Essays, Analyses and Meditations

Back to my essays | Back to the Philosophy pages | Author

Power after Biopower

  • Marxism analyzed the power exerted by capital in the age of physical goods.
  • Then postmodernism analyzed the virtual society in which virtual things (e.g. media) prevail over physical things.
  • Now we need a new concept of "power" altogether.
  • There are at least three kind of technologies.
  • 1. Devices that do what you tell them to do (from the printing press to factory machines, from washing machines to telephones).
  • 2. Devices that guide/assist you (favorite example, the navigator that tells you which route to take). These are devices that control our movements in the sense that we increasingly have to trust the device without having the skills/knowledge to understand whether the device is doing a good job. These devices are designed by anonymous people and rely on data collected by other anonymous people working in companies and agencies of which we lost control a long time ago.
  • 3. Devices that determine what you see of the world.
  • The most popular search engine's ranking algorithm (designed by some anonymous mathematicians) decides which websites we see. Most people will follow the search engine's ranking of websites and never visit the ones that rank very low. This is a form of censorship without any physical intimidation. Totalitarian regimes never had such an efficient system to obliterate information that they didn't like.
  • Social media are replicating one by one all mechanisms of society (events, news feed, public figures, etc) and therefore their features (designed by anonymous engineers and sociologists) determine what people do in their spare time. Facebook even has an algorithm that decides which things of your past you should remember.
  • Wikipedia (maintained by anonymous editors and by a "mob" that increasingly consists of public-relationship agencies, special-interest groups and government agencies) determines what people know about the past. Wikipedia creates the virtual world that dystopian novels used to talk about, a world in which "reality" is determined by an invisible power.
  • What Google, Facebook and Wikipedia have in common is that a relatively small group of anonymous and unelected people de facto control the lives of billions of people. These "controllers" are NOT particularly rich, they are NOT politicians, they are NOT gangsters; but at the end of the day they have more power than any capitalist, politician or gangster ever dreamed of having over the masses.
  • In both Google's and Facebook's case the economic force that keeps them alive is advertising, which is mostly controlled by big corporations, whose goal is to control what people buy, which determines what people do. The people who run these advertising campaigns are also anonymous and, obviously, unelected.
  • Another example of the changing nature of power is self-surveillance. We increasingly surveil ourselves. It is not Foucault's state that creates the panopticon: it is increasingly us, thanks to social media, selfies and live streaming. The age of the selfies is also the age of the self-made panopticon.