In the first meeting of my grad seminar on communication and public health we discussed the contributions of some leading social theorists (Michel Foucault, Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens), particularly their theories of governmentality (Foucault), risk (Beck, Giddens) and reflexivity (also Beck, Giddens).
A recent story in Wired magazine illustrates some of these ideas well. The piece offers an account of “threat detective” Mark Smolinski, director of the Predict and Prevent Initiative, a global health program at Google.org (the tech giant’s philanthropic arm).
Here’s the YouTube video introducing the Initiative:
Several aspects of the article interest me, particularly how Smolinski visualizes the Google health initiative as a knowledge broker in the management of global health risks. These risks – from avian influenza to SARS, hantavirus, West Nile and other infectious diseases which are “just a plane ride away” – become perceptible to us as a result of what Giddens described as some of the consequences of modernity (see also Beck’s discussion of global risks society). But as Foucault suggests, they are also the site through which wider strategies and solutions can be generated for problematizing populations. Indeed, as Smolinski describes his job, he leverages the company’s “technology expertise to companies and nongovernmental organizations already at work in the developing world” through “merging disease research into a predictive science.”
To make conceptual sense of these practices we would do well to revisit Michel Foucault’s The Politics of Health in the Eighteenth Century. In this lecture, Foucault accounts for the emergence of a medical services market, the professionalization of medical practitioners, the development of benevolent associations and of learned societies concerned with the observation of social conditions, and innovation in medical techniques, among other things. While the state plays a variety of roles in relation to these developments, he argues, the myriad ways in which health and sickness become matters of problematization ‘beyond the state’ contribute to an awareness of them as elements of population: “the health of each as an urgent matter for all; the state of health of a population as a general objective”.
Central to the politics of health in this period is the emergence of concern for the well-being of the population as an essential objective of political power – this is a view of power that concerns itself not with the capacity to dominate and repress but to produce things, to manage conduct and new ways of thinking. This shift towards policing the social body that he argues was peculiar to the 18th century was related to the broader political and economic consequences of the industrial period’s demographic transition, in which an urgent need arose to rapidly integrate increasing numbers of people into the apparatus of production and to control them closely. It was these forces, Foucault argues, that made the notion of “population” appear not just as a theoretical concept, but “as an object of surveillance, of analysis, of intervention, of initiatives aimed at modification.” For Foucault, the rise of social medicine characteristic of the modern era could be extended to the rise of new modes of surveillance characteristic of late modernity and embodied by the observatory and epistemological power of Google.org.