Foucault Live

Posted on | December 15, 2014 | No Comments

I dreamed that a day would come when I would know in advance what I meant and would only have to say it. That was a reflection of old age. I imagined I had finally reached the age when one only has to reel out what’s in one’s head. It was both a form of presumption and an abandonment of restraint. Yet to work is to undertake to think something other than what one has thought before.

– ‘The Concern for Truth’, p. 455

It’s very likely that the works I write don’t correspond exactly to the titles I’ve given them. It’s a clumsiness on my part, but when I choose a title I keep it. I write a book, I revise it, I discover new problematics, but the title remains. There is also another reason. In the books I write, I try to pinpoint a type of problem that hasn’t been discerned before. Consequently, and necessarily under these conditions, I must bring to light at the end of the work a certain type of problem that can’t be rewritten into the title. That’s why there is this sort of “play” between the title and the work. Clearly one ought either to tell me that these works don’t reflect their titles at all and that I really must change the titles, or that there’s a kind of gap that opens up between the title and the book’s content, and that this discrepancy is to be understood as the distance I have taken myself in writing the book.

– ‘Return of Morality’, p. 471

This productive life

Posted on | December 7, 2014 | No Comments

Here’s the blurb for the talk I’m giving at UCLA on Wednesday. I haven’t been airing much of this work while it’s still in progress, other than the occasional photo from the archives, but it’s the material for my new book, Counterproductive.

This is the project I’ve been drawing on in some of the press coverage lately, e.g. this NY Times piece, and the Diane Rehm Show. Looking forward to moving this work into the open…

This productive life
The rise of personal productivity apps is a symptom of the consumer-enterprise collision underway as work escapes the confines of place to be more flexible, pliant, and ambient. Just as the Quantified Self movement is revolutionizing health care, with tracking devices and wearables monitoring activities that can be turned into actionable data sets, personal productivity apps and services capture a similar interest in quantifying and perfecting activity. These tools compensate for failures in the affective and material infrastructure of the contemporary workplace. They allow for the performance of composure in the face of ontological precarity and organizational inefficiency.

More than just a metric for efficiency, today productivity is a lifestyle practiced by elite, autonomous workers who manage themselves in transient, adhoc workplaces. Technology is the trusted and reliable companion across multiple domains, contexts and experiences. My account of the software market for personal productivity illustrates the qualities of a productive life. Drawing on the ideas of Peter Sloterdijk, I explain productivity as a form of secular athleticism, while also posing the question: are we prepared for a future in which we bring a virtual companion to work?

Civic hacking postscript

Posted on | November 23, 2014 | No Comments

Audio from the Civic Hacking panel at the Digital Labor conference last weekend is now here. Thanks to everyone who attended and followed the discussion online.

We ran this as a series of position statements on key terms that interest us in the study of civic hacking. This is the result of ongoing research across a number of different sites that are discussed in detail in the session.

The words and speakers are as follows:

    Carl DiSalvo

    Hackers and/as entrepreneurs
    Lilly Irani, Andrew Schrock

    Andrew Schrock, Max Liboiron, Thomas Lodato

    Thomas Lodato, Max Liboiron

    (Data) activism
    Max Liboiron, Andrew Schrock

    Thomas Lodato, Mel Gregg

The final part of the discussion, not part of this recording, was a brainstorm with the audience in which we attempted to move the conversation from terms to tactics. It also featured some ideas from my forthcoming paper, “Hack for Good: Speculative labor, app development and the burden of austerity.”

We will be using this material as the basis for further thinking, writing and events, so feedback is most welcome.

Civic hacking at #DL14

Posted on | October 13, 2014 | No Comments

Next month I’ll be at the Digital Labor: Sweatshops, Picket lines, and Barricades conference at The New School in New York. This is a description of the panel I’m organizing with Carl DiSalvo, continuing some of our previous thinking on civic hacking. Please join us if you are coming to the conference – and check out the work of our fellow panelists. Very inspiring!

Civic Hacking

If digital labor is often conceived within the framework of industry – occupying the shadows of financial compensation – this assumes that monetary reward is the necessary end point for all labor transactions. This panel argues that a key site for digital labor and its hopeful possibilities is the work of civic hacking. This is digital labor premised on the idea of public good and the necessary provision of shared infrastructure and services.

