The Virus of Control

 by August Leo Liljenberg

The man of control is undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network. Everywhere surfing has already replaced the older sports”

– Giles Deleuze, Postscripts on the Societies of Control

You are unsure what day of the week it is. Your sleep tracking app informs you that you had mild sleep disturbances throughout the night – probably onset from your caffeine perk in the afternoon to help continue the rolling of YouTube videos over your retinas. Your academic rhythm is in imbalance: the seminar room and lecture theatre are no longer places ‘out there’ in the world, but are rather a couple meters from your bed on the desk.

Despite the hyperbolic introduction, what is clear is that the Covid-19 pandemic has had radical consequences for the way we live our lives: it has played a major part in accelerating the socio-technological control mechanisms present in modern society. And, despite the wishful idea that the chaos of the pandemic will rupture dominant ideological discourses, we should question whether alternative ways of conceptualising society will actually proliferate, or whether the post-pandemic world will instead strengthen the “normalcy” of pre-pandemic power structures.

To understand our current predicament – and how it might develop in the future – we should turn to Deleuze’s Postscripts on the Societies of Control. Writing in 1992, he outlines what he sees as a development in the way power structures operate within society, contrasting it with Foucault’s concept of disciplinary societies. In Foucault’s disciplinary societies, human behaviour is controlled by the organisation of individuals in spaces of enclosure. This organisation is achieved through three processes. Firstly, people are hierarchically ranked with the purpose of observing the behaviour of everyone below them, such that the mere thought of being observed causes each individual to discipline themselves. Secondly, behaviour is deemed normal or abnormal, whereafter abnormal behaviour is discouraged and/or punished. Thirdly, individuals are examined according to specific standards and placed into categories based on their results1. Through these three methods, individuals internalise discipline and regulate their own behaviour, creating an especially effective method for power to be exerted in industrialised societies.

Although we can see remnants of such a society today – the enclosed spaces of offices, schools, prisons, the temporal 9-5 rigidity of weekdays, etc. –  Deleuze argues that we have now entered a new societal order. The question we must ask ourselves is: does power today really reside in these enclosed spaces?

If power in disciplinary societies is expressed through the enclosure of individuals in designated spaces and individuals internalising discipline, then the opposite is true in Deleuze’s societies of control. In societies of control, power is exerted by encouraging the individual to take an active stance in expressing their freedom; expanding our movement is preferred to restricting it into tight spaces2. This is especially effective in societies which are highly technological and thus driven by the gathering of data and information on individuals. To illustrate his point, Deleuze uses the motorway as an example of a control mechanism, where we can travel around freely and infinitely  and yet simultaneously be controlled by the motorway network. A more important and contemporary example is social media, where platforms encourage the individual to express their freedom, encouraging the user to trample all over the virtual domain and make themselves known, in exchange for the user’s private data which can then be used to influence their future decisions. What makes power in societies of control dangerous is that we don’t perceive its mechanisms as controlling at all, but instead as exercises of freedom. Deleuze’s statement that “everywhere surfing has already replaced the older sports” is strikingly accurate considering how we also “surf” the internet. We have become the product that is exchanged.

VIRAL ACCELERATION

Through increasing the digitalisation of our lives, the pandemic has increased our move towards societies of control and the leftovers of disciplinary society have been slowly amputated from our social framework. Most noticeably to us students, the university has encountered a change in its state of matter, transformed from solid to liquid (or gas). Lectures, seminars, essays – these have become domesticated in the laptop on our desk, flows in our consciousness  simultaneously existing in a network of data centres, intangible to us.

One of the most obvious ways in which control mechanisms have emerged during the pandemic is through contract tracing apps. In the late 20th Century, French philosopher Félix Guattari, who collaborated with Deleuze on multiple works, envisioned cities in the future where access to institutions, restaurants, shops, etc. would be modulated by an electronic access card that tracks the individual’s behaviour3. Similarly, contact tracing apps make technological integration a condition of existence, where venturing outside becomes yet another addition to vast data aggregates.

Although such apps do bear a striking resemblance to Guattari’s dystopian vision of the future, we ought to be focused more on how mechanisms of control being utilised prior to the pandemic have become enlarged as a result of lockdown measures. Forcing us to isolate, it has become apparent the ease at which, without spatial separation, work and leisure can bleed into one another; every moment of the day has the potential to either be work or leisure, and the result is usually an ugly mutation of both. With presence no longer being a condition for university education (the lecture can always be paused), our unregulated attention becomes vulnerable to the infinite possibilities of the internet. And the further that our digital footprints traverse, the deeper we are entrenched in mechanisms of control.

THE CHAOTIC RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN DISCIPLINE AND CONTROL

“Are there clear signs that state power itself, not just ordinary people, is also in panic, aware of not being able to control the situation – are these signs really just a stratagem?” Slavoj Zizek, Panic! 20204

In his essay on “Panopticism”, Foucault wrote that “the plague is met by order…a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism”5.  Spatial partitioning, extreme surveillance and stay-at-home orders were outlined by Foucault as the principal mechanisms by which disciplinary action would increase both during and after a “plague”. Yet despite the uncanny similarity to the world’s response to Covid-19, we should not expect such disciplinary measures to stay in place once the pandemic has subsided. Unlike Foucault’s analysis, these disciplinary measures will only be temporary, and instead the plague will serve to extend mechanisms of control beyond the pandemic’s horizon.

