The Age of ‘Infopolitics’


Colin Koopman in the New York Times: “We are in the midst of a flood of alarming revelations about information sweeps conducted by government agencies and private corporations concerning the activities and habits of ordinary Americans. After the initial alarm that accompanies every leak and news report, many of us retreat to the status quo, quieting ourselves with the thought that these new surveillance strategies are not all that sinister, especially if, as we like to say, we have nothing to hide.
One reason for our complacency is that we lack the intellectual framework to grasp the new kinds of political injustices characteristic of today’s information society. Everyone understands what is wrong with a government’s depriving its citizens of freedom of assembly or liberty of conscience. Everyone (or most everyone) understands the injustice of government-sanctioned racial profiling or policies that produce economic inequality along color lines. But though nearly all of us have a vague sense that something is wrong with the new regimes of data surveillance, it is difficult for us to specify exactly what is happening and why it raises serious concern, let alone what we might do about it.
Our confusion is a sign that we need a new way of thinking about our informational milieu. What we need is a concept of infopolitics that would help us understand the increasingly dense ties between politics and information. Infopolitics encompasses not only traditional state surveillance and data surveillance, but also “data analytics” (the techniques that enable marketers at companies like Target to detect, for instance, if you are pregnant), digital rights movements (promoted by organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation), online-only crypto-currencies (like Bitcoin or Litecoin), algorithmic finance (like automated micro-trading) and digital property disputes (from peer-to-peer file sharing to property claims in the virtual world of Second Life). These are only the tip of an enormous iceberg that is drifting we know not where.
Surveying this iceberg is crucial because atop it sits a new kind of person: the informational person. Politically and culturally, we are increasingly defined through an array of information architectures: highly designed environments of data, like our social media profiles, into which we often have to squeeze ourselves. The same is true of identity documents like your passport and individualizing dossiers like your college transcripts. Such architectures capture, code, sort, fasten and analyze a dizzying number of details about us. Our minds are represented by psychological evaluations, education records, credit scores. Our bodies are characterized via medical dossiers, fitness and nutrition tracking regimens, airport security apparatuses. We have become what the privacy theorist Daniel Solove calls “digital persons.” As such we are subject to infopolitics (or what the philosopher Grégoire Chamayou calls “datapower,” the political theorist Davide Panagia “datapolitik” and the pioneering thinker Donna Haraway “informatics of domination”).
Today’s informational person is the culmination of developments stretching back to the late 19th century. It was in those decades that a number of early technologies of informational identity were first assembled. Fingerprinting was implemented in colonial India, then imported to Britain, then exported worldwide. Anthropometry — the measurement of persons to produce identifying records — was developed in France in order to identify recidivists. The registration of births, which has since become profoundly important for initiating identification claims, became standardized in many countries, with Massachusetts pioneering the way in the United States before a census initiative in 1900 led to national standardization. In the same era, bureaucrats visiting rural districts complained that they could not identify individuals whose names changed from context to context, which led to initiatives to universalize standard names. Once fingerprints, biometrics, birth certificates and standardized names were operational, it became possible to implement an international passport system, a social security number and all other manner of paperwork that tells us who someone is. When all that paper ultimately went digital, the reams of data about us became radically more assessable and subject to manipulation, which has made us even more informational.
We like to think of ourselves as somehow apart from all this information. We are real — the information is merely about us. But what is it that is real? What would be left of you if someone took away all your numbers, cards, accounts, dossiers and other informational prostheses? Information is not just about you — it also constitutes who you are….”

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