Gradually, even the ability to imagine alternatives begins to fade
(Peter Schrag, Mind Control, 1979)
There is a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path
(Lana & Lilly Wachowski, The Matrix, 1999)
Feeling safe is the foundation of the new normal
(Luis Corbacho, The New Normal, 2020)
BACK TO THE ROOTS
Few films have revolutionized the collective unconscious as The Matrix. A computer programmer by day and a hacker by night, Thomas Anderson’s irreverent curiosity captures that mixture of fear and fascination, of repulsion and attraction characteristic of a whispered curiosity shared by youths critical of social reality: will we one day exist as mere virtual simulation?
Prior to the conversion of sociology into a boxing ring between supporters and detractors of Marx and Foucault, the field explored the network of interfaces between the social and human implications of behavioral aspiration, technological change and social control. For the most part, the conversation revolved around so-called deviant behavior, in particular, the labelling of certain social behaviors as threatening to the status quo.
How electronic monitoring was first conceived (and tested) in the US around the 60s is the perfect example. Influenced by behavioral criminology and psychology, graduate students at Harvard designed the Behavior Transmitter-Receiver, a portable transceiver capable of tracking the location of a juvenile offender through a bi-directional electronic communication system (Burrell & Gable 2008:102), which sent radio signals addressed by an antenna to a base station.
The surveilled individual carried a transmitter and a timer/decoder to give an audio signal. Provided that the subject moved within a prescribed area of 5 blocks around the person’s address, the transmitter activated stationary relay stations to send a code to the base station, where a lighted map would indicate the subject’s location (Gable 2011:11 & Gable 2015:4). The approximate weight of the equipment was 1 kilogram. Ralph Gable (born Ralph Schwitzgebel), a student of Timothy Leary and Charles Slack’s, headed the project. He was accompanied by Robert, his twin brother and a student of B.F. Skinner’s.
What vision of society, of the human being, and of technology is this project informed by? Above all, a malleable subjectivity is assumed, whose behaviors are susceptible to quantification, allowing for the prediction of outcomes: “the quantification of subjective events … facilitate our correlation and prediction of behaviors” (Schwitzgebel et al 1964:235). These behaviors can be controlled with a correct, balanced number of positive and negative stimuli, administered through “behavior-modification machines” (Schwitzgebel 1969:46). In this “behavioral engineering” program, human and machine become an integrated unit (Schwitzgebel 1969:64-5).
More broadly speaking, in vibrant times of utopia, rebellion, sexual liberation, psychedelic experimentation, rock and roll, and revolutionary movements around the 60s and 70s, behavior socially constructed as “deviant” was the focus of attention for thinkers dedicated to decoding an ephemeral concept in its theorizing, though in extreme cases (such as gay aversion “therapy”) painfully palpable: the control of mind and behavior.
“In the past years, there has been a fundamental shift in the way government and other organizations control the lives and behaviors of individuals… [a] shift from direct to indirect methods of control, from the punitive to the therapeutic… from the hortatory to the manipulative” (Schrag 1978: xii).
This is how Peter Schrag launched Mind Control, a captivating text, situated at the intersection of a social reality allegedly under construction, futurism, and science fiction; “a shocking account of all the methods being developed -and used-to control not only what we do but how we think and feel,” according to the cover of the 1978 Pantheon Books edition.
Although mind control is channeled through technologies that individualize the exercise of power, what intrigues Schrag is the collective embodiment of the behavioral project. Through the creation of systems of “treatment,” and the promotion of new ideologies of control in which society itself becomes an open-sky total institution, technologies extend intervention “to millions of people who had never been subject to intervention before” and changes “the nature of that intervention so that instead of dealing with a specific act… they deal with generalized behavior” (Schrag 1978:31)
By means of this conceptual maneuver, Schrag lands the techno-behavioral conversation in the realm of political sociology: “collectively, these technologies are conditioning a growing segment of the society to regard all deviance a sickness and to accept increasingly narrow standards of acceptable behavior as scientifically normative” (Schrag 1978: xii). Behavior modification “is an attempt to apply the style and techniques of total institutions… to the world outside” (Schrag 1978:14).
