Book Review – Networked

With Networked: The New Social Operating SystemLee Rainie and Barry Wellman offer a very readable introduction to networks and their social consequences. This is a book that aims to reach a larger audience beyond academic walls. So, even though it extensively relies on research (quite a lot from Pew, unsurprisingly), it is not a tedious read at all as the data alternate with narratives and stories that facilitate comprehension. At the same time, the book is not full of jargon. It also seems that this book aims to convey the message that the sky is not falling because we are spending more time on Facebook and other social networking platforms. No, we have not stop interacting face-to-face with each other (or should I write f2f, as the cool kids do). No, we are not bowling alone. No, we are turning into sociopathic recluse.

What the book explores is all the different ways in which social networking (and related technologies) have woven their way into our lives and reorganized and re-shaped some aspect of them, but not in the socially-disintegrating ways that the usual prophets of doom have been warning us against. As a result, the book conveys a relatively optimistic perspective on networks without being totally on the cyber-utopian side. There is not much in the book about the “dark side” of networks. That is Evgeny Morozov‘s turf. I actually think both books should be read in parallel: where Rainie and Wellman are more micro and optimistic, Morozov is more macro and critical. In all, there is not much in the book that will surprise those of us who read regularly on networks (or are already familiar with Wellman’s work) but we are not really the target audience. This is a book that is perfectly readable for undergraduate students and the general public and I think it is a nice piece of public sociology that demonstrates what sociology can do and tell on current topics. At the same time, it is rigorously researched (tons of end notes and sources), which is important because one of the points that Rainie and Wellman make is that a great deal of the doomsday scenarios on social networking are based on not much in terms of data. Very often, it is just columnists fears.

As much as the book does not rely on academic and technical jargon, it does revolve around a few concepts: networked individualism, the triple revolution, the social operating system. So, the book is

“the story of the new social operating system we call “networked individualism” in contrast to the longstanding operating system formed around large hierarchical bureaucracies and small, densely knit groups such as households, communities, and workgroups. We call networked individualism an “operating system” because it describes the ways in which people connect, communicate, and exchange information. We also use the phrase because it underlines the fact that societies— like computer systems— have networked structures that provide opportunities and constraints, rules and procedures. The phrase echoes the reality of today’s technology: Most people play and work using computers and mobile devices that run on operating systems. Like most computer operating systems and all mobile systems, the social network operating system is personal— the individual is at the autonomous center just as she is reaching out from her computer; multiuser— people are interacting with numerous diverse others; multitasking— people are doing several things; and multithreaded— they are doing them more or less simultaneously.” (Loc 341)

[All emphases mine. I read this in kindle edition and all the endnotes were turned into notes at the end of each chapter, which messed up the page numbers and therefore, kindle only identifies locations.]

So, the general shift is this:

“In generations past, people usually had small, tight social networks— in rural areas or urban villages— where a few important family members, close friends, neighbors, leaders and community groups (churches and the like) constituted the safety net and support system for individuals.

This new world of networked individualism is oriented around looser, more fragmented networks that provide succor. Such networks had already formed before the coming of the internet. Still, the revolutionary social change from small groups to broader personal networks has been powerfully advanced by the widespread use of the internet and mobile phones.


Our research supports the notion that small, densely knit groups like families, villages, and small organizations have receded in recent generations. A different social order has emerged around social networks that are more diverse and less overlapping than those previous groups. The networked operating system gives people new ways to solve problems and meet social needs. It offers more freedom to individuals than people experienced in the past because now they have more room to maneuver and more capacity to act on their own.

At the same time, the networked individualism operating system requires that people develop new strategies and skills for handling problems.


A major difference between the past and now is that the social ties people enjoy today are more abundant and more easily nourished by contact through new technologies. We will show throughout this book how the internet and other forms of information and communication technologies— what scholars call “ICTs”— actually aid community.” (Loc 401)

But the central concept, the one concept to unite them all is that of the Triple Revolution (social networking, Internet, mobile technologies):

“First, the Social Network Revolution has provided the opportunities— and stresses— for people to reach beyond the world of tight groups. It has afforded more diversity in relationships and social worlds— as well as bridges to reach these worlds and maneuverability to move among them. At the same, it has introduced the stress of not having a single home base and of reconciling the conflicting demands of multiple social worlds.

Second, the Internet Revolution has given people communications power and information-gathering capacities that dwarf those of the past. It has also allowed people to become their own publishers and broadcasters and created new methods for social networking. This has changed the point of contact from the household (and work group) to the individual. Each person also creates her own internet experiences, tailored to her needs.

Third, the Mobile Revolution has allowed ICTs to become body appendages allowing people to access friends and information at will, wherever they go. In return, ICTs are always accessible. There is the possibility of a continuous presence and pervasive awareness of others in the network. People’s physical separation by time and space are less important.

Together, these three revolutions have made possible the new social operating system we call “networked individualism.” The hallmark of networked individualism is that people function more as connected individuals and less as embedded group members. For example, household members now act at times more like individuals in networks and less like members of a family. Their homes are no longer their castles but bases for networking with the outside world, with each family member keeping a separate personal computer, address book, calendar, and mobile phone.

Yet people are not rugged individualists— even when they think they are. Many meet their social, emotional, and economic needs by tapping into sparsely knit networks of diverse associates rather than relying on tight connections to a relatively small number of core associates. This means that networked individuals can have a variety of social ties to count on, but are less likely to have one sure-fire “home” community. Looser and more diverse social networks require more choreography and exertion to manage. Often, individuals rely on many specialized relationships to meet their needs.” (Loc. 460)

This is the central thesis of the book and all the subsequent chapters explore the consequences of the Triple Revolution in our social institutions, intimate lives, and interactions. In many ways, this is highly reminiscent of Bauman’s liquidity thesis. Individuals are less members of fixed and (more or less) rigid groups and more likely to belong to a variety of loosely connected networks that are always in flux. What social networking technologies have added to the mix is an incredibly greater capacity to actually network beyond borders and geographical distances which is why social networking does not generate isolation. The different nodes in these networks are both relationships and resources that can be activated for a variety of purposes. And as we already know, there is strength in weak ties. At the same time, networks do not kill strong ties. If anything, they may intensify them since we can be in contact more extensively and intensively.

We also know that social networks involve participation. To be on Facebook or Twitter involves some degree of putting “stuff” out there, be it pictures, videos, blog posts, or just status updates. These social networking platforms turned a lot of us into content creators and sharers. In addition, the number and types of devices through which we can do all these things have expanded as well. All this can generate a sense of empowerment not just because we can become content creators but also because we get to define our identities across networks as we participate in different communities (virtual or not). Throughout institutions, networks have changed hierarchies and the ways in which individuals interact. Interestingly, common boundaries (between home and work, public and private, for instance) have become a lot blurrier.

The book also has some development on the history of the Triple Revolution, tracing its origins and trends that are social and technological. This also means that the story being told is that of Western (and mainly American) trends. After all, all the goods and capacities open by social networking are available to only those who can afford them and who live in societies that are rich enough to provide the infrastructure necessary for ICTs. The digital divide is a bit too underplayed in this book for my taste. But that second chapter is a really great primer on networks that stands on its own and where the main concepts of network analysis are clearly explained. At the same time, if the Internet did not invent networking, it certainly contributed massively to its expansion. The book also contains a quick history of the Internet in combination with the impact of the spreading of personal computers as well as the different subcultures that emerged along with the Internet (techno-elites, hackers, virtual communautarians and participators). The final layer of the Triple Revolution is mobility. Portable computers (ultrabooks), tablets and smartphones, along with reliable wifi everywhere ensure that we are continuously and reliable connected, which means that we have to devise strategies to manage the volume and types of social interactions and these technologies give us the tools to do just that but this changes the ways we do a lot of things:

“Before the mobile-ization of the world, time and space were critical factors for in-person contact. People needed to specify when and where they would meet. Coordinating a rendezvous, a party or a business meeting was a formal negotiation yielding firm coordinates. Early in the twentieth century, sociologist Georg Simmel pointed out that a similar, large-scale change occurred with the nineteenth century’s Industrial Revolution. With the coming of big machines, cities, bureaucracies, stores, and railroad lines running on strict timetables, people had to be at precise places at precise times— or else the machines wouldn’t be operated, papers wouldn’t be pushed, customers wouldn’t be served, and trains wouldn’t be boarded. Public clocks— and private wristwatches— regulated the industrialized world. This was a profound change from preindustrial village life, where people went to their farms, shops, or pubs according to their needs— not their clocks.

To some extent, mobile phones allow us a slight return to this more casual negotiation of time. In the age of mobile connectivity, time is more fluid and people’s expectations have changed. In the felicitous phrase Ling uses, “hyper-coordination” is now possible and preferred, especially by younger mobile users.” (Loc. 2662)

In a way, one could argue that location is making a comeback as we more or less automatically update our locations at all times on social networking platforms. Technologies and platforms then give more flexibility in our opportunities for interaction and how we present ourselves in these interactions (Goffman would have a field day with this stuff), something that Rainie and Wellman call connected presence (interaction through technology without physical presence), absent presence (the annoying habit of checking one’s email / texts / Facebook timeline / Twitter feed while interacting with someone f2f), or present absence (incorporation of absent people to f2f interactions through technology). So, we are more or less always on at multiple levels but there is a bit of cultural lag as we try to figure out the proper norms to navigate these interactions. Is it rude to check your email while in f2f interaction with someone (a BIG one for teachers!)? How long and loud are you expected to gab on your cell phone in a public space? Etc. We are still working those out. And a lot of us as guided by a new anxiety: FOMO (fear of missing out). How many ultra-important tweets have I missed while writing up this blog post? Answer: none, I have my iPad on with a Twitter client open. I am typing this in Chrome with tabs open in Facebook, Google Reader, and others.

Having those basics in place, then, the book follows with a series of chapters on the ways the Triple Revolution has worked its way (as cause and effect) into our relationships and social institutions (such as family and work). That is where the main message of “the sky is not falling” comes through loud and clear. The authors also address why the digital dualism persists. Digital dualism refers to the preeminence of f2f interaction as “real” interaction and virtual ones as a defective, debased form of sociability because it does not involve all the bodily stuff that enrich interaction and all the other layers of subtle interactive clues that give rich texture to encounters. Digital dualism assumes the absence of all these dimensions of interaction and therefore declares it a poor substitute. The underlying assumption here is that individuals interact with different people f2f and online, which is simply not the case. It also ignores the fact that there are various ways of enriching virtual interactions (smileys come to mind) and that individuals integrate them in their communication toolkit and use them depending on the context of the interaction. But all of this does not lead to isolation but to what the authors call flexible autonomy:

“The personalized and mobile connectivity enhanced by the Triple Revolution and the weakening of group boundaries have helped relationships move from place-to-place networks to individualized person-to-person networks. Most have private internet connections and personal mobile phones, and their own cars. Lower numbers of children mean parents need to spend less time at home raising them. There are fewer children to keep parents housebound. The loosening of religious, occupational, and ethnic boundaries also encourages interpersonal free agentry.

Rather than ties between households or work groups, people connect as individuals to other individuals, in person-to-person networks. They maneuver through multiple sets of ties that shift in importance and contact by the day. Each person engages in multiple roles at home, with friends and relatives, and at work or school. Their networks are sparsely knit, with friends and relatives often loosely linked with each other. These loose linkages do not imply a complete untethering of social relations: There are only a few isolates “bowling alone.” Most people are connecting in shifting networks rather than in solidary groups. Such networks provide diversity, choice, and maneuverability at the probable cost of overall cohesion and long-term trust.

