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Virtual Worlds and Dataveillance – SoP 2009

Posted by Bart

prvcyani Last one for now… I apologize for spamming the blog but then these things tend to come in shory quick bursts — I am not so good at disciplined writing let alone blogging.

Anyway, I continue with some thoughts prompted by my experience on the Security and Surveillance panel at the State of Play conference.  The chair of that panel Roderick Jones has a tidy summary up here and you can find other comments here. I took my old WoW surveillance paper down from my SSRN page which I guess is bad because links seem to spread like wildfire but I just don’t like it anymore (I put up the DKP paper I did with Mark Silverman instead since its really a preprint… I’ve got to get this open access stuff sussed).  So the issue for me really comes down to a shift in thinking from surveillance to dataveillance… and here’s the rub:  surveillance hates privacy but dataveillance loves it and this makes worrying about privacy a supremely red herring when it comes to thinking about social control and virtual worlds.

I know now that I didn’t make my point clearly enough since I cast the problem as one where we should consider whether surveillance of criminal activity (or otherwise)  was in principle “impossible” or in principle “perfect” in the context of virtual worlds.  As you can see I tend to like to make a lot of hay out of tensions and antipodal relationships…

The argument for the impossibility of surveillance stems from virtual worlds embeddedness in a concrete cultural history of masquerade, dissimulation, fantasy and a general desire to get outside of one’s skin in order to be someone and somewhere else.  How are you supposed to watch someone who doesn’t want to be that someone? How can you track someone who  as a matter of mundane ludic practice seeks to defer identity rather than consolidate it?  This is why in movies and books the villain (or hero) always hides in a crowd during Carnival…  a world where everyone is pretending to be someone else is a perfect place to hide.  Indeed, Marx and the subaltern studies people cottoned on this too… surveillance is least effective amongst the lowest strata of social systems (lupen proletariate, lower castes, colonized, etc… who must make a living out of pretending to be something other than they are in the face of power).  See James Scott’s super important  Domination and the Arts of Resistance as one way into this argument but then there is always Bahktin as well.

The argument for perfect surveillance stems from the idea that each and every individual in a virtual world is rendered as a perfectly knowable, perfectly tracable and trackable avatar.  Moreover, the majority of behavior in VWs is often because of deisgn contraints severly coded and rationalized so as to enable a high degree of prediction. That users and players  find this pleasurable and threaten to migrate to VWs in droves (see Castranova’s last book) is seen as a godsend to marketers who have forveer been seeking a perfect captive market never mind the State (that wouldn’t know what to do with all the info even if it had it). And its all big bro from here on in.

This is maybe a good conversation starter but the problem is that it leads us straight to the issue of privacy protection. The defense against big bro has always been a matter of setting limits on people’s ability to watch one another thus disrupting the ideal of perfect traceability. As a result this ideal is reserved for what Erving Goffman called total institutions – prisons, schools, hospitals and the like where surveillance is accomplished through a recalculation of rights to privacy.

But as the saying goes… this century is Deleuzian and we don’t watch each other anymore.  Instead of watching each other, we watch data about each other. We are only present to each other in the larger social system as constellations of data representing who we are…  a student walks my door and tells me a story about this or that dog eating a paper and its a messy life and so on…  but the student record tells another story. Which one shall I believe… in the end I have little choice. Its the student record that is tied to the apparatus of the university and even if I believe the dog story it will cost me dearly in time and paperwork to intervene on the poor students behalf. This student’s record is his databased self in the university and that “person” is much more pliable, knowable, tracable and predictable than the fellow in my office. So let him have his privacy because the more he insists on not having to tell us about himself the more we can just attribute stuff to his databased self and move right along.

The problem appears in the assumption that there need be some intimate relationship between one’s databased self and the physical/real self it supposedly refers to.  Baudrillard 101 – the simulation becomes the referent for the original that gave rise to it. For all intents and purposes I am my avatar. Whether I intend this to be so or not simply doesn’t matter since the avatar becomes an agent that the system can act on.

The more we insist on privacy for something like our real physical selves, I suspect the worse the problem will become. Anonymity is not a route to social resistence in this frame it becomes an excuse for a more totalitarian form of social control.  Well thats my thought for today anyway…