Distraction Free Reading

‘Dynamic Totalities’: Data Surveillance as a Paradigm

In the zeitgeist of academia, surveillance has clearly an ominous connotation. However, is surveillance not fundamentally a way of looking? More formally, a way of looking at totalities. Whatever is studied, observed, or measured is part of a definitive totality. A virus is part of a sample. Families are part of a community. Workers are part of the factory. A scientist is part of a laboratory. One reason we are cautious about speaking of totalities is because we are scared of being reductive. But what if we could dynamically measure parameters defining the totalities which concern us. What if we could define our totalities at will and observe phenomena within its boundaries, track phenomena flowing out of it, or ingressing it? If this sounds like an uncanny  ‘intelligent’ camera or rather a poetic job re-description of the individual in the CCTV room, then it is meant to be so. Data surveillance can offer perhaps a fresh paradigm for observation and analysis irrespective of the actual use of computers that enable it.

Instead of looking at the materiality of the technologies which enable surveillance, we will attempt to abstract a formal lesson from the magic of data surveillance and the lesson is a return to speaking of totalities. In the way we map out our observational space, there seems to be a gradual pushing to the back-seat of the total, or the macro (though they may not mean the same things)  because of the rising primacy of the micro. The individual ethnographer is best equipped to interact at the scale of the individual, the micro. Is it true that the total belongs to another incomprehensible scale? Not quite.

Illustration of a computer monitor with a browser tab open. The window is filled with a large eye.

Image 1: Data Surveillance and the debates around ‘Totalities’ [Image Source: commons.wikimedia.org]

I will make a distinction here between thinking through multiple totalities and the project of building a general awareness of the macro-micro connection. The anthropologist Bruno Latour passionately attempts to demonstrate the usefulness of the schema of the network as the biggest gift of the internet. For Latour, the network is a return to thinking of the macro too, but more an acknowledgment of the macro being made up of the micro. What if knowledge arises out of a dynamic freedom to choose and study the macro? 

There is a steadfast refusal of the charm of technology while accepting its significance as a dimension of anthropological reality, especially a marauding reality like the internet which is obsessed with the new or the ‘next big thing’. There is a slow degeneration of science into technoscience as science is still held in the thrall of technology. For anthropologists, perhaps there is much to revel in the exposition of what is not quite new about this new beast called the networked society and its associated wonders.  We now seem pretty certain about the terms of engagement with what can be broadly classified as internet and computing technologies: uncovering its materiality. The chimeric virtuality is grounded via its material substrate to the human network that is implicated in it. The other option is to see computing technologies as being grafted upon and revealing further the anthropological reality that is late capitalism. 

However, there is no denying that the curious category of ‘social scientists’ who are more unabashedly earnest about their work as science, are quite excited about the possibilities of ‘big data’. This has led to the individuation of a discipline , namely culturomics. Culturomics is a fancy name for the aspiration of mining academic worth out of Twitter trends. It brings the aura of respectability and the promise of wisdom to data surveillance. Yet adopting the instruments of computing technologies is not the only way anthropology can gainfully interact with computing. That’s not why everyone should be asked to do a crash course in culturomics.

Technology and Theory: New Reciprocities

The history and philosophy of science are replete with examples where instruments anticipate and determine the specific forms in which knowledge is discovered. This is because they embody a certain abstract, formal principle awaiting proper crystallization. The Carnot cycle was a formalization of the steam engine that was invented before it and it revolutionized, nay, established thermodynamics. Peter Galison, the philosopher of science, has shown how Einstein’s experience with the patents on synchronizing clocks led him to fundamentally rethink the relationship between space and simultaneity, thus laying the ground for the theory of special relativity. 

Exposure to a new technology creates the conditions of the possibility of a new paradigm. Likewise, can culturomics inspire a paradigm shift? Big data works with what can be called dynamic totalities. In the case of google trends and twitter, we think of data interacting with totalities of discourse arising from totalities of populations. But we can define any kind of totality and measure any kind of data: be it crime, violence, consumption, etc. etc. Skeptical as we are about the totalitarian instincts of surveillance and control probably lying beneath such acts of measurement, we can still isolate the philosophical presumptions driving them for the sake of more objective consideration. If Twitter trend-like data change so waywardly, do they presume a changeability of the communities they are drawn from? Or does it force us to confront the dynamism of all structures deemed static?