While place-to-place networks show how community has transcended local boundaries, person-to-person networks show how community has transcended group boundaries. It is the individual— and not the household, kinship group, or work group— that is the primary unit of connectivity. The shift puts people at the center of personal networks that can supply them with support, sociability, information, and a sense of belonging. People connect in person and via ICTs. Their networking activities shift as their needs shift. While network members relate to each other as persons, they often emphasize certain roles. They are bosses to their employees, husbands to their wives, friends to their friends, and so on— with somewhat different norms for each network.

Networked individualism means that people’s involvement in multiple networks often limits their involvement in and commitment to any one network. It is not as if they are going to the village square every day to see the same crowd. Because people can maneuver among milieus, their multiple involvements decrease the control that each milieu has over their behavior. Yet limited involvements work both ways. If a person is only partially involved in a milieu, then the participants in that milieu often are not as committed to maintaining that person’s well-being.” (Loc. 3234)

The idea of the networked self then, I think, is very close to Beck and Bauman’s notion of individualization that the condition of liquid modernity and risk society and flexible autonomy also refers back to the idea of the self as aself-constructed project where individuals have to assemble their own capital (including social) and resources in the absence of the institutional and structural support (i.e. generalized precarization). Individualization is a concept much less benign than flexible autonomy but the authors are not naive:

“Living in person-to-person networks has profound implications both for individuals and for the social milieus and overall societies that they are in. Networked individualism downloads the responsibility— and the burden— of maintaining personal networks on the individual. Networked individuals often have time binds, since they are constantly negotiating plans with disconnected sets of individuals within their expanding network. Active networking is more important than going along with the group. Acquiring resources depends substantially on personal skill, individual motivation, and maintaining the right connections.” (Loc 3257)

So, it is up to the networked individual to manage her networks and social capital. But these changes have also affected families (in addition to the changes brought about by changes in gender roles, the economy, etc.). The family itself now has porous boundaries and can be considered a network in itself. Family scholars will not be surprised by any of this. ICTs have accompanied and amplified these structural changes more than they have caused them but they are now thoroughly embedded in family dynamics both in terms of bonding and bridging links, within the family and outside of it. Here again, the sky is not falling and texting is not destroying families.

“Networked families have adapted to the Triple Revolution. They use ICTs to bridge barriers of time and space, weakening the boundaries between public and private life spaces. The mounting and interrelated changes in the composition of households— such as the life-cycle complexities of marriage and divorce and decisions to have children— mean that today’s households are varied, complex, and evolving. Networked families use ICTs to mediate these complexities and adapt ICTs to their varied needs.


Not only have families changed in size and composition, they have also changed in their lifestyles. ICTs have become thoroughly embedded in families’ everyday lives, helping them stay connected and in motion. The internet and mobile phones connect family members as they move around, help them find each other, and bring them together for joint work and play. The result is that ICTs— often in conjunction with personal automobiles— have paradoxically provided household members with the ability to go their separate ways while at the same time keeping them more connected. Families have less face time, but more connected time, using mobile phones and the internet.” (Loc 4461)

Similar changes have affected the organization of work and there has been a lot of ink spent already on the networked organization in the context of economic globalization, so, no need to belabor that point. But on a more micro level, we have seen the emergence of the networked worker, taken out of the office or the cubicle in a less hierarchical organization, capable to work everywhere at any time thanks to ICTs and for whom boundaries between home and work, between private and public time are blurry. 

And then there are the ways in which ICTs and social networking technologies revolutionize the way media and news content is produced and consumed:

“In the print-dominant era of news, news stories could have a handful of elements: headlines, narrative texts, photos, graphics, sidebar stories, and “pull quotes” that featured people cited in the article. In the digital age, the number of features of a news story could rise to over fifty items as websites could contain links to other stories and primary resources, spaces for readers to add their own comments, tags and pictures, links to archives of stories and timelines, full transcripts of interviews, audio material, video clips, background material from the reporter about the process of gathering the story, photo albums, details about the reporter such as a biography and an archive of her previous work. In other words, web treatment of news provides fuller context than print media because of the associations that can be built into a story such as links to background material, other stories, archives of past coverage, as well as newsmakers and organizations mentioned. Among other things, the digital, linked format invites browsing and “horizontal” reading through links, rather than linear “vertical” reading.

This display of digital material also invites challenge, amplification, and adjustment by users of the news site. Networked individuals can now respond to stories more easily and in more ways than they ever could in the “Letters to the Editor” sections of newspapers. With commenting features embedded within news stories, readers can immediately post their thoughts and opinions— not only for the editorial team to see but also for anyone else who happens to be reading that same article. With links to the writers’ email addresses or Twitter accounts, readers can communicate directly with journalists and may sometimes receive a response with greater speed than they would have in the days when readers would mail in their comments and await their publication— if they even made it to publication. Online follow-up chat sessions also give readers the opportunity to discuss matters directly with the journalists in real time.


Compared to the print environment, then, data in the digital environment are denser, broader, and deeper. The digitalization of news thus offers the potential for richer coverage and therefore deeper understanding. Moreover, decisions about the structure and hierarchy of content found online, on how to allocate attention, and on how to respond are now likely to rest in the hands of both the traditional editorial professionals and ordinary networked individuals. ” (Loc 6034)

This is an experience familiar to anyone who consumes their news online not through media outlets per se but through Newsreaders, Twitter and other filtering and curating technologies. Talking back to “experts” is also a new experience. To experience the news outside of traditional media is also new. One only has to think of the Arab Spring and similar social movements to realize that networking also creates news, as much as media organizations.

The authors also touch upon a topic that is important: that of surveillance. Even though that topic is not really developed, they do bring in a couple of additional concepts: where surveillance usually refers to governments and corporations monitoring what we do, produce and consume, co-veillance refers to mutual surveillance and monitoring of behavior online. We google people. We check out their Facebook profiles, etc. And there is sousveillance, that is, the riff-raff watching the elites, politicians and organization and reporting to online communities (often for the purpose of public shaming). But all this overall means we have all learned to live without much privacy and we need to factor that in to what we do online.

The book then ends with a set of recommendations on how to thrive in the networked context that is more and more shaping our lives, such as “segment your identity”, “learn to function in different contexts” or “be aware of invisible audiences”… maybe I should give that (fairly extensive) list to my students. But the authors also argue that in order to thrive and succeed, individuals need (and sometimes already have) new forms of literacy:

  • Graphic literacy
  • Navigation literacy
  • Context and connections literacy
  • Focus literacy
  • Multitasking literacy
  • Skepticism literacy
  • Ethical literacy
  • Networking literacy

Because the Triple Revolution is not quite over and the trends noted throughout the book are still unfolding. Legislations are still being drafted and avidly debated, especially things having to do with Net Neutrality and privacy. Informal norms of online etiquette are far from settled (especially, I might add, in the context of online rabid misogyny).

Again, as I mentioned above, this is a relatively optimistic book so there is limited critical examination of the dark side of all these things. This is something that will frustrate readers as the idea of networked individualism seems to erase issues of class, race and gender (among others) that are not addressed in the book. So, this is not by any means a complete examination of networking but it is a solid and engaging starting point.

Book Review – Celebrity Culture and The American Dream

Karen Sternheimer‘s Celebrity Culture and The American Dream is a good book to add to an introduction to sociology course if you want to give your students a good sense of how sociology analyzes culture and media. This is a work of public sociology. The audience for this book is not the academic / sociology professionals but the general public interested in social issues and the focus on celebrities should be a winner in that regard.

The book is a perfect illustration of what I call SHiP (structure / history / power) which is the way sociology looks at social phenomena (and that covers pretty much everything). In this case, the book spans over a hundred years of Hollywood industry and celebrity culture, in the context of changes in the social structure. Each chapter covers a time period, from the early days of the movie industry in the early 20th century to the contemporary period.

In each chapter, Sternheimer examines the main trends and changes in the social structure, and analyzes how these changes are incarnated in the celebrity as well as the cultural narratives promoted by the entertainment industry. In particular, Sternheimer focuses on how, in each time period, success and upward mobility were defined ideologically, with specific attention to gender as conceptions of how to succeed in the American society are embedded in a patriarchal context.

In short, celebrity culture tells us stories of how to succeed (hard work, thrift), who should succeed (white men) and who should be mindful of success (white women), who is erased from narratives of success (minorities) and what happens to successful who do not play by the (cultural and normative) rules (downward mobility as morality tale).

Of course, each time period has its own flavor. For instance, the World War II period was characterized less by masculinized individualism but by a greater “we’re all in this together” ideology whereby individual sacrifices had to be made by all for the survival of the nation as a whole. In the prosperous post-War period, success was unproblematically seen as not just hard work but rewarded by fun and mass consumption (which is not surprising, coming out of the Depression and the War).

At the same time, the celebrity culture is a product of the entertainment industry which is first and foremost an industry, with its power structure. For instance, Sternheimer explores the rise, dominance and fall of the studio system and its major impact on how celebrity culture was constructed and promoted. During the heyday of the studio systems, celebrity culture was entirely manufactured and controlled by the major studios who produced celebrity magazines where movie stars provided canned interviews and pictures. When that system ended, by the late 1960s, so did the publications they controlled. Out with the massive public relations department, in with the individual PR entourage that celebrities now have to hire to do the job the studios used to do.

Mostly, the overall narrative of the celebrity culture is about individual rags-to-riches, Horatio Alger-type stories, whether it is movies stars, athletes or businessmen (especially in the 1980s). And this narrative is relentlessly sexist. While women feature prominently in the celebrity culture, and have from the get go, their success is always accompanied by cautionary tales regarding their other roles as wives (don’t overshadow your husband) or mothers, or regarding the way they obtained their success and how downfall always lurks in the background. After all, if women do appear in the celebrity culture, they are absent of the power structure of the industry (as are minorities).

Structurally speaking, certainly, the celebrity publishing world has changed. Again, as the studio system collapsed, other publications emerged (such as People or US Weekly) along with the paparazzo system. And in the contemporary era, the means of tracking down celebrities have multiplied with digital media and social networking platforms. At the same time, reality TV programs have changed the notion of who can be a celebrity: pretty much anyone, with or without talent. And the rise of the reality and contest genres is itself a product of the collapse of the newspaper / magazine industry.

There is a lot in the book and Sternheimer does a good job of weaving together hard sociological data on stratification, inequalities, wage and labor trends to the narrative promoted by the celebrity culture along with changes in the structure and power relations in the industry itself. The book is an easy read with a lot of illustrations from celebrity magazines and so is very appropriate for undergraduate audiences.

Book Review – La Démocratie Internet

Dominique Cardon‘s La Démocratie Internet: Promesses et Limites reads like Sociology of the Internet 101, which is a good thing. It is a short (as all books in this series are), and highly readable introduction to the state of research on Internet interactions and practices. It is also a good example of what sociology does and how it approaches specific social phenomena.

A central argument of the book is that the Internet, and the various platforms it offers, is reshaping how we understand public and private spaces of interactions and what we consider proper public discourse. In this sense, the Internet is much more than the next stage in the evolution of media technologies (from the printed press, to the radio, to television and now the Internet).

