Surveillance capitalism?


Eric Schmidt, Executive Chair Google

Surveillance capitalism, in Shoshana Zuboff’s formulation, is a new form of capitalism that works by creating surplus value from the data extracted from people in digital environments (which today is much more than just being online but includes driving your internet-capable car for example: the Internet of Everything).

Now, data about where we are, where we’re going, how we’re feeling, what we’re saying, the details of our driving, and the conditions of our vehicle are turning into beacons of revenue that illuminate a new commercial prospect.

According to Zuboff’s analysis, surveillance capitalism was invented by companies like Google and Facebook in the Internet era. We’ve heard before how these companies treat you as the product rather than the customer, but Zuboff aims to show that users are “a means to profits in a new kind of marketplace in which users are neither buyers nor sellers nor products” (emphasis added).

Rather, we are workers and the extra behaviors we perform (ie., labor) produce a surplus which she calls “behavioral surplus” but could better be called surplus behavior to align with Marx’s surplus value. Either way, this surplus is what is sold on, and not just to advertisers but to anyone who wants to have predictive capacity. (Here we can recall Louise Amoore’s point about algorithms using data derivatives to “infer across the gaps”.) This value is not returned to the workers however, despite the fact that companies know their average revenue per user, or ARPU. If you live in North America for example, you’re worth $12.43 to Facebook in income, but unless you work for them I doubt you’ve seen any of that. Following David Harvey, she calls this “dispossession by surveillance.”

While I think much of this is correct, a lot of the details need to be filled in (perhaps in her book Master or Slave? The Fight for the Soul of Our Information Civilization coming out in 2017).

It may also not be as new as it looks. You can find similar arguments going back to the 1980s if not the 1970s; well before the Internet era. In 1986 Sut Jhally and Bill Livant showed how “there is a factory in your living room” in their important paper “Watching as Working: The Valorization of Audience Consciousness.” Drawing on the work of Dallas Smythe in the 1970s who sought to go beyond the prevailing view that mass communication was about ideology, a view dating back to at least Walter Lippmann. Smythe’s view was that the “commodity form” of mass communication was audiences. These audiences use “their” time to produce commodities by watching advertising-supported TV. These commodities are:

the services of audiences with predictable specifications who will pay attention in predictable numbers and at particular times to particular means of communication

Note the foreshadowing of Zuboff’s argument that Google sell predictable (surplus) behavior to advertisers and others. Smythe notes as well how part of what is sold are the data and metadata about users or what he calls “the demographics”:

age, sex, income level, family composition, urban or rural location, ethnic character, ownership of home, automobile, credit card status, social class, and in the case of hobby and fan magazines, a dedication to photography, model electric trains, sports cars, philately, do-it-yourself crafts, foreign travel, kinky sex, etc.

Of course today, as Zuboff notes these mere categorizations are replaced with persistent live data streams, especially of your real-time geolocation. But nevertheless, the same basic idea is at play here.

Jhally and Livant argued that when we watch TV, we perform what they call “watching extra.” It is this “extra” that we produce through our labor as an audience that is made into a commodity. When we watch a show (or today use the Internet) there is both necessary and surplus watching time, they argued. The costs of putting on a show involve making it good enough to make us want to continue watching it–to reproduce our activity of watching. However, we watch more than is strictly necessary to reproduce our watching, eg., the advertising. This extra or surplus watching time forms the basis for valorization.

Zuboff has given this a memorable name and updated it for the Internet world–nothing wrong with that. I also think she makes a very good point about the productive anxiety of uncertainty:

Paradoxically, the certainty of uncertainty is both an enduring source of anxiety and one of our most fruitful facts. It produced the universal need for social trust and cohesion, systems of social organization, familial bonding, and legitimate authority, the contract as formal recognition of reciprocal rights and obligations, and the theory and practice of what we call “free will.” When we eliminate uncertainty, we forfeit the human replenishment that attaches to the challenge of asserting predictability in the face of an always-unknown future in favor of the blankness of perpetual compliance with someone else’s plan.

