Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age, by Bernard E. Harcourt

We are sleepwalking towards virtual transparency after an oversharing binge, discovers Paul Bernal

January 14, 2016
John Hurt as Winston Smith, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
Watching you: is surveillance today worse than Orwell’s Big Brother?

Privacy advocates are often asked which matters more: surveillance by government agencies such as the US’ National Security Agency and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters, or the data gathering, profiling and privacy-policy sleights of hand of corporations such as Google and Facebook? As this book makes clear, the two cannot and should not be considered separately. They form what legal scholar Bernard Harcourt describes as an “expository society”: a “rich, vibrant world full of passion and jouissance – by which we reveal ourselves and make ourselves virtually transparent to surveillance”. This is a fascinating, erudite and deeply disturbing book – and yet an ultimately uplifting one, as it offers at least the beginnings of a way forward, a way in which the dystopian position in which we have put ourselves could be changed. A way in which we could start to disobey.

Harcourt begins with a detailed comparison of our current situation with that put forward by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He suggests that although the surveillance currently in play is in many ways worse and more all-encompassing than Orwell’s Big Brother, the other oppressive elements of that dystopian novel’s totalitarian state are absent, and thus is an imperfect point of comparison for our problem. His diagnosis of the reasons for that inaccuracy is one of the central themes of Exposed and one that feels strong and compelling. Whereas Big Brother tried to crush people’s emotions and desires in order to control them, our current system supports, cherishes and ultimately harnesses those desires in order to exercise control. The contrast between Orwell’s two minutes of hate and the current clamorous races for Facebook “likes” is very well made indeed.

The book is rich with detail, both in its descriptions and analysis of the surveillance state and in its analysis of the commercial operations of internet giants such as Google, Facebook and Apple – and especially the ways in which the state and private actors combine into a “tentacular oligarchy” of control. The theoretical and historical work is expert and scholarly, recasting Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Max Weber, Alexis de Tocqueville and more for the digital world. The examples Harcourt uses are up to date and to the point, from some of Edward Snowden’s most recent revelations to the “emotional contagion” experiment run by Facebook in collaboration with Cornell University researchers, the “virtual seduction” of the Apple Watch and the “doppelgänger logic” of predictive digital profiling, its use and misuse.

Harcourt places both much of the responsibility for our current situation and the route to a possible solution squarely on us. We have allowed ourselves to get lulled into this mess: we have to find our way out of it through disobedience. The answer, he says, “is not simple or easy. It calls for courage and for ethical choice – for innovation and experimentation. In the end, it falls on each and every one of us – as desiring digital subjects, as parents and children, as teachers and students, as conscientious ethical selves – to do everything we can to resist the excesses of our expository society.”

Is this resistance futile? In the light of the extensive evidence put forward by Harcourt’s own book, it would be easy to think so. But if resistance is to have a chance of success, then understanding the full extent and true nature of the challenge that confronts us all is the first step. Reading and absorbing the messages in Exposed could be a key part of that process.

Paul Bernal is lecturer in IT, IP and media law, University of East Anglia School of Law, and author of Internet Privacy Rights: Rights to Protect Autonomy (2014).

Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age
By Bernard E. Harcourt
Harvard University Press, 384pp, £25.95
ISBN 9780674504578
Published 26 November 2015

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