As Cardon notes (rough translation):

“Two ways of communicating are joined on the Internet: the first one facilitates exchanges between individuals, the second one facilitates the diffusion of information to large audiences. The first one, through the postal mail, the telephone or the email, allows one to interact with one or several specific recipients. The second, with the press, the radio or television, sends messages from a few to a vast and undifferentiated public. The reconciliation of these two forms of communication did not happen just like that. It even produced novel effects once the borders between these two modes become porous.” (9)

And this is not just a matter of different technologies. The Internet unites under the same interface tools for interpersonal and mass communication thereby creating a new type of relationship between conversation and information diffusion. By the same token, the Internet also changes the role of traditional gatekeepers of information, editors and journalists. One only needs to see the reaction by traditional media organizations to the Wikileaks revelation to understand that their complaints are about being displaced from the privileged status of exclusive dispensers of information.

After all, the separation between gatekeepers and experts, on the one hand, and the general public on the other hand, has deeply structured the public space (in Habermas’s sense) as the former long decided what was appropriate for the public to see and know. In this sense, public space was neatly separate from the private domain. The Internet has shattered these separations by joining and broadening the public space, not without risks, to be sure. With this, privileged access to information and publication has been somewhat eliminated. At the same time, what used to be considered private conversations have emerged on to public space.

Cardon considers this a double revolution: (1) the right to speak (in a broad sense) in the public space has been extended to entire societies and, (2) parts of what belonged to the private sphere has been incorporated in the public domain. In order to explain how this came to be, Cardon begins the book with a brief history of the Internet and the set of values that animated its founders: free speech, autonomy, availability for free, tolerance and consensus. As he shows, the development of what ended up being the Internet was not linear, neatly advancing from one step to the next. Rather, it combined professional teams alongside expert amateurs as well as military research groups.

Through this horizontal development, the initial network was founded on relatively libertarian values. Central to this have been things such as Usenet and open source software, fueled by the “wisdom of crows” and Creative Commons. The Internet, right from the start, was designed as open public space where people are judged by their contributions (often anonymously, with such presentation of self tools as avatars). At the same time, in these early stages, the Internet was enormously homogeneous in terms of social characteristics of users.

Unsurprisingly then, the next stage was the massification of the Internet (digital divide notwithstanding). With this comes what Cardon calls the realistic turn of the Internet where the initial anonymous avatar-identified user is replaced by users claiming their real identities. At the same time, of course, the population of users becomes more heterogeneous.

As Cardon notes,

“Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiappello have shown how, following the protest movements of 1968, critique of capitalism took two different directions: ‘social’ when it demanded a modification of prevalent power relationships, ‘artist’ when it seeks to liberate individuals in order for them to be more authentic and creative. There is no doubt that, in the American context, the Internet has been carried by the ‘artist critique’. Its libertarian center of gravity is based on individual autonomy, self-organization and a refusal of collective constraints.” (31)

In other words, the Internet was founded by hippies (no, really) in search of self-actualization.

Regarding the central theme of broadening public space, Cardon considers four modes of public speaking:


Cardon considers (4) to be where the real transformations brought about by the Internet are in terms of social interactions that shatter the traditional boundaries of the public space. In that space, users move seamlessly from private conversation with relatives to political discussions with like-minded users. This is what happens all the time on Facebook, Twitter, Digg or Reddit (this is a major part of the Web 2.0 phenomenon). This combines democratization with large-scale exposure of subjectivities while at the same time claiming to retain a right to privacy (hence the periodical kerfuffles regarding Facebook ever-changing privacy policies).

This bring said, Cardon emphasizes over and over how unequal the Internet is. First, of course, even though the price of entry is low, it is not entirely free and entire regions of the world are still largely excluded. Also, not everyone can contribute equally (even though the price of entry to contribution is repeatedly lowered and simplified, as with a simple “like” button). And, of course, not everyone is equally visible. The web is highly hierarchical in terms of high and low visibility. But in the web in chiaroscuro, the web has moved away from being a giant documentary library to becoming a territory and a major source of sociability and social capital. Bridging and bonding capital mix seamlessly through a variety of platforms.

Cardon then distinguishes between different kinds of ties beyond the usual weak / strong dichotomy:

  • strong ties (friends, relatives)
  • ex-strong ties (acquaintances and ex-es found on social networking platforms)
  • contextual ties (colleagues or other individuals known in real life through shared memberships or activities)
  • opportunistic ties (vague acquaintances or acquaintances of acquaintances)
  • virtual ties (people met on the Internet through shared interests)

This completely fits within Zygmunt Bauman’s liquidity thesis as the self is constantly a work in progress, carefully constructed and presented to the world, one contribution at a time, be it a blog post, a photo on Flickr, a series of tweets or “likes” on Facebook.

“A loose web of debating micro-spaces is being constantly woven and displaced across the Internet. Internauts grab local or global issues. They monitor, comment, discuss and critique a thousand topics. In no particular order, it’s all about a trendy singer, a new movie, a cooking recipe, a legal or technical problem, vacations spots, pets – to limit to the most popular subjects of conversation. But this anchoring in daily life is also an opportunity to debate public issues: local politics, environmental controversies, wage inequalities, the role of women in politics, violence in schools, insecurity, etc. With the development of remix and mash-up creative culture, mainly through videos, these are new forms of expression, protest or ironic, that are developing at the margins, and at distance from, of official politics.” (70)

This was especially obvious these past days as the mainstream media relatively ignored the events in Tunisia while Twitter bursting with updates. The same thing has happened in the past with social movements in Thailand and Iran. And in that process, the users challenged the traditional gatekeepers who cannot rely on any expert status to shield themselves from criticism but are expected to account for their contributions.

So what does this mean for politics and democracy? On this, Cardon is not exactly optimistic. The web is not an egalitarian utopia. There is power and there is exclusion. There is also limited collective action or agency but more an aggregation of individual contributions. It is great for the circulation of information, but there is limited power of action. A Twitter trend does not a revolution make. Such capillary dynamics are individualizing and individualized. Forms of cooperation and participation might emerge – as in the case of the alterglobalist movement – but their power remains to be seen.

At the same time, political life on the Internet is a mix bag. While the Zapatistas and other loosely organized groups may have had some success, top-down movements have largely failed especially if they used the web as just another form of mailing instead of using the conversational mode.

There is more in the book, of course, and much food for thought regarding the recomposition of the public sphere. Cardon offers a nuanced approach to issues that are still in progress. He avoids the web fetishism of some techie publications or the doom-and-gloom approach of some critique. Highly recommended.

I hope this book gets an English translation.

Book Review – Makeover TV

I really wanted to like Brenda R. Weber‘s Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity. The topic seemed attractive with the potential for a pleasant read on a subject for which sociological analysis has solid tools for critical examination. The author has watched over 2,500 hours of makeover television (which includes such shows as What Not to Wear, Extreme Makeover, The Swan, where the body is the main subject of the makeover, but also Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Pimp My Ride, Or How Clean is Your House? where the house or the car stands as symbolic representation of the people who own them.

I was hoping that the book would be usable for undergraduate classes on sex and gender. I was wrong. The book is a tedious read for the convoluted writing and non-stop jargon that seems to be the trademark of gender studies. And it is fairly repetitive. At the same time, for all the mentions of the 2,500 hours of makeover shows watched by the other, she does not provide a lot of examples and those examples mentioned seem to come from a very limited sample.

That being said, there are some interesting points and analysis that I will emphasize below but again, this book should not be considered a potential read for undergrads in popular culture, media and cultural studies alongside gender.

Weber’s first considerations go to the makeover genre in general to note that it is shot through with contradictions:

  • “To be empowered, one must fully surrender to experts;
  • To become “normal”, one must endure “extreme” body-altering interventions aimed at one’s gender, sexuality, race, class, and ethnicity;
  • To be truly feminine or masculine, one must be hyper-gendered;
  • To communicate an “authentic self”, one must overwrite and replace the “false” signifiers enunciated by the natural body;
  • To be unique and special, one must first be critically condemned by the social gaze;
  • To achieve a state of privacy where ugliness does not code as transgressive, one must appear on national and international television and publicly expose the shame of the “ugly” body.” (4)

So, makeover shows take a “before-body” that is not all of the above: not empowered, abnormal, wrongly-gendered (especially for straight women), sending out too many signals regarding class (not middle class), race and ethnicity (not white). That ugly, deviant, class and race-marked must be dramatically transformed into the “After-body” that is clearly appropriately gendered, middle-class, not too ethnically or racially coded and definitely straight. The before- and after-body may not be literally bodies, but may be homes or cars but the logic is the same.

Why would people (mostly women) subject themselves to such treatments? Makeover shows are morality plays: the before-body is the body of a depressed, disempowered non-subject that displays lack of confidence and is unable then to exploit her full potential in all aspects of her life, professional or personal. The makeover offers the way in which the subject truly becomes a subject: empowered, confident, autonomous, classy and physically attractive – the perfect individualized subject for the neo-liberal order. What emerges through the after-body is the real, authentic self. As Weber puts, the makeover show offers “salvation through submission” (6). The real self may be hiding under overweight, unflattering clothes, or a dirty house. The makeover offers to peel these ugly layers and reveal the real subject, hidden in there for whatever reason (depression, pregnancies and motherhood, etc.).

The contradiction then is that as much as the makeover is supposed to reveal the real individualized self that is now poised to competently take on the neo-liberal world of work and the straight world of romance, it does so through a form of normalization of the body by getting as close as possible to the white middle-class default position for competence, confidence and normativity. In other words, subjects who are seen as “too ethnic” receive more of a “makeunder” than a makeover. Similarly, lower class markers have to be eliminated as much as possible. And, of course, for women, gender has to be clearly codified through feminization. No more baggy clothes and tomboyish attitudes. Heteronormativity rules.

And, of course, such normative stance involves power if it is to be imposed upon the makeover subjects:

“Makeover narratives tend to play fairly old-school rules of power dynamics. Doctors and style gurus are all-knowing, great looking, never wrong; patients are miserable and depressed, aware of their short-comings, unsure of how to help themselves, willing to put themselves in the hands of experts for complete renovation, untroubled by any potential medical or financial complications, and fully satisfied and grateful for After-results.” (17)

And a big chunk of the show is occupied by the process of transformation, showing the hard work and/or suffering that subjects go through to achieve results defined by the experts as stand-in for social standards. There are moments of resistance by the subjects that are swiftly dealt with by the experts. Ultimately, submission to expertise and self-discipline brings the expected results. A nicely packaged morality play. A disciplined and regulated self, that displays its conformity to white, heterosexual, middle-class standards of appearance as neo-liberal subject is well-adapted to (and fulfilled within) the risk society. This disciplined (in Foucault’s sense) after-self contrasts with the undisciplined (fat, sloppy) and socially or ethnically over-signified before-self. The before self is, by definition, self-indulgent (too much food, too much sexiness, especially in non-white subjects) or lazy (dirty house, unruly children). The promise of happiness in personal life and success in the professional domain is the price to be obtained through the disciplining of the self.

As always in individualized discourse (by does not, by any means, evacuates the social), any questioning of the social structure is remarkably absent.

Weber identifies three themes that run through the makeover genre:

  1. Renovation and rejuvenation, not just change but improvement through individualized yet disciplining and normative techniques.
  2. An initial shaming and humiliation of the subject to make them subscribe to the urgency of their makeover, but combined with caring attention from the experts (what Weber calls “affective domination“).
  3. The mandatory final “big reveal” where the After-body is revealed to the amazed audience, spouses and relatives of the subject who gets the celebrity treatment.

Which means that almost all show follow the same format with some variation:

(1) the initial shaming (note the scary music in this clip of How Clean is Your House? anything to emphasize the grossness of the place)

(2) The scolding of the subject by the experts with some resistance easily defeated.

