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The social construction of computational surveillance: reclaiming agency in a computed world

Knapp, Daniel (2016) The social construction of computational surveillance: reclaiming agency in a computed world. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Over the last decades, surveillance has transformed into a pervasive phenomenon woven into the fabric of socio-economic life. In this process, surveillance has itself undergone a structural transformation as its principal agents such as prison guards and CCTV operators have been replaced by algorithms and data-driven technologies. Contemporary surveillance then is embedded in, and expression of, a fundamental remaking of the world, where human decision-making is increasingly supplanted by computational mechanisms, and lived experience is mediated, and even constituted, by computation. This thesis is a sociological work with an emphasis on the role of communication at the intersection of computation and surveillance (‘computational surveillance’). Current debates have predominantly focussed on the systems and mechanisms of computational surveillance. Less emphasis has been placed on the lived experience of inhabiting a computed world, and specifically how people can query and act towards computational surveillance. This thesis makes both a theoretical and empirical contribution to this question. Through a framework rooted in the sociology of knowledge, the thesis develops a theory of agency towards computational surveillance. It outlines the changing conditions under which knowledge of social reality is constructed in a computational world and theorises modes of reclaiming these conditions for human agents. This theory informed, and its further development emerged out of the findings from a qualitative study of 40 young people in Germany and the UK about their everyday encounters with computational surveillance, which was conducted as part of the thesis. It highlights how participants obtain knowledge about invisible computational mechanisms through their everyday activities and documents practices through which they collaboratively frame computers as interlocutors that they act towards. Lastly, this thesis documents the tactics and strategies employed by participants to hide from, or manipulate computational surveillance, and how they adopt a logic akin to computers in this process.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2016 Daniel Frederik Knapp
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
Sets: Departments > Media and Communications
Supervisor: Couldry, Nick

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