Weekend Reading

Readings:

While the gentrified Midtown is hailed as “the next Bushwick” and rents continue to rise, the rest of the city remains a shell of its former self, choked by poverty and suffering from a lack of services. Most visibly, for the past three years many in Detroit have had their access to water restricted as result of being unable to pay water bills, prompting United Nations rapporteurs to investigate human rights violations. Meanwhile, commercial accounts like those the city has with Chrysler, General Motors, and professional sports arenas are able to stay in operation despite overdue debts in the thousands of dollars. This is the Gilded Age calculus of the new Detroit: the burdened public carrying the privilege of a private few.

Most metaphors for data’s power draw on the idea of visual surveillance by regarding data harvesting as an all-seeing gaze sweeping across the citizenry. We imagine ocular devices (or even real human eyes) perched atop giant watchtowers, as in the “panopticon,” Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century idea for an efficient prison, revived in 1975 by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish… However, in the case of our new information politics, the metaphor of visuality may not be as plausible as it first appears. The surveillance mechanism of the panopticon relies upon total visibility —you see the tower and assume the guards can see you. But the mechanisms assembled on behalf of new-fangled national security and consumer analytics seem to presuppose the opposite. They function through invisibility. The watchtower garishly announced itself; we need to see the security cameras for them to be effective. By contrast, the algorithm is invisible as it constructs its composites; it ever runs silently in the background like all that circuitry, voltage, and machine code that quietly lets you into your computer without ever announcing itself.

The government and corporate sectors’ algorithms work with data that is constantly being harvested and analyzed without our awareness — not only because the harvesting is sometimes in secret but also because we tend to not recognize the massive variety of mechanisms at play for turning our action, experience, and thought into data that categorizes, compartmentalizes, and calculates who we are.

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