Final Essay.

FINAL ARTS2090 ESSAY

Thom Mitchell, z3463530, H14A

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“Civilisation has been dominated at different stages by various media of communication such as clay, papyrus, parchment, and paper produced first from rags and then from wood. Each medium has its significance for the type of monopoly of knowledge which will be built and which will destroy the conditions suited to creative thought and be displaced by a new medium with its peculiar type of monopoly of knowledge.” 

(Innis, Harold, The Press: A neglected factor in the economic history of the twentieth century. London: Oxford University Press1949, p. 5). 

What differences do different archives make? What is the relationship between particular archives and the ways of living they allow/make possible? What kinds of authority do particular archives assist or challenge?

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We live in a society powered by micro-electronics, and most every aspect of our lives is lived, to some extent, in the digital realm. This has, as Castells argues, fundamentally changed the way power circulates in society. This change in the essential nature of society has been described by Castells as the “networked society”, but is more commonly identified by the now common notion of the ‘information age’. In the digital age, more information is available about more aspects of more peoples lives than ever before – but what are the implications of this? Who can access this vastly expanded reservoir of knowledge, and with whose permission? By applying Derrida’s theory of “archive fever” to practical contemporary examples from the “networked society” it becomes clear that ordinary citizens have, in many ways, less power than ever before. The digital age is often heralded as a great empowerer of the citizenry, but the reality is that ordinary people have not acquired the technical skills needed to manipulate software or hardware which inform the controls and access to the swelling body of archives. That is to say, in an age of digital archives, the powerful institutions which keep and conceal society’s most important archives have been quietly monopolising knowledge and reshaping what is public or private. “Archivization produces as much as it records the event” (Derrida, 1995, p.17), and we should be thinking more carefully about what sort of society we’re creating.

An understanding of how the prolific digital archivization of our age affects what kind of society we’re creating must be founded in the acknowledgement that society has already been fundamentally changed. Society is already rooted in the digital at a cultural level. We live in what Manuel Castells has described as a “network society”, which is less hierarchical and more fluid than those of the past. The “network society” is a society whose social structure is made of networks powered by microelectronics-based information and communication technologies” (2005, p.3). For Castells the “arrangements of humans in relations of production, consumption, reproduction, experience, and power” are configured within a “network” made up of constituent “nodes” (Castells, 2005, p.3). The ‘nodes’ are the components of the network which connect and exchange with other nodes within the network to achieve the network’s goals.

It is interesting to consider the ‘security state’ as a network. Whether various networks (like, say, security agencies and corporations) “cooperate or compete with each other” depends on on what their “programmed” “goals and rules of performance”  (Castells, 2005, p.3-4). In addition to shared goals, the ability for networks to cooperate “depends on the existence of codes of translation and inter-operability between the networks (protocols of communication), and on access to connection points” (Castells, 2005, p.3). And it’s here the NSA’s, and similar agency’s, vast stock of secret archives come in. These archives are controlled; access codes, classifications and the locations at which computers (as access points) are kept, all combine to the singular effort to keep the information within parameters set by the security-state network.

But recently, Edward Snowden, who might be considered a ‘node’ within the network, stopped contributing to the goals of the security state network. Over recent years Snowden and associated media outlets have been gradually leaking from the 1.7 million classified National Security Agency (NSA) files the ex-contractor stole, inserting them into networks with which the security state is in conflict. This 1.7 million documents, while only a small portion of the total secret archives of the U.S. security state, gives some indication of the scale of information which the state archives. The scope of the NSA’s snooping was also exposed. Many of the documents related to the notionally private lives of innocent civilians. Derrida’s theory of archives is aptly named to describe the fever with which the NSA had gone about archiving as much information as possible. All of this information had the capacity to contribute to the NSA’s (ostensible) goal of protecting North America’s interests. However, this ‘archive fever’ places the two networks, the security state and the ‘public’, in competition. It places the NSA’s goals of security in conflict with the public’s goal of privacy. Many of the files have been described as useless by intelligence analysts but they were retained nonetheless, according to reports in The Washington Post. The files “tell stories of love and heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and disappointed hopes. The daily lives of more than 10,000 account holders who were not targeted are catalogued and recorded. The NSA collected “medical records sent from one family member to another, résumés from job hunters and academic transcripts of schoolchildren. In one photo, a young girl in religious dress beams at a camera outside a mosque. Scores of pictures show infants and toddlers in bathtubs, on swings, sprawled on their backs and kissed by their mothers. In some photos, men show off their physiques. In others, women model lingerie, leaning suggestively into a webcam” (Friedersdorf, 2014).

Castell’s argues that “networks work on a binary logic: exclusion/exclusion”. The public took umbrage at their exclusion from the archives Snowden released, indicating that the goals of the security state were fundamentally at odds with the public’s goals in many cases. The sheer number of archives, let alone the nature of the archives, was shocking. But networks are characterised by “unity of purpose and flexibility of its execution by the capacity to adapt to the operating environment”: The NSA’s structures of communication had adapted to the digital environment almost completely. It just so happened that this occurred without the knowledge of the citizenry or indeed most of the polity.

How did it happen? How did it sneak up like that? The answer, in large part, lies with the nature of archives as Derrida has explained them.

The archive “names at once the commencement and the commandment” – the physical and historical thing that is the archive, and the social conditions under which that thing comes into existence and exists under (Derrida, 1995, p.9). The controls around who can access the archive, how the archive is conceptualised and what version or representation it records are subject to the goals of the entity – the network – that creates it. Government agencies, and perhaps none more so than national security agencies, are afforded a great deal of authority within the political system that apportions the dividends of power. “National security” is routinely invoked as a reason for secrecy: the agencies, we’re told, need that information contained in such archives to perform their function. Consequently what information the agencies have, and how they come to have it, remains largely secret too.

