Notes on the Control Society

– Based on a transcript from Taeyoon Choi’s class Poetics and Politics of Computation at the School for Poetic Computation, 2015
– Lecture Slides
– Essay is work in progress for a forthcoming book
– Transcribed by Erica Fremming, Edited by Hannah Son
– Suggested Reading: Gilles Deleuze: Postscript on the Society of Control [1]

You may be familiar with Michel Foucault’s critique of the panopticon, a structure where an all-seeing eye surveils and constructs a centralized power. Since the subjects cannot know if and when they are being watched, they internalize the surveillance and discipline. The architectural manifestations of the panopticon became predominant from the early nineteenth century onward. Millbank Prison is an example of an actual structure that was built to maximize surveillance. The panopticon is not simply an architectural plan but is also a political statement. It is a recipe for the sovereign to contain power, and it also instructs subjects on how to discipline ourselves. In the 1821 floor plan of Millbank Prison, a place where they kept prisoners before being sent away to Australia, you can find architectural precedents for the architecture of the present day, for our global cities with surveillance cameras everywhere. It is frightening that a hundred years later, the same spatial mechanics are in place at the Pentagon. The U.S government began construction of the Pentagon in 1941 and its design is a recursive panopticon, that is, panopticons within panopticons. Different layers of surveillance are tightly knit to create this system of control. Foucault describes homes, schools, factories, hospitals, armies, and even prisons as spaces of discipline. In these spaces, there are some things you can do and some things you can’t do, and if you do the wrong thing you get punished. In pre-modern societies, there were gaps between these spaces of discipline, unregulated and unorganized areas where ‘everyday life’ could take place. Imagine a Parisian cafe in the early 20th century, where creative writers would come and discuss the politics. There’s a romantic notion that authentic human relationships could flourish in these spaces that escaped regulation, spaces free from the confinement of rules. However, contemporary society lacks such zones for free association, as public spaces are turned into privately owned ones, and community spaces are carefully converted into shopping malls.  

Gilles Deleuze offers his take on disciplinary spaces and their relation to the public and private in “The Postscript on the Society of Control,” a very special text written near the end of his life that reads like an unassuming Anti-Manifesto for the Digital age. Deleuze may not be the most technically savvy philosopher, but he’s a great cartographer of technological concepts. His analysis of the cultural landscape through the concepts of repetition and abstraction, fold and superfold, is extremely relevant today.

In Deleuze’s analysis, 19th-century capitalism created a disciplinary society in which places such as schools, factories, and prisons became sites of labor for material production. Capitalism needed the mass to produce the goods and also consume them. To convey this disciplinary society, Deleuze finds a helpful metaphor in the mole, a small earth bound animal that makes mazes underground. The mole’s environment represents traditional patriarchal capitalism, a hierarchical structure in which the mole builds its dwelling place. This hierarchy is presided over by a paternal figure who manages the distribution of labor among the workforce. In a disciplinary society, the distinction between the oppressor and the oppressed is clear because they occupy different spaces and functions. However, as we move from analog to digital, module to modulation, and from the barracks of a prison to stacks of code, Deleuze prompts us to pay attention to the changing forms of power from discipline to control.

But what does Deleuze mean by control as a form of power in “Society of Control”? Alexander Galloway offers a subtle analysis of the text.

Recall that the French controle carries stresses in meaning that are slightly different from the English control. Controle means control as in the power to influence people and things, but it also refers to the actual administration of control via particular monitoring apparatuses such as train turnstiles, border crossings, and checkpoints. The notion, in English, of having to pass through “passport control” gets at the deeper meaning of the word. So when Deleuze talks about les societes de contrôle he means those kinds of societies, or alternately those localized places within the social totality, where mobility is fostered inside certain strictures of motion, where openings appear rather than disappear, where subjects (or for that matter objects) are liberated as long as they adhere to a variety of prescribed comportments.
– Alexander R. Galloway, Laruelle: Against the Digital [2]

Along with the Passport Checkpoint, Deleuze mentions the highway as a metaphor for control society. In fact, the highway is a poignant metaphor for the Internet. Highways, especially in popular culture, give the impression that one can go anywhere at any speed and that one has autonomous control of their being. In reality, highways multiply the forms of control because there are checkpoints at every entrance and exit, and the system knows where we are and what we are consuming. Deleuze’s reading of the highway may be interpreted as ‘There is no outside!” or “There is no place that is free from control.” While this reading is debatable, it’s certainly useful to think about the impact of control society on individual persons and society.

We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become “dividuals,” and masses, samples, data, markets, or “banks.”
– Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control

In contrast to disciplinary society, control society makes it possible for us to be both the precariat and the bourgeois. The new generation of precarious laborers, such as freelancers and part-time employees, are encouraged to be creative and entrepreneurial. People in control society embody the conflicting desires of exploit and comradery. The question of “who is exploiting who?” cannot be answered easily. That’s what Deleuze means by ‘dividuals,’ that is, people divided within ourselves, split by the desire to oppress and the desire to resist. Deleuze uses the serpent, or snake, to convey the systemic conditions that produce this contradicting self. The serpent moves smoothly between the terrains, above and underground. This movement represents free-flowing control mechanisms that both operate in and outside of traditionally defined capitalist spaces.

