Monthly Archives: August 2006

Confinement, Education and the Control Society

PrisonPerhaps it’s not surprising that Foucault, the “panopticon guy”, is characterized as a thinker of power, discipline, and punishment. But as Deleuze (1995) points out, Foucault also believed that we are increasingly moving away from being societies based on discipline to societies based on control. According to Deleuze’s reading of Foucault: “We’re moving toward control societies that no longer operate by confining people but through continuous control and instant communication” (1995, p. 174, my emphasis).

Did Foucault prematurely announce the end of confinement? It sure looks like it when looking at the US, which incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. According to government statistics, the number of people in prison and jail is outpacing the number of inmates released, even while the crime rate continues to fall. By June 2004 there were 2.1 million people in US jails, or one in every 138 residents (ref, ref). Race has everything to do with this issue: “blacks comprise 13 percent of the national population, but 30 percent of people arrested… and 49 percent of those in prison… One in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 was either in jail or prison, or on parole or probation in 1995.” (ref).

And that’s just at home. The US is also in the business of confining people abroad. According to the article American Gulag in Harper’s Sept. 2006 issue, 450 prisoners are being held at Guantanamo, approximately 13,000 in Iraq, 500 in Afghanistan, and an estimated 100 in secret CIA “black sites” around the world. They have not been formally charged, and have little legal recourse. In essence, they are guilty until the US decides they are innocent. While the man in charge of the facility “firmly believes” that there are no innocent men in Guantanamo, a report based on data from the Dept. of Defense indicates that 55% of the detainees are not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the United States or its allies (ref, ref). According to Harper’s, 98 Guantanamo detainees have died to date, it is safe to assume not from natural causes.

But it’s not simply the case that this society is a bit behind in the transition from discipline to control. It is actually advancing equally well on both fronts. In fact, increased control goes hand in hand with increased confinement because increased control means more precise ways of identifying those who fail to perform to society’s expectations. In a technocracy, control is surveillance: the continuous monitoring of public, private and work life, and the “intelligent” identification of any deviance. But while new control technologies afford more effective and efficient methods of management and surveillance, you still need an apparatus for controlling those who fall outside the established parameters. This group includes those who have failed in the educational system and therefore cannot productively contribute to the service economy, enemies of the state (preemptively defined), non-conforming minorities, etc. (I’m not suggesting there are no criminals in prison; I’m merely drawing some conclusions from trends in the makeup of the prison population). The trick is then to turn the confinement of these ‘burdens’ of society into a business opportunity by benefiting from their cheap labor or by privatizing the industry of confinement itself (think Halliburton).

I hinted above at the role of education as a control mechanism that helps differentiate the productive members of society from those who should be confined and disciplined. The fact that the same groups who are disproportionately represented in the incarcerated population are also those most likely to drop out of the educational system is not a coincidence (only about half of Black and Hispanic youth graduate with a high-school degree; ref). But for everyone else who succeeds, what does education look like? The answer is: continuous control. I was struck by Deleuze’s comments regarding the changing nature of education in a control society:

In disciplinary societies you were always starting all over again (as you went from school to barracks, from barracks to factory), while in control societies you never finish anything… school is replaced by continuing education and exams by continuous assessment. It’s the surest way of turning education into a business. (1995, p. 179)

This definitely puts a sinister spin on ‘life-long’ learning. The constant student is not one who engages in an ongoing perfection of the self, but one who is constantly assessed according to the performance standards of a service economy. Thanks to distance education, e-learning and technologies such as the Learning Management System (LMS), education becomes something that can be delivered anytime and anywhere, and which —more importantly— can be used to monitor performance throughout the ‘learning’ career of the individual. Thus, assessment-based education helps reconcile control and discipline in society by helping to effect, in the case of those who fail, a transition from controlled subject to disciplined object.

I want to go back briefly to Deleuze’s comment about control societies also operating through “instant communication” (1995, p. 174, my emphasis). It would make sense to assume that, in a crude way, control societies would want to control communication. But that is not the case. According to the standard technophile discourse, thanks to technology our societies enjoy an unprecedented freedom of speech and expression. Communication technologies with low operational cost and low barriers of entry (such as blogs) are praised for giving “everyone” a chance to express themselves. But Deleuze points out that “Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves… What we’re are plagued by these days isn’t any blocking of communication, but pointless statements” (1995, p. 129). Deleuze is suggesting that there is a connection between control and an over-abundance of (meaningless) expression. More of this type of communication has not resulted in stronger social bonds, but in increased isolation: concurrent with advances in ICTs, the last U.S. census shows that 25% of the nation’s households (27.2 million) consist of just one person, compared to 10% in 1950 (ref).

This is the paradox of social media that has been bothering me lately: an ’empowering’ media that provides increased opportunities for communication, education and online participation, but which at the same time further isolates individuals and aggregates them into masses —more prone to control, and by extension more prone to discipline.

