example, in genetics, genes were primarily seen as carriers of information. Information has come to be seen as the principle of cosmic order, which is possibly the result of the changes that took place in genetics and physics. Artificial life and related fields of research concentrate on recasting our knowledge of biology by analyzing living organisms is such a way that lifelike behavioral patterns are created in computers and other artificial environments. As a result of that, the computer programs used for modeling evolutionary processes began to be treated — although not unanimously — as living. Computer software and life are often associated because of the evolutionary and biological analogies that are used for explaining the logic of the given programs. The cultural and technological context of this approach has fostered fantasies according to which it may someday be possible for human beings to exist without their bodies (25). All this is based on the understanding that information and corporeality are two different things, which in turn allows for the creation of a hierarchy where information is primary and corporeality is secondary. (26)
Control societies see individuals as dividable. It is simultaneously expected that this changing data boils down to a single individual, determined by biological attributes; fingerprints, facial features, DNA and other information center on one unique body that is the carrier of the said information. There are no subjects outside the biological body and each body contains only one subject. A good example of this way of thinking is DNA profiling. A single subject can actually have several identities in different contexts — different e-mail addresses and profiles in online communities etc, — that cannot be reduced to a single biological identity. Despite the dispersion of data collecting in surveillance-oriented society, it is expected that the individual itself is ultimately undividable. However, the individual is dividable, because of the different identities that manifest themselves in different social contexts and do not necessarily come down to biological identity. Official identities are put together, based on the data in various institutional databases and certification systems, creating a sort of artificial identity that is chosen over one’s own or one’s companions’ definitions of the self when defining a subject. (27)
In the light of the already mentioned approach to information it is as if information technologies make it possible to realize the dream that is impossible in the natural world — the chance to take a look at the working principles of reality in its most elementary level (28). By linking this characterization to the techniques of power exercised in surveillance-oriented society and its model of human beings, we might perhaps get a clearer picture of how understandings of human identity are changing; this is something that Memopol both relies on and draws attention to as well. If the subject is informational in its nature, then — in the context of previously mentioned ideas — it might be said, with some exaggeration, that Memopol allows us to take a look at identity and the human being as a subject of both power and recollection in way that some of our contemporary conceptual trends do.
List of references
(1) The author of this text familiarized himself with the work in the exhibition “gateways. Art and Networked Culture”, 13.05.2011-25.09.2011 in the Kumu Art Museum of Estonia.
(2) Others who have written about Timo Toots and Memopol are: Mare Tralla, “In the search of the human face of the network culture”, newspaper Sirp, 10.06.2011 (http://www.sirp.ee/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=12608:vorgustunud-kultuuri-inimliku-naeo-jaelil-&catid=6:kunst&Itemid=10&issue=3349); Kadri Ratt, “A nifty exhibition: snails carrying e-mail, a giant cell phone and a Wi-Fi-spyglass”, newspaper Postimees, 13.05.2011 (http://www.postimees.ee/437036/nutikas-naitus-e-posti-vedavad-teod-hiigeltelefon-ja-wifi-pikksilm/); Tanel Veenre, “Intervene!” “Click!” “Make sense!”, newspaper Eesti Päevaleht, 28.05.2011 (http://www.epl.ee/news/kultuur/sekku-klikka-motesta.d?id=51297892). The previous version of “Memopol” has been written about by Andreas W, “The machine that strolled among the corridors of memory”, Kunst.ee, 3-4/2010 (http://ajakirikunst.ee/?c=kunstee-numbrid&l=et&t=masin-kes-jalutas-malu-koridorides&id=269); Raimu Hanson, “The artist is playing around with the user data”, newspaper Postimees, 02.06.2010 (http://www.tartupostimees.ee/270826/kunstnik-mangib-isikuandmetega/).
(3) Galloway, Alexander R. 2004. Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. Cambridge, M.A.: The MIT Press, p. 85.
(4) Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, and Population, in Michel Foucault. 1997. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984, Vol. I: Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, Robert Hurley et al (trans), Paul Rabinow (ed.). New York: The New Press, pp. 68-71.
(5) Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics, in Michel Foucault. 1997. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984, Vol. I: Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, Robert Hurley et al (trans.), Paul Rabinow (Ed.). New York: The New Press, p. 73. Cf. Foucault, Michel. 1978/1990. The History of Sexuality, Vol. I: An Introduction, Robert Hurley (trans.). New York: Vintage Books, pp. 138-140.
(6) Ogura, Toshimaru. Electronic government and surveillance oriented society, in David Lyon (ed.) 2006. Theorizing Surveillance: The Panopticon and Beyond. Willan Publishing, pp. 271, 272-276.
(7) Foucault, Michel. 1979. Pastoral Power and Political Reason, in Michel Foucault. 1999. Religion and Culture: Michel Foucault, Jeremy R. Carrette (ed.). New York: Routledge, pp. 137-138, 141-143.
(8) Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 1923. The Social Contract and Discourses, G. D. H. Cole (trans). London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd.; New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., p. 7.
(9) Galloway, op. cit., p. 64.
(10) Adorno, Theodor W. 1994/ 2002. The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture. London & New York: Routledge, pp. 50-51, 57-58, 60-61, 77-78, 79.
(11) Deleuze, Gilles. 1992. Postscript on the Societies of Control, October, Vol. 59, pp. 3-7.
(12) Hayles, N. Katherine. 1999. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 40.
(13) Ogura, op. cit., pp. 275-276, 278, 296.
(14) Ogura, op. cit., p. 291.
(15) In his article, Andreas W. indicates this as well.
(16) Galloway, op. cit., pp. 30, 31, 32-33, 34, 35, 38.
(17) Deleuze, Gilles & Felix Guattari. 1980/2007. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia Vol. 2, Brian Massumi (trans). London & New York: Continuum, pp. 12-13, 20, 23, 24-25.
(18) Galloway, op. cit., pp. 7-8, 30, 52, 61, 74-75, 81-82.
(19) Galloway, op. cit., p. 87.
(20) Ogura, op. cit., p. 283.
(21) Jameson, Fredric. 2005. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso, pp. 198-199.
(22) Rothstein, Edward. Utopia and its Discontents, in Edward Rothstein, Herbert Muschamp, Martin E. Marty. 2004. Visions of Utopia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 5.
(23) Ogura, op. cit., p. 276.
(24) Hayles, op. cit., p. xi
(25) Cf. Bostrom, Nick. 2003. The Transhumanist FAQ – A General Introduction, Version 2.1. World Transhumanist Organisation, pp. 17-19. Online. http://www.transhumanism.org/resources/FAQv21.pdf.
(26) Hayles, op. cit., pp. 11, 12, 223, 225, 231. Cf. Gleick, James. 2011. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. New York: Pantheon Books.
(27) Ogura, op. cit., pp. 290, 291.
(28) Hayles, op. cit., p. 233.