Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Data Politics: The Birth of Sensory Power

by Engin Isin and Evelyn Ruppert

Didier Bigo, Engin Isin, and Evelyn Ruppert recently published an edited collection, Data Politics: Worlds, Subjects, Rights (2019, Routledge). Building on a commentary first published in Big Data & Society, the book explores how data has acquired the capacity to reconfigure relations between states, subjects, and citizens. Fourteen chapters consider how data and politics are now inseparable as data is not only shaping social relations, preferences and life chances but our very democracies. Concerned with the things (infrastructures of servers, devices and cables) and language (code, programming, and algorithms) that make up cyberspace, the book argues that understanding the conditions of possibility of data is necessary in order to intervene in and shape data politics.

We concluded our chapter entitled ‘Data’s empire: postcolonial data politics’ with the suggestion that Michel Foucault’s trilogy ‒ sovereign, disciplinary, and regulatory ‒ regimes of power is now joined by a fourth regime in the history of the present. We note that Foucault did not understand these regimes of power as supplanting but augmenting each other. That’s why he designated rather broad and shifting historical periods to identify their origins or birth: sovereign power roughly in the 16th and 18th centuries, disciplinary power in the 17th to 18th centuries, and regulatory (or biopower) in the 19th century.

The birth of regulatory power is of greatest interest to us as it relates to the development of knowledge about the species-body through the statistical sciences. Ian Hacking more precisely identified the 1820s and 1840s as the period when the idea of population was invented and statistical sciences were born as a regime of knowledge-power that regulated the relationship between the species-body (population) and individual body. Foucault broadly called this ‘biopolitics’ and inspired an important body of thought and work. His influence on the specific development of the history of statistics has been crucial and we have learned much from a pioneering body of subsequent scholarship.

Our starting point for the volume and the chapter is the need to place recent developments in data politics in relation to Foucault’s trilogy of regimes of knowledge-power. Gilles Deleuze already gestured toward this in his much-discussed ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’ (1990) but it remained a suggestive if not early proposition.

We argue that to develop that proposition requires understanding the emergence of new data gathering, mining and analytic technologies. From web platforms, mobile phones, sensors, drones, satellites and wearables to devices that make up the Internet of Things, digital technologies and the data they generate are connected to the emergence of new regimes of knowledge-power especially during the last forty years. We provide a preliminary version of this proposition and conclude that perhaps the period between the 1980s and 2020s constitutes the birth of a new knowledge-power regime. We state that although we are confident about our claim, we are yet unable to name this regime.

With work we have done since writing the chapter we are now tempted to name the new knowledge-power regime as the birth of sensory power>. The reasons for this are given in the chapter. We know this is an ambitious claim that will require further work on our part. But we hope it will also inspire readers to respond to both the chapter and our subsequent proposition that sensory power is a fourth regime in the history of the present.