Digital Marketing as Generalized Snooping: On Virilio’s Information Bomb

Posted: November 28, 2010 in biopower, capitalism, Diagramming Affective Ethics, Ecology of Sensation, marketing
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Let’s begin with some examples that will update aspects of Virilio’s argument in The Information Bomb.

1. “The Reality Mining Dataset: The Reality Mining project represents the largest mobile phone experiment ever attempted in academia. We are collecting an unprecedented amount of data on human behavior and group interactions that we plan on anonymizing and making available to the general academic community. By the end of the experiment, this dataset will contain over 500,000 hours (~60 years) of continuous data on daily human behavior. Already we have been approached by over a dozen of researchers in a wide range of fields (including epidemiology, sociology, physics, artificial intelligence, and organizational behavior) who are extremely eager to see how this unique data can answer questions from their own discipline. In an article on the Reality Mining project in December’s issue of New Scientist, prominent social network analyst and Harvard professor David Lazer was quoted saying that this research will “revolutionize the field of social network analysis [Beaver (2004)].”

2. Drawing on the above dataset: “Predicting the behaviour of mobile phone users is an ambitious undertaking that will impact people’s lives in the coming years. In this note, we took an information-theoretic approach and quantified predictability in a principled way without referring to a specific predictor. We showed how to select time points to reduce uncertainty on a mobile phone user’s activity at a given time of the day and up to three weeks in the future. We also quantified how his activity at a certain time of the day can be determined from another user’s activity at another time. The results presented in this note could be extended by looking at a broader set of activities using other sensors and developing prediction systems.” (Driss Choujaa and N. Dulay, “Predicting Human Behaviour from Selected Mobile Phone Data Points”, Ubicomp ’10 Proceedings of the 12th ACM international conference on Ubiquitous computing,, pg. 108)

3. “In this paper, we use a neurobiological model of visual attention, which automatically selects (predicts) high saliency regions in unconstrained input frames to generate a saliency map (SM). Considering the human’s foveated retina characteristic, a guidance map (GM) is generated by finding the top salient locations in the saliency map. The GM is then used to guide the bit allocation in video coding through tuning the quantization parameters in a constrained optimization method. The overview of the proposed method can be seen in Fig. 1. For experimental validation, 50 high-definition (1920—1080) video sequences were captured using a raw uncompressed video camera, which include scenes at a library, pool, road traffic, gardens, a dinner hall, lab rooms, etc. Instead of using a subjective rating method, an eye-tracking experiment which records human subjects’ eye fixation positions over the video frames was conducted to validate both the attention prediction model and the compressed video subjective quality. The focus of this paper is to combine the attention model with the latest video compression framework, and to validate the result in a quantitative way through an eye-tracking approach. The experiment results show that the proposed method is effective in both predicting human attention regions and improving subjective video quality while keeping the same bit rate.” Z. Li et al. / Image and Vision Computing 29 (2011) 1–14, 2

4. “So why is it that advertising and media planning is still littered with military analogies? We plan and launch ‘campaigns’, we ‘battle’ for attention and talk about ‘target’ audiences. We measure ‘strike rates’ and ‘impacts’. We base our thinking on ‘strategies’ and deploy ‘tactics’. We desire ‘captive’ audiences. It’s like we’re at war with the people we’re trying to reach. It’s a language born of a time when advertising was based almost entirely on one-way messaging, when people were aggregated into large amorphous demographic groups based on apparent propensity to behave in a particular way, for the convenience of being able to reach them with the same message in the same way at the same time. It’s a phraseology that speaks of one to many, the language of mass media and mass marketing. And it’s out of date. If the internet has taught us one thing, it’s the value and trust that people place in interactions between real people. If we’ve learned anything from corporate history, it’s the relentless desire of companies to automate and de-personalise interaction with their customers and the people they’d like to be customers.” Neil Perkin, “Language of marketing needs to be more human,” New Media Age, 21 October 2010 05,