A growing number of research and activist projects pivot on design expertise, code literacy and data analytics to mobilize resources and improve the quality of life for citizens and consumers. These affective, ameliorative, and civic registers offer a necessary complement to dominant visions of digital labor, and a means of foregrounding other kinds of profits to be gained from donated work.

Our discussion explores new forms of political participation that are enabled by the digital in ways that are situated, tactical and contextually relevant. Through analysis of civic and issue-oriented hackathons, the subjective intensity of informal code work, and the logistical activism of developing grassroots infrastructure, we illustrate data collection as activism. This new horizon for social computing uses technology to advance collective action.

Civic hackers trade on the language of entrepreneurialism and voluntarism to exploit avenues and applications for data. Brokering partnerships between local government, non-profit, activist and scholarly communities, this work builds connections as much as tools in a speculative but no less meaningful enactment of localized belonging. Civic hacking is a characteristic experience of immaterial labor, at once imaginative, pragmatic and symbolic. As we will contest, it is a labor identity that has the potential to challenge the stranglehold of enterprise in defining the character and composition of labor, by rivaling previous visions of work and its rewards.

Format: We propose a panel / workshop hybrid — an appropriate form for the amalgam of labor and performance, debut and resistance that characterizes civic hacking. A short panel format will feature presentations on the empirical and theoretical conditions of civic hacking, drawing from the varied research practices of the panelists which span cultural studies, communication, sociology and design. These presentations will describe the common forms of civic hacking and express concerns with some of its key formats as a displacement of politics and work-based relations. Through this, the presentations set the groundwork for what a practice of civic hacking that embraces the political and labor might be — the articulation of concerns is refigured as a set of desires to achieve. From this point distinctions between panelists and audience will give way to a collective description of those desires and tactics to achieve them.


Carl DiSalvo is author of Adversarial Design (MIT, 2012) and Associate Professor in the Digital Media program in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His work draws together science and technology studies, humanities and design research to analyze the social and political qualities of design and prototype experimental systems and services.

Melissa Gregg is Principal Engineer in User Experience at Intel, where she investigate new forms of labor and enterprise beyond the organization. Her publications include Work’s Intimacy (Polity 2011), The Affect Theory Reader (Duke UP, 2010) and Cultural Studies’ Affective Voices (Palgrave 2006).

Lilly Irani (Chair & Discussant) is Assistant Professor in Communication, Science Studies at UC San Diego. Her work examines design practices in situ to understand their relationships with broader cultural, political, and social processes. She explores this through ethnographic fieldwork and activism in design workspaces and crowdsourcing platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk.

Max Liboiron is an Assistant Professor of sociology and technology at the Memorial University of Newfoundland and a co-founding member of the Superstorm Research Lab, a mutual aid research collective. Liboiron studies “techniques of definition,” the tools and practices used by scientists and activists to make emerging, contested, amorphous forms of harm and crisis legible enough for action.

Thomas James Lodato is a third-year PhD student at Georgia Institute of Technology in the Digital Media program. Interested in theories and methods of empathic design, Thomas often focuses on food and agricultural systems to ground his research. Currently Thomas is researching hackathons and their potential as forms of sociopolitical engagement through design and computing.

Andrew Schrock is a PhD candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. His dissertation, chaired by François Bar, looks at how interactions on mobile social network platforms (MSNPs) enhance social capital. At USC, he is a member of the Innovation lab and Henry Jenkins’ Civic Paths.

Writing in the periphery

Posted on | October 11, 2014 | No Comments

Some new publications I’ve been working on lately…

Inside the Data Spectacle, forthcoming in Television and New Media:

    This paper focuses first on the scopophilic aspects of large scale data visualization – the fantasy of command and control through seeing (Halperin 2014) – and places these in relation to key sites and conventions inside the tech industry. Borrowing John Caldwell’s (2008) notion of “industrial reflexivity”, I explain the charismatic power and performative effects that attend representations of data as visual spectacle. Drawing on 12 months of personal experience working for a large technology company, and observations from a number of relevant showcases, conferences and events, I take a “production studies” approach (Mayer et al., 2010) to understand the forms of commonsense produced in industry settings. I then offer two examples of data work understood as a new kind of “below the line” labor.

