Exploring Digital Culture

7. Biopolitics through the internet of bodies

The act of looking back might sound appealing, but it might very well mean the disappearance of disappearance

Sat 08 Nov 2014
Joeri Taelman 

The much heralded sousveillance tools and the full transparency it will yield are promises that we should not accept unquestionably. The act of looking back is promising, and transparency might sound appealing, but it might very well mean the disappearance of disappearance. The metaphor of the eye, in the name of these tools (eyetools) during the workshop that will be given by SETUP during the Sousveillance Summer School is striking, as those tools see everything, and therefore can record everything and know everything. Through this a data profile of your identity will be formed, effectively creating a data double of the self.

These tools are used in Dave Eggers’ The Circle (2013), that portrays a dystopian world where a technology company, The Circle, exerts biopolitical power through the utilization of technology that can track the self. I argue that this technology is already in development (or already established), with the use of the concept of the Internet of Things. Through the Internet of Things, people can track the self. This results in the creation of data doubles, ultimately turning the Internet of Things into the Internet of Bodies.

The Circle tells the story of Mae Holland, a recent graduate who finds herself working for the company that she and everyone around her admires, The Circle. Her ex-roommate Annie is one of the most influential persons within the company, and through her Mae initially gets a job at the Customer Experience department. Before long, she becomes more important within the company, as her ‘InnerCircle’ score, a sort of internal rating system, gets higher.

The Circle’s philosophy is that they want total clarity. Everything must be transparent, so that there are no secrets, because “secrets are lies”, and everyone “has a right to know”, as not knowing is damaging for humanity. The Circle created a network of systems, where internet users only can access content by logging into their ‘TruYou’ account. Their immensely popular social network ‘Zing’ is only accessible through TruYou, as with all of their services.

Things speed up really fast when the company introduces ‘SeeChange’, a camera device that is so small it can be used ubiquitous, without people noticing it. The images are accessible from every place, any time. The Circle propagates this tool as a sousveillance tool, where citizens can watch the powers that be, so that they can topple dictatorial regimes and give full transparency everywhere. Mae, without her prior knowledge, is being worldwide presented as one of the first who goes ‘transparent’, which means she has to wear the camera in her waking hours.

Why are these products or technologies important to a (fictional) company such as The Circle? A lot of the properties that technologies such as Google Glass or Nest Labs’ thermostats and smoke detectors share, is that they can track the self. An already established term for these sort of technologies is ‘the Internet of Things’. Typical about these technologies is that they are connected to the internet, and that they can record data about a person’s life and/or body.

This creates so called ‘data doubles’, whereby digital identities are being created through the use of the devices that can record the self. Although this data is unreachable for the person itself, it’s used for the company’s interest, where personal data is sold to other companies or used in other ways. The Circle’s TruYou, as an overarching ‘body’, collects all data from different technologies and services, effectively creating digital data doubles, turning the corporal body into a cyborg. The transformation of the Internet of Things into the creator of data doubles, is what I would like to call the Internet of Bodies.

The Internet of Bodies can then be used as biopolitical power. In practice, this means that The Circle has control over what may live and what to let die. Through the tools and technology of The Circle, everything is recordable and everyone can be tracked. The Circle can use this biopolitical power over the whole population, and while it can be used for good (tracking criminals during a project called ‘SoulSearch’), it can also mean the ‘disappearance of disappearance’. Biopolitical power is exerted through technology in The Circle, a fictional dystopia that can be read as an allegory to contemporary technology companies, in which the resemblances between the fictional The Circle and (for instance) Google are much too real.


Ashton, Kevin. “That ‘Internet of Things’ Thing.” RFiD Journal 22 (2009): 97-114.

Eggers, Dave. The Circle. London: Penguin Group, 2013.

Foucault, Michel. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976 3.1. New York: Macmillan, 2003.

Haggerty, Kevin D., and Richard V. Ericson. “The surveillant assemblage.” The British journal of sociology 51.4 (2000): 605-622.

Haraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991: 149 - 181.

Mann, Steve, Jason Nolan, and Barry Wellman. “Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environments.” Surveillance & Society 1.3 (2003).

Mara Vandorou Editorial: The Public Human Strategies of living in the transparent society
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Stephanie de Smale 2. Tinkering with Life Strategies for 'literacy' in the age of biotechnology
Ben Borrow 3. The (in)convenient surveillance device The Mobile Phone as both Enabling Surveillance yet Empowering the Individual
Marina Turco 4. In the Shadow of the Matrix A strategic approach to the transparant society
Alexandra Woelfe 5. Surveillance of the state Connections to identity, autonomy and Foucault's notion of biopower
Dr David Barnard-Wills 6. Stanza An artist's engagement with surveillance, privacy, technology and control
Suze Krijnen 8. Waarom je online privacy kunt vergeten (Tenzij we als publiek onze verantwoordelijkheid nemen)
Hans de Zwart 9. Privacyrede 2014 Deze rede werd op 2 september 2014 uitgesproken voor SETUP en Studium Generale UU in de Senaatszaal van het Academiegebouw in Utrecht.
Nienke Huitenga 10. Mijn Digitale Schaduw Ooit ging het om je persoonsgegevens. Nu geven we iets veel waardevollers weg.