2 CCTV cameras

Image 2: Surveillance Cameras: Shifting structures of surveillance [Image Source: Frederic Bartl]

Structures may not be static, but they certainly do not change fast enough to deter the species of anthropologists from making field visits. Even a founding “structuralist” like Levi Strauss is mindful of structures changing —which pushed him into the territory of thermodynamics from where he borrowed the concept of entropy. Entropy, representing a measure of disorder, was a tacit reminder of the impermanence of structures. One may detect order defining structures. But order changes, structure evolves and even dies out. We wonder if the prism of a fundamental disorder would be a more apt methodological guideline. The revival of disorder as a ruling trope can paralyze the epistemological impulse that keeps disciplines truly alive. How does one guard against it?

One can, with a further extension of the thermodynamic metaphor already invoked through the notion of entropy. Acknowledging the primacy of disorder only means we appreciate the dynamic nature of totalities in focus. The second lesson that can be drawn from thermodynamics is that systems under observation are bounded and boundaries define the separation between the system and the environment. This freedom to define a system and to choose a boundary is the freedom to define the totalities we want to surveil and study. 

I believe both these insights can potentially be wrested out of the wisdom of Levi Strauss. But it is big data and its possibilities which provide the perfect occasion for highlighting the salience of this methodological ideology, if I may call it so. Structures being deemed static has ideological implications too. For if structures were so tightly constrained against the possibility of change, would it not be a tacit validation of their existence? Would we not be tempted to derive necessity from the lack of contingency in our frameworks? For Ambedkar, that would mean an impossibility to imagine change.

As with all new paradigms, they often cement their legitimacy through an antecedent that anticipated it but was probably ignored. And I am tempted to bring out such an example here.

In my opinion, losing sight of totalities may often lead one to what we can call ‘folk anthropologies’. One folk anthropology that had great hold over the Indian political imagination was what the Indian sociologist M. N. Srinivas called “the myth of the self-sufficiency of the Indian village”. Perhaps this folk anthropology has its Western equivalents as well because it forms pretty much the basis of all visions of rustic idealism. However, Srinivas proposes an ingenious re-examination of the village as an isolated totality that survives the violent totalities of the kingdom, for example. Srinivas deftly shows that the village is only a chimeric entity when considered against the backdrop of markets and trade besides dependence on towns. Rather than imagining the village to be isolated, Srinivas essentially looks for the boundaries of totalities associated with it, like the economic activity, kinship structures, and even spatial situation. Srinivas could see all this in 1960, way before big data would afford possibilities of so many kinds of both localized and aggregated observation and analyses that we take for granted.

The Return to Totalities

Hence, internet technologies cry out for a return to the very idea of totality and we should care to listen. Can anthropology revive studies that take the totality of their object space into due consideration? Because if anthropology doesn’t, then ‘big’ data certainly will, big corporations and big military-industrial complexes already are. Which is to say that characterizing totalities with useful levels of confidence is more routine than we think it is. An analytical principle needs to be reclaimed and reappropriated. There is a danger, of course, of analysis of totalities turning ‘totalitarian’. But totalitarianism indicates a certain stasis that is not the mark of the dynamism that the internet encourages, and it is one which allows us the freedom to choose multiple totalities while observing the mutations of each. Can the formal affordances of a technology be distilled into a new spirit of analysis (which may or may not rely on said technology for its execution)?

Surveilling the territories of interdisciplinary struggles, we need to look no further than economics to see how differently it has handled the problem of studying totalities. Consider the criticism of GDP being a false obsession with a total economy that hides, nay, obfuscates so-called micro-realities. But is the micro, the philosophical repartee to the macro? In my opinion, it is instead the freedom to choose new totalities. The answer to deceptive GDPs is not just the micro-anecdote about inequality but also macro data about wages and migrations. Characterizing any entity, in total, by approximate indexes is still not to be jettisoned away as a methodological deficiency.

While the economists have upped the ante on the importance of particular, individual behaviour, they have never lost sight of the total, the macro. And we must remember that no particularism is truly bereft of a desire to be more representative of its object, thereby containing an implicit gesture towards the totality it is part of. Freedom to define formally explicit totalities can cure such particularisms of their implicit generalizability.

For long, totalities remind us of totalities of suffering populations doomed to the fate of a utilitarian or worse, a Malthusian calculation. The paradigm of dynamic totalities afforded by data surveillance may help to exorcise those totalitarian nightmares. This formalist ‘literalization’ of the word ‘surveillance’ can supply a methodology then, and generate, in a different context, an antidote to its overwhelmingly sinister connotations.

 I thank my anthropologist friend Benu Verma for many useful inputs and criticisms.

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