Big data and the promise of bureaucratic efficiency

One of the fundamental questions of my PhD thesis has been to conceptualize privacy and surveillance in a way which not only describes the society we live in, but also explains why the current information society with its fetishization of data looks the way it does. I have looked to various theories on surveillance and socio-legal conceptualizations of information privacy to address this question, but I was never really satisfied with the answer.

Michel Foucault’s panopticon deals with the psychological effects of being under visible surveillance, yet does not adequately explain life in the era of databases and electronic surveillance. Philosopher Manuel DeLanda’s excellent War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991), addresses the intelligence community’s perverse data collection logic, but does not really expand on the political economy of surveillance. Oscar Gandy does a better job at that, but descriptions and theories based on the US context are not directly applicable in Europe.

Socio-legal theories and some communication research address how people perceive privacy, but it is increasingly difficult to connect ideal notions of privacy to what is actually happening in the world, and the gap between norms of privacy, data practices, and laws of privacy is growing ever wider.

During the past two years I’ve delved into the legislative process of the new data protection law in the EU, the General Data Protection Regulation, which will enter into force in May 2018. One of my earliest observations was the inaccessibility of the language and the complexity of the document that addresses a very basic human need: to be able to choose when one is out of sight. Instead, the end result is an intricate web of rules and exceptions to the collection of personal information with very vague references to actual perceptions of privacy.

After reading David Graeber’s Utopia of Rules I came to an insight that had previously existed only as a side note in my conceptualization of surveillance societies: the role of bureaucracies. Rather than thinking of data collection as an element of discipline in the Foucauldian sense, I started to think of data collection as part of the bureaucratic system’s inherent logic that is independent from the actual power of surveillance.

The utopian promise of big data is not that of control but of efficiency. The present logic of data maximization defies traditional ideals of data minimization according to which data can only be processed for a specific purpose. The collection of data points is such an essential part of modern bureaucracies, private and public alike, that its role in society is treated as a given. This is why attitudes to data collection and privacy are not divided along the public/private or even the left/right spectra but rather along the lines of strange bedfellows such as anarchism and libertarianism versus socialism and fascism. The goals are of course very different, but the means are similar.

By seeing questions of privacy and surveillance through this lens the GDPR’s legislative process started to make more sense to me. The discourses employed by corporate and public lobbyists were not really about control over information flows, nor were they about disciplinary power. They were about the promise of bureaucratic efficiency.