The Effective Academic Executive, forthcoming in ‘What’s Become of Australian Cultural Studies?’ a special issue of Cultural Studies in honour of Graeme Turner:

    This paper for a special issue of Cultural Studies focuses on Graeme Turner’s exemplary management style – his role as a mentor and a keen institutional operator. Turner’s brand of cultural studies is defined by its attention to the arts and politics of management alongside the customary business of doing research. It is cultural studies’ lack of engagement with management theory that has made this type of work difficult to appreciate. This paper acknowledges the significance of Turner’s management politics, its relevance to his broader intellectual project, and its importance for the field of Cultural Studies at a time of ‘adhoc professionalism’.

Hack for good: Speculative labor, app development and the burden of austerity, submitted to Fibreculture for a special issue coming out of last year’s Apps and Affect conference in London, Ontario:

    This paper analyzes the rise of ‘hackathons’ – intensive code- and data-sharing events that bring participants together to accomplish specific challenges – to understand their role in the ecosystem for app development and the qualities of work they promote. It isolates the specific ideological work of the civic hackathon, which presents a new development in the history of sacrificial labor supplementing creative industries. Hackathons are a bridge between the ‘free labor’ foundational to the early internet and the practice of spec work in the field of design. When the hackathon is advertised as ‘civic’ voluntarism, the labor involved in design is doubly discounted.

These and other publications are updated in the writing pages to the right, and on

ISTC-Social @ The Atlantic

Posted on | June 24, 2014 | No Comments

As part of the ISTC-Social All Hands celebrations in May, Ian Bogost was kind enough to put together a sample of the center’s work to feature in the Technology section of The Atlantic. The fab articles below are just a taste of some of the topics and perspectives coming out of our research on campus and at Intel Labs. Enjoy!

    Shanzhai: China’s Collaborative Electronics Design Ecosystem by Silvia Lindtner, Anna Greenspan, and David Li.
    In Shenzhen, there are hundreds of smart watches, not just design prototypes. Here’s why.

    Come on Feel the Data (And Smell It) by Luke Stark.
    Digital interaction will engage all of our senses simultaneously, including smell and taste, to help us feel the impact of information in our guts.

    The Right Way to Make Cities Smart by Christopher Le Dantec.
    Most data-driven “civic apps” report problems. What if they facilitated civic engagement instead?

    QR Codes for the Dead by Tamara Kneese.
    Graveyards are becoming smart spaces, but will today’s technology last for eternity?

    The Future of Money-Like Things by Lana Swartz and Bill Maurer.
    Look at the infrastructure that makes money move to understand the future of monetary forms like Bitcoin.

    Server Farm to Table by Jonathan Lukens.
    If we know where our fresh food comes from, will we believe that it’s really “fresh”?

    Left to Our Own Devices by Margie Morris.
    Creative, unforeseen adaptations of familiar technologies can help us make our relationships more meaningful.

Social computing – year two

Posted on | June 24, 2014 | No Comments


Last month we held the second annual meeting for the ISTC for Social Computing at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. The 3 day event brought ~80 faculty and students together with Intel researchers and leaders to discuss plans and findings to date. We were also joined by the Board of Advisors, including Bill Gaver (Goldsmiths), Judy Wajcman (LSE), Christena Nippert-Eng (IIT) and Rick Robinson (SapientNitro).

The ISTC-Social is sponsored by Genevieve Bell’s User Experience Research Lab, and it is one of several ISTCs at Intel designed to pioneer a new form of academic collaboration with industry. In Atlanta we heard curated panel discussions on hot topics across the center’s five universities including “maker” culture, privacy, time and work, quantified society, civic data applications, design for social action, technologies of intimacy and the body and more (here’s the full program).

