The Whole Is Greater Than the Part (Part 3)

Historical Morse Codes (Wikipedia)

The next section of Kitichin & Dodge’s Code/Space I want to consider begins with chapter 5, Automated Management.  I will use “govern” for any kind of management structure, both private and public.

Put simply, automated management is the regulation of people and objects through processes that are automated (technologically enacted), automatic (the technology performs the regulation without prompting of direction), and autonomous (regulation, discipline, and outcomes are enacted without human oversight) in nature…On the one hand, software is being used to create more effective systems of surveillance and, on the other, to create capture systems that actively reshape behavior by altering the performance of the task.  Automated management thus works in a different way compared to other modes of governmentality, creating a situation where “code is law”.

K&D discuss how of all this is largely invisible to causal, and to some extent, focused scrutiny.  It’s business as usual to the governed.

Those who govern, on the other hand, design highly formal (and consequential) rules they can modify at any time with no new visibility.  Governance is therefore able to entice “people to desire [the systems of control] and willingly and voluntarily participate in their ideology and practice (rather than simply disciplining them into docile bodies)”. (90)

The capture and recording of people data is increasingly the default,  excessive to the immediate task, embedded in “dumb” technologies, and shifting from intermittent to continuous, mobile and networked.

This is mostly acceptable to most people.  K&D write, “It is quite difficult to argue that one wants to be less safe, less secure, less competitive, less productive of less empowered.”  At the same time, these data practices are largely invisible to individuals who are therefore unable to choose whether or not to participate. The use of such data may harm both individuals  and society.

For many, this leads to an instinctive wariness of such practices, while also feeling  powerless to do anything about it.  K&D note that such a situation “raises  serious ethical concerns and political questions of equity pertaining to the development and widespread role of surveillance systems that have the ability to capture details about people’s lives in great detail.”

At the same time it is clear that code can contribute to creativity and empowerment for its users.

Our aim is to illustrate how software often works as a progressive force for personal and social change and to counter some of the more doom laden commentaries, as detailed in the previous chapter, which casts the work that software does in an almost universally negative light. (112)

K&D then consider examples in the arts (music and photography), academics, social media, mapping and political organization and engagement.  They point to the tension between code’s ability to enable new possibilities for creative and political purposes while also enabling “greater state scrutiny and corporate monitoring”.

In the three following chapters, K&D consider in detail the construction of code/space in air travel, the home and the consumption of goods.  Through these examples they concretize how code transmutes space and illustrate the positives and negatives of coded environments.  These detailed and nuanced discussions are well worth the reading.  For my purposes here, I will only point to them.  As I mentioned previously, K&D’s website  links to their papers leading up to Code/Space including those corresponding to these chapters.

I plan one more installment of this series/review to discuss their conclusions and how they propose to resolve the tension between code’s benefits and dangers.

See also:
The Whole Is Greater Than the Part (Part 1)
The Whole is Greater Than The Part (Part 2)


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