Big Other

We are at home, listening to fake news and watching propaganda while omnipresent government surveillance mechanisms monitor us. People are in constant denial, and the current situation is uncomfortable. In the premise of 1984, Big Brother is watching through the telescreen. If we misbehave, we are locked up. In the panoptic prison, the prisoner does not see the guard hidden in the central tower and behaves as if they are constantly under their gaze. The architecture is both a building and theory, envisioned (in the late eighteenth century) by Jeremy Bentham. The panoptic mechanism’s disciplinary power, the effect of self-interiorisation of the surveillant gaze, is not limited to the penal institution and can be implemented at educational, corporal and clinical institutions. Even consumerism (although initially missing from surveillance studies in Foucault’s Panopticism) thrives on surveillance. Both these metaphors, bluntly put, are insufficient to cover today’s surveillance mechanisms. 

The Tower of Power (2021), image by Swaeny Nina via Vimeo

Zuck is Watching

James M. Harding argues that (biblical) metaphors like ‘the all-seeing eye’ and Bentham’s panopticon obscure the basic fact that surveillance is a form of punishment. In agreement with this concept of punishment, Shoshana Zuboff’s current omnipresent observer, what she coined ‘Big Other’, is guarding every detail of our digital lives. Zuboff once made use of the panopticon’s metaphor but acknowledges that this is outdated.

“Even the panopticon of Bentham’s design [..] is prosaic compared to this new architecture [..]. In the 1980s it was an apt metaphor for the hierarchical spaces of the workplace.”

Zuboff claimed in 2015.

Computer mediation, tracking devices and cameras dismissed the panopticon. Software systems take the place of the guard. There is no stranger in the tower. Companies (a.o. Amazon, Alphabet Inc., Facebook, Alibaba) replaced the totalitarian Big Brother. The question haunting us today is, as foreseen by Zuboff, “Did George Orwell die in vain?”

Surveillance Capitalism

This no-longer stranger, the surveyor, is unfamiliar familiar to us. “Big Other’s knowledge is about us, but it is not used for us. Big Other knows everything about us, while we know almost nothing about it,” Zuboff clarifies in the TIME. We have entered a new era, she claims, the era of ‘surveillance capitalism’. Tech companies transformed the world and our logic of accumulation. The current political power is transferred by their ’coup from above,’ as Zuboff claims. Modern capitalism’s market and non-market products, like services and activities formerly produced with concealed forces, are now transparent and anticipatory; however, their mechanism is opaque. From Facebook’s Marketplace to sponsored posts on Facebook’s owned Instagram platform, instant messages, Facebook’s recent additional feature Video Room and Stay at Home stickers for Instagram stories a.o.; the tech company has many tricks under the pervasive cover of linking everything for everyone’s benefit. Photos posted, quiz answers submitted, views counted, location logged, the number of likes given; all data -extracted, calculated, analysed, clustered, combined and processed- produces a predictive mechanism for oversight. Zuboff claims that the Big Other controls us by not only predicting what we will post (feel and do), but the Big Other also “automate[s]” us to do these things. Facebook’s -or Big Other’s, sticking to Zuboff’s term- tower of power stretches beyond the panopticon, the workplace and settles in its ‘community,’ piercing within the architecture of ourselves. As Zuboff argues, “There is no place where the other is not. In this world of no escape [from the Big Other], the chilling effects of anticipatory conformity give way as the mental agency and self-possession of anticipation is gradually submerged into a new kind of automaticity.”

Conformity, as Zuboff states, works differently from Foucault’s notions of the self-internalisation of the surveillance gaze; it is “not as action but as result, not cause but effect.” For example, an already liked post will likely get more likes, a post a ‘friend’ commented on will likely speak to you too, critical comments from someone you follow will make it more likely to agree with them; fake news, dis-information performative activism, memes and advertisement… We submit to, willingly or are required to this anticipatory conformity. 

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Much of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is controlled by Big Others, companies and totalitarian government systems (like the Social Credit System in China), including Alibaba, Amazon and Google. All their data transactions involve monitoring, rewarding and targeting -real!- people. Habitually or routinely, unknowingly, locally and globally, we are pushed in a new era of bigger, more intrusive surveillance expanding discursively. The Big Other is unavoidable present.

The Tower of Power

Swaeny Nina for Worm - My Pandemic Year, an online film screening for video works dedicated to your experience in a time of covid, 12 March 19:00 (CET) Rotterdam, NL

The Tower of Power is a short-reflective essay video about a year in lockdown. A collection of images and memes received and sent (to), my digital prison tower. The digitally rendered Tower of Power is a response to Michel Foucault’s disciplinary power from Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’s (1975) chapter Panopticism. Duration: 00:02:22