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A review of Tung-Hui HuA Prehistory of the Cloud (MIT, 2015)

 

Our Relationships With the Cloud

 

I was at first reluctant to stream rather than download music and movies, preferring to have a copy of the file located on my hard-drive. Possessing the file on something I could hold made me feel secure. Consider the anxiety generated by the rumor that SoundCloud might close down.

Now, for better or worse, I am a ‘user’ of the cloud. Isn’t it convenient and freeing to switch from device to device without losing your place in a book or TV show? When I replaced my phone, I simply signed in with my Google and Apple Ids, and let their cloud services do the rest. While Google and Apple know me through my IDs, they also know me through my data which seems to transcend any physical devices when I simply log in.

The cloud appears everywhere (at least for affluent city dwellers in the global North and West) and it has come to symbolize the so-called ‘openness’ that people like Jeff Jarvis worship. In What Would Google Do?, he writes: “Owning pipelines, people, products, or even intellectual property is no longer the key to success. Openness is.” Ironically, Google is far from open.

While the cloud appears to be a kind of aether, “lightweight, free, and abundant” and “the technological symbol of the knowledge economy”, Tung-Hui Hu reveals how the the cloud “grafts” onto older networks and forms of power. Cold War bunkers have literally become data centers. Hu writes that “the corporate descendant’s of a single railroad company [Southern Pacific Railroad] comprise two of the six major fibre-optic carriers of the U.S. Internet.”

Yet for all that ‘openness’ that Jarvis talks about, who among us has actually seen inside a data center? Both the data centers themselves, and the algorithms that increasingly run our lives, are black boxes – opaque except for their inputs and outputs, privately owned and guarded for their economic value.

In 2016, Google commissioned Jenny Odell to design murals for its data center in Mayes County, Oklahoma.  Absent the murals, it’s hard to say that there is anything visually interesting about such a large box of a building set against a flat Oklahoma skyline. Odell’s murals bring to life the massive piece of physical infrastructure by making it visually compelling, and since each circular mural is itself composed of images of physical infrastructure that she cut out from Google Earth – “swimming pools, circular farms, parts of waste-water treatment plants” – Odell also constructs what can only be an ethical reminder about what circulates through the data center and through the devices in our hands.

In the Prehistory of the Cloud, Tung-Hui Hu, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Michigan, tell us that “images such as Jenny Odell’s cut out photographs of digital infrastructure can help mediate between the scale of the global and the intimate, the macro and the micro.” Or, as Odell herself says, seeing physical infrastructure “from a satellite perspective brings out how strange and specifically human they are.”

It’s worth seeing the cloud, and the constellation of metaphors that imply liberation through participation as a user – openness, disruption, sharing – as strange, too.

Tung-Hui Hu calls into question the stories and silences about power, participation, and data by excavating how the cloud is grafted onto older networks and forms of power. From this, a new concept – the sovereignty of data – emerges to challenge the Silicon Valley narrative of liberation through participation. But what real options to we have for resistance? To what extent are we complicit every time we post on Facebook or search on Google?

The Sovereignty of Data

To understand what makes Hu’s take on the cloud unique, we need to go back to Michel Foucault’s ideas about the different modes of power. Hu is well aware that “power is always hybrid”, and on these grounds he criticises media studies for ignoring the sovereign power of data in the context of the US government’s extraordinary rendition program, which links data with death and not merely surveillance or social control.1p. 117

For Foucault, sovereign power goes back to the the times of kings: individuals who have the authority to exert violence, who have the “right to decide life and death” in “defence of the sovereign, and his own survival”.2History of Sexuality, p. 135 Foucault charts the development of sovereign power which becomes “penetrated by quite new mechanisms of power that are probably irreducible to the representation of law”. 3Quoted in Barry Allen, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40231759 p 426. The original is from The History of Sexuality, vol 1, p.89) Disciplinary power operates through institutions and professionals who scrutinise the smallest details of our lives for hints of deviance: an untucked shirt in school, one too many sick days at the office, a sexual fantasy revealed in the mental health clinic. The aim of disciplinary power is not one of taking away or prélèvement, but producing docile bodies who will do things ‘the right way’: to willingly tuck your shirt and show up at work without anyone having to command you to.4”And if it is true that the juridical system was useful for representing, albeit in a nonexhaustive way, a power that was centered primarily around deduction (prélèvement) and death, it is utterly in­ congruous with the new methods of power whose operation is not ensured by right but by technique, not by law but by normalization, not by punishment but by control, methods that are employed on all levels and in forms that go beyond the state and its apparatus.” History of Sexuality, p. 89

While disciplinary power targets the individual, biopolitics focuses on populations and the problems of “birth rate, longevity, public health, housing, and migration”. When war is waged, it is not on behalf of protecting the sovereign, but “waged on behalf of the existence of everyone” because “at stake is the biological existence of a population”.5History of Sexuality, p.137

The operation of power continues to evolve when Fitbits and Facebook track our data points, much like a schoolmaster tracks our attendance and grades. In his prescient Postscript on the Societies of Control (1990), Gilles Deleuze argues that “just as the corporation replaces the factory, perpetual training tends to replace the school, and continuous control to replace the examination.” The power of Facebook is not confined and enclosed in one institutional place, but operates continuously across enclosures. We follow the continuous feed for updates, and must continually update ourselves to stay competitive.