(3) Submission and redemption

(4) The actual work of transformation

(5) The Big Reveal (sometimes before an awed audience, especially for body makeover)

(6) The euphoric subject and satisfied experts

The makeover genre fits perfectly within the individualization thesis in that people’s flaws are blamed on their poor choices and irresponsibility and that there is no salvation by society. Individualized issues require individualized solutions. However, the before-subjects have been shown to be incapable of the discipline that is required for a fulfilled self, as visible to others through personal grooming and style, proper housing and well-raised children. The makeover restores the subject to the middle class state of responsibility, style and restraint.

Individual discipline is posited not just as a moral but a social obligation (so the rest of the world does not have to look at the subject’s fat, ugliness, lousy clothing, spoiled brats, etc.). The individualized self is always under societal gaze. Investing in care of the self is a requirement for a better romantic and professional life.

“The transformational message suggests that the suffering person’s misery is specific, individualized, and nonsystemic. If people tease you about your ears, then change your ears. If people critique you for being a tomboy, become more girly. If people think you are always frowning, then get a brow lift or Botox. The insistence on individuated experience places the focus squarely on self-management and self-production where, as Wendy Brown notes, prime value is put on peoples’ capacity to ‘provide for their own needs and service their own ambition’ (6-7).” (62)

The makeover format also subscribes to a meritocratic ideology where everyone can make it with hard work and discipline (and just a little privatized help)… and a little something else:

“Entrance to Makeover Nation requires that Before-bodies experience abjection, anxiety and the willingness to change. Citizenship for After-bodies, by contrast, confers confidence, glamour and potential celebrity. If the cost of passage to Makeover Nation is the public of one’s lifelong humiliation, subjects seem more than willing to pay the fare, the rewards of belonging far outweighing the pain of isolation and critique.” (79)

These are the main themes that the book develops, providing examples, mostly from What Not To Wear (I would have hoped to read more from other shows, with more examples) but a lot of it is muddled, in my view, by jargon and abstractions that do not bring all that much to the discussion. Actually, they deter from the powerful theme of white, straight, middle-class normalization through individualized discipline.

Weber also devotes a chapter to men in makeover shows. After all, the whole idea of submitting to expert transformation is a very feminine idea. How do men accept it? Well, they accept it because the shows afford them more places of resistance (after all, they have to accept expertise from women and – gasp! – gays) and more agency (they are depicted as more actors in their own makeovers). And the makeover definitely is geared towards making them more masculine in order to be more attractive and successful, but in a powerful way (as opposed to the feminine, sexy yet classy style for women).

Book Review – Punishing The Poor

I cannot emphasize enough what an important book Loïc Wacquant‘s Punishing The Poor – The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity is. Except, I have already done that by posting various quotes that I thought were important and made essential points as I was reading the book.

The main argument made by Wacquant is that the social policy of transition from welfare to workfare cannot be understood unless it analyzed in conjunction with the rise of prisonfare (mass incarceration of certain categories of the population). Workfare and prisonfare are two sides of the same coin: the areas where the neoliberal state can still assert its authority once depleted of its economic and social policy functions.

As neoliberal policies get implemented (in the name of globalization or moralization of society through work or punishment), a lot of people find the rug pulled from under their feet, mostly the poor and more specifically single women with children and minorities. What to do with these? Well, for the women, it will be workfare. For the men, it will be prisonfare.  This seems a bit simplistic but the data clearly show such a trend. In the United States, this is combined with the inherent structural and institutional racism at the heart of society. Prisonfare is the lastest mode of black subjugation and control along with ghettoization.

For Wacquant, the combination of workfare and prisonfare fulfills both economic and symbolic functions for the neoliberal punitive state (as workfare is equally punishing as prisonfare) fight the crisis of legitimacy that pervades all developed democracies as the state divests itself from its capacity to set economic policies and abandons policies of social justice and redistribution. With the help of the media, public attention is directed not at the massive transfer of wealth to the top of the social stratification ladder but rather on designated “incorrigible” deviants: welfare cheats and parasites, criminals and pedophiles against whom the ever-more intrusive mechanisms of the surveillance society are applied.

Of course, this all is based on a series of lies that nonetheless produced and dispersed throughout society, mostly, again, through the media: that the US is spending enormous amounts of money on welfare (False: AFDC never accounted for more than 1% of the federal budget) or that crime is on rise, perpetrated by ever younger and more dangerous “predators”. Here again, this is false: crime has been on the decline for a long time irrespective of the policies implemented or not. See below, for instance as Americans still believe that there is MORE crime (and by that, they think street crime):

Wacquant himself explains it in this video:

Regulating the poor is indeed the major outcome of these policies but there is not, according to Wacquant, some large-scale conspiracy as such a conspiracy would require much more competent coordination and centralization as is available in the United States. What we see are the logical conclusions and results of separately adopted neoliberal policies: liberalization / privatization on the economic domain, shrinking of the state in the name of efficiency, and de-socialization of waged labor (along with waves of outsourcing and off-shoring) along with a moral cultural outlook on social deviance. Such economic policies are bound to be devastating on certain segments of the population which then need to be controlled for their individual moral failings, largely depicted in terms of lack of self-control and responsibility.

Either way, the victims of neoliberal policies are irresponsible, unproductive individuals who need to be disciplined (in Foucault’s sense) and that is the job left to the state, with the recourse of private sector actors such as private welfare / child welfare administrations and private prisons. In this sense, in this punitive environment, structural conditions leave the most vulnerable members of society to fend for themselves even though their ghettoization prevents them from improving their conditions. Then, they are blamed for their lack of ability to get out of them.

There is, of course, one type of economic activity which would lead to better economic results: illegal economy. This is where the policies of the War on Drugs work to prevent those deprived of socialized wage labor from one exit from poverty, lending them, of course, in prison, serving large sentences for which there is no parole.

These very real economic impact of the neoliberal state on the poor is coupled with a persistent stigmatization that successfully covers the fact that these policies, workfare and prisonfare, do not have much to show for themselves almost 15 years after their implementation. But this is also the one weak point I found in Wacquant’s book: it needs some major statistical and data updating. Most of the data date back from the 1980s and the most recent date from the 1990s. One would want to know the state of these trends now. A lot can happen over 10 years, especially since these 10 years cover the entire Bush presidency.

Moreover, Wacquant also demonstrates that this double regulation of poverty (through workfare and prisonfare) has been exported to Europe, stating with the liberalization of the state through Thatcherism in the UK, the Kohl years in Germany and the oh-so memorable Chirac years as PM in France. Even the various left-of-center parties, such as the socialist parties in Western Europe have embraced the law-and-order view of the state and neoliberal economic “reforms” all the way to Sarkozy’s slogan to “work more to earn more”… we all know what happened to that in these past years.

In a way, this book truly illustrates the best of sociological analysis: it is a combination of solid data analysis, identification of patterns and trends and use of theory to pull it all together and a very convincing and critical demonstration. In this, this is a powerful book. I am not sure it is readable at the undergraduate level though and that is unfortunate because I am always on the lookout for great sociological books for my students to read to get a sense of how powerful sociological analysis is. Or at the very least, it should be offered as guided reading, with a lot of work to be done on the instructor’s part to guide the students through it many levels of analysis.

A very powerful book.


Surveillance Society 2.0 – NeoConOpticon

The apparatus of surveillance society is reaching further and deeper into many domains of life and it is very clear that it is not about protecting us against amorphous threats but about controlling us. And the surveillance-industrial complex stands at the ready to assist the neoliberal state to reach new levels:

Needless to say, the definition of what counts as “deviant behavior” can be quite variable and elastic and one can already see the multiplicity of applications in a variety of settings. This is pretty chilling.

“Crime and riots”, huh? How about political demonstrations against the advances of the neoliberal agenda? Does that count as “deviant behavior” to be controlled? The absurdity of it all, of course, is these new technologies might provide an enormous amount of data but very little information unless a lot of people get recruited to sift through these mountains of behavioral data and find the overactive-bladdered, cold-nosed terrorist.

You can find the NeoConOpticon report here (pdf version). What does neoconopticon mean? Of course, it is reminiscent of Bentham’s Panopticon, so often reference as part of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. NeoConOpticon is the version 2.0:


See also the blog that will keep track of this program:

I am sure they will not run out of things to talk about.

This, of course, correlates with Loïc Wacquant’s idea that massive surveillance (prisonfare and workfare as part of that) is the way in which the neoliberal state authoritatively reasserts itself once faced with the Habermasian crisis of legitimacy. The state may no longer provide a safety net or decent economic conditions, but at least, it can preserve our way of life against the enemies from without (terrorists) and those from within (criminals and socially irresponsibles)

It is actually quite disconcerting that these developments take place without much protests from the populations of Western countries as their economic security and democratic freedoms are being eaten away at, ever so incrementally.

Heck, we don’t even have to bend over anymore:

Book Review – Scapegoats of September 11th

I picked up Michael Welch‘s Scapegoats of September 11th – Hate Crimes & State Crimes in The War on Terror based on Todd Krohn’s recommendation (He’s made Welch his Sociologist of the Semester). In this book, Welch retraces the emergence of the discourse that emerged after 9/11 that ultimately materialized into the apparatus of the War on Terror, grounded in religious dichotomy of good versus evil, and provided the basis for scapegoating. Such scapegoating had very real consequences in terms of both domestic and foreign policy: hate crimes, profiling, erosion of privacy and civil liberties, torture, renditions and other state crimes. Welch then analyzes both these policies and the discourse sustaining them.

Welch is a criminologist, so there is a lot in the book about the legislative and legal work that went into the crafting of the whole GWOT apparatus. There is a lot that is not new at this point in the book. A lot of “ink” has been spilled detailing the gory details of the Bush administration policies, and their continuation under the Obama administration. Similarly, several books have been written on the whole torture / rendition issue.

The strongest aspect of the book, in my view, lies in Welch’s mobilizing sociological and social-psychological theories and concepts to address the larger cultural aspects of the GWOT, and how the administration was successful in building up cultural support for its policies and creating a culture of denial, facilitating scapegoating. This is what I will focus on.

“Scapegoating involves displacing aggression onto innocent people selected as suitable enemies due to their perceived differences in race, ethnicity, religion and so on. As a social psychological defense mechanism against confronting the real source of frustration, scapegoating provides emotional relief for people racked with fear and anxiety. That solace inevitably short-term, prompting scapegoaters to step on a treadmill of endless bigotry and victimization.” (4)

Welch argues that after 9/11, there was indeed quite a bit of scapegoating against Muslim men and the level of hate crime against Muslims in the US increased significantly. Sometimes, it was cheered on by right-wing talk radio (the usual suspects, the same “Obama is a Muslim” crowd). This was accompanied by more systematic policy of rounding up Muslim men by the Department of Homeland Security. In that logic, Muslim man = terrorist prevailed both discursively and institutionally.

Similarly, Welch argues that the reaction to 9/11 can be best explained through the lenses of both moral panic framework and that of risk society:

“Moral panic, simply put, marks a turbulent and exaggerated response to a perceived social problem whereby there is considerable concern and consensus that such a problem actually exists. Blame is then shifted to suitable villains who absorb societal hostility. Along the way, the perceived threat exceeds proportionate risks, forming a disaster mentality from which it is widely believed that something must be done urgently or else society faces a greater doom.” (13)

Therefore, according to Welch, there are four elements of moral panic:

  • Concern
  • Consensus
  • Hostility
  • Disproportionality

Moral panics tend to be fairly circumscribed in time. They are specific events, with a beginning and an end. They are not perceived as systemic issues but as moral tales of good and evil. Risk society, on the other hand, establishes that the risks that are the conditions of the post-industrial, information age, are systemic risks. They are less moral in nature, less easily framed in terms of good and evil. Less conducive to scapegoating. Moral panics call for punishment of the scapegoats. Risk society would call for systemic reform that would call into question the social, economic and political arrangements of the global system (hence the hot potato attitude that prevails then). Which is why powerful actors (politics and media) may be seen as cheering on moral panics (calling for drastic policy and keeping the panic alive) while trying to calming things down on global risks (don’t run to the bank when it looks like we’re going into economic recession, don’t sell your stocks).

