Algorithmic States of Exception

REVISED Abstract for a paper submitted to the European Journal of Cultural Studies

In this paper I argue that pervasive tracking and datamining is leading to a shift in governmentality that can be characterised as algorithmic states of exception.  The apparatus that performs this change owes as much to everyday business models as it does to mass surveillance. I look at technical changes at the level of data structures, such as the move to NoSQL databases, and how this combines with datamining and machine learning to accelerate the use of prediction as a form of governance.  The consequent confusion between correlation and causation leads, I assert, to the creation of states of exception. I set out what I mean by states of exception using the ideas of Giorgio Agamben, focusing on the aspects most relevant to algorithmic regulation such as force-of and topology. I argue that the effects of these state of exception escape legal constraints such as concepts of privacy. Having characterised this as a potentially totalising change and an erosion of civil liberties I ask in what way the states of exception can be opposed.  I follow Agamben by drawing on Walter Benjamin's concept of pure means as a tactic that is itself outside the frame of law-producing or law-preserving activity. However, the urgent need to respond requires more than a philosophical stance, and I examine two examples of historical resistance that satisfy Benjamin's criteria. For each in turn I draw connections to contemporary cases of digital dissent that exhibit some of the same characteristics. I conclude that it is possible both theoretically and practically to resist the coming states of exception. I end by warning what is at stake if we do not.

If you would like to read a draft of the paper please drop me a line: dan AT internetartizans DOT co DOT uk


Original abstract 

This paper follows the loose thread of the Snowden revelations back through the fog of big data to see what kind of apparatus emerges. Instead of Foucault's disciplinary model rooted in the specifics of relational databases, it finds that the operations of datamining produce a regime of predictions built on the substitution of correlation for causation, manifesting in the world as the emergence of algorithmic regulation. Abandoning relational databases for NoSQL has helped to open up a free field for preemptive prediction across the social field. The historical force of these developments is characterised through Giorgio Agamben's concept of the State of Exception; a state where law, rights and political meaning to life are suspended. The final part of the paper asks what can be done to contest an apparatus that produces algorithmic states of exception. Recognising that law & policy are a priori insufficient, it seeks guidance from historical social movements that have operated during earlier times of exception and their correlates in contemporary forms of digital disruption. It examines in detail the medieval Brethren of the Free Spirit and the contemporary antinomians of Anonymous, and also the moral economy of mid-eighteenth century English food riots and what that might teach us about initiatives like Cryptoparty. It concludes with a call to reverse the current mode of machine learning in order to start 'learning against the machine'.