“The progressive and dispersed installation of a new system of domination”

Burak Arikan of the MIT Media Lab helpfully pointed me to Gilles Deleuze‘s 1990 essay, ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control.’

Deleuze examines the evolution of ‘environments of enclosure’ and the change from the old order of ‘societies of sovereignty’, through Foucault’s ‘disciplinary societies’ to the late 20th century’s ‘societies of control’—and the use of mechanisms of control by each type:

“Types of machines are easily matched with each type of society—not that machines are determining, but because they express those social forms capable of generating them and using them. The old societies of sovereignty made use of simple machines—levers, pulleys, clocks; but the recent disciplinary societies equipped themselves with machines involving energy, with the passive danger of entropy and the active danger of sabotage; the societies of control operate with machines of a third type, computers, whose passive danger is jamming and whose active one is piracy or the introduction of viruses.”

Deleuze makes the point that whereas the previous ‘disciplinary societies’ allowed an individual to progress from one institution to another (school, military, work, &c.) with some degree of personal re-invention permitted, today’s ‘societies of control’ are increasingly interlinked—there is no escape for a person, since the system possesses all the information about his or her past, and can use this to control access or permitted participation in future activities. I’m probably paraphrasing this badly, but it sounds pretty much like trusted computing, or the UK ID card scheme. Continuing:

“The conception of a control mechanism, giving the position of any element within an open environment at any given instant (whether animal in a reserve or human in a corporation, as with an electronic collar), is not necessarily one of science fiction. Félix Guattari has imagined a city where one would be able to leave one’s apartment, one’s street, one’s neighborhood, thanks to one’s (dividual) electronic card that raises a given barrier; but the card could just as easily be rejected on a given day or between certain hours; what counts is not the barrier but the computer that tracks each person’s position—licit or illicit—and effects a universal modulation.”

Again, this is clearly the biometric ID card, but also introduces the notion of arbitrariness that seems to recur in examining many current architectures of control, particularly DRM, and analogue hole prevention devices.

This paragraph is worth quoting in full as it seems to summarise, to a large extent, the mission of this website:

“The socio-technological study of the mechanisms of control, grasped at their inception, would have to be categorical and to describe what is already in the process of substitution for the disciplinary sites of enclosure, whose crisis is everywhere proclaimed. It may be that older methods, borrowed from the former societies of sovereignty, will return to the fore, but with the necessary modifications. What counts is that we are at the beginning of something.”

Of course, the rather less abstract examination of simple control devices such as child-proof lids, or suggestions about finding weak spots in insurance company black boxes, is a long way from serious philosophical debate on societal control. I make no apologies for the fact that I’m a design engineer and thus not best qualified or experienced to present a real academic analysis of some of these issues… but it’s reassuring to know that there is some precedent—and even a succinct synonym for architectures of control, courtesy of Deleuze:

“The progressive and dispersed installation of a new system of domination.”