Date of Award

12-1-2010

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

Sociology

First Advisor

Benford, Robert

Abstract

This study explicates Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) as a textually mediated discursive management tool. EBT is the mandatory method for food benefits and replaces the previous food stamp coupons, but the broad reaching significance is that this program is just a developmental infrastructure. The goal of the U.S. Treasury is for all government transactions, approximately $2.5 trillion a year, to be electronically conducted (National Performance Review 1993). To initiate the process, they set the first target as the 126 government benefit programs, including Social Security, Social Security, Veteran's Administration, Student Loans, Medicaid, Medicaid, Unemployment, even tax refunds. The food stamp program (now called SNAP) was selected to develop the foundational architecture of EBT. It is the forerunner of things to come. With every transaction, EBT collects data not about shopping activities or food purchases, but social and life activities that are used to construct an institutional hyperreality. EBT is to create invisible access to and uninterrupted use of data as hypertext to manufacture and orchestrate a discursive hyperreality and ideologically imagined users. These data are a social hypertext (Smith 1990, 1999). They are connected and arranged, and applied in very specific ways to communicate, activate, and articulate social and institutional relationships. They are used to represent not the lived experience but the institutional view. While they have meaning and use in their original form, hypertexts take on new proportion and significance in terms of social relations. Using institutional ethnography, I begin with the standpoint of the lived experiences of people with disabilities using EBT as the point of entry, then follow EBT's workings to reveal how it is shaping social relations and hegemonic restructuring. Topics covered include disability, age, welfare, privatization, data mining, data warehousing, and socio-technical systems and products. They lead to findings I conceptualize as hyperveillance: the use of data not just for surveillance and control, but to reify social constructs and orchestrate ruling relations. Hyperveillance is how data as hypertext are institutionally managed to invisibly insert and mediate power, mediate interdependent discursive linkages, and orchestrate social relations on both and individual and class level. To achieve this, I analytically explicate a five step Hyperveillance Circuit in terms of a digital dialectic. It begins with the swipe of the EBT card that generates the data (i.e., hypertext) and follows it through collection, analysis, ideological assemblage, and finally, its use to construct events in the institutional lens to reify hyperreality and sociological constructs. Along the hyperveillance circuit, I make analytical departure that informs broader social relations and hegemonic restructuring. This includes analytic indulgence to the fact that data as hypertext are mined, warehoused, and cross-matched with up to 2000 additional databases, and shared with other institutions and agencies for a virtually endless array of applications. At this point, I examine the implications of the ubiquitous and atemporal aspects of these practices of hyperveillance to include how they are changing social relations and how they contemporize foundational sociological concepts, especially objectification, interaction, and reification. Another analytical direction inculpates a hyperveillance industry: the government pays private companies to use the hypertext to manufacture socio-technical products that reify institutional ideology, then the companies further their profits and power by selling the products back to the government. These finding lead me to offer a Dynamic Model of Institutionalization as a research tool to explicate other digital discourses and socio-technical processes. It consists of three primary components - a target population, a dialectic of hypertext, and a legislated policy; ideology is used to unify and operationalize discursive workings. Throughout my work, the supporting analytical framework is digital discourse consisting of hypertext and what I conceptualize as hyperveillance. My research on EBT shows how hyperveillance is weaving itself into our social fabric as a way of life, and into ruling relations as an `improved' discursive approach. EBT has been uncontested and unrecognized as a discursive management tool and insertion of social and ruling relations. My research changes that, but what remains unanswered is the extent to which EBT, digital discourse, will ultimately change our social structure.

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