Nation-state sovereignty is suffocating. Consequently, the age of empirical, neoliberal politics is fast approaching its end. The following essay is an initial probe into the conditions that have enabled big tech companies to bring about the greatest global political transformation since the end of feudalism. More specifically, this essay will begin to address the conditions that have enabled major technology companies to seize the power of sovereignty from nation states, superseding state authority by infiltrating borders, walls, spaces, places, and minds. The present text is the first step toward a larger and more thorough mapping of the intersection of digital technology and post-spacial politics and power dynamics.
Writing about these topics tends to conjure in the mind of the reader images of soothsaying zealots and Luddite insurgents. Even now as I write this preface I can hear Orwell, McLuhan, and Baudrillard whispering their secret terrors in my ear. But these whispers are escalating into war cries. No longer is this simply an object of theory; tech companies have begun to regulate human activity on an unprecedented level, transforming interfaces, mechanics, and algorithms into the new tools of sovereign action. Speculation has given way to reality. A new regime knocks at the door. Our response will dictate the future of political life.
COUNCIL BLUFFS, IOWA—PRESENT DAY
GOOGLE DATA CENTER—INTERIOR
SERVERS HUM INCESSANTLY
SMALL BLUE LIGHTS BLINK INTERMITTENTLY
The republic is operating just fine. Just fine, indeed.
Everything is in order; every individual filed away neatly on these purring boxes.
We’ve built a new infrastructure. It’s changing things.
Who needs roads when we have satellites and transnational fiber optics?
We’ve built this for all of them.
Those people out there. You know which ones; you don’t need me to tell you who they are. It’s for them—the whole lot of them.
We’ve removed their burdens. Given them peace of mind.
Their governments won’t protect them anymore. We will.
Everything will be ordered and managed by us. We accept this responsibility, on their behalf.
They elected us democratically. It was unanimous.
We had no choice in the matter.
BALTIMORE, MARYLAND—PRESENT DAY
A LAPTOP LIES SILENTLY ON A DESK
ON THE SCREEN, A CURSOR BLINKS FAITHFULLY
The republic is operating just fine. Just fine, indeed.
At least that’s what they tell us.
We don’t even know who “they” are anymore. They seem to have vanished, slipped through our fingers. They used to be…what? A President? Then a CEO? Now what? Now they’re just signals shrouded in plain air. Probably a set of algorithms, distributed across a network of interconnected servers in a field somewhere. Maybe in Iowa. I hear Iowa is ripe for the picking.
They’re invisible because we stopped acknowledging them. But they’re there—growling away, blinking and calculating.
CUT TO DATA CENTER INTERIOR
A SINGLE RED LIGHT BLINKS ON A LONELY SERVER
A FIGURE RUSHES IN, AND WITH A FEW KEY STROKES TURNS THE LIGHT BACK TO BLUE
FAINT SOUNDS OF A THUNDERSTORM RAGING OUTSIDE
We elected them. We gave them the power of ordering and managing our lives. Our spaces. Our bodies. Our minds. It was a democratic process, and it was unanimous. We all wanted this.
So they built it. For us. For all of us. We don’t need to tell them who we are. They know—trust me, they know.
CUT TO HAGERSTOWN, MARYLAND
TREES BLOW IN THE WIND
ONE STANDS STILL—A CAMOUFLAGED CELL TOWER
SEVERAL ANTENNAE PROTRUDE FROM ITS LEAVES
After all, we’re living in their world now. Created for us, managed by them. How kind of them.
So what of our democratic values? We’re assured they remain intact.
Plato set the stage.
We know we’re dreaming.
We’re living in a computer.
Our world of becoming has been seized by algorithmic determinism.
What’s worse: we’re entirely lost in here. This is deep space.
What does it mean to live in physical space when our actions are regulated in cyberspace?
What does it mean when our infrastructure makes itself invisible?
What does it mean when laws are granularly applied to each individual?
What does it mean when our actions are determined by mechanistic philosopher kings?
What does it mean when the sovereign is a blinking cursor?
SECURITY CAMERA ON A NEARBY TREE ROTATES SLIGHTLY
We look into a world that looks into our lives.
