Surveillance of What? Databases, Networks, and Post-Disciplinary Governance

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Popular and academic discourse often presumes three things about technologies of surveillance: that they are (1) a tool of the state (2) used for spying upon (3) human subjects. This paper suggests that these three presumptions effectively obscure analysis of some of the most compelling features of contemporary surveillance technologies. It argues that understanding surveillance as an information technology suggests that both governance ("the state") and its objects of rule ("human subjects") are currently undergoing technical reconstruction. To do so, it takes on the case of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS) program. This program mandates standard data collection about clients of non-profit homeless social service agencies that receive federal funds. While early critics of the program pointed in Orwellian terms to the Big Brother feel of the initiative, an investigation of the uses to which these data are being put suggests that the program does not function simply to track homeless individuals. Rather, HMIS must be understood as forging a link between two technological systems--databases and networks--that allow for a form of post-disciplinary, post-welfare state surveillance. This surveillance operates to organize a statistical homeless population, independent of a set of individuals, as an object of knowledge and intervention. The paper concludes that privacy claims lobbied against the state on behalf of individuals are an inadequate response to the productive capacities of information/surveillance technologies.


Keywords: Information Technologies, Surveillance Technologies, Social Theory, Biopolitics, Homelessness
Stream: Knowledge and Technology
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.


Craig Willse

Doctoral Candidate, Department of Sociology, The Graduate Center, City University of New York
New York, NY, USA

Craig Willse is a Doctoral Candidate in Sociology at The CUNY Graduate Center. He is currently completing a dissertation on the political economy of homeless management in the United States.

Ref: T08P0431