Heidi Rae Cooley. Finding Augusta: Habits of Mobility and Governance in the Digital Era. Lebanon: University Press of New England, 2014. 216 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61168-521-3; $45.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-61168-522-0.
Reviewed by Ryan Archibald (University of Washington)
Published on H-War (February, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Revelations of contemporary mass US government surveillance prompted a significant debate about the nature of, and relationships between, civil liberties, technology, and state power. However, the consumer desire and necessity for devices such as smartphones, which often facilitate new forms of surveillance, continues. Heidi Rae Cooley, an interdisciplinary scholar of technology and media arts, raises critical questions about the relationships between governance, individual self-expression, and mobility by interrogating the consequences and operation of mobile technologies in her book Finding Augusta: Habits of Mobility and Governance in the Digital Era. A downloadable application, Augusta App, accompanies the book and provides a novel example of digital humanities scholarship.
Cooley makes three main arguments in her interdisciplinary work that draws heavily from Michel Foucault, neuroscience, semiotics, and technology studies. First, she claims that the ability of mobile devices to locate a body in motion, and their ubiquitous presence, promote “population managers to think less in terms of surveillance and more in terms of tracking” (p. xvii). Tracking, she argues, involves analyzing patterns of movement and indexing information, whereas surveillance relies heavily on visuality, a distinction she explains further in chapter 4. Second, the design and use of devices such as IPhones demonstrate the biopolitical stakes of these technologies. Finally, the crucial importance of habit to both mobile technologies and novel forms of governance means that individual cognizance of tracking and changes in behavior, she contends, can modify these power relations.
Cooley takes as her point of departure an amateur film created by a traveling insurance salesman named Scott Nixon to explain the core problems of data management. Using a Kodak reel camera, between 1930 and 1950 Nixon shot footage of at least thirty-six images he labeled “Augusta.” These included his hometown of Augusta, Georgia, other cities across the United States, plants, and streets. While Augusta appears to have a coherent meaning in one locale, the images bring together several histories and values that shatter the coherency of the geographic label. Nixon’s life and film also prompt a discussion of the Traveling Salesman Problem (TSP), a central problem in the management of transportation and data infrastructures. The TSP attempts to calculate the most efficient round-trip route through multiple cities. This problem cannot be fully solved, however, because there are too many variables to account for (traffic, car accidents, weather, etc.). The goal, then, is to manage the uncertainties through the creation of individual habits or, if creating an Internet search engine, modifications of data indices, to either arrive at the right location or retrieve the desired data.
Chapter 1 explains the development and use of the Augusta App. Through the many Quick Response (QR) codes in the book, users directly engage the text’s main themes and map their movement through the text. The application provides users with information about the larger community of readers and tracks users’ movements and locations, which are then “mapped against Scott Nixon’s Augusta and in relation to the broader Augusta App community” (p. 3). Individual contributions can shape the application’s content and function, but only in exchange for information regarding user movements, selections, and locations. This experiment is intended to demonstrate how individuals are regulated through the mapping and prediction of routines including Google searches, restaurant choices, and destinations. Participation in networked communities requires the “willingness to have one’s motions and reading habits tracked” that make such communities possible (p. 7). Creating an awareness of such tracking, she hopes, will demonstrate how habit formation is imbricated in larger power structures and the possibility of modifying existing power relations through shifts in individual behavior.
Chapter 2 explores industrial design’s power to create individual habit while producing a product usable by a large population. For example, the IPhone’s designers and industrial engineers aimed to create a device so intuitive that its function was almost readily apparent through its design. Operating at the level of the population, industrial design’s biopolitical project aimed to create devices that appeared as “natural” extensions of users. This experience shapes the process of individual expression, and obfuscates the ways in which industrial design established the terms by which such expression is recorded and disseminated. Turning to theorists such as Henri Bergson, Charles Sanders Peirce, and Antonio Damasio, Cooley argues that the habits formed through mobile technologies create new ways of participating in a larger public while providing information to organizations interested in tracking behavior and movement.