Offline Reference:
Deleuze, G. (1995). Negotiations, 1972-1990. New York: Columbia University Press.

Creative Commons photo credit: thost

Video Games, Authority, and Problem-based Thinking

Gta[UPDATE: Raph Koster has replied to this post over at his blog, and Gus offers some interesting thoughts as well.]

The September 2006 issue of Harper’s Magazine (contents not online, unfortunately) has a piece titled Grand Theft Education: Literacy in the Age of Video Games. It is a conversation between Jane Avrich (author and English teacher), Steven Johnson (author of Everything Bad is Good for You), Raph Koster (video-game designer, including Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies), Thomas De Zengotlta (author, teacher) and moderator Bill Wasik (senior editor of Harper’s).

The participants were asked to discuss how video games could be used to teach literacy. The guys (Jane is allowed to interject here and there) immediately get to the task, envisioning various kinds of possible games for this purpose, including a zombie game where you have to type a word correctly in order to off a Z. But the conversation does include more interesting nuggets. For instance, the group wonders about the changing definition of literacy, and what current technologies are doing to our literacy practices:

KOSTER: …To me, there’s a question hanging over our conversation, which is: What kind of writing do we hope to teach? We might like to teach kids to write like Proust, but no one writes like Proust anymore. Appropriation and annotation are becoming our new forms of literacy. Think of blogs, for example: most blog posts are reblogs, they’re parasitic on things other people have written. It’s a democratized writing, a democratized literacy. (p.39)

Not sure I see the connection between democracy and literacy as appropriation. If anything, it reminds me of certain critiques of technology (such as Rivers’) which argue that our current technosocial systems stamp out individuality and are responsible for the erasure of the individual by the mass. One could argue that appropriation and annotation are the natural forms of a mass literacy, operationalized through the extreme individualism of the blogosphere (masses are not collectives as much as they are homogenous collections of isolated individuals). That resulting kind of democracy, therefore, is one which blocks authentic difference and makes the masses more susceptible to control. And speaking of control, the Harper’s group briefly touches upon the issue of authority:

WASIK: But you’re suggesting that increasingly it’s the social network itself, through reputation systems or what have you, that is acting as the authority?

JOHNSON: This is especially true in the online network games, too, which are really the most influential games in the world right now. Raph, actually, helped to create some of the biggest ones. With Ultima Online and other online games, we’ve had the rise of guild structures, these distributed systems for collaborating. A player who wants to slay a particular dragon will need to get twelve people together, and put one in charge of this, another in charge of at. (p. 37)

The kind of authority described here, however, is very simplistic. It is more interesting to explore the question of how in social media (and networked games) the masses are not susceptible to a central form of authority, but to a distributed form of control emanating from the mass itself, from what are considered to be ‘objective’ rules and values. It’s rationalism all over again, with logical thinking as the only valid method for interpreting the world. At one point, the Harper’s group confronts this problem:

ZENGOTITA: … But when the players go out into the real world, I think there’s a real danger—and I see signs of this in my students, and young people in general—of failing to understand not just the complexity of the real world but also its mystery. I’m using “mystery” as opposed to “problem” on purpose: problems have solutions, mysteries don’t. People are profoundly mysterious entities, I think, and understanding them in the real world involves understanding that you’re never going to entirely understand them.

KOSTER: To bring solely a gamist perspective to the world is a really big mistake. But of course this perspective predates video games. It harkens back to behaviorist psychology, and a variety of unsavory political movements as well.

ZENGOTITA: It’s systems-based thinking, model-based thinking. I can’t claim that Donald Rumsfeld or Robert McNamara were products of video-game education. But they show all the symptoms of it. (p. 35)

Zengotita sets up a dichotomy between problems that have solutions and mysteries that don’t, and points out how the gamist perspective inculcates problem-solving skills but not the skills required to live with the ambiguity of complex ‘mysteries.’ The thing with rationalism is that it inverts the problem-solution relation in such a way that only problems that have solutions it can handle are made relevant. Problems, in other words, are subordinated to solutions. This makes, ultimately, for a very impoverished relationship with reality. As DeLanda (2004) warns: “The crucial task is to avoid the subordination of problems to solutions brought about by the search for simple linear behaviour” (2004, p. 171).

Interestingly, while this threat was identified early in the Harper’s piece, the participants quickly move on to describe more ways in which games can teach literacy. It is as if we are required to surrender our agency in a technocracy, and while we can make observations, we are beyond questioning the progress of technology. So what if video-games produce more Rummi’s?

(Disclaimer: I own a Gameboy)

I’d love to hear from the literacy and gaming people what they think about the Harper’s piece or my reading of it.


De Landa, M. (2002). Intensive science and virtual philosophy. London; New York: Continuum.

Creative Commons photo credit: gregoryperez