Surveillance and Resistance | Alex Taek-Gwang Lee

by Critical Asia

by Alex Taek-Gwang Lee, Dec. 2020】

The meaning of privacy is obscure, even not only in its daily usage but also in its geographical reception. For instance, I found a sign in Delhi’s metro station, which informed the passengers that “you are under surveillance.” The sign image, adopting a smiling cartoon character of a female police officer, does not mean that you are controlled, or have no privacy, but rather you are safe and that there is no crime. The sign is only for potential criminals, not for “good citizens” who observe the law. In this sense, surveillance brings forth the invisible separation within the community, which divides something into the legal and the illegal. The implication of surveillance, therefore, is related to the juridical subjectivity.

Delhi’s metro sign tells us about the variability of privacy. The concept of privacy is not singular but rather plural, in that it rests upon geographical differences. Of course, these different standards of privacy have been occasionally criticized by the universal declaration of human rights. For European or American visitors, the message in Delhi’s metro station would be problematic and not fulfil their demand for privacy. However, for those local passengers, in particular, female commuters, the word indicates the promise of security. Does this case show the other side of surveillance? Does the different signification of personal safety suggest a tricky aspect to privacy? If surveillance presupposes legal approval, its existence implies a disturbing truth – people agree to hand over the right to control their data to the authority.

The Obscure Privacy

This ambiguous aspect of surveillance would be the voluntary compliance with surveillance that Michel Foucault points out in his analysis of the power/knowledge relations. According to Foucault, power has no agency and no structure but is pervasive. We do not obey the rule of authority but rather are forced to follow the regime of truth. The regime does not mean sovereign acts of domination and coercion and facilitates the constant flux and negotiation(Foucault 63). Scientific discourse and institutions produce and sustain the regime of truth and the educational system continuously reinforces its general politics.

The regime of truth is the consequence of disciplinary power such as Bentham’s model of the panopticon. The prisoner in the panopticon self-monitoring obeys the rule of surveillance. The fear of surveillance resides in the knowledge of the norms by which they know they are being watched. However, what must be stressed here is that Foucault does not presuppose any transcendental form of Big Brother keeping close watch. His presupposition is that the principle of surveillance is founded on the self-knowing of the observation. Those who are monitored “want” to be a right and good person, i.e., the rule of surveillance always already functions as a normative imperative sustaining our daily life. Delhi’s metro signs convince us that the obscurity of privacy is nothing less than the legitimacy of surveillance.

The legitimacy of surveillance relies on two features of privacy: the need for privacy and the right to privacy. The former is related to the classical sense of the distinction between the private and public; while the latter roots in the historically developed concept of a right to control personal information. Leading up to the 18th century in Europe, the right to privacy was a juridical issue, a question of the right to open or read private letters. Legal issues gradually turned to questions about the collecting of personal information. It was the colonization of America when the focus of privacy shifted onto the physical distance between the individual realms because land ownership in the new continent forged a secure base for the privilege of privacy. By then, the home as such became seriously regarded as the first place of privacy, and this dramatic change has pinned down the concept of privacy until today.

 As a historical by-product, there is a tension between the need for privacy and the right to privacy. The latter has more and more extended its management of personal information since the rise of cognitive capitalism. According to Yann Moulier-Boutang, cognitive capitalism is “a paradigm, or a coherent research program, that poses an alternative to post-Fordism”(113). Cognitive capitalism can be grasped by the transformation of three economic elements such as the form of accumulation, the mode of production and the way of exploitation, and its main feature resides in the progress of new technologies since 1975. However, Moulier-Boutang makes a sharp distinction between his concept of cognitive capitalism and “information society.” For him, the term “information society” is a misleading definition of the capitalist changeover embedded in the shift of three economic foundations. In this new type of capitalism, “the object of accumulation consists mainly of knowledge, which becomes the basic source of value, as well as the principal location of the process of valorization”(57). The knowledge-centred economy leads to reshaping the traditional division of labour and facilitates the emergence of the horizontal structure enforced by a data collecting system like the Internet.

Furthermore, it is undeniable that cognitive capitalism paves the way towards “surveillance capitalism” along with the advancement of the technological means. To some point, surveillance capitalism can be called one of many features observed in cognitive capitalism, however, in my opinion, what makes a difference between these types of capitalism lies in the role of learning in accumulation. Consistent with the paradigm of cognitive capitalism, the production of knowledge through knowledge, i.e., its exploitation of the invention power, is crucial for its accumulation process. In this procedure, knowledge takes the place of a commodity; however, this replacement does not mean the commodification of knowledge but rather the redesigning of property rights and the expansion of possible wealth externally. For this reason, cognitive capitalism unveils the foundation of surveillance capitalism: the commodification of personal data.

