Big Data theorists have, for a while, been warily eyeing the growth of the “Internet of Things” (IoT), which is when “smart” technology is integrated into ordinary household devices like refrigerators and toasters. New fridges all have warning lights that remind you to change the water filter; IoT fridges will order the new filter for you. “Smart” utility meters are another example: they can monitor your utility usage moment by moment, making adjustments, say, to the HVAC to optimize power (or to prevent brownouts by automatically raising the temperature of everybody’s house a degree or two during peak hours). Such smart meters are obviously key if those with rooftop solar are going to sell their surplus capacity to the power company. They also enable very detailed surveillance of people’s home lives: they apparently know when you’re using power for the dishwasher, the shower, the TV, and so on.
Capital knows opportunity when it arrives; if your dishwasher is using more power than the average dishwasher, expect advertising for a new, energy-efficient model. If you routinely have lights on until very late at night, maybe you need some medicine to help you sleep, delivered to your web browser. Your boss sees opportunity as well: if you routinely disarm the alarm, turn on the lights and open the fridge at 3:30am, maybe you’ve been out clubbing too late to be a good worker, and you need to have your desk cleared by 5:00 today. This inference will be assisted by the fact that clubs now keep networked electronic records - ostensibly for security purposes - of who goes in and out (and who is banned: if you get thrown out of a club, all the other clubs on that network can refuse you entrance). What if your boss buys the data from the club networks, and the utility company and crunches it to measure productivity? Or, sells it to the insurance company, where you’re told that your new wellness initiative requires you to allow your devices to report that you come home and stay there by midnight every night, under penalty of punitive premiums? Your auto insurance bill will almost certainly go up too, because you’ll have installed the vehicle tracking devices that will, by then, be necessary to avoid punitive insurance rates.
But all of that is about surveilling the human. In a fascinating new paper, Kevin Haggerty and Daniel Trottier extend the study of surveillance to nature, noting that the practice is both pervasive and growing, on the one hand, and nearly completely ignored, on the other, with the partial exceptions of Latour and Haraway. I suspect that this is a paper destined to have a big impact; Haggerty in particular is a very significant surveillance theorist, and in a 2000 paper, he and Richard Ericson made a very influential push to orient surveillance studies around the Deleuzian notion of an “assemblage,” arguing that the Foucauldian “panopticon” had become dated. In the current paper, Haggerty and Trottier look at several ways that we now surveil nature that they expect to grow exponentially with developing technologies. None of them are exactly new, but things like RFID tags will make them a lot cheaper, easier, and more commonplace: the representation of ever-more-remote aspects of nature, often turning it into spectacle; using animals as agents (for example, as the Germans did during WWI, attaching cameras to homing pigeons); the increased use of biosentinels (where we rely on an animal’s response to the environment to infer information about that environment. The canary in the coal mine or the drug-sniffing dog are the textbook examples); and taking surveillance inspiration from nature (looking at insect eyes to develop cameras that can see a full 360 degrees, for example). They then suggest three implications for research into surveillance: (1) there are non-technological aspects of surveillance that need highlighting and study; (2) not all surveillance is of humans (contrary to what most of the literature talks about); and (3) we need to look carefully at inspirations for surveillance. They close by highlighting that the human/nature boundary has never been a particularly bright one, and it’s likely to get less so as we move on.
The further eclipse of the human/nature boundary has been pursued by Haraway and Latour (both of whom they cite), and seems exactly right. It’s also borne out by more popular texts, like Charles Mann’s 1491, which points out the complex history of bison: Native Americans had hunted them nearly to extinction; when Europeans arrived with their diseases, most of the Native Americans died; as a result, Bison rebounded to the numbers that later Americans saw at least in part because their main natural predator was no longer a serious threat. More philosophically, the argument gels neatly with the Clark/Chalmers extended-mind hypothesis and Clark’s Natural born Cyborgs, both of which point out that aspects of the built environment are constitutive parts of our cognitive apparatus. But Clark in particular makes it clear that arbitrary boundary-setting for the “mind” is a mistake. And, of course, it turns out that there are many more microbes in human bodies than there are human cells (and that we wouldn’t survive without this microbiome): this is the first lesson of gut bacteria. So I take it that point isn’t controversial any more, or at least it shouldn’t be.
