09 September 2013

Michel Foucault Meets Gary King (with Big Data and Statistics) in China

In his work Discipline & Punish, Michel Foucault details the historical emergence and ongoing operation of what he calls disciplinary power. Such power works via surveillance and monitoring, and ultimately, by recruiting agents to perform such functions for and on themselves. In particular it operates by disrupting horizontal, reciprocal communication and sustaining hierarchical, fragmented communications.

As it emerged, Foucault suggests, such discipline faced a difficult task. On his account it must:
master all the forces that are formed from the very constitution of an organized multiplicity; it must neutralize the effects of counter-power that spring from them and which form a resistance to the power that wishes to dominate it: agitations, revolts, spontaneous organizations, coalitions-anything that may establish horizontal conjunctions. Hence the fact that the disciplines use procedures of partitioning and verticality, that they introduce, between the different elements at the same level, as solid separations as possible, that they define compact hierarchal networks, in short that they oppose to the intrinsic, adverse force of multiplicity the technique of a continuous, individualizing pyramid (Discipline & Punish, 219-20).
This morning NPR ran this story on (statistical) research by political scientist Gary King regarding the operation of censorship in China. Now I've not read the actual papers. But here is what the NPR report claims:
King has just completed two studies that peer into the Chinese censorship machine — including a field experiment within China that was conducted with extraordinary secrecy. Together, the studies refute popular intuitions about what Chinese censors are after.

The censors actually permit "vitriolic criticism" of China's leaders and governmental policies, King and his colleagues — Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts — found. But the censors crack down heavily on any move to get people physically mobilized to act on such criticism.
"What they're after is any attempt to move people," King says. "Any attempt to [motivate] collective action."
This sounds like a partial confirmation of a Foucauldian view of power.*  The censors monitor and and disrupt communications precisely in order to preempt "horizontal conjunctions" that might sustain coordinated resistance to the regime.
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* Indeed, the experimental portion of this research suggests that King and his co-authors anticipated the possibility that many Chinese citizens have indeed begun to monitor themselves and not even post potentially problematic items on social media.

P.S.: For my own views on Foucault see - "Communication, Criticism & the Postmodern Consensus," Political Theory (1997).

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