We also had:

• 33 individual posters in 2 research fairs over 2 afternoons, with lots of new PhD students

• ‘Inside Intel’ Q&A sessions with Intel social scientists explaining life as a corporate researcher

• Breakout sessions on areas of shared interest (values in design, speculation, and experience after the user)

Some of the areas where ISTC-Social scholars are having the most influence on our thinking at Intel include:

understanding how emerging social attitudes to privacy, exchange and trust translate to new business opportunities (Bitcoin, cryptography, security and storage). In the case of Bitcoin, its novelty needs to be understood in terms of how it extends older models of knowledge exchange and authority accorded through things like kinship structures; it signals a desire for collectively produced and recognized protocols for exchange that are bottom up and avoid the perceived biases of the existing currency, transaction and money system.

demonstrating how the maker movement is not just about new developers for software and hardware. Making captures a whole ecosystem of DIY development, distribution, and requisition that is at least partly a response to the locked down and monopolistic markets for new technology. ISTC-Social research across fieldsites worldwide reveals an emerging international trade in informal pedagogies of hacking, building and repair responding to this situation. Making isn’t just about physical locations (maker spaces) or particular platforms (Arduino) but is an enactment of historical and cultural values in concert with technologies. ISTC-Social research can help us understand cultures of innovation and ‘making do’ that value adaption, reuse and repurpose.

One significant research focus for the coming year is Civic IoT (internet of things). Looking at case studies such as the National Day of Civic Hacking, we are interested in the role of entrepreneurialism and donated labor in restyling voluntarism and social participation. The work of speculative civics is a new form of social computing that uses technology to build belonging.

Another area coming to fruition across the ISTC investigates social perspectives on time, work and value. Here is the manifesto on time that Phoebe Sengers, Steve Jackson, Kaiton Williams, Melissa Mazmanian, Ellie Harmon and I put together for our panel. It’s a way of thinking about how we might design technology differently to take account of different cultural settings for use as well as the social effects of acceleration. Look for more events and writing on this topic in the year ahead!

Forms of labour in Europe and China

Posted on | June 5, 2014 | No Comments

Forms of Labour in Europe and in China: The Case of Foxconn
University of Padua 26-27 June 2014

ROOM B1 – Via del Santo, 22 – Padova

10-11.00 Welcome and introductions

    Vincenzo Milanesi, Director of Department of Philosophy, Sociology, Education and Applied Psychology
    Antonio Varsori, Director of Department of Political, Legal and International Sciences

    Rutvica Andrijasevic (Leicester University)
    Devi Sacchetto (Padua University)

11-11.30 Coffee Break

11.30-13.00 Session 1 – Electronics: from China to the World

Chair: Massimiliano Tomba, University of Padua

    Speakers: Gijsbert van Liemt, Self-employed economist, formerly ILO
    Foxconn, the company: Past, present, and future

    Chris Smith, University of London, Royal Holloway College
    Work and employment in Chinese Multinationals abroad

    Jan Drahokoupil, European Trade Union Institute
    Foreign Direct Investment and the State in Central and Eastern Europe

13.00-14.00 Lunch

14.30-16.30 Session 2 – Electronics in Europe

Chair: Marek Čaněk, Multicultural Centre Prague

    Speakers: Malgorzata Maciejewska, University of Wroclaw
    Work and life in a Special Economic Zone: The electronics industry in Poland

    Devi Sacchetto, University of Padua
    Working in a European Free Zone: Foxconn workers’ in Turkey

    Irene Schipper, Somo
    Working conditions at Foxconn in Hungary

16.30-17.00 Tea Break

17.00-19.00 Session 3 – Trade Unions and Labour Organising

Chair: Chun-Yi Lee, University of Nottingham

    Speakers: Laurent Zibell, Industriall-europe
    Co-ordinating workers across borders: IndustriAll Europe’s action at European level in the electronics sector

    Tomáš Formánek, Foxconn shop steward in the Czech Republic
    The experience of trade unions inside Foxconn plant in Czech Republic

    Li Changjiang, Labor Community Education Center – China
    Labour organizing and education for Foxconn workers


9.00-11.00 Session 4 – New features of the working class?