The theoretical implications of their analysis are nonetheless significant. First, it implies (to be blunt) that Deleuze and Guattari are right about how things fit together as assemblages, and that the Heideggerian critique of technology is wrong. D&G are interested in how assemblages form and disperse, and how they act, particularly when they do so with structures that do not follow traditional notions of bodies, with their well-defined control structures, hierarchies, limbs, and so on. There is no particular reason to think that any given assemblage will or will not contain any particular part or kind of parts, or any particular structure. Latour and Haraway make similar points, if not in the same way. Heidegger, on the other hand, in what I think really needs to be read in Aristotelian terms, draws a sharp line between nature and technology, arguing that modern technology now governs nature. This is bad because it converts nature to a “standing reserve” and does not let it act on its own. That is, for Heidegger, nature is ultimately passive in the modern technological episteme; we have essentially reversed the Aristotelian division according to which natural things contain the arche of their own motion and artifacts get this moving principle from elsewhere. Modern technology generates the arche for everything. The interaction between surveillance and nature shows that there is a two way street, and that we need to complicate our theorizing of agency and actors in the direction Latour takes Actor Network Theory. This is the case even if the rise of nature tourism and the production of nature as a spectacle is precisely the sort of thing Heidegger worried about, or at least as one thinks about aspects of a Heideggerian critique that remain important.
Second, and of greater interest (to me, anyway), Haggerty and Trottier make a point about “governance:”
“This analysis has sought to create a space to contemplate the nonhuman critically. We define surveillance as collecting and analyzing information about populations and places for purposes of governance. We see this definition’s greater inclusivity as a distinct advantage in that it is fittingly nominalist about the matter” (415)
“Nature” becomes a matter of governmentality, of the conduct of conduct. In a sense, this has been true for a long time: that’s what the park system is, and it’s why there are debates about whether to deliberately set fires, since naturally, forests have them every few years - indeed, periodic fires turn out to be very important to the health of forest ecosystems. It’s also why the ozone hole over Antarctica is finally closing: there was an international agreement to stop using ozone-depleting CFC’s. But in another sense, the expansion in the ways we interface with nature, and the different kinds of points of contact, multiply the occasions for applying governmental logic to nature. “Governmentality” is how you constitute and regulate populations, be they of deer or cyborgs.
That is of particular concern now, because under the sway of neoliberalism we tend to view all governance as a matter of economics, and that worldview - because nature isn’t easily valued in dollars and cents, and thus registers as an “externality” to most economic transactions - has been (and will be) catastrophic for the environment. If there is no price for carbon emissions, for example, then there is no incentive to reduce them. But absent governmental action, environmental damage isn’t a cost that corporations have to internalize. Not only that, we are told that climate change, doesn’t just represent economic loss for people whose entire countries will be submerged; it represents opportunities in the form of shipping through the arctic and growing food in different places.
In other words, concerns about the current regime of governmentality need to be raised in the context of nature - not the mythical, never-existed “wild” nature - but nature as the human-nature-technology hybrid that it always has been. “Nature” and parts of it can be a population, and human-natural interaction can be viewed in terms of different kinds of actors and agents forming (possibly temporary) populations, subject to statistical sorting and counting. The best theorist I’ve read on this topic is Melinda Cooper, whose Life as Surplus tracks the emergence of what she calls the “bioeconomy,” which has emerged as the response of capital to early 1970’s concerns about limits to growth (most prominently, perhaps, in the Ehrlichs’ Population Bomb) and its fundamental principle that the possibilities for growth are endless because life itself is endless (subject to periods of “creative destruction” - Cooper brilliantly incorporates the Schumpeterian neoliberal bumper sticker). As she writes:
“The biotech revolution, I argue, is the result of a whole series of legislative and regulatory measures designed to relocate economic production at the genetic, microbial, and cellular level, so that life becomes, literally, annexed within capitalist processes of accumulation” (19)
The problem - and here is how we know that this is neoliberal thought at work - is that the approach is financialized. That is, we are dumping into the environment on the promise of future problem-solving growth:
“The promise of capital in its present form – which after all is still irresistibly tied to oil – now so far outweighs the earth’s geological reserves that we are already living on borrowed time, beyond the limits. U.S. debt imperialism is currently reproducing itself with an utter obliviousness to the imminent depletion of oil reserves” (31)
More succinctly, capital now “dreams of reproducing the self-valorization of debt in the form of biological autopoiesis” (31). As neoliberalism makes of nature a place for capitalist accumulation, and not the external limit to accumulation, nature and life as we have traditionally thought them become devalued as the raw materials for primitive accumulation:
“As long as life science production is subject to the imperatives of capitalist accumulation, the promise of a surplus of life will be predicated on a corresponding move to devaluate life. The two sides of the capitalist delirium – the drive to push beyond limits and the need to reimpose them, in the form of scarcity – must be understood as mutually constitutive” (49)
When you add big data to the mix, things get even more complicated. Big data about nature of course has the potential to be enormous, and certainly has the potential to be good for scientific knowledge and empowering, and it has the potential to help corporations understand how best to dominate it. What Haggerty and Trottier’s piece makes clear is that the particular form of governmentality we will apply to nature will incorporate nature even further into capital. Data becomes (recall here) another moment for complete subsumption of everything into capital, and that process is facilitated by the accumulation of data from nature. I haven’t thought about the implications of the topic too much, but the obvious first step is biopiracy: Western companies already pillage traditional remedies and then patent them as pharmaceuticals; analytics will enable them to determine which remedies to appropriate that much faster.