Academic journal article New Formations

Control Societies and Platform Logic

Academic journal article New Formations

Control Societies and Platform Logic

Article excerpt

To affirm the historicity of power is to distinguish its specifically material and temporally variant nature. It is to recognise that in each era power must be refashioned in the image of its age. The task of critical political thinkers being, in turn, to discover and hence unmask these mechanisms. How do the operations of power transform over time? Or, to put the question another way, how does power manifest historically unique operational modalities according to particular configurations of social, economic, technical, and environmental parameters? At stake in Gilles Deleuze's influential essay on the control society is precisely such an answer to these questions, a speculative outline of the still emergent dynamics of power in post-Fordist societies. (1) While lightly sketched, this was to suggest that alongside changes in the technical, material, and organisational basis of society under the new production systems of post-Fordism, there were increasing signs that the operations of power were likewise in flux.

Most fundamentally, Deleuze pointed towards the fact that contemporary power formations were moving beyond a mode of discipline, and towards one of control. One of the most influential ways in which power within mass industrial culture has been theorised is via Michel Foucault's notion of the disciplinary society. (2) The regulation of space and time in the form of enclosures and timetables, coupled with constant surveillance, he contended, generated a disciplinary apparatus suitable for ordering human behaviour in the era of mass production and industrialisation. (3) Yet, as Deleuze observed in an interview from the early 1990s, the moment at which Foucault began to theorise the mechanisms of discipline was also the time of their surpassing. (4) From this notion of power-as-discipline, grounded in the technologies and techniques of confinement, pronounces Deleuze, we shift towards power-as-control, based upon information and communications technologies, and the social forms they intersect with ('Control and Becoming'). Power mutates from a system of threatened punishment within the order of domination and coercion, to a system of continuous micro-scaled modulation. In this observation, Deleuze anticipates many of the features of the world today, from public sector targets to the techniques of neuromarketing, from social networks to Google analytics.

Deleuze's prescient coupling of ideas of modulation and feedback with decentralised mechanisms of production and governance demarcates a conception of power as 'universal modulation' ('Postscript', p7). But how might such an idea continue to capture the operations of contemporary power? This essay investigates the applicability of control to some of today's socio-technical systems. It proceeds in two parts.

The first part advances a symptomatic restrictive reading of control, interpreting Deleuze's concept by reference to the philosophy of cybernetics. This locates Deleuze's idea as being closely related to Norbert Weiner's first generation cybernetic theory of control in animals and machines ('Control and Becoming', p174). This interpretation limits the idea of control to one based on flexibly applied constriction through negative feedback, in the sense of controlling individuals and collectives through the installation of homeostatic regulative dynamics. In doing so, such a reading arguably ignores the generative dimension of control, that dimension of power-to that exists alongside power-over, that form of modulation that puts to use relative constriction to enable, as well as disable.

The consequences of this are drawn out in the second section, which analyses a recent concept developed in the field of business studies of information technology: the platform--one of the key concepts which businesses such as Facebook, Google and Twitter use to understand their own operations. Enterprises such as these operate according to principles of a control beyond restriction, developing new products and services on a speculative basis to employ non-trivial contingency. …

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