The United States’ ‘war on terror’ prompted a reconsideration of sovereign power by Giorgio Agamben and Judith Butler, who calls sovereignty a “reanimated anachronism”.6Halit Tagma argues that Agamben’s “neglect of the details and nuances of Foucault’s work has lead him to betray important components of Foucault’s understanding of biopower”, for example “that biopower has always needed sovereign exceptionalism to demarcate between those citizen-subjects who are domestic/domesticized subjectivities and those subjects who are to be cast outside.” Tagma, H. M. (2009). Homo Sacer vs. Homo Soccer Mom: Reading Agamben and Foucault in the War on Terror. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 34(4), 407–435. Hu follows their critiques when he argues that “in the rush to declare every new form of digital technology a means of controlling or optimizing life, scholars have all but ignored the question of sovereignty… Digital scholars risk committing an error of omission if the conversation turns continuously to control or biopolitics at the expense of less mediated and less technological methods of exerting power.”7p.116/117

I’m unsure how there is anything less technological or less mediated about the ‘soverignty of data’ in the case of extraordinary rendition, drone strikes, or the more domestic operations of power, such as the school to prison pipeline. At other points, Hu pushes the ‘soverignty of data’ into the kind of metaphorical and removed territory that I thought he was trying to avoid:

“The cloud is a subtle weapon that translates the body into usable information.”

“The extraordinary rendition system is a global network of networks, in which the prisoner’s body is packet switched from one judicial network to another; in doing so, extraordinary rendition applies the network architecture of the cloud to torture.”

Or when Hu talks about how we can ‘kill’ programs on our computer: the “Sovereign’s ‘right to kill’ is displaced onto banal orders of everyday digital culture.”

Can ‘packet-switched’ bodies help us to better understand the violence of extraordinary rendition, which goes to great lengths to locate prisoners in black sites? How does the architecture of the cloud shapes torture? When we terminate a program, do we draw on the sovereign’s right to kill?

In my estimation, Hu sometimes wanders too far down the metaphorical paths in search of connections that other scholars are making more explicitly. Ruha Benjamin argues that “Big Data…is intertwined with the fabrication of Big Deviance.” As one example, Benjamin points us towards Simone Browne’s work, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, which Benjamin writes:

“builds upon the Fanonian notion of “epidermilization,” or “the imposition of race on the body” (7), by theorizing what Browne terms “digital epidermilization.” This is “what happens when certain bodies are rendered as digitized code” (109) through such techniques as “facial recognition, iris and retinal scans, hand geometry, fingerprint templates, vascular patterns, gait and other kinesthetic recognition, and increasingly, DNA” (109). All of these ultimately treat the body as evidence that trumps individuals’ accounts of who they are and whether and where they belong. The use of DNA tests to vet tribal membership in the US, for example, has caused individuals to be dis-enrolled despite their longstanding association with the tribe, and so technoscience has the potential to displace the socio-cultural underpinnings of indigenous identity and also undermine political sovereignty (TallBear 2013).”

Digital epidermilization clearly functions as the kind of prélèvement characteristic of sovereign power (taking away rights and freedoms), while also being entwined with disciplinary power (comparing individuals to a norm) and biopower (regulating populations). Our key theoretical takeaway from Hu should be an appreciation of the hybrid nature of power, which ought to inform our possibilities for resistance.

 

Cloud seeing and Possibilities for Resistance

 

Mona Liljaa & Stellan Vinthagena argue that each mode of power requires different kinds of resistance.8Sovereign power: “rebellions, strikes, boycotts, disobedience and political revolutions”; disciplinary power: “openly refusing to participate in the construction of new subjectivity/capacities/skills/organisations”; and biopower: “acting differently, in subcultures, and by cultivating a different set of values, practices and institutions.” and by developing “non-productive forms of life and biological existence.” However, since the power of the cloud is increasingly hybrid, we face a more complex challenge. If I personally opt out of Facebook, it makes little difference to the “general subordination” of biopolitics; Facebook still amasses data about populations. What’s more, if I opt out of Facebook, that may itself be seen as deviant.9 “Since biopower is not interested in the individual or detail per se and is not interested in complete subordination or everyone’s compliance – but general subordination, and increased tendencies and productivity of larger numbers – what individuals do may appear of little interest. If a few people opt out, move to the countryside, make their own life and refuse to cooperate with the dominant discourse or biopower regime, it is not threatening the production of biopower.” Lilja, M., & Vinthagen, S. (2014). Sovereign power, disciplinary power and biopower: resisting what power with what resistance? Journal of Political Power, 7(1), 107–126. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/2158379X.2014.889403

