Control Societies Speaker Series: Finn Brunton

"The Best Surveillance System We Could Imagine": Payment Networks, Digital Cash, and Societies of Control
Control Societies speaker series
06 Nov 2017 - 4:00pm to 5:30pm
Annenberg School, 3620 Walnut Street, Room 500

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Lecture Description

Almost fifty years ago, a team of computer scientists and electrical engineers developed "the best surveillance system we could imagine": a prototype electronic funds transfer (EFT) system, an early sketch of payment networks from Visa to PayPal. Electronic money is a medium for data: for records of purchases, locations and times, names and social networks. From money as online performance (think Venmo or WeChat's gift-money games) to the information-collection practices of different payment platforms, digital money can produce detailed dossiers and reward or punish particular choices and subjectivities -- a perfect, unobtrusive platform for Deleuze's "society of control."

There is an alternative history to this one, however: the project of building anonymous digital cash -- money as a medium that provides no information but its own verification. This project, filled with tricky technical and social paradoxes to resolve, takes us from radical experiments and subcultures in the 1980s to Bitcoin, Zcash, online black markets, and digital money-laundering schemes and obfuscation attempts in the present day. Finn Brunton will tell both of these media-technology histories in a wide-ranging talk -- from Margaret Atwood to anti-counterfeiting techniques to libertarian enclaves on the high seas -- that will raise questions about sovereignty, control, surveillance, and the use of money.

About Finn Brunton

Finn Brunton is an assistant professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU Steinhardt. He is the author of Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet (MIT 2013) and, with Helen Nissenbaum, Obfuscation: A User's Guide for Privacy and Protest (MIT 2015), and two forthcoming books: one on experiments in human-extraterrestrial communication (Meson) and another on digital currencies, privacy, and utopian politics (Princeton University Press).

About Control Societies Speaker Series

Control Societies was started as part of the School of Social Policy & Practice’s initiative on Culture, Society, and Critical Policy Studies in order to feature and engage cutting edge scholarship on the enumerating acts of governmentality in computational culture and the incalculable possibilities of justice. For the 2017/2018 academic year, the School of Social Policy & Practice will continue its speaker series in partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication, which produces scholarship on the social, cultural, economic, and political implications of digital information and communication technologies, networks, and systems. Through the speaker series, the organizers aim to explore the philosophical foundations of algorithms, data, and their intersections with governmentality, surveillance, social policy, and the reconfiguring of power relations.

Future lectures include:

  • January 29: Ingrid Barrington, Data & Society
  • February 12: Sarah Sharma, University of Toronto
  • February 26: Andre Brock, University of Michigan
  • March 12: Liz de Freitas, Manchester Metropolitan University
  • March 26: Bernard Harcourt, Columbia University
  • April 9: Elvin Wyly, University of British Columbia

For more information, visit

Additional funding is provided by the Provost Excellence Through Diversity Fund and Price Digital Humanities Lab.

This event may be photographed and/or video recorded for archival, educational, and related promotional purposes. We also video stream many of these video recordings through the Annenberg web site. By attending or participating in this event, you are giving your consent to be photographed and/or video recorded and you are waiving any and all claims regarding the use of your image by the Annenberg School for Communication. The Annenberg School for Communication, at its discretion, may provide a copy of the photos/footage upon written request.