5. “At the launch, Microsoft senior VP for online services Satya Nadell said Bing was capitalising on the fact that social is becoming a crucial factor in the evolution of search results. “What’s most exciting for Bing is the evolution of this new signal, based on something more than just pattern recognition or keyword matching,” he said. “It’ll allow us to better predict what resources and content are most relevant to you because, in addition to all the other signals we use, people you trust have found them interesting. It means more personal search and better tools to help you make decisions.” Chris Whitelaw, president of digital marketing agency I-Spy Marketing, said, “It adds even more value to a Facebook ‘like’ for a brand. Those that have been investing in Facebook and building good content and thus followers will start seeing real benefits within search.” Neil Jackson, search strategy director at search and social agency Tamar, said it raises the question of what type of agencies should manage social accounts. “When talking to clients, there’s always the conversation about who should own the relationship between the brand and Facebook and Twitter,” he said. “But this is the first time we’re seeing search and social combined in a highly visible position in results.” Will Cooper, “Bing tie-up makes Facebook ‘like’ vital for brands,” New Media Age, 21 October 2010 04

In a variety of ways each of these five examples brings to the fore the question of information and power. Predicting behavior in mobile phone usage or with the aid of neurobiology (through algorithmic tools that generate value added experiences for panoptic security, for video encoding) correlate increasingly fast-changing information technologies with modes of control and value creation. It is what A. Aneesh calls the “algocratic” mode of power. The vast dataset at MIT’s Reality Mining project can indeed transform social network analysis, but if it goes mostly in the direction of “predicting” human behavior then the aims of domination, security, and profit will be served in the end. There are other potentials for this data…will they be allowed to flourish beyond strategies of monetization?

The third example is particularly interesting from the point of view of attention. Basically what the authors are attempting is to develop supple algorithms that will predict human attention regions in types or populations of images, thus allowing for a differential form of encoding privileged or “salient” visual areas and relegating others. What is of interest of course is how encoding then will feedback into habits of visual attention, perhaps narrowing, but certainly modulating vision even more intensely, imperceptibly than the small, center-focused image on your iPhone already does.

The last two examples are from the world of marketing become “pure communication,” as Virilio says (echoing Deleuze on Societies of Control—see: Deleuze and Foucault on Marketing as Control). At stake is affective capital’s potentialization of the “social” (useful here to recall Deleuze’s foreword to Donzelot’s The Policing of Families…). We are continuing to make the case that today with the advent of neuromarketing as a kind of abstract diagram for consumption we have entered a realm in which vision, algorithm, touch, sensory feedbacks, sound, media, taste, memory, and attention (ecologies of sensation) form the plane of affect-marketing—not the marketing of affect (though there is that as well), but marketing as an unmediated, direct modulation of habits of affection (see Deleuze on Affect). So returning to our examples above, we see Perkin urging a more humane, social, personal language (and hence orientation?) for marketing to capitalize (isn’t this war by other means?) on “the value and trust that people place in interactions between real people.” Second, is the new tie-up and tie-in through the “like” function (and associated algorithms) on Facebook and the search engine Bing—when you like a brand or product your integrated Bing profile will highlight its correlated value for a FB friend searching for that genre of commodity. “For now, that means searches (where appropriate) will feature a Facebook module that shows you what your friends have liked as it relates to that search, as well as a smarter people search results.” (see Adam Ostrow, “Facebook and Bing’s Plan to Make Search Social”)

These technologies also target the body’s capacity to affect and be affected, and so directly access the ontology of information. We should keep these examples in mind as we work through some of the concepts in Virilio’s The Information Bomb.

We are drawing here on Chapters 1, 2 and 7.

1. Science has become everyday. At no other point in the history of humankind has science had such an intensive control (and we should register the ambivalences, resistances, swerves within this last word) of human behavior. Virilio calls it ‘Extreme science’ – “the science which runs the incalculable risk of the disappearance of all science. As the tragic phenomenon of a knowledge which has suddenly become cybernetic, this techno-science becomes, then, as mass techno-culture, the agent not, as in the past, of the acceleration of history, but of the dizzying whirl of the acceleration of reality – and that to the detriment of all verisimilitude” (3). To my mind, from Debord’s Society of the Spectacle to Virilio’s society of generalized snooping there is a clear genealogy of thought; all the romantic weaknesses but also, curiously a redoubled force of disgust (a ressentiment become affirmative), animate this genealogy, and we should attend to both.

2. The critique of globatarianism. Virilio asks is globalization “a term intended to take over from the word internationalism, associated too closely with communism, or, as is often claimed, is it a reference to single-market capitalism? Either answer is wide of the mark” (7).