This is what we wanted, so we remain quiet. The problem doesn’t matter if it’s invisible. Right?
Our collective amnesia makes their jobs easier. I guess it makes ours easier, too.
Silent collection leads over time to mass paranoia. Maybe Bentham was onto something.
But this time it isn’t the State. The State is done for. The State is in ruins.
This time there is a new kind of power.
The winter air blows sharply, carrying signals that steal the State’s breath away.
The State gutters, suffocating, foaming at the mouth.
We can hear its death rattle in the hum of our computer fans.
CUT TO HOME OFFICE—INTERIOR
LAPTOP LYING ON DESK. ITS FANS ARE NOW SPINNING LOUDLY
CURSOR STILL BLINKING WITH CONSTANCY
This is it.
There will be no swearing-in ceremony.
Say hello to the new regime.
FADE TO BLUE
We are in the epoch of simultaneity…of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.
Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces”
The new walls iterate…a vanishing political imaginary in a global interregnum, a time after the era of state sovereignty, but before the articulation or instantiation of an alternate global order.
Wendy Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty
It’s already turned loose. / It’s already coming. / It can’t be called back.
Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
Space and its purported need to be owned, controlled, and ordered has been the prime mover of history. As such, space and its politics have been objects of obsession for a long lineage of political thinkers, from Aristotle, to Rousseau, to Foucault, Negri, and Brown. This obsession was a necessary reaction to the relentless shocks caused by the rapid spacial oscillations of previous centuries, which thrusted the idea of space into broad daylight. But the age of spacial politics is coming to an end and we can hear its death rattle. Inexorably, sovereignty—the divining order of power, whose authority comes in turn from the scarcity of space—is also beginning to suffocate.
In light of this interregnum a new power has rushed in all around us, at times permeating our skin and grabbing hold of our minds. Digital networks and the corporations that drive them forward and crystallize them into infrastructure have seized sovereignty from the State, completely by accident. The new sovereignty they hold is unlike anything we have known before: it comes directly to each individual, regulating them and their behavior algorithmically, and operating in total darkness. This is a new regime: an invisible network of power that ensnares every individual. This regime will not deign to be understood. Its mechanics will remain invisible, its dynamics will continue to evade probing. Its power lies in its silence, in its obscurity. And despite being invisible, this regime has already been turned loose; it can’t be called back any longer. Our desire for technological assistance and ease of living has been our implicit consent to this new regime’s power. We elected this regime democratically and unanimously, but I suspect if we continue to allow it to operate in the dark, the consequences will be troubling. As such it is of urgent importance to problematize this new form of power in order to discover where it came from, how it operates, and what it wants. Our point of departure is space’s imminent loss of power.
When Rousseau contended in his Second Discourse that, “The first person who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying ‘This is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society,”2 his contention was essentially that space is at the center of the political realm. It seems Rousseau was right. Many generations of political thinkers took up the challenge Rousseau laid down: to examine space and its grip on the human will. In recent years this obsession has been reinvigorated by a host of spacial fluctuations that sent shocks across the globe. Invasions and occupations of sovereign territories by Russia and the United States, the founding of the Islamic State, the clash of borders and global striations, mass immigrations due to famine and war, and the evasion of spacial sovereignty by tech companies have all sent reverberating shocks through the heart of spacially-ordained power. That these fluctuations were so shocking to our political nervous system is telling: nation-states are losing their grip on space, which is where their power used to reside. The shock we have experienced lies in the fact that we are just now realizing that space has slipped out from beneath our feet, leaving us in free-fall. As Wendy Brown prophetically wrote in 2009, we have been inhabiting “a global interregnum, a time after the era of state sovereignty, but before the articulation or instantiation of an alternate global order.” Finally, it seems that an alternate global order has begun to articulate itself in the absence of space: the digital network.