In the case of 9/11, the dominant theme that emerged and eclipsed all the other is that of safety and security. What can make America secure and Americans safe. For Welch, security and safety became the major sites of social anxiety (a major precondition for moral panic). But this fits very well as well with the risk society approach where risks are man-made (terrorism) and the solution is neither clear nor clear-cut: what is security, after all? What is safety? And the solutions are not easy either: it is impossible to eliminate terrorism from the face of the earth. Not only that but the risk of terrorism it self is unpredictable and incalculable.

The GWOT shares elements of both moral panic and risk society but they operate at different levels and trigger different reaction as mentioned above. They are both sources of social anxiety. Moral panics are sites of social anxiety because the political and media organizations amplify the actual dangers. Risk society is a source of social anxiety because the risks themselves may be invisible and unpredictable. How does one protect oneself against that? The need for security and safety then presents a political opportunity for “tough on (whatever)” political attitude and rhetoric. There was no shortage of that in the Bush administration and their cultural cheerleaders (think Toby Keith and others).

Institutionally speaking, the need for security and safety makes possible the unquestioned (and unquestionable) emergence of the homeland security-industrial complex (the latest version of the military-industrial complex, then the corrections-industrial complex) composed of

  • Private corporations
  • Government agencies
  • Professional organization

And that is alongside the intelligence-industrial complex. Both benefit financially (corporations) or in terms of institutional power (government agencies) or respectability for expertise (professional organizations) from the state of anxiety.

Scapegoating, of course, is one way in which individuals and groups try to regain control over their safety in the absence of clear solution to the risks  to which they are exposed. Social anxiety prepares the ground for the type of “frustration / aggression” that precedes scapegoating, as many social-psychological studies have shown. Scapegoating is even easier if the targeted group can be seen as “different”, “not as human” (Erikson’s process of “pseudo-speciation”). This also involves the classical Authoritarian Personality theory.

Both theories are adequate to explain scapegoating. Sociologists are equally interested in the consequences of scapegoating, increased in-group solidarity, sense of belonging and superiority and denial of one’s responsibility for the problems. It is therefore not uncommon to see disasters turned into morality plays with heroes and villains, leading to punitive policies, and more generally, a punitive culture, as is the case in the US where more and more behavior come under criminal sanctions and where incarceration levels are the highest in the world. This also leads to a culture of control where the only the consequences of crime matter, rather than its causes. It is simply assumed that criminals are “different”, “not like law-abiding citizens”. Not considerations is given to structural factors.

And when one adds fundamentalist religion to the mix, when social problems are formulated in religious terms, when the GWOT is posited as a crusade, then the risk of scapegoating is increased. It is then not surprising to find an increase in hate crimes directed at the scapegoated religious group.

“In Justice and The Politics of Difference, Iris Marion Young (1990) identifies five ‘faces of oppression’ that generally typify experiences of minority groups” exploitation (e.g., employment segregation); marginalization (e.g., impoverishment); powerlessness (e.g., underrepresentation in political office); cultural imperialism (e.g., demeaning stereotypes); and violence (e.g., hate crimes).” (64-5 emphasis mine)

Combined, these structural and cultural factors render a minority more likely to be scapegoated and targeted for mistreatment and violence perceived as justified, or at least excusable. Scapegoating is also a means of social exclusion and social control towards “them” (whoever the target happens to be) to keep them in line so that violence is then legitimate and seen as the victim’s fault. But of course, if a population is going to be targeted for mass, symbolic or structural violence, perpetrators’ responsibility and agency has to be denied. So, this leads to what Welch calls a culture of denial that makes acceptable all the ways in which scapegoats are mistreated. It is this culture of denial that allows the US society to hardly question the practice of torture, rendition, detention, erasure of civil liberties and mass surveillance.

Following Stanley Cohen’s States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, Welch identifies three forms of denial that have been used in the GWOT:

  • Literary denial: “We don’t torture” as former President Bush stated. It is a blanket denial that something happened.
  • Interpretive denial: the facts are not refuted but their meaning is reinterpreted (waterboarding is not torture, it’s enhanced interrogation).
  • Implicatory denial: the facts and their meaning are not denied but their psychological or moral impact is denied or minimized (yes, people were tortured but they were not permanently harmed).

When denial becomes embedded into the cultural narrative, then, certain things happen:

“Unlike totalitarian regimes that go to great lengths to rewrite history and block out the present, denial in democratic societies is subtle, often taking the form of  spin-doctoring and public agenda setting. But similar to totalitarianism, democratic nations also build denial into the ideological facade of the state, turning to fraud rather than to force (Cohen 2001; Willis 1999). Eventually, entire societies are subject to slipping into collective modes of denial and when that occurs, citizens adopt potent defense mechanisms against acknowledging atrocities within their own nation. In the war on terror, cultural denial and official denial operate in tandem, developments that pose great threats to civil liberties and human rights (see Neier 2003; Schulz 2004).” (174)

Which is why the antidote to the culture of denial, according to Welch, is the pursuit of the truth and bringing it to light, for instance through court litigation.

This is an important book for the obvious: its topic. It is a one-stop shop regarding all the policies of the Bush administration and all the ways in which scapegoating became policy and trickled down into the culture, where hate crime and state crime coexist. From my narrower perspective, it is also a book that neatly weaves together sociological theory and research with real world stuff and shows the explanatory power of sociological theories and concepts to real-life phenomenon.

Book Review – Metatropolis

Customary sociological statement: good science-fiction is good sociology.

Disclaimer: I’m an idiot when it comes to short stories and novellas. I always feel like I am missing something or that something has been kept out of the story.

Metatropolis is an interesting project: five established science-fiction writers produce stories on a common theme with some, but not too much, overlap (AKA the shared-world genre). Initially, the project was released as an audiobook, then turned into a book (with a great cover design, in my opinion). John Scalzi is the editor and the author of one of the stories. The other authors are Jay Lake (whose story opens the collection), Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear and Karl Schroeder.

All the stories take place in a post-affluence, post-fossil fuel future. The oil is finally largely gone. Environmental degradation has finally vanquished the unsustainable lifestyles of Western societies. So how do people live in what were the major structures of the post-scarcity world, the cities? In a way, it’s like all the authors sat down with Saskia Sassen and got the run down on global cities and global flows.

The basic premise of all the stories is to explore how people live and work as the major social institutions institutions and structures collapsed, including capitalism. What economic systems emerge out of the rubble? Which categories of people come out on top? What does the post-national, post-capitalist world look like? And what of the new technologies, the Web 2.0 stuff? What use are they in this context? What kinds of social solidarity.

Indeed, all the stories revolve around a character trying to find his/her place in this new world and navigate its omnipresent dangers, risks and insecurities. The stories depict a world of thorough surveillance society combined with some measure of anarchy as many groups successfully manage to create their own parallel realities, real or virtual. In all the stories, precarious conditions are the norm. Certainties are gone. The main characters hop from odd job to odd job without much direction. They are perpetual consultants based on their skills but always literally and figuratively out of place.

And so, each story proposes its own version of social structuring after the end of oil. In Jay Lake’s story, it’s the Cascadian neo-anarchist, living-in-harmony-with-nature commune. In Tobias Buckell’s story, it’s the eco-terrorist collectives reclaiming of urban space for sustainable, vertical agriculture. In Elizabeth Bear’s story, this reclaiming takes place partly outside of the city. In John Scalzi story, we see more clearly the return of the medieval, yet high-tech, zero footprint, city-state, sovereign and autonomous, and closed-off to The Wilds (everything outside of it) fighting off the “Barbarians at the Gate”. And in Karl Schroeder’s story, the new cities / societies take the form of alternate virtual realities.

All the stories are stories of struggle: the main characters struggle with the consequences of their past actions, struggle to find their place in this new world but are often nomads. Surviving doing odd jobs, they find themselves in the middle of power plays between different groups, often the remnants of the oil society who try to hold on to what is left, using the security company Edgewater (does that sound familiar?) to do their dirty work of cracking a few eco-freaks and anarchist skulls versus the urban renewal groups. Metatropolis is a world in flux. Old boundaries have disappeared (including boundaries between the real and the virtual) and the major societal struggles are between those who wish to erect new barriers and those who accept to live in a world of flows.

Which means, of course, that social inequalities have not disappeared. There are still privileged classes (those who have access to the remaining resources and hold on to them) and the disadvantaged masses, trying to figure out how to survive in the dislocated (literally and figuratively) world. In this context, the forms of solidarity that emerge are of the tribal or network type. Whatever security is to be found in the real world come from joining a tribe and in the virtual alternate realities, from plugging into networks. Indeed, in Karl Schroeder’s story, Manuel Castells’s network society has found it full incarnation (an inadequate term for virtual societies overlaid over the real one).

In other words, Metatropolis raises the perennial sociological question of the possibility of social order in the post-affluence, post-fossil fuel world and each other provides his/her specific answer. The city, in all the stories, remains at the heart of social structuration, albeit in a permanently conflicting and blurry way. These globally-connected cities truly are Saskia Sassen’s global assemblages.

Book Review – Identifying Citizens

In Identifying Citizens: ID Cards as Surveillance, David Lyon (also lead researcher at The Surveillance Project) continues to unveil the different layers of the surveillance society. In this book, he zeroes in on the technology, impetus and social consequences of various ID cards plans that many countries have implemented or are considering, mainly in the name of security and against terrorist threats.

For Lyon, ID systems are an especially powerful – but not necessarily new in themselves – form of surveillance because the current and proposed systems operate based databases that can ingurgitate and regurgitate and correlate ever greater amounts of individual data and can be synchronized and connected to other databases, governmental or corporate. And as always with any systems of surveillance, the reliance on categories as database units has the potential of discriminating against already disadvantaged categories of the population.

Moreover, identity cards are not just cards that establish identity, they are mechanisms of identification verification for a variety of purposes and as the settings where we are required to identify ourselves multiply, off- or online (think all the e-government, or government 2.0 services as well as e-business, e-education, etc.), the amount and diversity of information to be embedded in ID systems grows as well. For Lyon, this is a very threatening development, socially, ethically and politically.

“The book explores the them of ‘identifying citizens’ from a number of angles, historical, technical, political and sociological, with a view to showing how new ID systems raise urgent new questions for analysis, ethics and policy. We have made a world of global trade and consumption that depends heavily upon computer and communication technologies to organize and coordinate everyday life, and ID systems often contribute to its greater efficiency and convenience. But the same systems often replicate and sometimes exacerbate the inequalities and injustices of that world, and they do so in ways that are subtle and that may not be intended by their promoters. These are not IDs of ‘one’s own choice’ so much as those ‘inflated and launched by others.” (2)

For Lyon, identification is the starting point of surveillance, the moment at which an individual shows up on a computer screen as data point with specific characteristics depending on the nature of the database. And if an organization, be it an online store, the Department of Homeland Security or the systems put in place by the International Civil Aviation Organization decide that one’s demographics are of interest for their own purposes, then, social consequences follow. So, it is not just who we are that is part of contemporary ID systems, but also our tastes, behavior, relationships and various preferences that are of interest and therefore stored in databases, along with, sometimes, biometric data (such as the fingerprints and retinal scans that those of us, international travelers,  leave at the airport).