Of utmost importance, the new control technologies not only enable the quantitative multiplication of power, but also its qualitative immersion in the aspiration to shape or redirect subjectivity: “they are far more intrusive into the life, thought, feelings, and behavior of the individual than anything which existed previously” (Schrag 1978: xii).
As a result, a malleable society emerges; one where “the measure of Skinnerian effectiveness is the absence of resistance and counter-control” and where science normalizes continuous surveillance, monitoring, and preventive treatment of social groups declared as at-risk (Schrag 1978:10). Ultimately, the consecration of an “ideology of medical model intervention” or conflation between the medical and the social, between sickness and crime (Schrag 1978:247).
Ultimately, this Orwellian mission of widening mind and social control is not a project without contours. In contexts of economic recession and rising unemployment, “the most common subjects are the growing numbers of economically superfluous or socially marginal people:” the young, the old, the poor, the difficult (Schrag 1978: xiii). In short, those who are situated outside the market discipline.
THE COVID19 MATRIX
In contrast to the fascination that the word utopia once inspired, sociological scholarship was never really interested in the conceptual value of the other side of the coin: the dystopia.
The fact is peculiar. Some of the most popular dystopian films are quite close to two historical experiences that are as dramatically dark and aberrant as they are commented on: Nazi Germany and the Condor Plan (which persecuted, tortured and disappeared hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans in several countries simultaneously, from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s).
The combination of the terms “sociology” + “dystopia” in the Graduate Center library search engine yields very few results, including a paper proposing that dystopian literature can contribute to the sociological imagination: Dystopian Literature and the Sociological Imagination, written by Sean Seeger & Daniel Davison-Vecchione (2019).
According to the authors of a thorough paper that demonstrates familiarity with the genre, dystopian fiction tends to be grounded in empirical reality, which makes it “especially attuned to how historically-conditioned social forces shape the inner life and personal experience of the individual, and how acts of individuals can, in turn, shape the social structures in which they are situated” (Seeger & Davison-Vecchione 2019:1).
Likewise, dystopias allow envisioning future societies by extrapolating existing social, political, economic, environmental and technological trends. In other words, certain current trends are the observation territory of the humanity of the future. Even though from 1984 to V of Vendetta the dystopian style is linked to an authoritarian future, Seeger & Davison-Veccione subdivide it into several types, including political, environmental, and technological dystopias.
Highlighting the potential of dystopias as a ground for sociological deliberations, it is possible to ask: did texts like Schrag’s announce a dystopian future? What future trends does the COVID19 pandemic bring up to date? Have we entered into a technological dystopia?
VIRUS-SHIELDED & DISINFECTABLE IS THE NEW NORM
The Moschino fashion house could have imagined a suit like Micrashell. But the design is not a runway model and belongs to Production Club, a studio specialized in immersive experiences for the music, tech, and gaming industries. According to the studio’s site, the suit’s function is “to safely allow people to interact in close proximity” during a pandemic, including “violent protests to stop social distancing measures” (https://production.club/micrashell).
Production Club describes Micrashell as a “virus-shielded, easy to control, fun to wear, disinfectable, fast to deploy personal protective equipment (PPE) that allows socializing without distancing.” Its features include a monitoring and emotion transmission lighting system that facilitates intersubjective connection. For example, a rainbow lighting chase effect across the suit can express joy, while a static red light could express “busy.”
The interesting thing about the Micrashell-being is that just by looking into the images available through the website, it is not easy to conclude at first sight whether that person is fiction or reality. Certainly, one could say that that person is a virtual human “covered with plastics and silicones that look more like an alien’s costume than a sanitary accessory.” But fashionable electronic music lovers would pay to participate in a Micrashell party. And there would be no shortage of volunteers to board a flight or send their kids to school in a Micrashell.
It is precisely impossibility that inspires a dystopian imagination. More than an alien, the Micrashell-being evokes the robotization of subjectivity and the control of emotions. As in the film Equals, the suppression of passions is the entelechy of total control. As for the symbolic dimension, Micrashell illustrates the society that Schrag imagines, in particular, the alliance and fusion between medical and social language.
THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON
Reading Foucault or writers influenced by Foucault’s impacting notion of biopolitics (like it or not), is simultaneously enchanting and demoralizing: one sometimes gets the feeling that the hope of thwarting control is ludicrous and naive, as power is depicted as an omnipresent, diffuse and amorphous force that descends down right into the interstices of modern society.
The Foucauldian power-knowledge matrix is everywhere and nowhere. Power is an invisible gaze surveilling individuals and collectives, which mastery lies in them not knowing whether the physical eye is actually there, at the Bentham’s panopticon. If there is one reason why a hard-core Marxist will hardly ever accept that there are points of contact between Marx and Foucault, is, precisely, Foucault’s thesis that power is de-centered (in addition to claiming that the body is an essential unit of analysis, when it comes to oppression).
In this spirit of magnetism and uneasiness, the South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han has expressed concern that the pandemic could stimulate the establishment of “surveillance regimes and biopolitical quarantines, reducing freedoms, bringing an end to enjoyment, and revealing a lack of humanity amid mass hysteria and fear” (Singuenza & Rebollo Madrid Desk 2020: paragraph 3).
The interesting thing about this approach is that such biopolitical regimes do not necessarily require the disruption of democratic governance. The dystopian future could manifest itself locally, in the multiple territories that the nation-state contains. Therefore, the possibility of having opened the door to a dystopian future could be extrapolated from, among other trends –which may not necessarily apply to the US but have certainly manifested in other places, including some countries with a history of non-democratic governance:
– The excessive criminalization of behaviors that defy quarantine and social distancing measures;
– The use of fear of death to justify the selective criminalization of minorities –including trans people;
– The non-critical circulation of discourses that validate vigilantism by citizens and the police state on a cultural level;
– The disqualification of dissenting voices through denigrating labels that mark the person as a danger to society;
– The use of scientific discourse, in particular the language of risk, to obstruct the plural exchange of ideas;
– The militarization of confinement (in prisons, nursing houses, mental institutions, and so forth);
– The suppression of autonomous and community-based health care, in favor of the militarization of marginalized or ancestral territories;
– The use of tracking apps without citizen control or consent;
– The use of media outlets to instill panic in society; and
– The militarization of social protest.
These trends, per se, may not anticipate a dystopian future. However, going back to Seeger & Davison-Veccione’s idea of extrapolative dystopias: what would you expect to happen if they were to become more pronounced or be simultaneously activated? Would they create conditions conducive to a technological dystopia of total control, justified in fear of dying and scientific wording normalizing the undermining of freedoms or the criminalization of dissent?
The point is not whether governments should choose to protect either life or the economy, as if both were mutually exclusive (they are not). It is not the state’s obligation to protect the lives that this pandemic fragilizes that is on the table. The point is to affirm that human freedom merits the critical exchange of ideas in favor of the preservation of both life and democracy.
To suppress democracy in the name of preserving life would not be a happy ending. Because preserving life without democracy is impossible.
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Corbacho, Luis. ‘La Nueva Normalidad.’ Planeta Urbano. May 2020 (retrieved July 31).
Gable, Robert (2011). ‘Tagging: An Oddity of Great Potential.’ The Psychologist. 24 (11). 2-3.
Gable, Robert (2015). ‘The Ankle Bracelet Is History: An Informal Review of the Birth and Death of a Monitoring Technology.’ The Journal of Offender Monitoring. 4-8 (authorized electronic copy).
Davison-Vecchione, Daniel and Seeger, SA (2019) ‘Dystopian Literature and the Sociological Imagination.’ Thesis Eleven, 155 (1). 45-63.
Schrag, Peter (1978). Mind Control. Pantheon Books: New York.
Singuenza, Carmen and Rebollo Madrid Desk. ‘Byung-Chul Han: Covid-19 has reduced us to a “society of survival.’ Agencia EFE. May 2020 (retrieved July 31).
Schwitzgebel, Robert (1969). ‘A Belt from Big Brother.’ Psychology Today. 43-65.
Schwitzgebel Ralph (et all.) (1964). ‘A Program of Research in Behavioral Electronics.’ Behavioral Science. 9 (3). 233-238.