Historically, regimes have signified their power through heightened visibility: borders, walls, palaces, parades, rituals. The palace at Versailles was a sign of the weakness of King Louis XIV’s reign, but to the rest of Europe it signified wealth and power of an unfathomable scale. Therefore power was an entirely spacial phenomenon: space defined the extent of a regime’s sovereignty, the structure of space signified the power of a regime, and the obedience of individuals to that structure signified the success of the regime. Striation constituted power. But as technology has transformed our world into a network, something has happened to space: it has begun to lose its power, its cogency. Space has become altogether incoherent and disjointed. First, signals began to flood through borders; then, cables and satellites became infra- and supra-, circumventing borders altogether; now, people have begun to flood freely around the globe just like signals, chased out of their spaces by regimes long out of touch with their purpose.
Every flood of information out of a nation-state’s borders, every flood of people out of its grasp, weakens the power of the State. A modern nation-state is nothing without borders. Without the power of space, the power of hyper-visibility is not power at all: no show of force, no display of wealth, no sealing of borders will bring back the sovereignty nation-states have lost. The Panopticon has lost its strength; the space around its central tower has turned to anarchy, and the tower itself is crumbling. So nation-states engage in a renewed struggle for control over space, going to war over its ownership, doing everything they can to ensure that the loss of spacial power does not equal the loss of the State’s power. States cast a net over their perceived spacial territory, attempting to hold in the space with walls, policies, isolationism, and exclusion. But space can’t be held back any longer: it is ready to explode, and the outward flood of power will strip many nation-states of their geopolitical viability. It is in the wake of these outward floods of power that Wendy Brown problematizes the disintegration of the nation-state and the walls built in and around these states in a frenzied attempt to hold back the flood.
Brown takes as her evocative object the phenomenon of contemporary wall building. Historically, according to Brown, walls were built to keep out foreign military actors—to prevent invasion by a known foe. Now, Brown observes that contemporary walls have an altogether opposite function: “They react to transnational, rather than international relations and respond to persistent, but often informal or subterranean powers, rather than to military undertakings.”3 Brown identifies this function as a sign of a post-Westphalian political landscape in which the idea of the nation-state has lost its weight and dominance. Continuing that stream of thought, Brown arrives at an interesting conclusion: “it is the weakening of state sovereignty, and more precisely, the detachment of sovereignty from the nation-state, that is generating much of the frenzy of nation-state wall building today.”4 Indeed, it is apparent that the frenzied renewal of spacial politics is a sign that sovereignty is both flooding out of nation-states and being detached entirely from the Westphalian tradition.
Having made this observation, Brown then explores the ways in which immigration, border disintegration, and transnational governing bodies have stripped nation-states of their sovereignty. However, these phenomena are merely ruptures, making sovereignty vulnerable to insurrection. Into these ruptures a new power is flooding. This power takes many forms—surveillance, Big Data, social networks, critical network infrastructure, cyber warfare, the list goes on and on—but it falls into a category I call datapower, which is an evolutionary extension of Foucault’s biopower. More exacting and specific than biopower, datapower has the ability to exact algorithmic sovereignty over individuals at a global scale, atomizing each individual and regulating their actions by shaping their daily lives, their access to knowledge, and their mental models of the world. Datapower intervenes in the processes of subjectivation and identity formation, articulating itself as a public utility to mask its pathological ends of collection and control.
Datapower is performed through a variety of channels, but these channels tend to take the outward form of infrastructure. Interfaces are designed using mental models to steer user behavior in a certain direction—in this way interface is both infrastructural backbone and public policy. Algorithms customize every page a user’s mouse traverses, granularly applying the rules of the system while ensuring the user a life of ease and entertainment. Critical network infrastructure hides from us in plain sight, disguising itself as trees, burying itself beneath our feet, inscribing itself in physical space such that there is no longer any separation between digital and physical space. Therefore datapower is an infrastructural phenomenon, not a spacial one. This is a slight but important distinction: infrastructure supersedes space, garnering its power not from spacial occupation but from spacial vacancy, from invisibility and incoherence.