Now, from a historical point of view, ID systems are not new. States, especially modern states, have always had an interest in being able to establish and verify their citizens’ identity for a variety of purposes: taxation, conscription, delivery of welfare services, for instance. The colonial states also used identification for their own interest, such as subdividing the population into solidified racial or ethnic categories (with the devastating results that we know when it comes to apartheid South Africa and Rwanda).

What is different with current ID systems is that (1) they use the storing and computational power of information and communication technologies, which means more and more data can be stored and cross-referenced through massive databases whose coding reflect the biases of their programmers and the institutions that commission the creation of the ID system. (2) These systems can be public (government) or private or privatized (outsourced by the government to private companies). (3) These systems are globalized as global standards of technology are designed and implemented worldwide, such as the machine-readable travel documents. These truly new aspects have the potential to make surveillance more extensive, more intensive and widespread.

At the heart of the book is the central distinction between identity and identification. Surveillance systems are about identification, that is, the mobilization of personal data for purposes stated by the relevant institutions, public or private. Identify incorporates a personal narrative component, a sense of how we define who we are rather than strictly imposed upon us (here the reference to Goffman is relevant in terms of identity management). Surveillance systems are all about identification, not identity. In identification systems, we have little to no control over the kind of data collected and managed.

Why does it matter so much to be able to identify citizens / consumers? Any system of surveillance operates on the double more inclusion / exclusion, the discrimination between the legitimate citizen and the illegal immigrant, between the legitimate traveler and the potential terrorist, between the legitimate welfare recipient and the fraud, that is, between a legitimate identification and an Other to be detected, sorted and excluded (off to Guantanamo Bay, maybe). Surveillance involves all sorts of such social sorting mechanisms but, for Lyons, ID systems are the ones that go the furthest.

In addition to establishing a legitimate identification, ID systems also then make us more legible for a variety of institutions according to the parameters they have established ( is interested in my reading / musical tastes and it knows what I have bought before can derive what I will most likely read in the future and push these things to me, for instance). However, as it becomes possible to collect and store more data, then more and different kinds of data are collected and stored by both public and private institutions. There is a very real possibility that these databases might be combined and delivered to us in the form of a one ID card that could be used both as ID, driving license and consumer card all in one.

In many ways, it does not seem so far-fetched to think of something like this:

And of course, Id systems are already used to detect undesirables, whoever they happen to be as part of the generic social sorting involved in all surveillance mechanism:

As Lyon puts it,

“New ID card systems are a species of surveillance, then, but they also share a key characteristic of much contemporary surveillance in that they facilitate forms of ‘social sorting’. This is a large-scale and far-reaching trend, enabled in fine-grain form by the use of searchable databases and associated techniques such as data mining, characterized by the classifying and profiling of groups in order to provide different levels of treatment, conditions or services to groups that have thus been distinguished from one another.” (41)

All this may be presented to us as a way of offering better service and benefits, public or private (such as airline miles or special offers of different kinds) or in terms of security (surrender more data in order to have them protected) but all this amounts to the fact that greater aspects of our lives fall under surveillance mechanisms that are neither neutral nor entirely safe or error-proof.

Lyon then mobilizes a series of concepts to analyze further the nature and consequences of ID systems:

  • Banopticon: as opposed to its ancestor, the Panopticon, the banopticon refers to the mechanisms of exclusion: simply being placed in a suspect category (welfare fraud, potential terrorist) is enough to be banned and excluded from specific spheres of life: placed on a no-fly list or to have one’s credit score ruined or benefits withdrawn. The banopticon refers to all the exclusionary nature of these modes of surveillance and governance.
  • Risk-to-reassurance continuum: a great deal of the ID schemes are presented to us not only as security measures designed to create risk-free experience and risk-free society but also as reassurance mechanisms as well as customization systems.
  • Global surveillance assemblage: the set of more and more globally coordinated and synchronized systems of surveillance that operate worldwide based on globally established standards (as part of global governance mechanisms) and potential full interoperability.
  • Risk-to precaution just-in-case data gathering: data are now collected as preventive measures before anything has happened based on demographic analysis of who is more likely to engage in certain type of behavior or possess certain characteristics which make them suspect in advance.
  • All this boils down to governing by identification through stretched screens (ever greater amount of data collected and mined) and ubiquitous computing all done in real (liquid) time and on a global scale, along with ubiquitous networking and ubiquitous biometrics. Certainly, Foucault’s concept of biopower is relevant here as the body itself becomes a source of data to be mined and used for identification.

And as usual, all these mechanisms are not socially neutral in their design and consequences. Already, being able to obtain a credit card and having the ability to provide ID is a source of social stratification (this issue comes up regularly in the United States when it comes to providing ID for voting as some categories of the population may be less able to provide the proper documentation). Being legible to governments and corporations may become the price to pay to, ironically, exercise one’s rights and freedoms. Needless to say, certain populations such as migrants, refugees and asylum seekers may find themselves then unable to have rights as they are unable to be documented. The right to have rights is a problematic that Saskia Sassen has been promoting in her book Territory, Authority and Rights and that is clearly relevant here. On the other hand, the global surveillance assemblage is much kinder to other categories of people: diplomats, business travelers and academics, all seen as legitimate global actors and national citizens, on the move for the “right” reasons.

So, how does one resist such powerful global surveillance assemblage? Is it even desirable? What forms of resistance are available beyond hacking and cyberterrorism in the context of the disappearance of disappearance. Contestation can take many forms, from legal challenges in a variety of settings to social movements questioning the very notion of citizenship as national concept.

“Writing of the fast-changing world of contemporary claims to membership of nation-states, Gerard Delanty concludes that citizenship is no longer defined only by nationality and the nation-state, but is increasingly de-territorialized and fragmented into separate discourses of rights, participation, responsibility and identity. Equally, citizenship is no longer exclusively about struggles for social equality – the dominant post-war mode of struggle – but has become a major site of battles over cultural identity and demands for recognition of group difference. This cannot but be evident in current debates over ID systems.” (138)

(Sassen again here)

If one were to extend Lyon’s discussion, one would note that another thing that is done by ID cards systems, of course, is to individualize citizenship, thereby diluting the notion of solidarity that were built into it when the modern-state system was created, which, of course, matches the objectives of neo-liberal neo-conservative politics and policies that reduce individuals to card-carriers and consumers, including some, and rejecting others. Think of the campaign that accuse illegal music downloaders of ruining it for everyone else. The distinction between legitimate and illegitimate actors is an individualizing one that leave those designed as legitimate actors pitted against the illegitimate ones, rather the system that exacts such sorting in the first place. In this context, it is not surprising that resistance might take the form of re-creating solidarity, such as providing sanctuary to illegal immigrants or the international Pirate Party movement.

As always, it is a well-written book, a bit repetitive at times (especially for those of us familiar with the whole Surveillance Society approach) but it is a nice updating of the global surveillance assemblage that is a work in progress.

What’s in your wallet?

“A Serious Political Economy of Security and Surveillance”

David Lyon (2009), Identifying Citizens: ID Cards as Surveillance, Cambridge: Polity Press.

“Missing from many accounts of new ID card systems is a political economy perspective that explores the corporate as well as the administrative and governmental aspects of national identification. And yet the facts are clear. Big business works with big government in what is now a booming security industry. In the USA, an industry expert for the business magazine, Intelligent Enterprise noted that ‘Homeland Security will help fuel an IT recovery. IT solution providers may one day look back on the War on Terror and be grateful for the opportunities born out of turmoil’. In September 2001 Oracle CEO Larry Ellison saw the possibilities for national IDs right away, before the dust had settled at Ground Zero. He offered the US Administration free software for a national ID system. Numerous others have followed his lead in seeking to become key providers of identification and other security technologies in the aftermath of 9/11.  It is a lively marketplace and has induced the OECD to name a whole new field of enterprise, ‘the New Security Economy’. Sociologically, this means that ID card systems cannot properly be understood without a serious political economy of security and surveillance.” (64)

Book Review – Little Brother

LB Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is an anti-surveillance society manifesto for the post-9/11 era (since the regime of surveillance and secrecy has not ended with the end of the Bush administration and the taking over by the Obama administration. There are more continuities than ruptures there).

The premise of the book is that Marcus Yallow’s life changes dramatically once his city, San Francisco, is the target of a terrorist attacked. Marcus is a 17-year old computer wheez, much into computer games. He and his friends were participating in one when the terrorists hit the city and they end up arrested and mistreated by the Department of Homeland Security. After much humiliation and degradation, Marcus and some of his friends are released (one is disappeared though) on the condition that they will never talk about what was done to them.

Upon their release, they realized that the DHS is turning San Francisco into a police state where intense surveillance and mass arrest become the norm, in the name of security and protecting the populace against further terrorist attacks (sounds familiar?). Still reeling from his humiliation at the hands of the DHS, Marcus decides to start fighting back with the weapons he possesses: his computer skills. He does so first by creating a separate Internet, free from surveillance, and then by messing up the massive data mining program that the DHS has put in place. Escalation follows as the DHS intensifies its operations. And then, it’s war. A war fought by teenagers against the impersonal forces of the state. A war not just fought online but also in real life and whose description by Doctorow is not unsimilar to this classic of impersonal oppression against the people:

As he fights the DHS’s omnipresent (but not omnipotent) apparatus of surveillance, Marcus changes and reluctantly becomes the leader (as any hero does) of a typical New Social Movement. What is a New Social Movement? As I have written elsewhere,

The New Social Movements Theory emerged at the end of the 1960s to account for changes in the composition, focus and strategies in some social movements in the Western world (Melucci, 1989; McAdam et al, 1988; Larana et al, 1994; Scott, 1995). New social movements themselves are a response to the massive social changes brought about by globalization. New social movements are diverse but share common foci:

  • Focus on social and cultural issues instead of the economic issues of traditional social movements.

  • Focus quality of life (environment, peace) and self-determination (contemporary women’s rights, gay rights) because of roots in high-income countries where survival is a less important issue. Accordingly, members tend to reject bureaucratic organizations and adopt a more participatory style.

  • Distrust for authorities, the government, the business community or the scientific community; although they do not seek to overthrow the government or radically change the social order, movements challenge the legitimacy of institutions of power and promote their own experts (Garner, 1996) or create their own independent research institutes as Social Movement Organizations.

  • Focus on multiple issues seen as interdependent. For instance, the ecofeminist movement associates environmental issues with patriarchy (Merchant, 1992; Mies and Shiva, 1993), that is, male dominance in society. The environmental justice movement makes connections between environmental issues and race problems through the concept of “environmental racism”, a practice that puts minority groups more at risk of environmental damage than dominant racial or ethnic groups; for instance, more hazardous waste sites or chemical plants are located in minority areas (Bullard and Wright, 1992).

  • Similarly, labor rights integrate human rights considerations into their activism while new social movements link terrorism and the rise of religious fundamentalism to the overwhelming power and influence of western countries (the United States in particular) over poorer countries,

  • Both a global and local orientation, as reflected in the slogan “think global, act local,” that might be evidenced by championing both global environmental standards and local recycling regulations in their communities.

  • Efficient use of new communication technologies to establish global connections and networks; such global networks coordinated the massive demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, against the G8 Meeting in Genoa (Italy) in 2002 and the worldwide protests against the War in Iraq in 2003.

