The in(dividual)

Yesterday I went to a reading group within cyber security, and we talked about an interesting paper that was in Science January this year, called “Unique in the shopping mall: on the reidentifiability of credit card metadata” (paid subscription required). Though we talked about several of the issues with the paper and the reason for its appearance in Science for a start, this got me thinking about the wider concept of the ‘dividual’ that Deleuze details in a short article that was published (see paper here) in the publication October in 1992.

Through a fairly dense, but easy to read paper, Deleuze summarises that we have moved from Foucault’s disciplinary societies to control societies. For those with a background in this, please skip to the next paragraph. So, to potentially to give the work of Foucault great injustice in what I am about to say; Foucault identifies a transformation of society in the transition from the medieval to industrial period. These periods are obviously not solely independent and the mechanisms do not always belong to one and can be applied alongside one another. Hence the growth of institutions such as the school, the hospital, the barracks, the prison and so on all were a transition where bodies en masse were controlled and disciplined to work for the powerful.

To speed on from the simple explanation above, Deleuze (and Foucault himself in governmentality and biopolitics) identify a new movement in the development of their thought. This is one where individualism and the body not solely as an empty ‘space’ becomes a ‘place’ where thoughts and movements should be all-flowing and monitored. Modulation is the word Deleuze uses to express this new formation where we do not simply move between institutions as before but are constantly having to learn, self-police, healthcare services in the home and the burgeoning market in healthcare products. This means that the emphasis is on the individual to succeed (with its associated serpent, neoliberal capitalism).

So, why the societies of control or control societies? Unlike in the past where individuals were constructed in order to be disciplined, neoliberalism requires free movement but states (and other stakeholders seeking to control – think corporations, gated communities) still require extensive monitoring to ensure they maintain their power. This monitoring is aided through the use of technologies that track our movements through passes to enter buildings, touchless payment cards and mobile phone signals. Deleuze coins the word ‘dividual’ to capture the data that are produced by in(dividuals) where segments of the data are used to control; such as the ability to access buildings, access to credit according to financial transaction history, et cetera. The concept of the dividual makes more sense if we have discrete datasets. Yet, we live in the world of supposedly ‘big’ data where there is an increasing ability to cross-reference dividualised data to (re)construct an ‘in(dividual)’.

Returning to the paper that constructed my thoughts above, the authors claimed that they could easily reconstruct roughly 90% of unique credit card identifiers through four informational nodes. These could include the location of the shop, time of purchase, approximate cost and distance from next purchase for example. Though there are other issues of privacy and the unicity (the ability to reidentify unique individuals) of data, there is a philosophical question to grapple with that uses both the societies of control and disciplinary societies. I consider the ‘body’ (in its extension to producing non-human datas, movements across space and like) to be critical to arguing our current epoch is not one of pure dividuals – and displaying the geographies this produces.

I much prefer to use the ‘in(dividual)’ to present the current manifestation of our society. The formation of the internet and ever-increasing sharing of information has enabled disparate information to come together and provide ‘value’ to capitalism. This is epitomised in the valuation of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, and the giant Google. This value requires these companies to in(dividual)ise. Let me explain what I mean here. So for ‘big’-data analytics to operate effectively it needs to dividualise my body(ie)’s movements through its limited collection points; through my credit card, my phone signal, my Facebook account, the cookies I leave lying around and so on. This enables a population-becoming whereby services can be focused on particular ‘groups'(?) and reflects the growing use of statistics in the development of biopolitics (see Louise Amoore’s article ‘Security and the claim to privacy‘ on ‘data derivatives’). Yet there is a requirement for personalised advertising where I must become in(dividual). I must form a group. I am gay. Therefore I get many ‘gay-themed’ adverts across the internet (some to my utter amusement!). This feedback loop, where I am classed as forming as ‘at risk’ group for example, if I was to apply for credit with a ‘poor’ rating, then the in(dividual) would come to play. My in(dividual) body’s movement influences ‘it’, and ‘it’ influences ‘me’.

Therefore how can one work against this? What playful acts can I working as an in(dividual) do? I could spend rather large amounts at different places (although probably not), use different cards, use other people’s cards? Or I could change my Facebook ‘likes’ or make completely false trails everywhere. This is where the power lays. This is where the kink in current society lies. Although I am partially determined by my allocation, what happens if I do not conform to any group – I do not only do it for myself, the data that feeds the group is also skewed. This is true play. To circumvate the rules, to not conform to one identity, but express the multiple identities the body inherently exudes. This in(dividual)ising both can have detrimental effects on how I operate as an in(dividual) as long as I play by the rules. The best play is one which bends them.

Why is the body critical to this? Critically the body is one which has truely emancipatory affect (though we must realise we live in a period where ‘able’ bodies tend to ‘succeed’ in comparison to less-able bodies). There are only a limited amount of collection points (though these are ever-increasing in size with sensors in the Internet of Things (IoT)) that mean that their comprehension of the world is always limited and non-pervasive. Therefore feeding certain nodes bits of information that our bodies produce incorrectly (such as hacking a wearable technology to send ‘healthy’ signals to an insurance company) enable small acts of powerful play that not only distort the in(dividual) but the dividualised groupings. We can use the ingenuity of the body (and here I refuse to use the mind-body dualism – useful to point out here) to claim the in(dividual) for ourselves, in whatever form ourself may take.

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