Contrary to this view, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben responded to preventative lockdown measures in February by writing that they were indicative of a growing trend to use “the state of exception as a normal governing paradigm”6. He lambasted the then “serious limitations on freedom” installed by the Italian government, such as mandatory closures of schools and non-essential shops, and the enforcement of quarantine supervised by surveillance. However, it seems odd to claim that the expansion of state power in a contemporary context would be achieved through such archaic means, especially given the obvious disruption such restrictions have towards the reproduction of capital. Theorists such as Agamben – and civilians paranoid of the state removing their freedoms – should look beyond centralised structures and into the periphery of how decentralised power acts in a state of exception.

Thanks to the exponential growth of technological innovation there has been an increase in the breadth and efficacy of social control mechanisms over the past few decades. One of the key paralysing forces of a society of control is its hiddenness, the ability for power structures to occupy vast omnipresent networks that seem to escape the horizons of what we find noticeable. This poses a problem for the post-pandemic world. Contact tracing apps, for example, create a very literal representation of power exertion – one that is perhaps too literal. A society of control in the internet age is sustained by nudging and psychologically manipulating its subjects in order to harvest their data – no one willingly hands such information over. Crucially, since it is the individual’s voluntary immersion into societies of control that makes such systems so effective, the government’s need to impose control mechanisms – such as contact tracing apps – by force, may not be as effective for consolidating state power. Only once we have established this can we  begin to ask which route society will take after the pandemic.

DEATH AND RHIZOMES

Will the soma of our Brave New World be strong enough to withstand the plague? Will the control society survive the pandemic’s uncertainty, with its constant recoding and decoding of social relations? As I see it, there are two ways societies of control can transform after the Covid-19 pandemic.

On the one hand, our borderline post-human refusal to reconcile with death has caused us to carefully return to our rooms and hibernate in isolation with only Amazon next-day delivery, vitamin-D deficiency, and Uber Eats for company. This is not to disregard the deadliness of Covid-19, but rather to highlight the shift in how we as society view death. Even though under pandemic conditions we are more protected from disease than just over half a century ago, we still lock ourselves indoors. It hints towards the paradoxical idea that scientific progress in medicine does not result in us actualising our increased freedom from disease, but rather inhibits it. For by gradually removing death from our horizon, we increasingly refuse to acknowledge its inevitability. With this fear of death in mind we can understand why control mechanisms are  aimed at returning to a pre-pandemic “normal”. With this return to normalcy, the extreme attachment to technology characterised by the pandemic, will be a representation of the near, rather than immediate, future. We ought to be wary that despite the claws having lost their grip, scars will remain – the seeds of technological enslavement will already have been sown.

The alternative – and more hopeful – route is that the virus will eventually serve as a rupture in the proliferation of control mechanisms, having immersed us far too quickly and incompetently into an almost entirely digital mode of existence. Individuals will be increasingly aware of the extent and depth of social control in society. In this scenario a post-Covid society will not see an abandonment of socio-technological networks, but instead a new societal order will emerge which will see the decentralisation of the internet being utilised outside the realm of social control.

This is because the internet can be viewed as a form of rhizomatic knowledge, to use the metaphor outlined by Deleuze and Guattari in their magnum opus A Thousand Plateaus7. To put it briefly, a rhizome is a botanical term describing  “an underground mass of continuously growing stems or roots which extend lateral shoots at certain intervals in order to grow and establishes connections with other shoots”8. In contrast to trees, any point of a rhizome can be connected to any other at a given time – it is non-hierarchal and not limited to a certain space. Similarly, the internet is comprised of an infinite number of entry/exit points taking the user from one webpage to another. Due to the internet’s rhizomatic nature, centralised attempts to shutdown platforms or websites are futile, as new shoots will grow from the area which has been destroyed. The internet can thus be seen as anarchistic in kind, its anonymous and non-hierarchical form granting users the ability to engage in ways of communication that are unparalleled in modern society.

The domain of anarchistic chaos granted to us by the internet is the only effective force against the decentralised control mechanisms of the 21st Century. With no central authority to rally against, we will be in the paradoxical situation where decentralised forms of technology will be essential towards any attempt of escaping a society of control. This can be viewed both pessimistically and optimistically: although the degree to which technology rules our lives will exponentially increase, making it harder and harder to individually detach oneself from society in ways previously possible, the result is not fatalistic. For as technology becomes the main method of control, the system exposes its underlying vulnerability – that we can use decentralised networks to combat the society of control.


[1] Deleuze, G. (1992) Postscript on the Societies of Control

[2] Ibid, p.4

[3] Ibid, p.7

[4] Zizek, S. Panic! 2 (2020)

[5] Foucault, M. (1991)  Discipline and Punish

[6] http://positionspolitics.org/giorgio-agamben-the-state-of-exception-provoked-by-an-unmotivated-emergency/

[7] Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari., (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

[8] https://bluelabyrinths.com/2015/07/15/the-web-as-rhizome-in-deleuze-and-guattari/

This article is part of the Time Capsule 2020 project, click here to find out more.

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