In the book, Marcus may be concerned with getting the DHS out of SanFran but his struggle is often couched in broader terms from the Bill of Rights to the debate regarding trading off freedom for security. In this regard, Doctorow could not help but put some archetypal characters to set up the debates for Marcus’s reflections: the "good" teacher who allows discussions in her classes about issues of constitutional freedoms and the power of the state in emergency situations versus the "bad" professor who shoves her neo-con ideas down everyone’s throat (with a visit to the evil Principal’s office if that does not work). There is no doubt where Doctorow stands on these issues.

Similarly, one can find a very Fanonian attitude in Marcus Yallow’s notion that freedom is not granted, it is taken. This is indeed one of Franz Fanon’s positions on decolonization: that the colonized had to take their freedom and not wait for it to be granted by the colonizers. But at the same time, Marcus is an American teenager, individualist to a "t" and reluctantly involved in the social movement he inadvertently created. Not to mention the fact that he is a Caucasian young man from a relatively privileged background whose parents have the right connections (to the right journalist, ultimately).

In other words, Marcus occupies a position of relative social privilege where fighting back is indeed an option (not necessarily available to his Latino friend, as he is reminded). Marcus’s movement is not that of the Wretched of the Earth but that of relatively privileged kids who can afford all sorts of electronic gadgets, all at ease in the Network Society.

And then, of course, the central theme of the book is fighting back against the Surveillance Society. I have written about it before, but just as a reminder:

The network society allows for the fast transmission of information. But what kind of information gets transmitted through information networks? A great deal of information flows relate to people in their statuses as citizens, workers and consumers. In post-industrial network societies, a great deal of activities from the state, employers and companies is devoted to collecting information about individuals to shape and influence behavior. This process of data-collection is now so thorough and widespread – thanks to information technology – that it is possible to talk about the network society as surveillance society. David Lyon defines surveillance as “any collection and processing of personal data, whether identifiable or not, for the purposes of influencing or managing those whose data have been garnered” (2001:2). The expression “surveillance society” was coined by sociologist Gary Marx (1985) as “all-encompassing use of computer surveillance technology in modern society for total social control”.

Surveillance has always had two faces: care and control. Surveillance technology is often introduced in the name of security, to prevent all sorts of criminal and unacceptable behaviors in public and private places. Surveillance cameras are installed in malls, highways, in most large cities, in workplaces and schools in order to make people feel safer and prevent undesirable behaviors (the definition of which can vary). Behind the invocation of greater protection – care – however, the other side of surveillance is always present: behavior control.

In-store video-surveillance, closed-circuit television (CCTV), metal detectors, fingerprinting, drug and DNA testing, pre-employment personality and health screening, highway toll passes, credit cards, cookies, spyware, clickstream and more generally searchable databases are all technologies that make anonymity almost completely impossible. In this context, the rise of the surveillance society has generated concerns about privacy, but, as David Lyon correctly notes, privacy is an individual matter, rather, the omnipresence of surveillance is a social matter that has deeper implications than privacy.

A main social aspect of surveillance is its exponential growth thanks to information technologies. The state used to have almost a monopoly over surveillance. Most surveillance technology was used for state bureaucratic (social security numbers or national identification cards) and law enforcement purposes. In the current global context, surveillance has spread to practically all sectors of society as data flows move more freely from one area to another: for instance, employers can require criminal background checks on prospective employees from state databases. Conversely, in the United States, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, phone and cable companies may be required to turn over customer information to the government. As David Lyon (2001:33) puts it, “The notion of surveillance society indicates that surveillance activities have long since spilled over the edges of government bureaucracies to flood every conceivable social conduit”. As a result, many other social actors, such as businesses, have become involved in the creation or use of surveillance.

Surveillance has not only spread to the private sector but also gone global not because technology is available. Social factors are the driving force behind the expansion of surveillance. The first such factor is what David Lyon call “disappearing bodies.” Disappearing bodies refers to the fact that a significant part of our activities and interactions take place at the distance, without people actually being in each other’s presence. Electronic interactions and transactions make bodies disappear. Online shopping, instant messaging and live video streaming are all activities without physical space and bodies.

Such disembodiment of interaction raises issues of trust: how does an employer know that employees working from home are actually working? How does the online store know that the customer has enough credit for a purchase? Surveillance technology, such as performance tracking – technology allowing an employer to monitor keyboard and online activity – as well as instant credit verification keep track of individuals even in disembodied situations. Similarly, with more and more people on the move worldwide (business travelers, tourists, economic and political refugees and migrants), transit areas such as airport terminals have intensified their surveillance apparatus in order to keep track of increasingly mobile bodies. The trust issue has become especially crucial in the context of fear of terrorist attacks.

At the same time, our bodies have become increased objects of surveillance and information as well, mainly through biometrics – the range of technology used to measure human physical characteristics for identification purposes. Whether we want to or not, our bodies are major providers of surveillance data. The most traditional form of biometrics is fingerprinting as well as urine and blood tests.

However improvement in medical and surveillance technology have opened an entire new field of data that can be extracted from the body without our knowledge and not just for law enforcement purposes but as part of everyday surveillance. The body can be used as a form of identification: some international airports use retinal scan on foreign visitors. Corporations use voice recognition software. The body itself becomes a password. Mall and public places use facial recognition software for comparison with video surveillance images. Employers have access to medical record to determine the potential health risks posed by prospective employees. They may also impose constraints on their employees’ bodies by requiring that employees lose weight or not smoke. Of course, all these different technologies are produced by private companies in such a booming market that it is possible to speak of the rise of a security-industrial complex.

The emergence of the risk society is another major social factor that promoted the growth of surveillance. The global financial market is, by definition, unstable so investors rely on networked databases that can give them real time information on the different world stock exchanges as well as on wide ranges of economic indicators.

Politically, major areas of the world are in chaos and fears of global terrorism are high. To monitor and control such risks, core countries have established means of monitoring communications on a global scale – a process called “dataveillance”. Dataveillance refers to the “systematic monitoring of people’s actions or communications through the application of information technology” (Clarke, 1988). Giant databases have been created to intercept and process telephone conversations, faxes and emails that contain certain words or originate in parts of the world related to terrorism. Global agencies, such as INTERPOL, are in charge of such global surveillance.

Finally, many research institutes around the world monitor various ecological phenomena such as global warming or the hole in the ozone layer to predict future environmental conditions and their social impact. Most surveillance, public or private, has to do with managing risk in the sense that the more information is gathered by the right agencies, the more we can reduce uncertainties related to global conditions.

According to David Lyon (2001), the major social function of surveillance is as a sorting mechanism. Surveillance as social sorting refers to the use of data to identify, to classify, to order and to control entire populations: using searchable databases, such as zip codes and internet activities, “marketers sift and sort populations according to their spending patterns, then treat different clusters accordingly. Groups likely to be valuable to marketers get special attention, special deals, and efficient after-sales service, while others, not among the creamed-off categories, must make do with less information and inferior service” (Lyon, 2003:14).

This form of discrimination – also called digital redlining or weblining – reflects the use of surveillance to include or exclude entire populations from certain advantages. Based on information abstracted from databases, credit card companies can provide or deny access to credit. Insurance companies can also provide or refuse coverage is information reveals that certain categories of the population represent too high a risk. For instance, genetic testing that can potentially reveal a predisposition to certain incurable diseases, such as Huntington, can be used by health care providers to refuse coverage to individuals with the “wrong” genes.

At the same time, the use of searchable databases is used commercially to provide individualized service. For instance, many online stores, such as, automatically use purchase records to provide individualized recommendations and offers to their customers in hope of increasing the number of volumes purchased. In a sense, every online purchase made by an individual creates a sum of information regarding lifestyle, spending habits, hobbies and preferences. Such information, if used judiciously by marketers, creates a greater certainty of what this individual will buy in the future, thereby reducing the basic risk involved in any business: will people buy what a company offers? While mass advertising is still used, more and more businesses now use the wealth of information available in databases to provide individualized marketing.

As David Lyon (2003) puts it, the same surveillance technology creates categorical suspicion in one type of social situations – in law enforcement and security business – and categorical seduction in others – marketing. Categorical suspicion refers to the control function of surveillance whereby entire categories of people are subject to intensified surveillance due to their characteristics, such as Muslims and Arab travelers after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Categorical seduction refers to a similar process used in commerce to entice certain categories of shoppers (those with the “appropriate” credit level, lifestyle and buying habits) into particular forms of consumption. Both processes result in the blurring of the boundaries between public and private behavior creating what David Brin (1998) calls a transparent society. The concept of transparent society extends Goffman’s notion of total institution to the entire society. In such a society, there is no place to hide: the privacy of one’s home is an illusion as our most private environments are wired into global networks and even our bodies become providers of information fed into the global society.

The novel is indeed much focused on the mechanisms of the surveillance society but it is made clear in the book that the surveillance society had penetrated society long before the terrorist attacks. Indeed, the high school that Marcus goes to uses extensive surveillance technology to keep track of the students and their every movement (or their every keyboard stroke on their government-provided computers). Long before the terrorist attacks, Marcus was already fighting the surveillance system, which had put him in the principal’s cross-hair.

In Little Brother, surveillance takes the form of Foucault’s micro-power and biopower in the creation of a carceral society where large segments of the population (including Marcus’s father, up to a point) consent to their surveillance. With the means of 21st century technology, the carceral society no longer really requires the prison (except for the part of disciplining that has become hidden, the actual torturing… which used to be public). Moreover, with the multiplicity of technologies, loci of power have become multiplied and more micro, that is, applied to certain limited segments of behavior (such as gait, in the book).  Surveillance and disciplining power then become distributed throughout the social structure in the form of micro-power (multiple and limited loci of power) and bio-power (power involved in the management of the population and individual bodies). For more on this, check out the chapter on Foucault in Perspectives in Sociology (Cuff, Sharrock and Francis, 5th edition, 2006).

What is missing in the book, when it comes to the Surveillance Society, is the private sector part. In the book, the DHS / Federal government is the boogey man using surveillance mechanisms to oppress teenagers. However, private businesses use as much, if not more, surveillance mechanisms as the government. The private sector relies as much on biopower as the state, and it can be as much a source of oppression. So, while the government makes for an easy target, it is only part of the freedom battle (something that the Electronic Frontier Foundation understands and that is well described in Max Barry’s books as well). And indeed, individualized ICT gadgets constitute as much data for private corporations as they can be to the government. That part is missing from the book.

That being said, the book is highly entertaining and one will easily recognize real people behind some of the fictional characters and in many ways it reads as a version of what Doctorow thinks what should have had happened as one more piece of surveillance legislation was passed in the name of protection the masses from another 9/11. It did not happen, of course, as most of the population consented to the Patriot Act or extensive surveillance, or as it happened more progressively in England as more and more surveillance were installed across the country. Does Doctorow think salvation will come through computer-savvy teenagers?

Book Review – Elsewhere, U.S.A.

Elsewhere USA Dalton Conley‘s Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety was clearly written to be a bestseller and takes its place among the "trends" books that get published on a regular basis and claim to be capturing the Zeitgeist du jour, the paradigm shift that is radically remaking society.

The book also aims at some degree of vulgarization of sociology and social theory by showing how major social theorists crafted their conceptual apparatus to capture the societal changes they were witnessing (not just abstract and useless speculation from the heights of the Ivory Tower) and how some of these concepts still carry explanatory power today. In that respect, I think it is relatively successful. It highlights the relevance sociological research and clarifies the necessity of social theory and concepts to explain social facts. It is also a highly readable book.

Needless to say, Conley also brings to the table his own concepts. First, of course, is the Elsewhere Society, which is basically the Network Society conceptualized by Manuel Castells as well as the Liquid Modernity, as conceptualized by Zygmunt Bauman, combined with the Risk Society, conceptualized by Ulrich Beck, along with development not unlike Sennett’s culture of new capitalism and add to that some elements that could have come straight from David Brin’s Transparent Society.