In addition, Deleuze says that corporations are like a gas and that companies have a soul. As such, companies embody an emotional and psychological aspect which we can relate to. Consider the fact that many people anthropomorphize corporations (“Google is your friend” or “Facebook is where my friends live!”) or equate status updates with presence; all this is very integral to control society. The continuousness of control takes the form of instant communications. Control society promises extreme personalization and individualization of machine interfaces, operating systems and content that are designed to maximize addiction to communication. We are compelled to communicate with each other constantly, and a feedback loop, comprised of retweets and comment threads, promises the ecstasy of communication.

This vision of control works somewhat differently from Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s earlier notion of a ‘rhizome’ which is a non-hierarchical and organic embodiment of a network. 

Principles of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be.
– Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [3]

The idea of a rhizome was adopted by the early Internet enthusiasts as a sign of hope for Utopia through the Internet. It seemed to be a technical solution for direct democracy and for the liberation of oppressed individuals toward collective emancipation. However, we now understand that the distribution of the means of production doesn’t necessarily mean decentralization of power, and that connectivity doesn’t necessarily grant an opportunity for rhizomatic revolution. Rather, we see how compulsory and ubiquitous connectivity can also bring about increasingly novel and invasive modes of control.

The numerical language of control is made of codes that mark access to information, or reject it.
– Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control

In “Postscript”, Deleuze invites us to observe the shift of capitalism from production to financialization. Capitalism of the analog era focused on the Fordist modes of fabricating things from natural resources into commodities. Here, in the digital era of capitalism, the product is the process which it was fabricated. Our exchange with each other and with the world around us is the main engine of the digital era. Management of this division, cybernetic control of a sort, is the integral part of the financialization. Cybernetics[4] can be illustrated as a diagram of feedback loops consisting of inputs and outputs that create a self-regulating system. Cyberneticians, such as Nobert Weiner, thought such self-regulating mechanism could be found in machines, animals and humans alike. Cybernetics was enthusiastically adopted to the global finance, high-frequency trading on one extreme of financialization and Yelp, Airbnb and all the rest of the sharing economy on the other end. Our participation in these systems, apps and services, leads to the financialization of social interaction. Social media networks produce value through monetizing our attention span and by emphatically blurring the boundary between work and leisure.


However, analog modes of production and exploitation have not gone away, instead they have migrated to different parts of the world. Analogical capitalism and digital capitalism coexist and are related and the society of control is not a distinctly different thing from the society of discipline. Rather, modes of discipline and control are layered on top of each other, amplifying the mechanisms of desire and punishment that inform our behavior.

In actuality there is an imposed and inescapable uniformity to our compulsory labor of self-management. The illusion of choice and autonomy is one of the foundations of this global system of auto-regulation.
– Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep [5]

Later in the book, Jonathan Crary suggests sleep as the one and only place and time that has not completely succumbed to the reach of financialization. According to Crary, sleep is the only place that capitalism or technology cannot intervene directly. The unboundedness of sleep has the potential to make an uncontrollable and ungovernable space in the control society. However, we can’t consider sleep as the only anti-capitalist tactic available to us. Indeed, the pervasiveness of the control mechanism creeps into our daily life even in the hours and privacy of sleep through the use of sleep medication or body monitoring devices. So Deleuze asks, “What is the New Weapon?” If the new weapons of mass destruction, such as Machine Learning algorithms and drones, are indistinguishable from the tools for marketing and mass consumerism, how can we subvert the technologies of control to empower ourselves? Brick and mortar activism is important. But what should be our top priority as we fabricate alternatives? I return to Galloway for suggestions.

The ultimate significance of control society is not so much the continuous encroachment of the border checkpoint or the passport control, not so much data mining or facial recognition algorithms, but that it has eviscerated history, not by banning dissent but by accelerating the opportunities and channels for critical thought to infinity and therefore making it impossible to think historically in the first place. Thus the central challenge within control society will be not simply to resist the various new nefarious control apparatuses, but to rescue history from its own consummation.
– Alexander R. Galloway, Laruelle: Against the Digital

Perhaps we can begin by registering the many realities in existence, from virtual, augmented to parallel ones, some more real than the others. Perhaps we can find common ground between these realities in order to ground ourselves in a critically informe vision of history and the future. In this oscillation of realities, there maybe an opportunity to connect with the past and ‘rescue history’ as Galloway suggests. In this turn to active life, perhaps we can find the spaces for unmonitored everyday life? As an artist and critical maker, how can we avoid replicating the systems of control in an art work, and instead, reveal the complexities within in it? Instead of celebrating what is possible (with use of technology), can we ask what is the world we want to live in? How can we learn about the true nature of technology, demystify the power structure and provide an alternative?


[1] Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control. October 59 (1992): 3-7.

[2]:Alexander R Galloway, Laruelle: Against the Digital (United States: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

[3]: Gilles Deleuze et al., A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004).

[4]: Cybernetics was deployed for servomechanisms at the end of WWII for controlling long trajectory missiles, and later, to financial mechanisms of stock exchanges and speculative investment. The cybernetic philosophers were technocratic and they had this notion that everything could be understood through cybernetics.

[5]: Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London, United Kingdom: Verso Books, 2014).