Of course in this case, the anxious drive to remove uncertainty has produced the surveillant state, which Zuboff acknowledges is a threat to democratic life. What we need to do better is examine what kinds of anxieties there are, and what it is they produce. There are already some good resources about anxiety out there, and of course it has a long history from Freud to Lacan. More on this later and hopefully we can address it at the AAG conference next year.

2017 International Conference on Narrative

Another conference: the 2017 International Conference on Narrative will be held in Lexington, Kentucky, March 23-26. Looks like this one will be held off-campus, at the Hilton hotel.

Keynote speakers for this one will be Judith Butler, Kenneth Warren and Linda Williams.

(This is a mural of Lincoln on a wall in downtown Lexington. Screenshot from their site.)


Conference on radical philosophy

The 12th Biennial Radical Philosophy Association Conference will be held at the University of Kentucky, November 10-November 13, 2016. Speakers will include Jodi Dean, Bhaskar Sunkara, and David Schweickart.


Annual Conference on Critical Geography

The 23rd Annual Conference on Critical Geography will be held at the University of Kentucky, Friday October 14-Sunday October 16, 2016. The guest speaker is Paul Routledge (Leeds).

The deadline for submissions of ideas and proposals has been extended! You now have until the end of August to submit something here. There are four main themes:

Panel themes:

  1. Forging solidarity: Under this theme we hope to gather discussions that engage the possibilities and tensions that arise through the intersection of scholarship and other forms of political action. Conversations might take shape around previous experiences, ongoing interventions, and/or struggles with engaging meaningful activism within our academic work.  Contributors might find inspiration, as we have in convening this conference, in what Nagar and Geiger (2007) call “situated solidarities.”
  2. Persistent challenges: For this theme we invite participants for a discussion on the persistent challenges that vex and divide political and social movements, to renew questions on the efficacy and role of critique. Discussions may include climate change, austerity and economic reform, inequality, development and displacement, gendered and raced violence, and state or non-state terrorisms.
  3. Initiatives: By initiatives, we refer to any number of contemporary uprisings, movements, and projects, purposefully including both radical disruptions of the status quo and perhaps equally radical attempts to resurrect, defend, or repurpose the heritage of past movements. Examples might include (but are in no way limited to) Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, Nuit Debout, protest assemblies or plaza occupations, and Break Free climate justice activism, as well as militant Islamist movements, resurgent white supremacist organizations, and the rise of new nationalist movements throughout Europe and elsewhere.
  4. Critical enactments: For this theme we invite contributions that focus on questions of practice, methodology, epistemology, and positionality.  Contributions might be oriented towards negotiating tensions between academic and activist spaces, the challenges of simultaneously critiquing and constructing forms of knowledge, and/or the ways we aspire to engage in ethical relations with our research subjects.
  5. Future/No future?: For this theme we invite participants to contribute to ideas about the future — as an object of study, of politics, and of attachment. Contributions might be oriented towards a range of futures: wild, queer, feminist, anti-racist, revolutionary, actuarial, catastrophic, technological, and more.

CFP: Robotic futures (AAG)

Please see below or here (pdf) for a call for papers on “robotic futures” at the 2017 American Association of Geographers (AAG) conference. Along with Vinny Del Casino I’m organizing one of the sessions on “algorithmic subjectivities.”

Call For Papers
AAG 2017 Boston (April 5-8, 2017)

This Call for Papers seeks to organize four independent but related sessions on the examination of robotic futures across the discipline of geography. Each session has an organizer to which contributors are encouraged to send prospective papers.

