Introduction: The Disunited States of Sharing

TWO QUESTIONS DOMINATE current debates at the intersection of privacy, governance, security, and transparency: How much and what kind of data should citizens have to share with surveillant states? and How much data from government departments should states share with citizens? Yet, these issues are rarely expressed in terms of “sharing” in the way that I do in this book. More often, when thought in tandem with the digital, sharing is used in reference to free trials of software (shareware); the practice of peer-to-peer file sharing; platforms that facilitate the pooling, borrowing, swapping, renting, or selling of resources, skills, and assets that have come to be known as the “sharing economy”; or the business of linking and liking on social media, which invites us to share our feelings, preferences, thoughts, interests, photographs, articles, and Web links. Sharing in the digital context has been framed as a form of exchange, then, but also as communication and distribution (see John 2013; Wittel 2011).

To understand the politics of open and opaque government data practices that share with citizens or ask citizens to share, I will extend existing commentaries on the distributive qualities of sharing by drawing on Jacques Rancière’s (2004b) notion of the “distribution of the sensible”—a settlement that determines what is visible, audible, sayable, and knowable and what share or role we each have within it. In the process, I articulate “sharing” with “veillance” (veiller, “to watch,” is from the Latin vigilare, from vigil, “watchful”) to turn the focus from prevalent ways of understanding digital sharing toward a form of contemporary subjectivity. What I call shareveillance, a state in which we are always already sharing—indeed, in which any relationship with data is only made possible through a conditional idea of sharing—produces an antipoliticized public made up of shareveillant subjects caught between the affects and demands of different data practices.

Although it is tempting to use the term depoliticized here, I use antipoliticized, because it better captures the way in which shareveillant practices both invoke political agency and yet severely delimit it, not least by the way in which, for example, they encourage actions framed by the notion of choice and the citizen qua consumer. Moreover, depoliticized might imply nostalgia for a once fully agential autonomous subject—and we know from psychoanalysis, post-Marxism, and poststructuralism, among other discourses, that the subject has always been fragmented; shot through with blind spots, absence, and lack; divided and endlessly divisible. I am interested, therefore, in the ways in which shareveillance forecloses politics even while seeming to foster forms of democratic engagement with governance through open data.

This book operates under the assumption that both open and opaque government data initiatives involve, albeit differently pitched, forms of sharing and veillance. Government practices that share data with citizens involve veillance because they call on citizens to monitor and act on that data—we are envisioned (watched and hailed) as auditing and entrepreneurial subjects. Citizens have to monitor the state’s data, that is, or they are expected to innovate with it and make it profitable. Data sharing therefore apportions responsibility without power. It watches citizens watching the state, delimiting the ways in which citizens can engage with that data and, therefore, the scope of the political per se.

Opaque government data practices (practices that we cannot see through, that are not readily knowable), such as those enacted by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) via the PRISM, Tempora, and XKeyscore surveillance programs, as revealed by Edward Snowden, produce “closed” data. The main point about closed data in relation to the state (and it is important to note at the outset that the details would be different for commercial enterprises) is that it is withheld from general access and circulation for reasons concerned with diplomacy, stability, power play, or security.[1] Despite the sense of restriction, claim, and withholding here, opaque government data practices still involve sharing, however, not least because they require citizens to (often unknowingly) “share” data with the veillant state in a way that renders them visible and trackable.

But we should not think of the positions carved out for citizens in each configuration as oscillating between agency and impotence. Nor is it quite right to think of this as the “equiveillance” diagnosed by Steve Mann (2013)—an evenly poised balance between surveillant and sousveillant forces. Rather, shareveillance constitutes the antipoliticized role the datafied neoliberal security state imagines for its public; the latter is configured more as either a flat data set or a series of individual auditor-entrepreneurs than as a force with political potential. For those of us unhappy with politics being delimited and disavowed in this way, we will need to experiment with ways to interrupt shareveillant subjectivity that do not in any way play into or endorse the “post-truth” disavowal (or even disappearance) of facts and data under populist figures like Donald Trump.[2]

A radical critique of ubiquitous and default “sharing” in the digital context is clearly necessary, but I also want to seek out opportunities to salvage the concept of “sharing” to imagine a collective political subjectivity that could emerge from within this sociotechnical moment (rather than pitching one against it). In this book, then, I will propose that we can interrupt shareveillant subjectivity by claiming, not a right to access more and more data or a right to privacy, but a “right to opacity” (Glissant 1997).[3] In the context of shareveillance, I am imagining this right as the demand not to be reduced to, and interact with, data in ways delimited by the state—to resist the terms of engagement set by the two faces of shareveillance (i.e., sharing data with the state and monitoring shared data). The formulation of such an argument rests on an appropriation of the term sharing by calling on the etymological roots of to share—particularly the Old English for portion (scearu), which points toward a cutting, a shearing, a part or division. With this in mind, we can imagine a right to opacity that cuts into and apart veillant formations and data distributions through various tactics, such as hacking, data obfuscation, decentralization, encryption, and anarchic algorithms. Accepting shareveillance means accepting a “distribution of the sensible” that is not based on equality, necessitating a different, more ethical distribution, cut, or share by way of a response on our part. Exploring a right to opacity in the face of shareveillance can politicize the concept of “sharing” by envisioning it as an equitable, ethical cut.

Shareveillance: The Dangers of Openly Sharing and Covertly Collecting Data by Clare Birchall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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