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Moments from Surveillance Regimes: Capitalism/ Race/ Digitality

On November 9, the Ethnography Workshop hosted its last public event of Fall 2020. We were fortunate to have three speakers critically engage the linkages between surveillance, capitalism, and digitality, each drawing on years of research and activism. The event was hosted by our co-director, Professor Ralph Litzinger. 70 participants joined the session. Each speaker gave 15 minutes presentations on how the global expansion of surveillance capitalism in recent decades has had troubling effects on different populations, from Xinjiang to New York City to the US-Mexico border, as well as other places. The presentations were followed by discussion questions. Prior to the event, the fellows in the Ethnography Workshop workshopped selected publications and works-in-progress provided to us by our speakers; their discussion questions opened up the Q and A. For the last forty minutes, we fielded questions from the Zoom chat, and had a lively discussion.

Our first speaker, Brian Jefferson, is Associate Professor of Geography and Geographic Information Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and the author of Digitize and Punish: Racial Criminalization in the Digital Age (University of Minnesota Press, 2020). His work explores the intersections of digital technology, the state, and capitalism, and his recent publications look at political geographies and economies of digital carceral technology in New York City and Chicago.

Jefferson opened his talk discussing the history of cybernetics and placed it in the context of racial and penal capitalism. The general idea of cybernetics is that both animals and machines survive and thrive by modifying behavior through information feedback loops. The constant exchange between communication and control is at the core of cybernetic capitalism. In his presentation, Brian traced the material uses of cybernetics from the development of anti-aircraft guns to more recent uses in automation among digital laborers. Credit scores, internet search histories, and geo-location data are cybernetic developments that have made their ways into our everyday lives. His main aim was to show how cybernetic capitalism is embedded in the making of digital carceral networks in urban centers in Chicago and New York.  By linking cybernetic capitalism to racial capitalism, Professor Jefferson showed that although the issue of immaterial labor and digital work is often cast as a new development, it has deep roots in histories of policing, incarceration, and data collection. Surveillance capitalism cannot be fully understood without attention to these racialized histories of incarceration, data collection, criminalization and policing.

Our second speaker, Carolina Sanchez Boe, is currently a Danish Research Foundation post-doctoral fellow at IMC, Aarhus University, at Université de Paris, Cerlis, CNRS, and at SADR, John Jay Center for Criminal Justice, CUNY. Her broader research interests center on the anthropology of confinement, deportation, illegalization, and bordering practices in prisons and urban spaces, primarily in France and the USA. An advocate, para-legal lawyer, anthropologist and sociologist, she has worked for a number of non-profit organizations, including Cimade, American Friends’ Service Committee, Cette France-là, and the Prison Litigation Network. Her book, The Undeported is forthcoming with Rowman and Littlefield, due out in 2021.

Boe shared reflections on her current research project, “Borders Without Fences and Confinement Without Walls: New Approaches to Migration Control Through Electronic Bracelets.” This project studies for-profit and humanitarian motives behind the use of electronic surveillance, such as “ankle bracelets” or “ankle shackles,” for internal border control. Such tools of digital monitoring were once celebrated as a potentially more humane and cost-effective way to manage and even decrease detention. However, as Boe pointed out, the digitization of detention has created new kinds of monetization as multiple players process, trade, and profit from the detainees’ biometric information. Drawing on research in Austin, Texas, she showed how new technologies of monitoring are experienced and embodied, when border control takes over the most intimate spheres, in homes, and on bodies. She also reflected on the use of audio-visual methods to study digital surveillance and the specific problems encountered, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. What do we do when contact to research participants is reduced to communications through cell phones, the very device through which the detained are being monitored by ICE?

Darren Byler is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Asian Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He researches the dispossession of ethno-racial Muslim minorities through forms of surveillance and digital capitalism in China and Southeast Asia. His first book, Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City (forthcoming, Duke University Press, August 2021) examines emerging forms of ethno-racialization, capitalism and state power in the Uyghur region in Chinese Central Asia. His second book in progress, Technologies of Reeducation considers the social life of surveillance technologies among ethno-racial minorities in China and around the world.