Please send paper titles and abstracts (200 words) to the appropriate corresponding session organizer(s) by September 15, 2016 (see below for details):
Robotic Futures I: Nature/Environment & Technology: Lily House-Peters (
Robotic Futures II: Algorithmic Subjectivities: Vincent Del Casino ( & Jeremy Crampton (
Robotic Futures III: Urban Life & Technological Sovereignties: Casey Lynch (
Robotic Futures IV: The Politics of Security: Ian Shaw (

Robotic Futures Sessions Summary
Recently, geographers have taken up the question of robots and robotic technologies within the confines of a broadly engaged human and environmental geography. From the rise of robotic warfare to the development of smart cities and borders to the reliance on code, big data analytics, and autonomous sensing systems in environmental management, geographers are interrogating what robots and robotic technologies mean not only for discipline, surveillance, and security, but for making and remaking everyday life and the socio-natural environment.

This call seeks papers organized around a series of four sessions focused on a number of key empirical nodal points through which geographers might further investigate the central proposition:

What does the growing integration of robots and robotic technologies into everyday life do and/or mean for the theorization of sociospatial relations?

The four themed sessions will conclude with a fifth session consisting of a panel discussion of the session organizers to examine the broader questions and overlapping concerns related to reorganizations in social, political, and environmental relations and the interventions that robots and robotic technologies are playing today.

1. Robotic Futures I: Nature/Environment & Technology (Organizer: Lily House-Peters)

Advances in technology and robotic system design are targeting the environment producing new encounters with and understandings of nature. For example, environmental monitoring is increasingly carried out via UAVs/drones, autonomous sensor networks, and mobile robotic platforms. The ability of these systems to collect and wirelessly transmit data at continuous time scales, reach remote locations, and carry out panoramic measurements is shifting the temporal and spatial dimensions of environmental perception. Analysis of big data sets and ever-growing emphasis on models and algorithms transform not only how we know nature, but also the types of discursive formations that emerge and the kinds of interventions that become possible. Yet, attention in the geographical literature to these processes remains extremely limited. The focus of this session is to examine and attempt to theorize how the rise of robots (ie. drones, sensor networks, autonomous monitoring platforms) and robotic technologies (ie. computer code, algorithms, big data, models) are reorganizing ways of knowing, seeing, and talking about nature and the environment. This session seeks papers that engage with the following broad questions: How does the virtual world of autonomous sensor readings, computer code, algorithms, and models make and remake the material dimensions of nature? And vice versa, how do the material dimensions of nature serve to challenge robot(ic) logics? How are robotic technologies reorganizing the spatial and temporal dimensions of our perceptions of nature and the environment? What are the discursive shifts taking place as a result of the increased reliance on robots and robotics in environmental monitoring and how are these affecting decision-making, interventions, and the production of nature?
2. Robotic Futures II: Algorithmic Subjectivities (Organizers: Vincent Del Casino & Jeremy Crampton)
Robots are often imagined as material objects with bodies and form. Robots are also invoked in software, code, and algorithms. This is not to suggest an either/or ontology of robots but a both/and whereby geographers think about the theoretical and political implications of the hardware/software matrix and what it means for human and more-than-human bodies and relations. Picking up on the themes of assemblage theory and other theories of power and performance, this session seeks papers that empirically and theoretically interrogate robotic futures, human cyborg relations, and other robotic possibilities. Key questions to be addressed in this session include: How are more decisions being taken by algorithmic objects in fields across education, insurance, policing, and health? What are the attendant anxieties around algorithms and their failures, gaps or uncertainties? Can we identify algorithmic spaces that expand our notion of robotic capabilities? What sorts of human and nonhuman subjectivities are made possible and/or closed off by the emergence of new robots and robotic technologies? How might we theorize robots in the context of our historically anthropocentric human geographies? And, what role might robots play in our understanding of the spatialities of key concepts in human geography, including labor and labor politics, health and health care, or geospatial technologies and relations of power, to name a few?