In other words, there is a lot borrowed and repackaged but one will not find the social theorists mentioned above anywhere in the book. Other sociologists are mentioned, to be sure, especially the classic Durkheim, Marx and Weber along with William H. Whyte and Juliet Schor or Arlie Hochschild (not explicitly mentioned but clearly recognizable).

This, in itself, constitutes my first problem with the book. It borrows a lot and does not really acknowledge that intellectual heritage but instead provide new packaging in the form of specific concepts. First comes what, in the Elsewhere Society, replaces individualism: intravidualism define as such

"Intravidualism is an ethic of managing the myriad data streams, impulses, desires, and even consciousness that we experience in our heads as we navigate multiple worlds." (7)

In other words, intravidualism is the type of identity developed in late modern society as we deal with global flows (or Appadurai’s scapes).

In the Elsewhere Society, people are continuously plugged in (even if wire-free), constantly in flows, living lives that have been thoroughly penetrated by the market (which is reminiscent of Habermas’s lifeworld colonization by the system) and where boundaries between different social spheres (work and family) have been reconfigured and made more flexible.

Elsewhere Society is also a very unequal society where there is an Elsewhere Class at the top

"The top third of earners who have children, a professional and monied stratum disproportionately employed in sectors where work can be done at all hours yet no physical product in handled (at least directly, in their immediate midst)." (9)

And indeed, to his credit, Conley discusses the issue of inequalities pretty consistently throughout the book but at the same time, the trends involved in Elsewhere Society are also often presented as if they were indeed social trends and not changes in upper strata of the social stratification system. People outside of the Elsewhere Class in the Elsewhere Society do not live like this and especially not those in the non-Elsewhere Societies, that is those who make the stuff that is no longer made in the Elsewhere Society.

Often, the book reads like the account of an exclusive club, of which the author is a part, (mis)taking the life of this exclusive membership as universal trend, for instance, describing at length how the Elsewhere Society is creating a "new type of American" or a "new texture of everyday life." This may be true for the Elsewhere Class, but this is by no means a generalizable claim.

And let me add that when it comes to claims about the latest trends, I’m with Echidne:

Indeed, there is a – I think – quite embarrassing statement in the book which almost made me quit reading right away:

"In fact, when we look at the economy as a whole, we find that volatility has greatly decreased over the last twenty-five years. Recessions are shallower and recoveries are smoother. Unemployment rates don’t vary as sharply. (Remember 17 percent interest rates in thirty-year mortgages in 1981?) Economists call this ‘the great moderation’ and argue over what has caused it." (11)


And so, the book basically describes the causes and consequences of the Elsewhere Society by reviewing the impact of these changes on major social institutions (family, work, the prison system) and on culture. But again, for anyone who has read on these matters, there is not much that is new here or has not been studied by someone else. For instance, regarding family trends in relation to labor and the workforce, both Stephanie Coontz and Arlie Hochschild (especially in Time Bind) have noted the changes that Conley describes. But then, this provides Conley with an opportunity to use some of his concepts: weisure (work and leisure combined) or instrumental leisure and convestment (consumption + investment).

But all this comes down to are the familiar accounts of deindustrialization and the end of the hierarchichal factory with its corresponding Weberian bureaucracy to be replaced by the flat and networked (and therefore flexible) organization with its casually dressed workers at Google. This comes, of course, with descriptions of the impact of the increase in the percentage of women in the workforce and the changes in family structures and dynamics. And how, as living standards improved, people buy less necessities but more positional goods, or, as Conley calls this trend, the "de-necessitation of the economy."

All this boils down to an economy where parents and children are constantly logged onto the Internet and where the separation of family time and work time is not clear at all. In the 24/7 global economy, the Elsewhere class works more and more because not working is expensive and besides, we are not even sure what counts as work anymore (does checking your email on your laptop while lying in bed count as work or relaxation?).

And as the Elsewhere Class makes more and more money, because they work more and are less likely to be unemployed and because Mr and Miss Elsewhere tend to marry each other after lengthy education, they leave the non-Elsewhere classes far behind, in the precarized economy where people are still "grounded" and where the work is still done the old fashioned way except that it takes place in the low-end of the service economy, mainly, servicing the needs of the Elsewhere Class that works too much to take care of its own needs.

And as Ann Swidler notes in her own review of the book (H/T Jenn Lena),

And that is indeed the strongest criticism one, I think, can level at the book, its relative lack of attention to the non-Elsewhere Class. The only time when they are mentioned in the book is in the chapter on crime and punishment where the incarcerated masses are described as living in the Nowhere Society :

"Crime-fighting policy aside, this "nowhere society" of felons is really to be expected in an economy that has changed its expectations of workers so rapidly. What else are we going to do with all the folks who don’t fit into the new knowledge economy? We can either give them welfare checks or lock them up; while it is perhaps more cost-effective to provide welfare payments, keep in mind that the prison-industrial complex doesn’t just take care of the surplus, low-skill labor pool made up by the convicts themselves. It also employs prison guards and many other workers to keep watch on them. Whereas once states had to battle NIMBYism when they attempted to site prisons, now communities that have been devastated by the decline in the manufacturing sector often vie for the right to host maximum-security facilities and the jobs they bring with them." (130)

Incidentally, that is something already made obvious by Michael Moore in Roger and Me.

And finally, as presented by Conley, life in the Elsewhere Society is exhilarating. It is full of novelty, increases the possibilities of social networking (even if only in a shallow fashion, but that, – the "inferiority of online sociability as opposed to face-to-face interaction – in itself, is questionable) and of widening horizons. Despite the potential anxieties that are more related to identity than survival, it is still a much more comfortable and privileged life than for the non-Elsewhere Class.

I’ll leave the last word to Ann Swidler:

Why We Need Deviants – Octomom Edition

I have posted about before about the now-famous "Octomom " (which sounds a lot like the title for one of those cheesy Scifi Channel Saturday night movies, if you ask me) and how the scrutinizing of her pregnancy was part of a more general aspect of patriarchy (for a slightly different view, see Jay Livinston’s comment in the same post). A similar point was also made more recently by Katha Pollitt:

Since then, there have been further development and analysis on this story that generated some interesting commentaries. First, the main aspect that had attracted my attention was how quickly the story had morphed, in the media, from the "miracle births" to "the return of the welfare queen" (and I can’t even imagine what the level of venom would be if the mother was African-American). That bile has spilled over into society in the form of death threats:

Now, there is no denying that there is always a deranged fringe in the American society that is prompt to threaten death at the first sign of what they perceive to be a threat to civilization. This usually comes from the far-right, religious fundamentalist crowd.

But there us no doubt that the hostility that has emerged against the "Octomom" (quite a dehumanizing nickname) is in itself an interesting phenomenon for the sociologist in that it brings to light some underlying aspect of our culture and social norms when it comes to motherhood. So, what norms did the Octomom break? After all, we do not impose limits on how many children people have. But we do have a culturally constructed image of "what motherhood is" against which we evaluate real life mothers and pass judgment.

Indeed, the Welfare Queen was the successfully propagated stereotype of the promiscuous black woman who keeps popping kids and collecting welfare and driving Cadillac with all the money the state coughs up for hers and her kids upkeep. Never mind that the stereotype never matched the reality of welfare recipients (stereotypes hardly ever match reality).

In our collective imagery, "ideal" motherhood is white, heterosexual, and married and has the children in sequence (again, see that "other" oh-so white, straight AND thoroughly patriarchal family with 18 kids who gets a TV show instead of the venom directed at the Octomom) or the kid glove treatment for the FLDS even though there is no doubt that abuse takes place within that community.

According to sociologist Sally Radkoff, the anger dorected at the Octomom follows from her breaching specific norms:

Radkoff also emphasizes the social class dimension to childbearing: you can have as many children as you want… as long as you’re wealthy and it’s not going to cost society a dime.

There is one additional dimension to the outrage directed at this woman and especially the fact that she has not been embraced by the religious right and the anti-choice movement. For many in that crowd, despite idealized and heavily religious imageries of children as gifts from God and motherhood as the natural state of women, they tend to see pregnancies as slut-punishment. Birth control and abortion should not be legal because then, women would have sex autonomously without having to fear the potential punishment in the form of being stuck with a kid for the next 20 years or so.

Well, that does not work here. Suleman has had her children without sexual intercourse. So, technically, she does not fit the definition of promiscuous. But she’s not married either and she claims her autonomy to have as many children as she wants… hence the most successful (that is, the one that sticks) is that of "who’s gonna pay for your brood?".

Bottom line: this is one big reminder to all women who rank low on the social ladder: you’re only allowed children if you can afford them and only one at a time, with a husband… oh, you’d better be white too.

The big outrage is a great example of the Durkheimian functions of deviance. This woman violated our standards of ideal motherhood. There is a price to pay for that. When it comes to women’s bodies, society, in the form of various social groups and collectivities has a right to inspect, scrutinize, and judge… And to impose sanctions that can take a variety of forms (such as nasty comments on blog posts or death threats) but all involve some degree of reassertion of social control over the offending woman’s body ("Spay her!") and social stigma.

Le Corps Des Femmes

Women’s bodies… sexual object, public property, commercial item. Let’s review:


Buzz… Wrong answer: to contribute voluntarily to an oppressive system (the patriarchy) does not make the system any less oppressive. Upgrading somewhat one’s dominated status compared to others in the dominated category in the field of power (that would be women who no longer have their virginity to sell or those who could but won’t sell it) does not make one join the dominant category.

Do go read the entire post over at Montclair SocioBlog though (although I could do without evopsych in general and David Buss in particular).


Indeed it is interesting that one family (which shall remain nameless since they’re such famewhores and make money out of turning the wife / mother’s uterus into a clown car in the name of religion) can have 17 (or is it 18 already?) children and get a show on TLC whereas another get scrutinized for her moral character, mental fitness or what have you. She is summoned to explain herself regarding the number of children she wanted and ended up having. Moral judgment is passed as to how she will support them (with the usual scolds stating that she should not receive welfare, damn it!), etc.

Can anyone think of any other contexts and circumstances where society, through the media, allow itself to intervene so heavily into private matters? What other social circumstances involving men do we examine so closely?


Good grief, where to start? Now, we already know Berlusconi is a sexist, misogynistic idiot and proud of it. We already know what the Catholic Church’s position is (they should be made to pay for the health care expenses related to maintaining these irreversible comatose women alive and to support families with multiple births too… the Church can afford it).

Now, of course, this will remind everybody of the Terri Schiavo case. An alien from Mars visiting earth would think, based on these stories, that only women fall into irreversible comas and that doing so annihilates their wishes expressed before said coma.

In all these stories, the common element is the status of women ‘s bodies, their social value and function. All these stories have to do with women’s reproductive capacities, which men, through patriarchal institutional structures such as the government or the Catholic Church, have to control since they do not have such capacities.

Hence, there is a shock value when a woman decides to push the patriarchal logic and puts her virginity on the market. Hence the outrage with "irresponsible" fertility (what constitutes responsible fertility and parenthood is also a patriarchal matter). Hence the need for the government to step in to "save" the comatose fertile woman irrespective of her expressed wishes.

As I have mentioned repeatedly, one of the marks of social privilege is to NOT have one’s behavior examined and scrutinized especially in the context of the surveillance / transparent society. Conversely, the mark of social disadvantage is to have one’s (especially reproductive) behavior exposed for all to see and judge.