Foucauldian infrastructures, Web 2.0 and beyond

I was advertising the paper by Marion Brivot and Yves Gendron earlier last year, now I have finally come around to give it a more thorough read. I am really impressed, and I would like to push a couple of points here about infrastructures that can be taken from this work (which, again, in its entirety is here).
The paper, first of all, does a good job of introducing the literature about new forms of surveillance, adding on a couple of recent French works that have yet to be taken up, as far as I can tell, in international discourse (whether in STS or accounting). Most notably, Brivot and Gendron adopt the notion of “sousveillance” or, in the English terminology they are proposing, “sub-veillance”, from a paper by Dominique Quessada. The basic insight is that contemporary ICTs indeed establish new forms of visibility and discipline but rather than an updated form of Benthamite panopticism a lateral form of surveillance is the result. Against this background the “big brother” idea of control appears like a belittlement of actual governance and the type of discipline that results from the ICT-mediated visibility of individual and collective conduct, and like a more or less infantile projection of disciplinary power among the governed. In contemporary forms of “sub-veillance” individuals play games of visibility and visibilization from which discipline emerges laterally from reflexive processes of reciprocal control and impression management. Brivot and Gendron demonstrate this empirically by a case study of a knowledge management system in an tax/law firm.
The authors argue that while panopticism may be an outdated image of contemporary forms of surveillance, the Foucauldian account of technologies of the self doing the actual governing remains very much valid. In effect, they present us with an Foucauldian account beyond panopticism which I think, may be very relevant to infrastructure studies with respect to ICT. While many people, faced with the power of ICT to make activities and economies visible and accessible to control, are still primarily afraid that a central power will accumulate some form of power-knowledge in order to control them, in the social network, facebook, and twitter world, the real power resides in the spread of artefacts and inscriptions across networks and participants. The despotic power of visibility, if it really exists, primarily derives from participants’ inclination to make themselves visible and from playing ICTs competitively in one way or another. Governance, control, and so on do not the result from some general plan or paradigm but from often from idiosyncratic detournments.
In conclusion, Brivot and Gendron urge the reader to “take into account the complexities, ambiguities and paradoxes which characterize today’s rhizomatic forms of control and surveillance. This is a difficult task since one of the greatest challenges confronting surveillance studies is to develop a grasp on the chaos and cacophony that underlie the spread of surveillance in organizations and society (…). Foucault can be very useful in making sense of this cacophony – as long as researchers look beyond the confines of the panoptical conceptualization which, quite paradoxically, Foucault helped to make fashionable.” (p. 153)
Now, I am stumbling upon another paper in the same journal that is just about to be published, arguing something very similar about the use of online ratings and social media in the travel sector. It is written by Susan Scott and Wanda Orlikowski; check it out here.
Looks like the old Foucauldian understanding of disciplinary power is just getting a Web 2.0 update.

1 thought on “Foucauldian infrastructures, Web 2.0 and beyond

  1. I need to think about this more, but that might also be a good solution (minus the rug, of course).


Comments are closed.