3. Robotic Futures III: Urban Life & Technological Sovereignties (Organizer: Casey Lynch)
Innovations in robotic and information and communication technology (ICT) are increasingly impacting practices of urban planning, management, and politics. “Smart city” programs and the “internet of things” have allowed for the proliferation of a variety of sensors and other miniaturized computing technologies throughout the urban form, producing massive amounts of urban data to be stored, processed and exploited by municipal governments, private corporations, and other entities. In some cities, these developments are increasingly giving rise to oppositional movements interested in rearticulating the role of emerging technologies in urban life. For instance, competing discourses within a fledgling “technological sovereignty” movement in Europe seek to challenge “technological fetishism.” Borrowing from theorizations of “food sovereignty,” the idea of technological sovereignty calls for a critical analysis and radical restructuring of the existing political economic models through which technology is developed, produced, and controlled. This session seeks papers that: employ critical approaches to the role of emerging robotic technology and ICT in urban life; examine the work of urban actors or collectives that critically reconceptualize the potential role of technology in creating alternative urban economies or political framework; offer new ways of methodologically approaching or theorizing the role of technical objects in complex urban assemblage; critically explore the notion of “technological sovereignty” as a theoretical concept and/or political project; and/or consider questions of privacy, surveillance, or data security within the urban context.
4. Robotics Futures IV: The Politics of Security (Organizer: Ian Shaw)
This session seeks to explore how robots are transforming the spaces, politics, and subjects of security. Robotics are already emerging as vital actors in our security-worlds. From biometric borders, automated gun turrets, to mobile sea mines, a new class of robotic apparatuses are being developed, each of which embodies (and mobilizes) a future geography. The rise of U.S. drone warfare has received a great deal of media and academic discussion. Yet, paradoxically, this has tended to mask the wider robotic revolution in security: the banal and everyday deployment of robots by state and non-state actors. Accordingly, this session aims to consider a number of broad theoretical and empirical questions on the politics of security: How will robots transform the spaces of war and conflict? In what ways will robots transform the spaces and architectures of policing? How will robots transform the established logics of state sovereignty and governance? What potentials are there for resistance and subversion?

Special issue on Spatial Big Data

I’m very pleased to be able to announce a forthcoming special themed section from the journal Big Data & Society on “Spatial Big Data.” The papers are now all finalized and are in the proofing stage, so more details later on! The section has been edited by myself and Agnieszka Leszczynski (University of Auckland, NZ). Contributors include Jim Thatcher, Clancy Wilmott, Till Straube, Dan Cockayne, and Alvarez Lyon.

Additionally, Agnieszka and I wrote an Editorial on Spatial Big Data to introduce and situate the papers. One thing: we deliberately avoided words like “geoweb” and certainly “neogeography” as being too discipline-specific. Spatial big data is well known, but perhaps too broad (and perhaps too tied to trendy terms), and it might be worth having a conversation about what to call all this.

Foucault’s archaeology and the archive

Following yesterday’s posting on Colin Gordon’s review of the Foucault Lexicon, I wanted to pick up on something Gordon notes in his review. Quoting Foucault:

Archaeology, as I understand it, is akin neither to geology (the analysis of buried layers) nor to genealogy (as the description of beginnings and their sequels), it is the analysis of discourse in its modality as an archive.

DE48, translated as “On the Ways of Writing History” Essential Foucault, II Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, 279-295 at 289-90, trans. modified.

This seems to me to be a very useful insight into Foucault’s archaeology. What does it mean? Here the archive is not just the literal archive in depositories and libraries, but treating discourse as that deemed worthy of rising to the required level of affect. If you like, the archive as assemblage, but only if this is understood as something geographically and historically variable, contested etc. In geography, we might cite David Livingstone’s The Geographical Tradition. Regimes of truth we might also say, as well as the technologies, implicit and explicit, for verifying such truths.

Remember that Foucault wants to distinguish himself from a history of ideas. This might be nothing more than an attitude or way of looking, and presents epistemic difficulties in accessing discursive and non-discursive affect, but one which when dealing with an archive one can examine on its own terms, even if those terms are around “minor” figures.