Byler’s talk, “The Digital Enclosure of Turkic Muslims in Northwest China,” showed how the digital enclosure of Uyghur and Kazakh societies in Northwest China produces a form of original accumulation or capitalist frontier making. He argued that these digital enclosures convert the sociality of targeted populations into data while at the same time expropriating their labor – producing an underclass of dependent laborers. What is happening in Xinjiang—the production of unfree workers through the operations of “data police,” “re-education,” “training centers,” and so on—needs to be understood not only as an effect of China’s ongoing “war on terror,” but also as part of the global expansion of surveillance capitalism’s frontier-making. Byler, as well as Jefferson and Boe, emphasized the importance of identifying the global connections of local operations of surveillance capitalism.

For those of you who want to revisit, or missed some parts of the workshop, we have attached here the recording of the whole session. We are grateful that all the speakers agreed to publish the recording. Thank you again to those who attended the event and participated in this provocative conversation about some of the more pressing issues of our troubled times.

Selected references:

– (Link to open-access volume) Jefferson, Brian. 2020. Digitize and Punish: Racial Criminalization in the Digital Age. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press.

– Byler, Darren, and Carolina Sanchez Boe. 2020. “Tech-Enabled ‘terror Capitalism’ Is Spreading Worldwide. The Surveillance Regimes Must Be Stopped.” The Guardian, July 24, 2020, sec. World news.

Click here to see the questions by the Ethnography Workshop fellows.

Question 1.

In a paper we read for this event, Darren Byler brings up the notion of sous-surveillance. This term has been historically invoked to redistribute power within the surveillance encounter: those being surveilled are aware of it and can act accordingly, subverting the system from within. We also see this idea in a different form in Carolina Boe’s work. Brian Jordon Jefferson’s work is much more focused on technical infrastructures that exact surveillance and control over populations. As he writes in his book, punitive web technology keeps the negatively racialized poor in the cities, “but they must remain apart from the centers of conspicuous consumption, labor markets, leisure, residences, and wealth.” Criminalized subjects get ensnarled, he writes, in something like a low-intensity form of Agamben’s state of exception (page 163). So, between these various approaches, there seems to be a tension between complete carceral control and the subversive power to resist digital enclosure. How do each of you understand the relationship between digital enclosure and resistance? Is resistance even the right term?

Question 2.

Could each of you speak a bit about how they would define the current state of surveillance studies?  For Carolina and Darren, what does the ethnographic afford to a study of surveillance that, for example, geography, media studies, cultural studies or sociology doesn’t quite get at?

For Brian, situated in geography and information sciences, you show powerfully that the digital carceral state is maintained by racial capitalism. But one could argue that anthropology, as a discipline, while attentive to racism in the history of the discipline, has not paid enough attention, until very recently, to the linkages between digital capitalism, racial capitalism, and the carceral state. Could you reflect on whether you see an emergent inter- or cross-disciplinary space emerging between anthropology and geographers interested in regimes of digital surveillance? What future avenues do any of you envision for researching the sites, practices, and networks that sustain surveillance today?

Question 3.

Each of you brilliantly write and speak about the ways surveillance appears at the nexus of capital, state power, and private technology industries. Byler and Boe in particular center the experiences of those navigating the terrorizing effects of these systems, using interviews with those subjected to invasive monitoring and policing as a way to get at how these systems work, through what networks, and means of enforcement. Jefferson makes it clear that the penal state, while operating as a decentralized network, relies on tech workers to write code, or, for example, staff in the NYPD to track the social media activity of youth in “proto-gangs,” all of which is possible because tech corporations are hired to develop social media intelligence gathering platforms.

This question is interested in the limits each of you may have encountered in your research. Were there tech workers who refused to answer questions? Government officials or police departments or detention centers that classified certain kinds of information? Were there informants intimidated and unable to explain the scope of their experiences? Could each of you speak on the kinds of opacities you encountered in your research, and how you navigated these, ethnographically, or otherwise? Were there things, events, experiences, or other research objects you choose not to, or could not write about?

Question 4.

How far can we go in saying that algorithms create a carceral condition that orients behaviors and creates certain types of subjects as human subjectivity is “digitalized,” when there always seems to be some form of sensory/affective space to fill in the gaps not-yet concerned by algorithmic surveillance? Can such newfound and increasingly intensified forms of surveillance ever render a human completely unable to resist, even when life is subjected to forms of near-torture and engendered with a sense of fearful hopelessness? And in the meantime where such gaps still exist, what new possibilities of sociality and life might emerge in these not-yet surveilled spaces of everydayness; and if they do, how do we show such forms of life are valuable and present even if they often allude our typical valuations of life (i.e., the liberal subject)?

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