Chair: Ferruccio Gambino, University of Padua

    Speakers: Kateřina Kotrlá, Ngo MOST Pro – Czech Republic
    Working with migrants in Pardubice

    Jenny Chan, University of London – Royal Holloway College
    Student Workers in China

    Jack Qiu, Chinese University of Hong Kong
    Working-Class Public Spheres

11-11.30 Coffee Break

11.30-13.30 Session 5 – Global production regime, global labour politics: new research agendas

Chair: Rutvica Andrijasevic, University of Leicester

    Speakers: Martina Sproll, Freie Universität Berlin
    Contract Manufacturing as a Neotaylorist Production Regime: Linking Labour Politics, Power and Social Inequalities

    Pun Ngai, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
    Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn and the Struggle of Chinese workers

Contact: Rutvica Andrijasevic, ra238 AT leicester DOT ac DOT uk

Counterproductive: Towards mindful labor

Posted on | March 13, 2014 | No Comments

Excerpt written for iDC in the lead up to the Digital Labor Conference, The New School, November 14-6

Affective capitalism is defined by the articulation of self-fashioning practices with a productivity imperative. We work on ourselves in order to be productive, but without an overarching referent or guide for our actions. To feel productive is to celebrate as a personal accomplishment the qualities endorsed by computing technologies and management mantras alike. The current boom in productivity software draws attention to a new kind of digital labor – mindful labor – that is preparatory and reparative as much as it is obligatory. Through “Getting Things Done” (GTD), “lifehacking” and other productivity applications (apps), individuals create regimes of anticipation, protection and recovery to meet the temporality of data flows. The productivity industry depends on the promise that users can achieve their goals and reclaim ownership of their time in the face of network culture’s immersive potential.

Productivity apps facilitate the pleasure of time management, which is ultimately the pleasure of control. Their various platforms offer strategies for closure and containment, from shutting down email and non-essential communication to identifying peak performance periods and ideal moments for efficiency. With names like “Self Control,” “Omnifocus,” “Rescue Time,” even “Freedom,” these tools offer liberation as much as consolation from everyday demands. Providing mastery over extraneous matters (what management manuals have long referred to as “trivia”), human fallibilities can be avoided. GTD techniques deliver an enhanced relationship to time by focusing only on what is important, maximizing opportunities for optimal work “flow” (Csíkszentmihályi 1990).

Productivity software epitomizes the trend towards algorithmic living, in which data bits and code become the impetus for enlightened behavior. App services and pointers turn ordinary activities into objects of measurement – and hence adjustment and improvement – by a “quantified self.” GTD categorizes, with the aim of eventually finessing, different elements of a user’s world. As an instance of cognitive capitalism, the administrivia of life and labor become interchangeable. Personal and professional tasks are similar challenges to be met through superior programming. The volatility of contemporary living is transformed into actionable steps that better pace and orient our encounters with time and things. In this way, productivity apps follow a long tradition of time- and self-management.

The scientific management of the Taylorist factory, the human relations theories that succeeded it, and the self-motivated, mobile professional of the present each advance the work of monitoring and reflection necessary for peak performance. At each step in this history, productivity logic retrains seemingly natural aspects of social being towards more efficient, substantial and rewarding ends. Convivial interactions, from the pleasant to the merely phatic, become traps or annoyances that obstruct the engineering of a viable professional self. The productivity mandate evident in time management apps continues this lineage by positing the viability of focusing only on the consequential, at least for predetermined periods. That individuals have the power to control life’s unpredictability in such a way with the deployment of technological infrastructure is just the first fantasy necessary for productivity’s appeal.

The relationship between GTD, lifehacking and other techniques for living is illuminated through the ideas of both Michel Foucault (1988) and Peter Sloterdijk (2013). In different ways, these writers’ insights show that work on the self has been a key facet of (Western) modernity. Drawing out these historical precedents for productivity helps to isolate the limitations of its current manifestation as a secular ethics, or what in Sloterdijk’s terms is a kind of religion. Productivity operates at the level of practice. It is a lifestyle enacted as genre, as pure form. But unlike religion, which makes an attempt to relate the individual to a larger whole, productivity isolates and sanctifies the individual. It elevates an elite class of worker beyond the concerns of the ordinary and the collective. These two factors mark its difference from previous visions of labor and its possible politics.

