Reading Responses 10/04

For this week’s post I’m going to take a cue from Foucault and look at the evolution of a single term: security. In his chapter “Governmentality,” Foucault examines the evolution of the idea of the art of government, focusing his discussion on Machiavelli’s The Prince and the responses it generated. For Foucault, “modern” government (post 15th century in the West, generally) is intimately tied to the government’s ability to enforce security. He writes:

 “Accordingly, we need to see things not in terms of the replacement of a society of sovereignty by a disciplinary society and the subsequent replacement of a disciplinary society by a society of government; in reality one has a triangle, sovereignty-discipline-government, which has as its primary target the population and as its essential mechanism the apparatuses of security” (104).

 The government’s ability to function, by acting-on the population, depends on these “apparatuses of security,” which includes the modern police force. Thus this is “security” in a classical sense of the term, perhaps best thought of as “protection from harm.”

 However, the other readings from this week call out the notion of security in the modern age of networked computing. In this sense “security” often equates to privacy, as if anonymity itself is a protection. Gabriella Coleman’s article “Our Weirdness is Free” shows how the decentralized hacktivist group Anonymous sees the concealment of information about itself as a means of security; and naturally, the exposure of information about others as a weapon. Interestingly, Coleman does not mention any instances of Anonymous acting upon freed information: mere exposure is the goal, with the assumption being this will be bad for the target.

 (While not on the topic of security, Coleman’s piece also raised another interesting question when juxtaposed to Foucault: as Foucault addresses “governance” as a concept applicable to the self, the family, religious life, and many other systems, it makes sense to ask what kind of governance Anonymous subjects itself to. I am tempted to speak of postmodern governance here, but half in jest.)

 Lynch’s article “’Pls Call, Love, Your Wife’: the online response to WikiLeaks’ 9/11 pager messages,” addresses WikiLeak’s release of hundreds of thousands of pager messages sent in and around New York City on September 11, 2001. Lynch was specifically interested in how the “public,” represented by people engaged in discussing the messages over the Internet, reacted. There was enormous concern over the amount of personal information released this way, however to me this speaks to the enormous disconnect most people have about the severity of personal information being available online, and their unwillingness to do anything about it. A few months ago a small program called Firebug made headlines when it was made available. It allowed any user to sniff traffic on a wireless network, and in particular facilitated stealing log-in credentials. Overnight it became trivially easy to go to a coffee shop and log-in to the facebook and twitter accounts of everyone there with you. Most websites responded soon thereafter by enabling https logins, and the EFF released a browser plugin called HTTPS Everywhere, which tries for a secure connection at every website you visit.

 That said, I fear most people don’t know about these tools and freely post an enormous amount of identifiable content online. Andrew Tolan’s “D.I.Y. In the Sky” article was an extreme example of how a person can unconsciously leave small amounts of information around the web, and how far that information can be taken. Given this, the debate about the 9/11 messages raises another interesting question: what is to be done with the digital detritus that will soon be simply everywhere? Should such information be part of the historical record? If a person posts material publicly available on the Web, but did not know it would be so, should such information be fair game for scholars? What are the ethics here?

 Lastly, I want to close on a prescient observation of Foucault’s:

 “…the managing of a population not only concerns the collective mass of phenomena, the level of its aggregate effects, it also implies the management of population in its depths and details” (102).

 As this week’s readings show, such management in the “depths and details” of the population is already happening. 

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