Soft biopolitics?

During the month of August, furthering my reading of ‘We Are Data’ by John Cheney-Lippold provided me with some very useful concepts that I would like to share.

Measurable Types

I have mentioned ‘measurable types’ here before, but I would like to explore this concept further as it is an important one to grasp the meaning of algorithmic production and categorization of subjects.

“A measurable type is a data template, a nexus of different datafied elements that construct a new, transcoded interpretation of the world. These templates are most often used to assign users an identity, an algorithmic identification that compares streams of new data to existing datafied models.”

A measurable type is a classification that serves, among others, the purposes of profiling. ‘Man’, ‘women’, ‘terrorist’, ‘white’, ‘bisexual’ – these are examples of measurable types. ‘Datafied life’ is, according to Sheila Jasanoff, subjected to a simplification of the complicated realities of people’s personal characteristics into objective numbers. All of the ways that these attributes are tied to and defined by power relations is thus obscured by algorithmically processed categories.

A real life bisexual woman might be categorized as an ‘heterosexual’ ‘man’ online, depending on the company writing the algorithms processing her data.

A measurable type is ever changing in response to the unending flow of user data, and each governing agent has its own set of rules.

“[Measurable types] are empirical assessments of prejudice and/or patterns that work, according to a particular confidence percentage, at a particular moments and by a particular set of rules.”

They are biopolitical, as they compile data into an intelligible whole which then is used to manage populations – we are controlled based on how ‘we are made intelligible by data’.

John Cheney-Lippold concludes that ‘while we don’t know what we’re being called, we are also unaware that what we’re being called is changing all the time.’

Algorithmic Regulation

To explain algorithmic regulation, Cheney-Lippold resorts to the concept of ‘modulation’, as defined by Gilles Deleuze. Cheney-Lippold offers us the example of Silly Putty which, despite being pushed and pulled endlessly, retains some level of its integrity. Likewise, the modular character of the societies of control allows for ‘tolerable aberration’. Modulation is not essentialist, it identifies what something is by its present state and substance. However, this discursive modulation is constrained by power’s needs.

Our datafied identities are subjected to the effects of this modulation and recalibration:

“The lives of those who hold a ‘professor’ ID card are governed by the rule set programmed by a database engineer. And this engineer can also, either arbitrarily or during a security threat, disallow access on the basis of these categorical identities. What it means to be a ‘professor’, previously known as the free rein to jaunt around campus unencumbered, evolves accordingly.”

In short, datafication connects us to power – we become known (in data’s terms), and thus manageable.

Soft Biopolitics

“Soft biopolitics attends to the definition of categorical identity itself, allowing that identity to take shape according to the most current, and correlative, patterns of data.”

Soft biopolitics is still using the same methods as traditional biopolitics, that is, statistics and analysis of the population. However, it is abandoning the notion of rigid identities. While in traditional biopolitics the state separates kids, teens and adults for the purpose of assigning different exercise routines, in soft biopolitics the state, or, more likely, a company (either contracted by the state or not), sends targeted content or coupons for cough syrup for users profiled within the ‘flu’ measurable type.