What I’m Reading This Summer: Andy Boyles Petersen

Note: As the dh+lib Review editors work behind the scenes this summer, we have invited a few members of our community to step in as guest editors and share with us what they are reading and why the dh+lib audience might want to read it too. This post is from Andy Boyles Petersen, Digital Scholarship Librarian at Michigan State University Libraries.

After returning from another year of terrific conversations at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute’s Surveillance and the Critical Digital Humanities course, my summer reading list continues our discussions on surveillance of the marginalized. In particular, I am drawn to the ways in which recent texts in critical surveillance studies are making visible the structures that underpin our current digital identities, ranging from exposés on human interactions with the surveillance machine to explorations of racialized surveillance systems. As I delve into preparations for the upcoming year, these readings provide theories and strategies that will continue to inform and enrich my understandings of surveillance culture and its implications for both my research and teaching.

Roberts, S. T. (2019). Behind the screen: Content moderation in the shadows of social media. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Since its recent release, I’ve been eagerly devouring Sarah Roberts’ Behind the Screen, which focuses on the workers responsible for social media content moderation by bringing them “out of the shadows, out from behind the screen, and into the light” (222). In doing so, it challenges the invisibility often leveraged on this work by social media sites and their governing bodies. Historical discussions, interviews with workers, and future speculations about content moderation pair to paint a scene fraught with dehumanization, obfuscation, and marginalization. In an interview with The New Yorker, Roberts states, “It’s worrisome to see those kinds of colonial traditions and practices picked up again, especially in this digital marketplace, this marketplace of the mind that was supposed to be deliverance from so many of the difficult working conditions of the twentieth century.” For those of us who are actively embroiled in social media and the platform economy, this text asks us to reexamine the ways we engage with technology—both in our personal lives as well as in the classroom. As such, it helps make visible many of the underlying mechanisms that control our daily interactions, offering a gateway into discussions about new social structures and speculative surveillance futures.

Zuboff, S. (2019). The age of surveillance capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. New York: PublicAffairs.

After glowing review from several of our students at DHSI, I’ve also settled down to read Shoshana Zuboff’s text on the capitalist foundations of our modern surveillance economy. Written in an accessible, quasi-journalistic style, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism weaves surveillance theory and scholarship with personal anecdotes, grounding the inequities and dehumanization inherent to surveillance capitalism in our lived experiences. Zuboff details how consumer convenience technologies, when paired with the monetization of aggregated personal data, markedly blur personal and private lives. This focus lends an urgency to the text, particularly when Zuboff notes: “if industrial civilization flourished at the expense of nature and now threatens to cost us the Earth, an information civilization shaped by surveillance capitalism will thrive at the expense of human nature and threatens to cost us our humanity” (347). Most importantly, Zuboff carefully traces the path of surveillance capitalism to its logical end—increased marginalization, indifference for morality, and the centralization of power. As a final call to action, Zuboff states “friction, courage, and bearings are the resources we require” to fight back against surveillance capitalism, asking readers to intervene in harmful surveillance structures and defend social and communal values (524).

Browne, S. (2015). Dark matters: on the surveillance of blackness. Durham: Duke University Press.

Browne’s foundational text explores the long history of surveillance mechanisms used against black bodies, from lantern laws to the Book of Negroes to biometric technologies. Through these examples, Browne introduces us to racializing surveillance, “a technology of social control where surveillance practices, policies, and performances concern the production of norms pertaining to race and exercise a ‘power to define what is in or out of place’” (16). This work shifts the field of surveillance studies by providing a new frame with which to understand and analyze the surveillance experiences of marginalized groups. For the past few years, Dark Matters has been a cornerstone of both our DHSI course and my work in surveillance studies, particularly in regards to Browne’s discussions of biometric technology, sousveillance, and security theater. I’m eager to once again return to Browne’s text this summer, fresh with new ideas, theories, and strategies, in order to consider them through her focus on racialized surveillance and dark sousveillance.

Petty, T., Saba, M., Lewis, T., Gangadharan, S. P., Eubanks, V. (2018). Our data bodies: reclaiming our data.

Last on my summer reading list is the Our Data Bodies project’s 2018 interim report. This project provides an excellent entry point into the lived experiences of marginalized communities most heavily impacted by surveillance culture, investigating the effect of data collection and data-driven systems on their livelihoods. In particular, Petty, et.al include real stories from individuals across the United States who describe the difficulty in acquiring fair access to housing, social services, and employment. Interviewing residents of communities in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Charlotte highlights that these injustices are systemic, affecting marginalized communities across the U.S. Moreover, the Our Data Bodies project encourages readers to think carefully about their own data stories and the many ways in which surveillance culture—with admittedly different contexts and outcomes—affects us all. Overall, this text serves as a great introduction to critical surveillance studies and offers models of data storytelling and ethical community engagement to our students and colleagues.

**For those interested in exploring these themes further, Michele Gilman and Rebecca Green’s The Surveillance Gap: The Harms of Extreme Privacy and Data Marginalization is a fantastic companion resource to this article. Additionally, as the Our Data Bodies project is ongoing, be sure to keep an eye on their site for further developments.


Andy Boyles Petersen

Andrew Petersen is a Digital Scholarship Librarian at the Michigan State University Libraries where he supports faculty, students, and staff interested in exploring digital pedagogy and research. He is co-founder of the Makers by Mail and SurvDH projects, and his research centers on issues surrounding surveillance, data ethics, and maker culture.