Category: Non-fiction

Andreas Bernard
Komplizen des Erkennungsdienstes. Das Selbst in der digitalen Kultur
[Accomplices to Police Monitoring. Self In The Digital Culture]


The manic harvesting of digital data: a cultural process somewhere between autonomy and control

In 1987 a significant minority of Germans thought that Orwell’s 1984 had finally become into being. His terrifying vision of totalitarian surveillance seemed to be on the verge of becoming reality. Co-ordinated by the Greens, 1500 different groups joined together to demonstrate against something that strikes us today, thirty years later, as a mere bagatelle. A census was scheduled to take place in May 1987, and for the first time the information provided by citizens was to be collated with the help of computers. But this triggered an immense wave of protests. According to the director of the government’s Office for Statistics the census was far more hotly debated amongst the public ‘than any of those involved in it had predicted’. Andreas Bernard, a professor at Lüneburg University’s Center for Digital Cultures, cites this claim in his book, and he likewise refers to the anti-census guide ‘Was Sie gegen Mikrozensus und Volkszählung tun können’ (‘What you can do to oppose the micro-census and the census in general’), which alleged that the purpose of the census was to ‘subject everyone to total surveillance and to control their future behaviour’. Welcome to the world of Facebook and Amazon! Welcome to 2018!

Andreas Bernard doesn’t remind us of the 1987 protests simply out of cynicism, but to show us just how radical the break with the epistemological paradigms of the analogue world has been when viewed from our present-day vantage point. Today, in 2018, every user of a social network surrenders many times the amount of information that was condemned only three decades ago as a totalitarian state control mechanism. As we all know today, most users of online platforms surrender their data knowing perfectly well that they are thereby making it vulnerable to misuse.

In 1987 the critics of the census repeatedly compared it to the ‘registrative excesses’ of the Nazis. At that point the Second World War had happened only a generation earlier. Today, Bernard suggests, the dust appears to have settled. People’s readiness nowadays to embrace connectivity, surveillance, profiling, demonstrates a mindset shift that will occupy several generations of cultural historians. How is it that a vision of the internet as a mighty force thrusting the individual into a state of subordinacy - a vision reflected as late as 1995 in the Hollywood thriller The Net with Sandra Bullock - could morph within a period of scarcely twenty years into a hyperindividualistic utopia? How do we explain the fact that, despite gross data scandals such as that involving Cambridge Analytica, people still firmly believe in the productive power of the internet? So firmly do they believe in it, indeed, that many no longer want or can even imagine a life devoid of the ‘shop window’ function of digital platforms.

In his book Bernard takes a close look at this period - so tiny in terms of human history as a whole - in which digital media managed to become the matrix that governs our everyday lives. Following in the footsteps of Michel Foucault and his L'archéologie du savoir, he traces the historical development of new systems for capturing data. In the course of five chapters he reconstructs the history of their origins and spread, from Lavater’s doctrine of physiognomy via the anthropometrics of the criminologist Alphonse Bertillon in the nineteenth century through to the location-tracking devices of the military (GPS), the police (electronic tagging) and the entertainment industry (Apple watches).

The book begins with the categorisation system represented by ‘profiling’. ‘Up until some twenty, twenty-five years ago only serial killers and the mad were subject to “profiling”, but over the last quarter of a century this mode of categorisation, of describing and defining individual human beings, has undergone extremely rapid and far-reaching changes.’ Today, anyone who fails to produce a profile of themself risks social isolation. Bernard reminds us that many juvenile spree killers turn out to have come under suspicion at an earlier stage because of their avoidance of the internet. These days, it is those who choose to refrain from the prevailing self-profiling culture who attract the attention of the authorities - not, as used to be the case, those whose bad behaviour prompted those same authorities to assemble their own profiles of them.

The picture is much the same in respect of today’s ubiquitous GPS tracking technology. Originally used in the 1990s first for military and then also for police purposes, this form of observational technology soon entered the civilian domain - at the latest with the introduction of the first iPhone on 29 June 2007, if not before. The directions taken by today’s smartphone users, as much in their thinking as in their physical movements, are frighteningly easy to reconstruct and to monetise. Strangely, the vast majority of users are not much bothered by this: they are too highly dependent on the networking and ‘self-quantifying’ apps made possible by modern communications technology.

The common denominator of all the technologies that Bernard looks at is the manner in which their use has evolved. Their origin invariably lay in the needs of the military, the security services or the police, needs that then drove their further development. Loosely speaking we might say that whereas the watchword used to be ‘Beware - surveillance!’, it is now ‘Wow, how creative is that!’ The repressive technologies of yesterday are the emancipatory tools of today. But is that really true? No, of course it isn’t - Andreas Bernard leaves us in no doubt about that. The paradox of our age lies in an almost incomprehensible simultaneity of opposites: (self-)control, and the aspiration to autonomy. Even cultural historians find it hard to predict how these two paradigms will interact with one another in the future. But Bernard remains optimistic: ‘Our aspiration to develop our abilities ever further is a mightier weapon than any imaginable attempt to restrict our thinking to a single set of ideas.’
Katharina Teutsch

By Katharina Teutsch, 30.10.2018

​Katharina Teutsch is a journalist and critic. She writes for newspapers and magazines such as: the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Tagesspiegel, die Zeit, PhilosophieMagazin and for Deutschlandradio Kultur.

Translated by John Reddick