About two years ago, my friend Jessa Lingel, then a postdoc at Microsoft Research and now a prof at Annenberg Penn, asked me whether I'd be interested in working on a piece of research with her. I jumped at the chance, because Jessa is one of the smartest, most creative scholars I know. At that point, Edward Snowden had recently helped to reveal the extent of illegal mass surveillance undertaken by the American government, and Jessa had the idea of comparing online mass surveillance to the kind of surveillance that takes place within prisons – not flippantly, but pointedly in order to learn how the broader population might learn from incarcerated people how to resist or at least mitigate the ever-watchful eye of the surveillants.
We kicked the idea around for a while, and the more we thought and read about it, the more we realized there are some fascinating parallels and lessons to be learned. Digital "blackouts" and "detoxes" bear interesting similarities to hunger strikes. Tap codes and smuggling are structurally akin to mesh networks and VPNs. Viral dance videos are merely the latest instantiation of a long history of absurdist performances aimed at disrupting institutional power. In fact, the very state of being surveilled online and, increasingly, in our public physical environment, has some troubling parallels with being locked up. Thus, if physical confinement by walls and bars amounts to a state of "incarceration," we can understand the social constraints imposed by pervasive technological and legal codes as "incodification."
It took us a long time to get the paper published. Because of its interdisciplinary focus and eclectic subject matter, there simply aren't many journals or peer reviewers that are appropriate for it. In fact, earlier this year, when we were informed that the article had won the Top Faculty Paper Award from the International Communication Association's Philosophy, Theory, Critique division, it was in review at a third journal after being rejected from the first two.
This paper reviews penal history in order to consider forms of resistance to mass surveillance. Because experiences of surveillance are endemic to incarcerated life, identifying tactics of protest among these populations provides valuable insights for potential forms of counter-conduct in other circumstances of ubiquitous monitoring. We introduce the term incodification as a means of describing conditions of continuous surveillance ingrained into infrastructures of everyday life, even as these conditions give rise to tactics of resistance. We focus on three forms of protest: hunger strikes, alternate communication networks and viral dance videos, drawing on Foucault’s theory of askesis in order to develop our understanding of incodification. Our objective in introducing this term, and with our analysis as a whole, is to provoke and promote theoretical and activist projects that both address and subvert infrastructures of incodification. [more]