Surveillance, Preemption and the Production of Character in the Age of Big Data

Rosamond, Emily. 2015. 'Surveillance, Preemption and the Production of Character in the Age of Big Data'. In: London Conference in Critical Thought 2015. University College London, United Kingdom 26-27 June 2015. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

From Orwell to Foucault, by-now classic analyses of surveillance tend to focus on disciplinary subjective effects: the subject’s self-modification of his/her behaviour due to the pressures of potentially being watched. These Orwellian emphases often frame discussions of more recent surveillance apparatuses, such as the NSA’s PRISM program. Yet, given what Deleuze (1992) described as a shift from disciplinary societies to “control societies” (in which power operates not so much through prohibition as through debt, on the one hand, and computer monitoring, on the other), are disciplinary narratives of surveillance adequate? I analyse two American artworks from the 2000s, which speak to a shift beyond disciplinary conceptions of surveillance in post-9/11 America: the art collective SWAMP’s McService (2003), in which the artists videotape themselves going through a McDonald’s drive-thru fifty-seven consecutive times, ordering food in the usual way, until they are prevented from continuing by police; and Hasan Elahi’s Tracking Transience (2005-), a website on which the artist communicates his whereabouts and daily activities in obsessive detail, in response to having been targeted as a terrorist threat by the FBI. By rendering surveillance in the first person, these pieces aim to upset the dichotomies of activity and passivity often associated with surveillance apparatuses, which ascribe more power to the watchers than to the watched. Yet they also presciently speak to the increasingly preemptive and future-oriented representations of subjects’ “character” in the age of big data, when surveillance blends with online self-presentation, corporate algorithmic identification (Cheney-Lippold 2011), and financial pressures that one be “creditworthy” (as in the burgeoning “fintech” industry). In what Nigel Thrift (2009) has termed a “political economy of propensity,” both governments and corporations blend discipline with the softer, preemptive power of reputation as a form of currency.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


Surveillance, Big Data, SWAMP, Hasan Elahi

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Visual Cultures


1 April 2015Accepted
27 June 2015Completed

Event Location:

University College London, United Kingdom

Date range:

26-27 June 2015

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

16 Jan 2019 13:53

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 17:05


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