In the organization era, workers gained power and privileges through association with a firm. Career ambition was couched within the terms and the “social ethic” of a company and its standing within a community (Whyte 1956). By contrast, today’s workers learn to manage themselves in proximity to a workplace that is felt to be omnipresent, even ambient (Gregg 2011). This pervasively “virtual” space and time for work is the territory of the adhoc professional. Employees are less tethered to a particular office or workplace because they are assumed to be willing to provide their own ostensibly inexhaustible resources for labor. These resources begin with the logistical benchmark of constant connectivity and stretch to include the psychological resilience of day-to-day affect management. Productivity’s requisite asociality is symptomatic of this growing experience of mobile work. Adhoc professionals are entrusted to internalize productivity, accomplish results, and maintain composure using techniques that are self-sought and -taught. The science of management thus gives way to the pseudo-science of self-help, as workers encourage themselves to focus and flourish – often at others’ expense.

The convergence of neo-humanist management practices and productivity’s anti-institutionalism obviates mutual dependence and reciprocity in the workplace, not least because of a happy alliance with the entrepreneurialism at the heart of computer culture. The story of productivity is the story of assembling the ideal subject of professional work in terms defined by machines. Combined with the mythology of Silicon Valley, the most corrosive outcome of productivity services is to advance a broader ideological project that destroys solidarity in the name of individual freedom and creativity. This situation calls for a new kind of labor politics – what I call mindful labor. A politics of mindful labor alleviates the psychological impact of performative presence, requires periods of withdrawal, and summons collective means for resisting the alienating effects of digitally-mediated work. An anthropotechnics of mindful labor issues new demands on behalf of the adhoc professional, including the right to ritual. It asserts the value of work as a fully social practice, one that has the capacity to provide individual dignity, but only once the myopic nature of the productivity imperative has been overturned.

Productivity apps materialize a mode of thinking that takes seriously the possibility of transcending the social. Such an aspiration has the effect of producing a hierarchical workplace in which trivial tasks can be delegated down to other, less powerful employees, whose inferior status prevents their recognition as colleagues. The reciprocity of the labor relation is precluded in this process, and the cooperative nature of work transactions underplayed. By celebrating this structure as freedom, productivity tools normalize notions of individual exceptionalism in the guise of effective entrepreneurialism. A faith in technology is productivity’s salve for broader ontological insecurity, even while it exacerbates divisions of labor inherited from previous configurations of work and its management.

Stripped of religious, which is to say other-facing demands, productivity’s self-affirming mantras falsely suggest an underlying “order of things” (Foucault 1970). It is this lack of philosophical substance that drives the search for an enlightened metaphysics that can assuage the accumulative bias of capitalist thinking, in the rise of mindfulness practices, for instance. For the current experience of professional life, in which self-management occurs biopolitically, mindful labor emerges as a concept indebted to the spiritual foundations of protestant capitalism, but attuned to the global conditions for business. It offers a patchwork of ontological substitutes for a system that provides little by way of spiritual nourishment. If mindful labor is a Band-Aid cure for the productivity imperative, then, in more optimistic terms it also offers a path back to the social, to the world of others, and a set of relationships that hinge on reciprocity. It is therefore one of the best means available to show that collective thinking continues, that other worldviews remain, and that entertaining them is necessary to produce a labor subject appropriate to our times.


Csíkszentmihályi, M. 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper and Row, New York.
Foucault, M. 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Pantheon, New York.
—. 1988. The History of Sexuality, Volume Three: The Care of the Self. Vintage.
Gregg. M. 2011. Work’s Intimacy. Polity, London.
Sloterdijk, P. 2013. You Must Change Your Life. Polity, London.
Whyte, William H. 1956. The Organization Man. Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Obfuscation: Exploiting data entropy

Posted on | February 17, 2014 | No Comments

Thanks to Seda Gürses for her efforts in organizing such a wonderful day. I am still wearing my camo souvenir!

