Monday, 10 August 2015

Being caught reddit-handed, or the pleasures of policing for free

I got in trouble at the weekend when I set up a reddit account (my first one ever) and, having had a rather cursory reading through the rules of the group (or subreddit) I had joined, I was kicked out. I had, it seems, gravely violated the rule no-links-to-your-personal-blog-are-allowed-on-this-subreddit. Mind you, the link was inside a post that was the equivalent of half a Microsoft Word page, but what does that matter? Out I went. First infringement, red card. Harsh policy (zero tolerance); excellent policy-implementation.

Source: Fear and Loathing in Bioethics
The episode has left me thinking. Not about dis-affiliation from groups but about this idea of being spotted, of being handcuffed (metaphorically speaking), of being caught red-handed.
So Id like to start by noticing this language of apprehension and its potential for rhyme. Reddit, red-handed. Just for fun. (Couldnt help it.) Also couldnt help thinking about the way reddit is organized, as a means of dissemination and dismissal at the same time. But I need to be well understood: by reddit I mean pretty much all of social media, and with it pretty much everything that takes place online.

Nobody has asked for it

Now allow me a few words about the avatar that caught me. I checked his/her/their history as one does in such circumstances, Im sure. They havent posted anything original in one year. Ever since their last post theyve been engaged in replies, more or else, but also in the territorial and emblazoning (to them) actions of policing the space in search for intruders. Now thats an interesting aspect, because nobody has given them a sheriffs badge for doing so. Nobody gives any such badge to any such vigilante on the internet. And I mean nobody, because the actual work, the real work of fending and defending, of blocking and dismissing, is done not by human beings but by algorithms. What human beings can do is alert those algorithms when they come across incriminating practices such as (I had to find out) my own. And thats exactly where the issue finds its grounding. In the fact that individuals offer their time and resources to serve algorithms. Take it as a dystopian panic if you will, although I dont mean it that way. And so the deeper question that imposes itself is this: isnt this loyalty to the algorithm somehow a manifestation of the loyalty to another kind of abstractions? To the abstractions represented by ideologies?

Algorithm, the latest materialization of control
All ideologies need materializations. They cannot dwell in the abstract because theyre supposed to address concrete social items: human beings. Yes, this itemization that were subjected to comes hand in hand with the externalization of our concerns. Stuffed with the dictates we are exposed to like some docile teddy bears, we take pleasure in controlling others, in exercising this weird, dehumanizing (algorithmizing) power: the ability to find the right places where others do wrong by a given system.
The vigilante who caught me reddit-handed had a concern larger and seemingly more important than the actual reason he had presumably joined reddit for. He was there to discuss books. Thats what the group was for, thats what the group was asking for. The rules were clear (I found out after reading them closely): you dont post unless your posts are related to book discussions. Its with this kind of adamantine restrictiveness that the issue of participation was imposed on the members. And yet, the individual who caught me (I want to insist on this word because I want, in essence, to insist on the process of being criminalized which is precisely what rule-breaking leads to) did not post a reply to my contribution. No, they chose to report me (another word of the same resonance). Content was not important. What mattered was that a forbidden object was present in a forbidden place. Im not trying to defend myself because I know that would sound pathetic; and it wouldnt even be the purpose of this very post. But heres the issue: twenty lines of text mattered less than one link half a line in length. All the rest was discussion of a book! Whats more, it was a reply to a question posted by somebody else.

But lets move on

A few weeks ago I wrote about the phenomenon of synopticism: the inversion of the panoptic gaze to the point where were no longer dealing with a figure of authority watching over and super-vising the subjects but rather with the situation where subjects watch around themselves in order to police the space of their social interaction as if they were law enforcers. Policemen without a payroll. Thats precisely what Foucault pointed out throughout his career: the disciplining of the individuals to the point where they become guarantors of the discourses functioning. There are many other illustrations of the phenomenon. Think of all the white supremacist movements and their urge to protect a presumed universality by clearing it of a presumed non-white threat.

From Django Unchained. Source: giphy
Think of the neighbor who peers into your own bedroom. Think of the entitlement to install surveillance cameras on ones own property.
This last example is a really interesting one, and possibly closer to the online vigilance Im trying to bring up in this post. In essence, a camera set up on ones property will not annul a theft. It is not the camera that deters a thief from breaking and entering but the fear of being caught on it. Not only that, but the camera is not a security object per se. It does not hinder access. Like even the loudest alarm ever, it is not a blocking device. If a thief did not know that a camera existed he or she would just move on undeterred; the theft would go as planned. At least an alarm system draws attention to its own presence when it goes off. Not a camera, though.
Then whats the point? What does the person who installed the camera gain from having installed it? Peace of mind? I doubt it. We, the outsiders, are not the only ones who know that a camera is completely incompetent against a break-in. The owner knows it too. So the camera doesnt demarcate for them a worry-free territory. What it does demarcate, though, is a space of policing. If the camera catches the intruder the owner can use the image to refer the intruder to the legal discourse. The owner, therefore, has little to gain for themselves but a lot to gain for the discourse.

Unpaid work makes the world go round

This is the externalization of concern I was talking about. The state of being-concerned does not serve the individual. He/she remains on duty but without being remunerated for it. They give away an important asset (their generosity) in order to fulfill the purposes of power.
Im familiar with the term leave without pay. It is very carefully pointed out whenever an individual transgresses certain rules concerning not-engagement in the workplace. But I havent heard any instance of being on duty without pay (voluntary work excluded), although a lot of what happens in terms of this policing of the social sphere by unemployed individuals points precisely in that direction.

Source: Huffington Post
Pay needs to be regarded not necessarily as monetary remuneration. These days, when visibility has become a currency in itself, social capital needs to be understood in terms of the benefit drawn from having been involved. In what? In anything. Anything, that is, that has significance to the discourse of visibility.
And so back to my poliziotto. I mean not to him-him but to what he represents. To recapitulate, what have we here? Someone in the service of an algorithm. Someone acting for the benefit of a site thats not his own, from which he gains very little, possibly nothing. Someone whos settled into a regulated territory and has inhaled all the fumes of the site, in such a great quantity that now theyre high on the idea of duty. Which is not even an idea anymore, but rather an internalized practice. And that, without going into any other details, is characteristic of the disciplined society were inhabiting. Nothing new in itself. Nothing outrageously unknown. Just another instantiation of an age-old propensity towards self-subjection, something Foucault spent entire books talking about. And talking, and talking.