If completely opting out of the digital is counterproductive to resistance, there are ways to use the digital to help us more clearly see the problems we face. The Million Dollar Block’s project illuminates the discrimination inherent in Chicago’s carceral state, where there are “121 blocks with over $1 million committed to prison sentences for non-violent drug offenses.”10I first heard about this project here: https://datasociety.net/events/databite-no-47-nicholas-chung/

 

It’s too easy to assume that the digital ought to act in synergy with resistance, just as it regularly works to consolidate power. But in fact the very ease with which the digital can help us to organize a protest may in fact signal that we are not willing to put in the difficult and long term work, according to Zeynep Tufekci. She argues that effective resistance to Republican politicians could take the form of creating a public fundraising page that quickly raises large amounts of money to support challenges.11Tufekci argues that algorithms can often work against protest:”In the early days after the Ferguson protests broke out, Facebook’s algorithm was instead favoring the Ice Bucket Challenge at the time. The algorithm loved it. I loved it too, right? It’s a great thing…. the Ferguson stuff partly because the Ferguson news wasn’t likable. A teenager had gotten killed in murky conditions. It was horrible. How could you click on “like”? And at the time all you could click on Facebook was “like.” I couldn’t like it. Nobody could like it and then you couldn’t signal to the algorithm that this is important. It kind of got smothered, algorithmically.”

Tufecki does not argue that we should abandon older tactics, but that we must supplement them with new ways to challenge power. It’s been a long time since corporations or politicians were afraid of us. Too long. If the cloud runs on hybrid forms of power, then resistance will have to be hybrid, too.

 

 

References   [ + ]

1. p. 117
2. History of Sexuality, p. 135
3. Quoted in Barry Allen, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40231759 p 426. The original is from The History of Sexuality, vol 1, p.89)
4. ”And if it is true that the juridical system was useful for representing, albeit in a nonexhaustive way, a power that was centered primarily around deduction (prélèvement) and death, it is utterly in­ congruous with the new methods of power whose operation is not ensured by right but by technique, not by law but by normalization, not by punishment but by control, methods that are employed on all levels and in forms that go beyond the state and its apparatus.” History of Sexuality, p. 89
5. History of Sexuality, p.137
6. Halit Tagma argues that Agamben’s “neglect of the details and nuances of Foucault’s work has lead him to betray important components of Foucault’s understanding of biopower”, for example “that biopower has always needed sovereign exceptionalism to demarcate between those citizen-subjects who are domestic/domesticized subjectivities and those subjects who are to be cast outside.” Tagma, H. M. (2009). Homo Sacer vs. Homo Soccer Mom: Reading Agamben and Foucault in the War on Terror. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 34(4), 407–435.
7. p.116/117
8. Sovereign power: “rebellions, strikes, boycotts, disobedience and political revolutions”; disciplinary power: “openly refusing to participate in the construction of new subjectivity/capacities/skills/organisations”; and biopower: “acting differently, in subcultures, and by cultivating a different set of values, practices and institutions.” and by developing “non-productive forms of life and biological existence.”
9. “Since biopower is not interested in the individual or detail per se and is not interested in complete subordination or everyone’s compliance – but general subordination, and increased tendencies and productivity of larger numbers – what individuals do may appear of little interest. If a few people opt out, move to the countryside, make their own life and refuse to cooperate with the dominant discourse or biopower regime, it is not threatening the production of biopower.” Lilja, M., & Vinthagen, S. (2014). Sovereign power, disciplinary power and biopower: resisting what power with what resistance? Journal of Political Power, 7(1), 107–126. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/2158379X.2014.889403
10. I first heard about this project here: https://datasociety.net/events/databite-no-47-nicholas-chung/
11. Tufekci argues that algorithms can often work against protest:”In the early days after the Ferguson protests broke out, Facebook’s algorithm was instead favoring the Ice Bucket Challenge at the time. The algorithm loved it. I loved it too, right? It’s a great thing…. the Ferguson stuff partly because the Ferguson news wasn’t likable. A teenager had gotten killed in murky conditions. It was horrible. How could you click on “like”? And at the time all you could click on Facebook was “like.” I couldn’t like it. Nobody could like it and then you couldn’t signal to the algorithm that this is important. It kind of got smothered, algorithmically.”
I footnotes