Sharing and Surveilling

Against the Current, No. 215, November/December 2021

Peter Solenberger

Radical Secrecy:
The Ends of Transparency in Datified America
By Clare Birchall
University of Minnesota Press, 2021, 244 pages, $25.00

CLARE BIRCHALL’S RADICAL Secrecy: The Ends of Transparency in Datified America is an interrogation of the meaning of secrecy and transparency in the digital era. The title plays with the phrase “radical transparency,” promoted by liberal consultants to business, government and education.

The book examines the hidden ends of transparency under neoliberal capitalism, and proposes “radical secrecy” as a way to interrupt the uses and abuses of information by corporations and governments. It envisions a post-capitalist, post-secret future that would combine a still-necessary right to opacity with the possibility of a new politics of openness.

The book is not explicitly Marxist or even political, in the conventional sense of advocating a program and strategy for social transformation. But it rejects the unequal distribution of power underlying the covert collection of data by corporations and governments, liberal or conservative. Its logic is not just to reform surveillance capitalism and the surveillance state, but to do away with them.

Birchall’s critique is radical, and her conclusions lead beyond capitalism to a world free of the inequalities, oppressions and deceptions of this one. Her journey is interesting, even if the route is not one I would choose.

Knowledge and Data Go Pop

Birchall’s first book was Knowledge Goes Pop: From Conspiracy Theory to Gossip. In the preface she describes Knowledge Goes Pop as “a kind of ‘self-help’ book for the contemporary zeitgeist — characterized, I’d argue, by the making of decisions on the basis of knowledge that cannot be decided.”

The title refers to popular knowledge but also to popping the pretense of official, “legitimate” knowledge when it proves to be untrue, incomplete, misleading or deceptive, serving unacknowledged interests and powers. When the pretense of official knowledge is popped, popular knowledge fills the void, for better or for worse.

Political action requires examining official knowledge and popular knowledge to decide what’s true, false and undecidable about each. It also requires examining one’s own knowledge the same way. In the Marxist tradition, “ruthless criticism of all that exists.”

Birchall looks at two forms of popular knowledge, conspiracy theory and gossip. She uses case studies from the time she was writing, including conspiracy theories around the events of 9/11 and gossip about “weapons of mass destruction” used to justify the imperial war against Iraq in 2003.

Her method could be used to examine official and popular knowledge today, for example, with regard to the 2020 U.S. elections or the COVID-19 pandemic.

Official knowledge says that Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election by a popular vote of 81.3 million to 74.2 million and an Electoral College vote of 306 to 232. The Democrats and Republicans each hold 50 Senate seats, with the Republicans having outpolled the Democrats in the popular vote for Senate by 39.8 million to 38 million.

The Democrats have a 222 to 213 advantage over the Republicans in the House of Representatives, having outpolled the Republicans in the popular vote for the House by 77.5 million to 72.8 million. The Republicans hold 27 of 50 governorships, having outpolled the Democrats in the popular vote for governor by 10.7 million to 9 million.

Popular knowledge in the Republican Party says that the Republicans won the 2020 elections. Even Trump won. This seems irrational to Democrats, but the U.S. electoral system is so unstable that a shift of 25,000 votes in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin could have swung the election to Trump.

The Republicans did far better than projected at all levels and seem likely to take back at least one house of Congress in 2022. From that standpoint the Democrats’ certainty about their victory seems irrational.

Lest we get too cocky, however, those of us certain of our position outside the two-party system should also ask ourselves why independents continue to do so poorly. The election numbers can be determined, but their interpretation has an element of uncertainty, even for Marxists.

Official knowledge of the COVID-19 pandemic says “Follow the science.” But the science has been all over the place in the past eighteen months and continues to change.

As I write, an August 3 article in The New York Times, a fount of official knowledge, sympathetically described the state of popular knowledge as: “An evolving virus and 18 months of ever-changing pandemic messaging have left Americans angry, exhausted and skeptical of public health advice.”

Birchall doesn’t endorse conspiracy theories, gossip or other popular knowledge as preferable to official knowledge. Rather, she argues that all knowledge, official and popular, must be verified or falsified, again and again. The concluding words of her book are:

“It is in this realm of the undecidable that we have to make responsible decisions. In response, therefore, to accusations of relativism, it is not the case that there is no knowledge, or alternatively, that all knowledge is valid. (Knowledge will be posited just as meaning is communicated, and events do take place.) But it is the case that a certain restance [unknown remainder] — unique each time — will ensure that the future, even when it apparently ‘arrives,’ will always be yet ‘to come.’ This means that the question of what knowledge is will need to be asked, again and again, for we will not, and should not, always be able to recognize it.”

From the list of publications on Birchall’s King’s College London website, she shifted the focus of her work from knowledge to data with a 2011 paper “‘There’s been too much secrecy in this city’: The False Choice between Secrecy and Transparency in U.S. Politics” in Cultural Politics volume 7, issue 1.