For American military leaders, the global is the interior of a finite world whose very finitude poses many logistical problems. And the local is the exterior, the periphery, if not indeed the ‘outer suburbs’ of the world. For the US general staff, then, the pips are no longer inside the apples, nor the segments in the middle of the orange: the skin has been turned inside out. The exterior is not simply the skin, the surface of the Earth, but all that is in situ, all that is precisely localized, wherever it may be. There lies the great globalitarian transformation, the transformation which extraverts localness – all localness – and which does not now deport persons, or entire populations, as in the past, but deports their living space, the place where they subsist economically. A global de-localization, which affects the very nature not merely of ‘national’, but of ‘social’ identity, throwing into question not so much the nation-state, but the city, the geopolitics of nations. 10

A key aspect of the globatarian moment we are living in is the speeding up of logistics, information, and life. “We had no doubt forgotten that alongside wealth and its accumulation, there is speed and its concentration, without which the centralization of the powers that have succeeded each other throughout history would quite simply not have taken place: feudal and monarchic power, or the power of the national state, for which the acceleration of transport and transmissions made the government of dispersed populations easier” (11).

Thus, Virilio argues that there are two key and complementary aspects of globalization: “on the one hand, the extreme reduction of distances which ensues from the temporal compression of transport and transmissions; on the other, the current general spread of tele-surveillance. A new vision of a world that is constantly ‘tele-present’ twenty-four hours a day, seven day s a week, thanks to the artifice of this ‘transhorizon optics’ which puts what was previously out of sight on display” (13). There is no local anymore, the local has become a webcam that is on 24/7.

3. The new panopticism. Virilio updates Foucault and Deleuze in the age of new media. New technologies allow for new forms of mobility and new forms of surveillance. Through a new electro-optic lighting (for more on the optic see 4. below) we will be forced to “see” the emergence of the virtual reality of cyberspace, says Virilio. “Building the space of the multi-media networks with the aid of tele-technologies surely then requires a new ‘optic’, a new global optics, capable of helping a panoptical vision to appear, a vision which is indispensable if the ‘market of the visible’ is to be established. The much-vaunted globalization requires that we all observe each other and compare ourselves with one another on a continual basis” (61).

Virilio marks the “enthusiasm of post-industrial companies for the cellphone which enables them to abolish the distinction between working hours and private life for their employees” (67). New processes of (“anti”-)social connectivity (the mobility of drug dealers with mobile phones), risk dispersion (don’t allow “problem” groups to aggregate), and monitoring and modulation are enabled through the once military, now commercial Internet.

To illustrate the recent consequences of domestic telecommunications for municipal politics, one last anecdote: since the sudden proliferation of mobile phones, the Los Angeles police have found themselves presented with a difficulty of a new kind. Whereas, in the past, drug dealing in its various forms was precisely situated in a number of districts that were easily monitored by the narcotics squads, those squads are now entirely defeated by the random and essentially de-localized meetings between dealers and users who all have mobile phones and can meet wherever they decide – literally, anywhere. A single technical phenomenon which both facilitates metropolitan concentration and the dispersal of major risks – this needed to be borne in mind if, in the future (at all events, very soon), a cybernetic control appropriate to domestic networks was to be developed … hence the relentless advance of the Internet, the recently civilianized military network. 12

4. Closely tied to the third point above is a specific argument around vision or a new globatarian optics (which returns us in a general sense to our third initial example concerning new algorithms for vision). First, what is virtual interactivity, virtual reality? For Virilio virtual reality “is not so much a navigation through the cyberspace of the networks. It is, first and foremost, the amplification of the optical density of the appearances of the real world” (14). This amplification of the optical takes various forms in contemporary network societies. For instance, the computer, thanks to the millions and millions of live webcams (a Google search for “sexcam” on Nov. 28, 2010 returned well over 5 million hits in .18 seconds) has become “an automatic vision machine, operating within the space of an entirely virtualized geographical reality” (16). This has led to a kind of global, collectivist voyeurism which Virilio ties brilliantly to contemporary marketing and the imposition of the globatarian market:

The collectivist introspection of these people, who exemplify a universal voyeurism, is set to expand at the speed of the single world advertising market, which is not far off now. Advertising, which in the nineteenth century was simply the publicizing of a product, before becoming in the twentieth an industry for stimulating desire, is set in the twenty-first century to become pure communication. To this end it will require the unfurling of an advertising space which stretches to the horizon of visibility of the planet. Global advertising, far from being satisfied with the classic poster or with breaks between TV or radio programmes, now requires the imposition of its ‘environment’, on a mass of TV viewers who have in the interim become tele-actors and tele-consumers. To come back again to the Internet… (17)

