Citizen Ex

Algorithmic citizenship JPEG

I’m late to this, so apologies, but if you are either weary of web-surfing or can’t get off your digital board, check out James Bridle‘s Citizen Ex project on ‘algorithmic citizenship’:

Algorithmic Citizenship is a form of citizenship which is not assigned at birth, or through complex legal documents, but through data. Like other computerised processes, it can happen at the speed of light, and it can happen over and over again, constantly revising and recalculating. It can split a single citizenship into an infinite number of sub-citizenships, and count and weight them over time to produce combinations of affiliations to different states.

Citizen Ex calculates your Algorithmic Citizenship based on where you go online. Every site you visit is counted as evidence of your affiliation to a particular place, and added to your constantly revised Algorithmic Citizenship. Because the internet is everywhere, you can go anywhere – but because the internet is real, this also has consequences.

The basic idea is derived from an essay by John Cheney-Lippold in Theory, culture and society here:

Marketing and web analytic companies have implemented sophisticated algorithms to observe, analyze, and identify users through large surveillance networks online. These computer algorithms have the capacity to infer categories of identity upon users based largely on their web-surfing habits. In this article I will first discuss the conceptual and theoretical work around code, outlining its use in an analysis of online categorization practices. The article will then approach the function of code at the level of the category, arguing that an analysis of coded computer algorithms enables a supplement to Foucauldian thinking around biopolitics and biopower, of what I call soft biopower and soft biopolitics. These new conceptual devices allow us to better understand the workings of biopower at the level of the category, of using computer code, statistics and surveillance to construct categories within populations according to users’ surveilled internet history. Finally, the article will think through the nuanced ways that algorithmic inference works as a mode of control, of processes of identification that structure and regulate our lives online within the context of online marketing and algorithmic categorization.

From James’s Citizen Ex site you can download (from the banner, top left) an extension to your browser which – after you’ve browsed some more – will calculate, in a very rough and ready way, your own algorithmic citizenship.  Mine (from today’s little effort) is shown at the head of this post.

This may look like an entertaining distraction, but what lies behind it is of course deadly serious: read, for example, James’s (short) stories on Libya and Syria.

Created as a browser plug-in, Citizen Ex shows us the true physical locations of the sites we visit and the territories that govern our actions as we traverse the web. In this reality, every mouse click leaves a trace, as our personal data is collected and stored in locations around the globe. It is with this information that governments and corporations construct a notional vision of our lives. This is our ‘algorithmic citizenship’ — the way we appear to the network. This programmatic fluidity is far removed from the true complexity of human identity. It reduces it to something calculable, which has profound implications for our understanding of privacy, citizenship and the self.

It also has profound implications for surveillance and the digital production of the killing spaces of later modern war.  Read this alongside Louise Amoore‘s brilliant work on The politics of possibility and you can perhaps see where I’m going:

‘[W]hat comes to count as the actionable intelligence behind a sovereign decision is a mosaic of overwhelmingly ordinary fragments of a life that become, once arrayed together, secret and sensitive evidence…

‘Drawing some elements of past activities into the calculation, the mosaic nonetheless moves over the surface of multiple past subjects and events in order to imagine a future unknown subject.’

It’s not difficult to divine (sic) how ‘Citizen Ex’ becomes ‘Citizen-Ex’.

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