Birchall played with the shift in the title of a 2013 lecture: Data Goes Pop: Transparency as Neoliberal Tool. Her publications since then deal mostly with the issues she takes up in Radical Secrecy.

The book incorporates portions of some of her earlier publications, including a short book Shareveillance: The Dangers of Openly Sharing and Covertly Collecting Data (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

Troubling the Vectors

In the preface to Radical Secrecy Birchall explains her purpose and locates the book in place and time.

“This book troubles the vectors of secrecy and transparency to make room for more equitable distributions of power. I completed it just before the impact of Covid-19 started to reveal itself in the UK, where I live. It is now October 2020 as I write this preface, and the intervening period has made me think about the concerns of this book in new ways. In the early days of the pandemic…(t)here was a small chance that high levels of state intervention seen in otherwise capitalist democracies would survive the crisis and normalize socialist solutions and wealth redistribution. That now seems like wishful thinking.” (ix)

Nearly a year later the situation is even clearer. The governments will not choose a rational and humane solution to the problems exposed by the pandemic. Neoliberal capitalism is still with us. The working class will have to impose solutions from below.

The Introduction to Radical Secrecy, “Transparent Times, Secret Agency, and Data Subjects,” charts the journey on which the book will take the reader. The following gives a taste of Birchall’s approach:

“(S)ecrecy and transparency are, in and of themselves, politics… They are gateways and barriers, forms of mediation, which determine in uneven ways (depending on various axes of social difference) what share we have in information and data. This in turn shapes our ability and agency to determine the scope of the political itself — which questions, actions, and debates are deemed properly political. More than this, secrecy and transparency, not always in ways we might expect, curtail or enable our ability to work collectively on issues we may care about…They are prime vectors of contemporary subjectivity, operating at macro and micro levels at once, across individual and collective identities.” (9)

Transparency and Secrecy

Chapter 1, “The Changing Fortunes of Secrecy and Openness,” traces how transparency has acquired a positive value from the Enlightenment through today, and how secrecy has acquired a negative value.

Transparency is seen as necessary for democracy, clean government, honest business, satisfying interpersonal relationships, and good mental health. Secrecy is seen as a necessary evil in some circumstances, particularly national security, business secrets, and personal privacy, but always suspect.

Chapter 2, “Information Imaginaries,” describes how the administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump viewed transparency and secrecy. The information imaginary of the Bush administration was shaped by 9/11, the “war on terror,” the invasion of Afghanistan, and the 2003 war against Iraq. As a matter of national security the government had to protect military secrets and engage in secret surveillance of enemies and potential enemies.

The information imaginary of the Obama administration was transparency. The government would be open about what it was doing and would share data with citizens and business through Data.gov and other open data initiatives. Government officials would be forthcoming and would honor the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 and the ferocity of the Obama administration’s pursuit of whistleblowers showed that the change was more rhetorical than real.

The information imaginary of the Trump administration was “post-truth.” Trump could write whatever he wanted on Twitter, the government apparatus was to back him up, and official information would be released only as it served Trump’s narrative. Naturally leaks multiplied, as government officials rejected Trump’s Twitter transparency and self-serving official secrecy.

Chapter 3, “Opaque Openness: The Problem with/of Transparency,” investigates transparency in theory and in practice. It explores the ways in which transparency can serve ends that are far from transparent — capitalist profit-making and government surveillance. Birchall lists seven questions to ask to determine whether a transparency model serves the rulers or the ruled:

“1. Does this model of transparency (mis)read social problems as information problems?
2. Does this model of transparency offer data as a proxy for accountability?

3. Is this model of transparency being mobilized in the service of desires that cannot be openly advocated?

4. Does this model of transparency facilitate a political response rather than a contribution to the flow of communicative capitalism?

5. Is this model of transparency the one that will best serve the interests of politics understood as an arena of dissensus and agonism?

6. Will this model of transparency enable the formation of subjectivities that have meaningful political agency or will it simply make inequitable structures and distributions more efficient?

7. Does this model promote an engage­ment with the state that collectivizes rather than individualizes human experience?”

She concludes the chapter with a discussion of WikiLeaks, suggesting that what was most radical about it was not what it revealed, but that it showed a model for transparency beyond government control.

Shareveillance and Appropriating Secrecy

Chapter 4, “Shareveillance: Open and Covert Government Data Practices,” as Birchall explains in the introduction, proposes the term “shareveillance” for “the antipolitical settlement produced by covert data surveillance on the one hand and open government data transparency initiatives on the other.” (12)

In 2021 this seems dated, since the settlement was characteristic of the Obama administration and not the post-truth Trump administration. It may be returning under Joe Biden, but it’s too early to tell.

I was particularly intrigued by Birchall’s deconstruction of the term “to share” in the digital context. On the internet people “share” their thoughts, photos, friends, likes, and dislikes with other people — and with Facebook, Google and other technology companies. As they browse and buy they “share” their interests, fears, purchases, credit and finances.

