Summary

  • “An analysis of coded computer algorithms enables a supplement to Foucauldian thinking around biopolitics and biopower . . . These new conceptual devices allows us to better understand the workings of biopower at the level of category, of using computer code, statistics and surveillance to construct categories within populations according to users’ surveilled internet history” (164).

Keywords

  • “new algorithmic identity”: “an identity formation that works through mathematical algorithms to infer categories of identity on otherwise anonymous beings”; the agglomeration of advertising and tracking networks operating under the surface of the bulk of contemporary websites (165).
  • “modulation,” a concept that addresses the feedback loop wherein code continually reconstitutes and refines its production of identity (more than a little cybernetic here), “a Deleuzian approach to control that relies on practices characterized by the terms of the societies of control” (168).
  • “dividual pieces,” a Deleuzian formation of endlessly subdividable beings w/i a control society (169).

Notes

  • “We are entering an online world where our identifications are largely made for us” (165) through inference based on web use. While I agree broadly w/ Cheney-Lippold’s claim, both Appadurai and Browne offer conclusive evidence of the ways that identity-formation technologies pre-exist the digital through textual and information tech like the census.
  • Article begins w/ a survey of critical thought around code:
    • The Lessig approach (which no one takes) wherein code is architecture and logos: “Rules are both intentionally and unintentionally written into the hardware and software of internet technologies that then create the infrastructure that determines how we as users can act in cyberspace” (166)
    • The Thrift/Galloway approach, which is “structural,” enables standardization and technical procedures; the regulation of behavior and affect (166).
  • “Codes are cultural objects embedded and integrated within a social system whose logic, rules, and explicit functioning work to determine the new conditions of possibilities of users’ lives” (167).
  • Cheney-Lippold’s focus: how do marketing companies use code to define X, that is, constitute an identity for a user? Shift from “demographic to psychographic categorization,” from census-tract to pattern of use (167): “Such a shift focuses not on essential notions of identity but instead on pliable behavioral models, undergirded by algorithms, that allow for the creation of a cybernetic relationship to identification” (168).
  • “Dividual pieces, onto which I conceptually map the raw data obtained by internet marketing surveillance networks, are made intelligible and thus constitute the digital subject through code and computer algorithms” (169).
  • Continual surveillance means continual refinement: “The implicit disorder of data collected about an individual is organized, defined, and made valuable by algorithmically assigning meaning to user behavior—and in turn limiting the potential excess of meanings that raw data offer” (170).
  • “Rather, algorithms allow a shift to a more flexible and functional definition of the category, one that de-essentializes gender from its corporeal and societal forms and determinations while it also re-essentializes gender as a statistically-related, largely market research-driven category. Gender becomes a vector, a completely digital and math-based association that defines the meaning of maleness, femaleness, or whatever other gender (or category) a marketer requires” (170).
  • “soft biopolitics”: the continual low-level production of categorization, contrasting to the state-level apparatuses of biopolitics that Foucault articulated (173); “The demands put on soft biopower—of updatable categories that can adapt to the dynamism of populations—require malleable, modulating categorical groupings in order to effectively define and redefine categories’ meaning” (174).
  • “First, ontologies are embedded within a set of power relations. Second, the categories that are bred from those ontologies exercise a profound impact on how we as subjects encounter our world. And third, changes in our categorizing schematics are indebted to this fundamental coding of a culture, from which I find a strong parallel to the technological organization of subject identities through code and algorithm” (174).
  • In a regime of soft biopolitical control, it becomes more useful to think about the production of categories rather than individuals, which in turn “makes a break with the theoretical lineage around control and technology that was begot in the world of cyberpunk” (176–77).
  • “Cybernetic categorization provides an elastic relationship to power, one that uses the capacity of suggestion to softly persuade users towards models of normalized behavior and identity through the constant redefinition of categories of identity. If a certain set of categories ceases to effectively regulate, another set can quickly be reassigned to a user, providing a seemingly seamless experience online that still exerts a force over who that user is” (177).

Archive and Impact

  • Cheney-Lippold works in American studies; his approach has more in common with the communications and media studies folks in the TCC list than the more political theory / sociology folks I’ve thus read in the Politics of Networks list. That being said, his approach relies on more overt theoretical engagement than do the comms folks; the article begins from an engagement w/ then-current critical code studies and centers its main analysis around a revision of Foucauldian biopolitics.
  • Note the article’s reliance on cybernetic feedback loops following (but not mentioning explicitly) Wiener.