Psychopolitics, Big Data & Social Control
In Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, the Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han put forward another new concept to analyze forms of domination in modern societies: psychopolitics; a term that refers to the type of control that societies exercise through the use of personal information. According to Han, the web, social media, and big data are core tools of modern domination, since they enable a more efficient and stable form of control. This control is exercised in a very different way from traditional authoritarian or totalitarian means of control, since instead of limiting communication, it stimulates it: “The society of digital control makes massive use of freedom: it is possible only thanks to voluntary self-exposure, self-denudation… the disclosure of data does not take place coercively but responds to an inner need”. In this form of neoliberalism, “The smartphone is not only an effective means of surveillance… It is also a mobile confessional. Facebook is the church”.
By willingly sharing our information, we make surveillance easier. Big data for example is an extremely powerful psychopolitical tool which allows insights into the dynamics of social communication and the patterns of human behavior, and consequently the development of techniques of control or influence. For instance, by having access to our online thoughts and desires, the technologies of control have the ability to study our emotional responses and exploit them. Instead of being dominated through discipline and violence, individuals are dominated by sensual or emotional appeal and addiction.
The current system benefits from mobilizing emotions because emotions give rise to quick reactions; they facilitate fast change; and they open up new needs and fields of consumption. Emotions can be triggered easily and can create fast responses. Through emotional stimulation, ideas also find their way into our memories more easily. Not only that, but emotions trigger instinctual reactions which we are not able to consciously control or even understand. We are not conscious of the reasons behind much of what we do or choose, but we accept and fully trust our emotions to guide our reactions. As Han writes:
“Emotions are performative in the sense that they evoke certain actions: like inclinations, they represent the energetic and sensory foundation to action… They constitute the pre-reflexive, semi-conscious, bodily-instinctive place of action, of which one is often not properly aware. Neoliberal psychopolitics takes possession of the emotion, so as to influence the actions on the pre-reflexive level. Through emotion, it insinuates itself deeply into the person and consequently represents an extremely efficient medium of the individual’s psychopolitical control”. — Han
Applied psychopolitics also invents new forms of control, such as a myriad workshops training our self-management, and various other activities which are supposed to augment our efficiency. According to Han, current domination doesn’t only take advantage of the individual during his working hours, but tries to dominate his entire life, in order to sacrifice it to the attainment of an ever-more-productive workforce. And citizens voluntarily self-optimize, trying to constantly upgrade their functioning within society. Every weakness needs to be eliminated, that is, healed. Healing in the age of surveillance capitalism means to successfully deal with exhaustion and to avoid burnouts that come from the constant self-exploitation of one’s body and psyche, in order to be productive. This healing process is itself seen as something meant to increment productivity; it is not primarily seen in terms of a good life. The improvement of performance is the main objective.
Within this system, positive thinking drives self-optimization, and in a sense facilitates the illusion that if you work hard enough you’re guaranteed to achieve a satisfying life. To put this assumption into question is dangerous, since it may annihilate the self-optimization imperative, or in other words, the duty of achieving ever-greater performance. The new ideology ideology of self-optimization associated with neoliberalism represents almost a new kind of religion:
“The infinite work on the ego resembles self-observation and self- examination in the Protestant religion, and they, in turn, represent a technique of subjectivation and domination. Instead of looking for sins, now negative thoughts are the ones to be sought, the ego struggles with itself as against an enemy”.
This new psychopolitical form of power is more efficient than the traditional means of control because it makes rebellion almost impossible. Those who fail in the neoliberal system live their failure as their own responsibility, and in the best case, direct their frustration at increasing their productivity (‘auto-correction’). In the worst case, their frustration at their failure to create for themselves wealth or fame makes individuals depressed and self-destructive — but not critical towards the system that has fostered this depression and self-destructiveness.
Psychopolitics is founded on the principle of freedom, and that’s what makes it so efficient. Modern neoliberalism exploits everything that is utilized within the exercise of freedom, such as emotions, play, and communication. In the neoliberal system, freedoms, which by definition should be freedoms from constrictions, generate constrictions. The tragedy of psychopolitics is precisely that it deceives the subject into making a slave of himself.