We have all turned into auto-affecting, self-snoopers, constantly comparing ourselves to sets of others to glean some competitive advantage. “After ordinary ‘grassing’, calumny and slander – not to mention the social ravages of rumour-mongering, free telephone lines for ‘informers’ and telephone taps on suspects – we are now entering the era of optical snooping” (65). Little wonder that in the city I live in today, London, CCTV can be found on just about every corner, every public and private space: “Smile you’re on CCTV,” says the little, bright sign above the cold cuts and below the eggs at Planet Organic on Torrington Place. “This is bringing a general spread of surveillance cameras, not just into the streets, avenues, banks or supermarkets, but also into the home: in the housing estates of the poorer districts and, above all, with the worldwide proliferation of ‘live-cams’ on the Internet, where you can visit the planet from your armchair thanks to Earthcam, a server which already has 172 cameras sited in twenty -five countries. Or, alternatively, you can have access through Netscape Eye to thousands of on-line cameras angled not just at tourism and business but towards a generalized introspection” (65).

5. From a reinvigorated panopticism of cyber-optics comes now new forms of consumption and marketing as “pure communication.” Marketing makes information resonate globally, necessary in the age of the great planetary market. Not surprisingly this in many ways resembles, according to Virilio, the practices and uses of military intelligence, and also political propaganda and its excesses. “’He who knows everything fears nothing,’ claimed Joseph Paul Goebbels not so long ago. From now on, with the putting into orbit of a new type of panoptical control, he who sees everything – or almost every thing – will have nothing more to fear from his immediate competitors. You will, in fact, understand nothing of the information revolution if you are unable to divine that it ushers in, in purely cybernetic fashion, the revolution if generalized snooping” (62).
The generalized snooping of digital advertising as pure communication is a new form of political terror. Hacking, computer viruses, cookies, WikiLeaks, Amazon “recommendations,” Facebook “likes”: “After the first bomb, the atom bomb, which was capable of using the energy of radioactivity to smash matter, the spectre of a second bomb is looming at the end of this millennium. This is the information bomb, capable of using the interactivity of information to wreck the peace between nations. ‘On the Internet, there is a permanent temptation to engage in terrorism, as it is easy to inflict damage with impunity,’ declared a one-time hacker who is now a company director…” (63).

By “information bomb” Virilio means the algorithmic mechanisms that digital marketing has created to “target” customers (returning us to Neil Perkins duplicitous lament of the militarization of marketing discourse—marketing is not a discourse first and foremost—it is a geopolitical strategy of generalized snooping). The great value of Virilio’s military diction is that it maintains the important genealogical connection between military tactics and marketing. “Their preferred weapons? The new bulk-mailing software, invented by advertising people, which can submerge a particular server in a veritable ‘mail-bombing’ campaign that enables anyone to become a ‘cyber-terrorist’ at little risk to themselves. Once again, then, we see economic warfare advancing under the cover of promoting the greatest freedom of communication, and in this kind of ‘informational’ conflict, advertising strategies have to be recast” (63-4).
Part of what I understand Virilio to mean in his critique of marketing is a refinement of Deleuze’s pithy sentences in societies of control—see: Deleuze and Foucault on Marketing as Control. A sieve with a variable mesh, continuous, dispersed modulation forms the coils of our control. “From interactive to comparative advertising is only a small step. A small step for man, but a giant leap for inhumanity. A giant leap towards ‘mass snooping’, the industrialization of informing. ‘Comparisons are misleading’, as the old saying goes. But currently, with the single market’s requirement for global competition, comparison has become-a globalitarian phenomenon, which requires the full-scale over-exposure not just of places – as with the remote surveillance of roads – but also of persons, their behaviour, their actions and innermost reactions” (64).

But the globatarian order has its own profound risks, the tightly bound destinies (and currencies) of Ireland, Portugal, Greece with the rest of the European union only highlight these risks, and give a tinge of prescience this last quote from Virilio:

The smaller the world becomes as a result of the relativistic effect of telecommunications, the more violently situations are concertinaed, with the risk of an economic and social crash that would merely be the extension of the visual crash of this ‘market of the visible’, in which the virtual bubble of the (interconnected ) financial markets is never any other than the inevitable consequence of that visual bubble of a politics which has become both panoptical and cybernetic. (67)

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