Saturday, July 24, 2021

"The Polyopticon: Data Gathering and State Technopower"

From the Georgetown Security Studies Review, Georgetown University, August 28, 2019:


The world is on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution.[i] This revolution is driven by the increased connectivity, reactivity, and converging nature of modern technologies. It is enabled by constant data-streams analyzed through ultramodern techniques, which allow vendors to immediately integrate analysis into product and service development with minimal delays and to maximum effect. This process results in iterative development and design, updating every successive product or service to better meet evolving market demands. The relationships among producers, consumers, the market, and ‘final’ products will fundamentally change, creating mutually-influencing networks that will benefit integrated commercial enterprise to a greater degree than ever before. 5G’s massively-broadened bandwidth, reliability in data collection, and resolution of real-time data will enable faster, more reactive innovation and design.

Governments, too, might adapt and synergize the coexistence of decentralized connected data streams and analytical technologies to increase their own reactivity. The fourth industrial revolution is a model for the future of massive and individualized surveillance, analysis, and reactivity. The market has already normalized transponders, cameras, and microphones in billions of pockets and on billions of desks across the world.[ii] The major problem facing authorities interested in real-time surveillance is no longer the propagation of hardware but the centralization and analysis of surveillance data.[iii] Big data requires big analysis, and this is where the AI-revolution can support authorities’ efforts in ways that human-only analysis never could. This process—the marriage of massively-disseminated surveillance hardware streaming through modernizing super-high bandwidth infrastructure to AI-assisted analytics for the purpose of creating actionable knowledge, and all the policies required to make that happen—is the Polyopticon.

How Statistics Leverage State Power and the Tension Between Discipline and Citizenship

The Polyopticon is a play on the panopticon—a cylindrical prison in which a beehive of cells opens inward to a central guard tower, creating an architecture in which no single prisoner is ever assured of their privacy regardless of how lax surveillance over them might be.[iv] For many reasons, the panopticon has an incredibly limited application for governance over large populations, not least because it requires the literal reconstruction of physical reality. The panopticon is expensive, unscalable, and therefore impractical for governance. It underscores the classic constraints to states’ intelligence activities, namely: hardware, human capital, and scalability. But the Polyopticon, as a technopolitical tool, leverages various existing technologies to provide states with surveillance data streams and the tools required to convert them into actionable statistics that could not have existed even a decade ago.

Innovation in technology will not change the core elements of sovereignty: exercising a monopoly of violence among a population within a territory.[v] Much as hardware innovations alone have never been enough to create more actionable intelligence, innovations in violence have never been sufficient to secure sovereignty. States are always pressured to use the violence—and all the resources of their population and territory—available to them strategically, requiring them to match violence with knowledge of their problems and possible solutions. In their quest to build better strategies and leverage the resources available to them, states invented one crucial science: statistics.[vi] As Michel Foucault argued, the majority of statistics were aimed at leveraging biopower—the biologically-bound resources of the state such as human bodies, crops, and the energy extractable from various fuels available within a state—to expand the domestic and geopolitical reach of ‘state forces’ over more people, territory, and time.[vii] Whether they create positive externalities or not, biopolitics (policies and politics introduced to leverage biopower) like the census, public health programs, and personalized identification always serve to create or multiply the capabilities and statistics states see as key to increasing the projection of their power domestically and abroad for both high- and low-political aims.[viii]

Statistics, as Foucault explains, were married with the scientific process to create institutions and systems that simultaneously amplified the capabilities of the state and controlled human populations by subjecting them to discipline.[ix] Discipline was disassociated from biopolitics as populations wrested control—through what Foucault terms ‘counter-conduct’—from states by demanding rights, expressing freedoms, and normalizing citizenship.[x] State-discipline no longer forced resource productivity (human labor) as citizenship and free enterprise incentivized production and the creation of wealth, which themselves multiplied state-power. Discipline, instead, was directed at 1) leveraging internal resources in times of crisis (i.e., the draft, rationing, and nationalization) and 2) deviant behavior (i.e., criminality, revolutionary politics, non-conformity, treason).[xi] This tension, between the disciplining tendencies of the state and the liberalizing demands of citizenship exists to this day. The Polyopticon requires coordination—the art of state-strategy—and abets state-directed discipline by providing it with the actionable statistics it needs to surveil, analyze behavior, and identify deviant individuals, movements, and populations.

The Polyopticon

The individual pieces of the Polyopticon were not conspiratorially created, disseminated, or activated. The devices that can stream data in real-time, the ultramodern networks that connect them, the analytical techniques that synthesize knowledge from data were not devised for the purpose of surveilling, analyzing, or controlling populations and individuals. Smartphones, fiberoptic cables, web servers, big-data crunching, and artificial intelligence were all created to solve various commercial, private, and public problems. The fourth industrial revolution depends on the synergy of these technologies to create better services and products, faster. The Polyopticon will likewise leverage the same technologies to more rapidly create better actionable statistics.

This sounds innocuous enough, but to put it sarcastically: What have states ever done with more knowledge? Let it lie and gather dust? No. States utilize knowledge. As Foucault points out, knowledge—especially knowledge about a subject that the subject itself does not know—is an especially potent weapon against enemies both foreign and domestic.[xii]

A description—detailed though not technical—of how the Polyopticon turns surveilled data into actionable statistics clarifies the above argument. It is especially useful to add the additional frame of how the Polyopticon solves the three core problems of state-intelligence gathering: hardware, human capital, and scalability.

First, in search of actionable knowledge, the state must surveil. Here the Polyopticon taps into personalized devices and technologies, voluntarily employed across a broad spectrum of private, corporate, and public sectors. Smartphones with microphones, cameras, and transponders; electronic communications; web and cloud-based information storage; social and commercial media—all of these are sources of surveilable data once connected. States leverage mundane technologies that are nonetheless integral to modern life. Liberal and authoritarian governments alike might access these data-sources. In this way, the Polyopticon records citizens’ behavior within reality rather than reconstructing reality to influence behavior....