Saturday’s ISTC for Social Computing Obfuscation Symposium at NYU brought together experts in law, policy, arts, activism, engineering, computer science, design and anthropology to discuss case studies and demos exploring obfuscation – strategies whereby ‘individuals, groups or communities hide, protect themselves, protest or enact civil disobedience, especially in the context of monitoring, aggregated analysis, and profiling in (digital) space’. Speakers debated the ethical and technical costs of sending confusing, diverting, or misleading information as a ‘weapon of the weak’ in an era of inevitable surveillance and big data, as well as new priorities for consumer protection rights when organizations adopt obfuscation techniques in, for example, the realm of privacy policies.

The day began with a brief overview of the term obfuscation and the benefits of the framework as defined by Helen Nissenbaum and Finn Brunton in ‘Vernacular resistance to data collection and analysis: A political theory of obfuscation’ (2011). Their point in the paper is that obfuscation is about confusing rather than hiding; it is a chance for ordinary users to ‘take control’ when faced with encounters that are defined by information asymmetry.

Obfuscation works as an opportunity to buy time, create plausible deniability, provide cover, foil profiling and ultimately elude surveillance in situations that amount to ‘data tyranny’. Obfuscation is a more promising alternative to the common defeatism invoked by arbitrary monitoring power, i.e. when users simply ‘suck it up’ and/or ‘hope for the best’ in their transactions.

Communication scholar Joseph Turow’s complementary take on this position highlighted that organizations also routinely engage in obfuscation practices to mislead. Obfuscation is not just a technique of those without power, then. It is a means for a company to avoid ‘anything marginal to its own primary resource considerations’. Turow talked about privacy policies as a kind of phatic speech: the mere convention and the fact of presentation can have a reassuring effect on the user even if the content of a policy makes little sense or holds no binding obligation. Privacy policies often boil down to being a ‘tough luck contract’, yet they raise significant new questions (for communication studies in particular) about what is an audience and what is a public. Michael Warner is a useful reference here.

The technical sessions taught me a lot of new things to be concerned about! e.g. the practices of font probing, proxy piercing and finger printing. Demos of Ad Nauseum, Anonymouth and Vortex showcased obfuscation tools already in development. But not all of the talks focused on technology. Throughout the day, conversations regularly turned to nature and history to situate the practices under analysis.

Finn Brunton drew attention to the rare spider that sets up a decoy spider in its web to stay safe from predators. It’s a resonant illustration of how to produce confusing messages or signals when concealment is impossible. Following Hanna Rose Shell’s work on camouflage, my mind turned to the idea of exposure more broadly. Especially in open fields. I kept thinking of scarecrows! Which also made me wonder at the ways obfuscation has facilitated different modes of production. It was Finn’s mention of ‘foot dragging’ and ‘go slows’ in the industrial era that sent me in this direction.

Nick Montfort and Susan Stryker rounded out the day talking about code: in Nick’s case, the sophistication and knowingness that can underwrite the most simple and poetic computation expressions; in Susan’s, state-imposed gender distinctions that set punishing terms for legibility and recognition. Laura Kurgan’s investigation of satellite imagery was a lovely counterpoint to Susan’s talk, in the sense that it conveyed the historical assumptions that militate surveillance norms. As such, and as a result of concerted activism, the blessing is that they may pass.

As the day closed, I was most struck by how much obfuscation helps to reveal the very strong relationship between knowledge and sight in Western culture. At times, these parallels between visibility and legibility, recognition and comprehension seemed a little easy. I was much more interested in comments made by Finn, in conclusion, about how obfuscation might be used to secure a model of identity that is much less human-centric than we have managed in the past. This is surely true when we find ourselves needing protection from the way we perceive an algorithm to be reading us. Mark Andrejevic calls this threat the ‘drone logic’ of a ballistic imaginary.

I also left pondering Rachel Law’s observation that, in the move to algorithmic living – when college health insurance policies are calculated based on your father’s heart medication purchases – we are essentially post-Internet. We are no longer in the driver’s seat, logging on to discover information at random. As tailored Google search results only serve to prove, sharing information now creates opacity. Every time you send something to a friend or colleague you enclose them in your own data bubble. The techniques we need to recreate and demand the objectivity of information, in the face of data filters, is a matter of exploiting the weaknesses of ‘data entropy’.

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