Cooley next explores how the means of self-expression in the age of mobile media are embedded in and enable governance. She argues that posting nongeographic-specific data such as photos and carrying mobile media devices unconsciously implicate individuals in the mapping of their own movements and enable one to be readily locatable. While on, smartphones communicate with a variety of cell-phone towers to locate the moving subject, and digital photos themselves contain geographic information. Applications such as CitySense analyze patterns of movement, rather than the qualities of the space visited, in order to provide recommendations of restaurants, cafes, etc. Individuals become “legible” in moving populations not from gathering qualitative data about the specific sites visited, but rather from “patterns of mobility and choice” (p. 65). Search engines, such as Google, use algorithms that measure the degrees of relationship to items rather than content. If one were to search for “Augusta” on Google, the results are ordered based on the relationships created between tags and information that users have given based on selections and text. Each Google search is indexed and used as a data point to further refine its algorithm. Therefore, though networked technologies have increasingly become the means for participating in the public sphere, it can also narrow the means of participation. If patterns create the terms of governance, she suggests, then changes in habit can shift these terms.
In chapter 4, Cooley demonstrates how the problem of locating a mobile population has deep historical roots, and continues to emphasize the centrality of “locatability” to governance. She argues that discussions of contemporary governance need to address questions of “tracking” more than those of “surveillance,” as mobile media devices are much more concerned with location than visibility (p. 83). She suggests that the importance of “locatability” has an impact on how we understand political subjectivity. After briefly detailing the Roman origins of the problems of mobility and tracking, she criticizes scholarship, such as Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs (2002), for overemphasizing the democratizing impact of mobile technologies. The logic of “tracking” and recording movement means that one must examine the structure by which the “smart mob” conducts itself. Since these digital media are already embedded in structures of power, Rheingold’s mob of autonomous individuals acting collectively ignores how they are already managed and predicted. This does not mean that these devices ought to be rejected, however. As these flexible modes of governance encourage and require direct engagement through habit, changing habits offers a potential to reexamine political formations.
The greatest strengths of Cooley’s work include her unique example of digital humanities scholarship and critical readings of the political stakes of new media technologies. While most examples of digital humanities are often limited to websites that operate as extended endnotes for printed monographs, Cooley’s Augusta App enables the reader to assess the author’s arguments through their own engagement with their smartphones. The application has the potential to encourage a reexamination of one’s own relationship to one’s phone and the implications technology has on crucial issues of privacy and subjectivity. Akin to work by scholars such as Alexander Galloway, Cooley highlights the limits of media technology to spurring emancipatory politics, and instead suggests the need for a deeper reflection on how networked technologies are enmeshed in larger hierarchies of power. Her critical reading of technologies highlights new historical actors in the study of surveillance, as she examines a larger assemblage that includes corporations, industrial design, and digital networks. Her approach to technology may be of interest to those studying how technology shapes the experience, practice, and implications of warfare. For example, her work could be of use to those interested in how new weapons such as drones alter relationships to violence and the practice of warfare.
While Cooley is largely successful in demonstrating how these technologies encourage and enable new forms of biopolitical governance, she is less successful in addressing how and why shifts in power occur. The reader does not get a good sense of the specific historical processes causing these changes. Are these forms of control and “tracking” encouraged by larger shifts in the political economy over a specific time period? What is the relationship between technology and political culture? Does one have a greater impact in shaping the other, and if so, when and why? What role does the state play in either developing mobile media technologies or shaping their use? Cooley also appears to assume that the experience of technology is uniform across space, and does not address how local contexts could potentially influence the use of smartphones and other devices. In not addressing these questions, Cooley’s arguments can be read as overly technologically deterministic. In addition, while her argument assumes that these programs and machines operate properly, she does not explore the implications for the unnamed “population managers” when these devices malfunction (p. xvii). How does the practice of hacking and the presence of viruses impact her arguments on political subjectivity and power? These limitations aside, Cooley’s book raises critical questions for future research and contemporary debates regarding surveillance, privacy, and civil liberties.
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Ryan Archibald. Review of Cooley, Heidi Rae, Finding Augusta: Habits of Mobility and Governance in the Digital Era.
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