This means that while nation-states focus on the disastrous implosion of spacial politics, datapower subverts the spacial realm entirely, moving freely between spaces and places via satellites and submarine cables and directly into our pockets. What’s more, because datapower operates through infrastructural means, every layer of this infrastructure compounds every other layer, entrenching each individual in a complex web of power dynamics intended to order and regulate the individual’s behavior. The sovereign is now a blinking cursor, a throbbing loading animation, a non-chronological timeline, a button placed in just the right spot. Thus sovereignty no longer means the supreme and unquestionable control over space—it now takes the form of implicit control over lived experience. This type of infrastructural sovereignty and its many layered protocols make it extremely difficult to escape the reaches of power, effectively sublimating power into the air and making it as familiar and inexorable as one’s own skin.5 Unaware that their sovereignty is being usurped in this manner, nation-states continue to focus their political efforts on retaining, capturing, and expanding their control over physical space, hoping to plug the gaps through which their power is flooding. This is why Wendy Brown problematizes walls, and why I am problematizing spacial politics itself: “What appears at first blush as the articulation of state sovereignty actually expresses its diminution relative to other kinds of global forces—the waning relevance and cohesiveness of the form.”6 Indeed, the recent explosion of spacial politics indicates not an articulation of the power of space but its diminution relative to the force of digital network dynamics and infrastructural power.
Space has become obsolete because our networked world has laid a blanket of signal and interference over the entire globe, veritably flattening topologies, erasing striations, smoothing the Earth into a malleable sphere. The post-Westphalian phenomenon has given way to a fast-approaching post-spacial world, and as Brown insists, nation-states can feel their power being ripped from their grasp. Wall building won’t stop this flood; nor will diplomacy, war, or insurrection. Mass exodus and mass walling now signify the same thing: space is being upended, its power diminished. Old regimes can’t compete with the new. Hyper-visibility, displays of wealth and force, will no longer hold back the outward flood of sovereign power. Visibility means nothing now. Incoherence is the new source of power. The new regime, the new power—datapower—signifies its authority through invisibility: we can’t see it, we can’t touch it, we can’t sense it. Its power comes from its illusiveness. Its authority comes not from its control of space but from its total transcendence of it.
We’ve walked into this regime by accident—I don’t think anyone truly knew what was coming, and it certainly seems as though the world has yet to awake from its dream of a technological utopia. The regime of datapower operates similarly to other types of soft power—it influences, steers, and corrects, and does so not with force but with structural precision. Datapower is a well-designed, self-correcting, self-entrenching arrangement of power, and it will do anything to protect itself. Facebook has leveraged itself into a global network of nodes, rather than executing its mission of creating a global network of human beings. As such, it has lost its bearings and become a tool for the production of unlimited power by any who are able to use the system’s mechanics against the system’s users. And Facebook isn’t the only example of a public utility turned public enemy. Every bit of network infrastructure, network interface, and network protocol has been upended by accident and turned against us—a form of de facto governance that nobody knows exactly how to control. As Vilém Flusser writes, “We are no longer subjects in a given, objective world but projects of alternative worlds. We have raised ourselves up from a submissive, subjective position in order to project. We are becoming adults. We know we are dreaming.”7 Indeed, we have raised ourselves up in order to project—we have orchestrated Plato’s cave writ large, projecting networks on the earth and taking them as reality. Every pixel, every node, every individual has become a territory in thrall to many sovereignties at once. By shining light on the projectors of this network fantasy—the server farms, the algorithms, the designers and engineers creating our digital network infrastructure—we may be able to avoid a global catastrophe of uncontrollable power. As we enter the post-spacial era, we have no other option—this power cannot remain invisible.
Script inspired by the beginning of Metahaven’s Black Transparency: The Right to Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance ↩
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on Inequality (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1984), 109. ↩
Wendy Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (New York: Zone Books, 2010), 33. ↩
Ibid., 36. ↩
It is worth noting at this point that because this new regime is structured in a layered set of protocols, there are many points of vulnerability and many points at which a user or citizen (what are we to call citizens in a networked world?) may opt out of a particular power dynamic. For example, a user can simply never sign up for Facebook, never buy an iPhone, or never upload a file to a server they do not own. But the value proposition of these technologies—an easier, more fulfilled, and more dynamic life—are hard to pass up, so many users choose to opt into every protocol of control without thinking twice. In this respect, we have democratically elected this new regime—we all wanted it for one reason or another. But I don’t think we’re prepared for the consequences. ↩
Brown, 36. ↩
Vilém Flusser, Medienkultur (Frankfurt a. M.: Fischer, 1997), 188. ↩