Surveillance and Capitalism

Data is the raw material for the accumulation of surveillance capitalism, and the extraction and analysis of human behaviours are its imperative. Google is the pioneering company par excellence which invented the paradigm of surveillance capitalism, while Ford Motor Company and General Motors are the chief progenitors of industrial capitalism. Shoshana Zuboff, who coined this term, points out that “although surveillance capitalism does not abandon established capitalist ‘laws’ such as competitive production, profit maximization, productivity, and growth, these earlier dynamics now operate in the context of a new logic of accumulation that also introduces its own distinctive laws of motion”(66-67). The new logic of accumulation, based on the “economies of scale in the extraction of behavioural surplus”(87), gives rise to the necessary construction and modification of behavioural means that “incorporate its machine-intelligence-based ‘means of production’ in a more complex system of action, and the ways in which the requirements of behavioural modification orient all operations toward totalities of information and control, creating the framework for an unprecedented instrumentarian power and its societal implications”(67).

The shift from knowledge to data denotes the difference between cognitive capitalism and surveillance capitalism. Even though the arrival of surveillance capitalism does not mean the end of cognitive capitalism, as two types of accumulation systems co-exist and cooperate, knowledge in cognitive capitalism is not a commodity as such, but the commodity-structure to bring on the symbolic exchange of the non-exchangeable. Cognitive capitalism finds its origin in the increased significance of knowledge and its eruption driven by higher levels of education and the expansion of immaterial and intellectual labour. In this way, the main feature of cognitive capitalism is embodied by the qualitative dominance of living knowledge (mobilized by labour)over dead knowledge (incorporated in fixed capital). The initiative of the knowledge built in living labour is the main trait of cognitive capitalism. This transformation sheds light on the decline or crisis of the Smithian and Taylorian model of labour division and technical progress inherent in industrial capitalism. The mutation of accumulation is fundamental, and so-called “information technology revolution” is not the single determinant for the mode of production. Technological progress is one of the elements to accelerate the paradigmatic conversion to solve the crises of capitalism.

The birth of cognitive capitalism effectuates the death of the working-class and the expansion of knowledge by bringing in the cognitive dimension of labour into the relations of production. Mass education and popular intellectuality are the prerequisites for the success of the new accumulation and gradually necessitate Taylorism and Fordism, the scientific theories of organizing labour and production, as ways to confront the crises. The ideological imperative of cognitive capitalism demands worker autonomy and the rendering of manual labour obsolete. For this reason, the spirit of cognitive capitalism springs out from the obsession of self-directed learning. According to Malcolm Knowles, self-learning is “a process by which individuals take the initiative, with or without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, and evaluating learning outcomes”(18). The duty of self-learning constitutes the ethics of new Protestantism in the phase of cognitive capitalism. It seems to herald the return of the 19th century “self-help” maxim in industrial capitalism. To some degree, the motto of self-learning in knowledge-base accumulation is akin to a form of popular stoicism which encourages mass self-guided improvement for individual welfare and well-being.  

The Possible Resistance to Mechanical Surveillance

Surveillance is the internal logic of modernity. What we newly face up to within the current phase of surveillance capitalism is the rise of mechanical surveillance. Mechanical surveillance is machine-based surveillance, lacking human agency. Artificial intelligence is one of those technical instruments to set forth mechanical surveillance. Automation is the condition of mechanical surveillance. As Foucault points out, the structure of panopticon is the origin of a modern surveillance system.  The central power controls population and modifies their behaviour. However, it is not the structure itself, but the norms imposed by the omnipresent gaze of surveillance, which enforces us to alter our manner. Galahad in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) teaches, “manners maketh man.” The primitive violence of the lesson is invisible when the mechanical surveillance sets out. The silent locus of the subject within the network of computing surveillance is the venue of resistance. The subject is always on the verge of danger in the push the use of technology at its limit. The pandemic situation proves that surveillance capitalism is sufficiently adaptive and subtle to sustain its own system dynamics. It shows the ambivalence of surveillance technology, in that people do not want to neglect surveillance, but rather strongly demand that the authorities put their security under constant surveillance. This excessive drive brings forth the vulnerable point of technology and the “minor” use of the techniques against its instrumental purpose.

Alex Taek-Gwang Lee, Kyung Hee University, South Korea


Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge. London: Penguin, 1998.

Moulier-Boutang, Yann. Cognitive Capitalism. Trans. Ed Emery. Cambridge: Polity, 2011.

Zuboff, Soshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. London: Profile Books, 2019.

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