Via AirBnB, Uber, DoorDash, etc., they “share” their homes and cars. And the collectors of this information “share” it back as targeted advertising and programming.

As Snowden’s revelations showed, people also involuntarily “share” with government agencies the metadata of their online activity — who they communicate with, how often, how long — and their data too, if an agency decides that the metadata suggests something of interest.

Birchall rejects this form of sharing and declares her intention to interrupt it:
“The shareveillant subject is thus rendered politically impotent from (at least) two not necessarily distinct directions. In the face of state and commercial data surveillance, the subject’s choices (whether that be with whom to communicate, what to circulate, or what to buy) are compulsorily shared to contribute to an evolving algorithm to optimize advertising, say, or governmentality, to make them more efficient, targeted, precise…

“Of course, it is one thing to diagnose a condition and quite another to prescribe a remedy. If one accepts that shareveillance is a political settlement not conducive to radical equality, and that a more equitable distribution is something to strive for, how might shareveillance be interrupted?” (114)

Chapter 5, “Aesthetics of the Secret,” suspends the book’s attempt to transform transparency and begins an attempt to appropriate secrecy:

“I will now turn to the secret more fully. This may only be a tactical, temporary turn before a radical, meaningful, equitable form of transparency can take hold, but it is one that might allow some respite from the demands and discourses of shareveillance. Such a turn, however, is far from simple. By definition, secrets are that which resist representation and dissolve under the glare, however minimal or tentative, of revelation. Who better to seek help from, then, than artists who have long tasked themselves with representing the unrepresentable?” (119)

Birchall explores particularly the work of Trevor Pagan and Jill Magid “because of the way it so clearly invites onlookers to experience the limits of secrecy.” (120) Their work plays with images of the security state, for example, an artistically indistinct nighttime image of a secret military base.

Chapter 6, “Secrets of the Left: A Right to Opacity,” explores ways in which the left could use secrecy to thwart shareveillance. These include 1) clandestine or semi-clandestine organization, 2) encryption, relaying and other methods of digital secrecy, 3) demanding the right to opacity and to control one’s own data and interactions with data, and 4) secrecy as commons, of which she writes:

“A politics based not on privacy but opacity would not be a permanent and wholesale rejection of or retreat from the idea and practice of sharing (data, for our concerns). Opacity in this context would only ever be desirable if it allowed space to develop, paradoxically, a community-forming openness — relationality — that is based on the principle of the commons rather than its shareveillant manifestation.” (166)

Toward Postsecrecy

The Conclusion, “Toward Postsecrecy,” reviews the journey on which the book has taken the reader:

“Throughout this book, I have tried to challenge the meanings and values ascribed to secrecy and transparency in order to reappraise their political potential, to think through what part they might play in a more progressive political settlement than the one offered by many (neo)liberal democracies in general and the United States in particular today. As part of this process, I reversed the current consensus that positions secrecy on the one hand as suspect and transparency on the other as progressive…

“While tactical uses of secrecy and opacity might be necessary to interrupt and challenge shareveillance, the ultimate aim is not a political and cultural setting in which secrecy reigns and transparency is discredited. Rather, the goal is an equitable settlement in which a right to opacity is respected and in which radical forms of transparency, an openness to what openness means, supersede the neoliberal incarnation we are offered today.” (175-176)

Birchall is an academic and, playing with the common etymological root of to share and to shear or cut, ends her book “by summarizing what it is that academics can do to ‘cut well:’ deciding when, where, and how to share, and when to be guided by an ethic of openness and when to affirm a right to opacity even in the act of research and analysis.” (192)

I found the book difficult in part due to its academic style, with too many end-noted references to other authors for my taste, and in part because it invokes the thought of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Rancière and other postmodern philosophers to explore matters I think better addressed by Marxism and political economy. For example, she writes:

“I will extend existing commentaries on the distributive qualities of sharing by drawing on Jacques Rancière’s notion of the ‘distribution of the sensible’; a settlement that determines what is visible, audible, sayable, and knowable, and what share or role we each have within it.” (83)

I’d have preferred more direct language. But Birchall develops her philosophical ideas fully and is obviously sincere in her desire to share well in her research and teaching.

Yet Radical Secrecy skimps on specifics. How could a more equitable settlement be achieved? How could the experiments she describes be scaled up to the whole society and the whole world? What force could do this?

More locally, how could left academics, constrained by funding and bureaucracy, shape their research and teaching to make them part of a more equitable settlement?

Marxist analysis could provide an approach to answering the first questions, although not for Birchall, it seems. From references in Radical Secrecy and from her other writings, I think she could write a fine “handbook for interrupters” on how to restructure universities.

Not everything can be done in one book. In Radical Secrecy Birchall defines issues I expect she will pursue in future contributions.

November-December 2021, ATC 215

1 comment

  1. I think it was Assange and the Cypherpunks who summed up rather well what is needed: “privacy for the weak; transparency for the powerful.” Much simpler and clearer than the post-modernist verbiage that Birchall appears to be engaged in.

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