Derrida recalls the etymology of the term archive. One past iteration is Arkheion: “initially a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded”. And so, the archive is not a neutral thing. It carries political power. In other words, it is influenced in the process of its creation by the unified goals of the network or entity which produces it. “The archive, as printing, writing, prosthesis, or hypomnesic technique in general is not only the place for stocking and for conserving an archivable content of the past, which would exist in any case, such as, without the archive,” Derrida says. Over and above the fact and initiation of its existence, “the technical structure of the archiving archive determines the structure of the archivable content, even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future” (1995, p.17). According to Derrida the commencement of the archive marks a sort of “institutional passage from private to public”, but this “does not always always mean from the secret to the non-secret”(1995, p.10). In the case of the security state network, secrecy is a core goal, and rarely does the institutional passage of the archive’s creation overrun this key characteristic.

So, in a “network society”, within which the dominant archive is the digital, what are the implications for the citizenry’s right to privacy? As noted earlier, the average person, even the so-called ‘digital native’ has not kept pace with the “technical structure of the archivable content”. Software design has tended to the simplification of the digital, for ease of use. The dominance of iconography, easy-to-use touch-screen interfaces and other simplifications of the actual coding and technology which underpins the digital has limited the ordinary folk’s ability to challenge or deviate from their levels of access to various archives. To provide an example – large companies such as Google and Facebook, built on societies growing digitisation, actually provided much of the content for the NSA’s (and associated security agencies) archives which Snowden partly revealed. Their business model is founded on the collection of personal data to on-sell to marketers, and the ordinary citizen hardly has the technological skills to avoid these sorts of activities which take place largely behind the pretty user interfaces we’ve grown accustomed to.

A new term is emerging for this institutional (and archival) privilege which, like our more secretive arms of government, we have vested in multinational digital corporations – “stacks”. “Stacks” are companies that increasingly control the internet – and by extension, our lives – through leveraging their huge multinational customer base, who are increasingly reliant on their services. “Stacks” are beginning to act like states, minus the terrestrial bonds and, often, the accountability of the nation-state.“Stacks” are increasingly able and willing to collect new types of data about citizens to sell to marketers or use in their own marketing. Springett (2014) explores how Google is integrating new technologies into their business mix to this end. The company recently bought Nest, “a deep strata sensing device you can put in your home which will passively sense and gather data about you” (Springett, 2014). The technology could soon be “profiling you by what kind of couch you can afford to serve you targeted ads,” according to Springett (2014). Another recent example of this phenomenon is Facebook’s infamous social experiment:  The company manipulated which of their friends’ statuses an unknowing group of users saw and how this affected their emotional state. This is a pretty clear indicator of how “Stacks” feel entitled to tinker with people’s private lives, and raises the question of how private our increasingly online lives are. Encapsulating this blurring of boundaries is the semantics of the digital ‘cloud’. Springett (2014) suggests that ‘the cloud’ is bifurcating into multiple occurrences of ‘a cloud’, a semantic delineation which signifies the digital space of the cloud is becoming a territorial and controllable space.

All of the information being gathered about us in digital spaces is being archived, of course. It is being archived by institutional networks such as the NSA and Google, and the process is largely occurring in the dark. This is partly because of operational and commercial sensitivity and/or confidence, but also because the highly technical processes that are involved in the gathering and storage of citizens’ private information are beyond the expertise of ordinary people. But if “archivization produces as much as records the event”, and the powerful institutions quietly collecting so much of our, often personal, information are to be considered as “networks” with unified goals, it is imperative that we ask ourselves what sort of society is being produced? The Australian Government is even now pushing for powers similar to (and in some ways, greater than) those the NSA used to archive such personal information in secret. Through the ages societies have been dominated by different medias of communication, from orality to print and eventually to the digital “network society”. Each medium has allowed various groups and institutions to assemble a monopoly on knowledge of different character and extent. The warning signs are there. It’s time we asked ourselves what kind of monopoly on knowledge is currently being produced – after all the now standard moniker of the ‘information age’ harks back to the old saying: knowledge is power.

Source list:

Castells, M 2005, ‘Informationalism, networks, and the network society: a theoretical blueprint’ in Elgar E (ed) The network society: a cross-cultural perspective,  Cheltenham, UK, pp.3-45.

Derrida, J 1995, ‘Archive Fever—A Freudian Impression’, Diacritics, 25(2), pp9-63 accessed 27 August 2014:                                                                                                       < http://beforebefore.net/149a/w11/media/Derrida-Archive_Fever_A_Freudian_Impression.pdf  >.

Friedersdorf, C 2014, ‘The Latest Snowden Leak Is Devastating to NSA Defenders, The Atlantic, July 7, accessed 12 November 2014:                                               <http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/07/a-devastating-leak-for-edward-snowdens-critics/373991/>.

Pincus, W 2013, ‘Snowden still holding keys to the kingdom’, The Washington Post, 8 December, accessed 12 November 2014:                                                              <http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/snowden-still-holding-keys-to-the-kingdom/2013/12/18/b91d29a2-6761-11e3-8b5b-a77187b716a3_story.html>.

Springett, J 2014, ’Colonising the Clouds—Infrastructure Territory and The Geopolitics of The Stacks’, Medium.com, July 8, accessed 23 October 2014:       <https://medium.com/@thejaymo/colonising-the-clouds-4405d2d590b5>

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