Harvard University Press

Critical theorist Bernard Harcourt coined the term “Expository Society” to describe our present culture, in which political and economic authorities consolidate their power by exploiting our eagerness to volunteer personal information through technology and social media.

Journalist Astra Taylor reviewed Harcourt’s new book, “Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age,” at The Intercept.

“[W]hile spectacles and surveillance may be ‘costless’ and ‘practically free,’” Taylor writes, “the expository society is fundamentally about profit.”

On the corporate side, the business models of companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Uber, and Amazon are based on the principle of user enjoyment. Social media, we all know from experience, is addictive; our pleasure is habit-forming by design.

This is the first crux of Harcourt’s argument: The expository society exploits, rather than represses, our desires. The second crux is his observation that government and commercial surveillance infrastructures have wholly merged.

One of the book’s more important chapters takes on the seemingly self-evident nature of the term “surveillance state,” which Harcourt argues is misleading. What we have, instead, is an “amalgam of the intelligence community, retailers, Silicon Valley, military interests, social media, the Inner Beltway, multinational corporations, midtown Manhattan, and Wall Street” that “forms an oligarchic concentration that defies any such reductionism.” Citing Glenn Greenwald, he notes that 70 percent of the United States’ national intelligence budget is spent on the private sector. “Whatever it is that is surveilling us, then, is not simply ‘the state,’” he writes. A more accurate image, he suggests, is a “tenticular oligarchy” — a “large oligopolistic octopus” enveloping the world, neither fully public nor fully private but both. […]

Harcourt’s analysis hinges on desire: We want to participate, we are impelled to do so, and we like it. But it seems to me we are as much compelled as we are impelled. In my own work on new media, I have described this as a shift from the old model of “manufacturing consent,” where traditional broadcasters molded public opinion from on high, to one of “manufacturing compulsion,” where we are, at least superficially, in charge of our media destinies, clicking on whatever we choose. […]

Understanding the degree to which we are compelled to participate, as opposed to lamenting the degree to which we desire our own oppression, is important if we want to devise strategies for resistance. Movements derive more energy from tapping into people’s grievances than chastising them for complacency.

The challenge — and this brings us to the book’s concluding section — is how the “disobedience” of Harcourt’s subtitle can effectively push back against expository power. Exposed closes on a hopeful note, pointing to pockets of resistance and successful rebels, all people worth celebrating: Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks, artists like Trevor Paglen and Laura Poitras, free software advocates such as Eben Moglen. But Harcourt’s proposed solutions are not entirely satisfying. He considers boycotting Facebook a radical act, and I disagree. If our goal is to build a robust movement capable of taking on the new power structure he describes, we will have to meet people, at least initially, where they are. More than 1 billion of them are on Facebook. A movement made up only of those savvy enough to congregate on more obscure and secure corners of the internet is destined to remain small. Mass mobilization is an important component of any serious strategy for social change. […]

[…] Ultimately, the society of exposure that Harcourt criticizes is a symptom of the oligarchy’s escalating attack on democracy. The best solution may not be to combat surveillance directly, but to attack the disease: the arrangements that have allowed an unaccountable political and economic elite to emerge.

Continue reading here.

— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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