From the House of Cards to House of Data?

The fourth season of the Netflix series House of Cards was released worldwide on the 4th March. Which is to say, the week-end when many International Relations (IR) researchers are still rushing to finalize their conference paper for the annual convention of the International Studies Association (ISA). And, if you are reading this post, you are probably feeling guilty for having spent the weekend binge-watching the series, instead of reworking your draft one more time. I certainly do.

However, as the series teaches us again and again, we should not let guilt rule us. Better run ahead, even if this brings us into apparently uncharted territory. And I actually think that the latest season of the show can help us better understand the rise of a new mode of governing, where vast amounts of personal and behavioral data are becoming as important as more traditional ‘cards’ for playing politics.

Frank and Claire Underwood – the fictional acting president and first lady of the United States – address researchers and ISA conference goers with the only message that matters: “You should be writing” (the image above is courtesy of SAS Confidential, and it is based on the image sent by Netflix to their customers as part of its promotional campaign –

So, where does House of Cards bring us this time? NB! Minor spoilers ahead!

At the end of the third season, we already knew what was going to be on the menu in the fourth season. Claire Underwood – the first lady – left the White House and her husband, altering old power relations. Frank Underwood – the acting US president – is fighting to win the primaries for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, while his grasp on present and future events weakens. In other words, we already expected House of Cards to bring us into a fictional world which resembles and echoes the one we see on the evening news (when we are not watching Netflix).

The explicit connection between the world of House of Cards and the ‘real’ world of politics is secured by reference to quite traditional themes and practices: primary elections, decisions over the appointment of new justices or charges, diplomacy, a never-ending Middle-East crisis, and the deliberation over new legislation. This means that in this season we will hear about US-Russia relations, gun control, presidential primary elections, campaign funding, etc.

Actually, the goal of the series is to show us a very familiar setting, and then provide us with privileged access to what happens behind the facade. Sometimes literally behind the screen, like when Frank – the main character – looks directly in our eyes and speaks to us – the viewers – explaining what is really going on, how the machinery of power works and has to be worked. And he shows his mastery of the game by mustering allies and playing his cards well time and time again, against all odds and antagonists.

Much can be said about the vision of politics that House of Cards brings forward and contributes to popularize. Given the increasing attention towards popular culture in IR, I actually expect to hear more about that at ISA, be it this year or in the near future.

Here, I want to highlight an interesting (dis-)continuity brought about by the latest season. This is apparently only a slight modification of the usual underlying rationale in House of Cards, but I nonetheless believe it deserves more attention. Let me be even bolder – for the sake of argument – this (dis-)continuity shows the potential of this kind of popular culture products to make researchers think more thoroughly about world-views on politics and power.

Quite unsurprisingly, one of the running themes of the 4th season of House of Cards is domestic mass-surveillance of telecommunications: the use of the FISA scheme and the political dimension of counter-terrorism policy. Apparently, House of Cards is echoing and re-presenting one more time topics that are widely discussed in the ‘real’ world political debates (the latest season of Homeland did something similar in late 2015 – see this critique on its ‘real world’ political dimension). I could already say that giving prominence to these issues highlights how high-tech surveillance and security practices have become the ‘new norm’ of world and domestic politics. But, especially since the so-called ‘Snowden revelations’, this would not be so surprising in terms of narrative plot or academic awareness.

What is really interesting is that the show gives a subtle but important twist to the topic of data surveillance. On the one side we have the US president pushing for extending further domestic surveillance, and on the other side we have his main political opponent deliberately using data generated by online searches. In pure House of Cards’ style, the President’s team tries to win the data-race with the other candidate by using the data siphoned by counter-terrorist agencies.

From this (somewhat tortuous) perspective, the question of domestic mass-surveillance is introduced in a slightly different way of what we are now used. It is not only a problem of civil liberties  and of ambiguous public/private partnerships. Boosting counter-terrorism surveillance is not presented only as a perverse solution to hijack the attention of the electorate in crucial moments. It is (re-)presented, first and foremost, in relation to the emergence of a new mode of knowledge generation.

What is at stake is no more the discovery of dirty secrets, political plots or the whereabouts of a potentially dangerous witness (as it was the case in the previous seasons). What is now at stake is the capacity to ‘sense’ how the mass of potential voters reacts ‘spontaneously’, e.g. to know which keywords they type in an online search engine and what then may resonate with their everyday digital life and influence their electoral behavior.

This kind of mass-surveillance is presented as definitely important for politics, be the struggles among different actors, their everyday political actions, or their attempts to govern people. This new form of knowledge generation is different from the more classical forms of acquiring information about other actors: it works less on individuals and more on (what Foucault called) populations. And it both relies on and promises a double adjustment: that of politicians in response to emerging trends of the electorate, and that of the voting behavior in response to stimuli coming from political speeches.

This seems to be a brave new world even for Frank Underwood, which may require a major re-adjustment of his ‘arts’ of governing. The show suggests to us that polls, focus groups, scheming and blackmail are no longer enough to guarantee the success of a speech act (at least when performed in public). The analysis of vast amounts of ‘metadata’ seems now to provide a much more solid ground to perform politics: the future speeches have to include specific key words if the goal is to appeal to and mobilize previously unknown audiences.

In the show, this is presented as a subtle alteration of the routine practice of politics. It is actually the Republican Party candidate that has first secured his own data sources and learned to work this machinery with the support of a major online search engine. And it is Claire Underwood who chiefly integrates data analytics in support of her political speeches, thus adapting to and adopting this new art of governing by literally re-wording her communication strategy.

Several researchers have already pointed out to the crucial political role played by data collection and data analytics (as well as their somewhat ‘mythic’ status). Colin Bennett has notably worked on the use of data-driven technologies in electoral campaigns. Many invite us to better understand their logics – or their dreams, as Dominique Cardon has suggested in a recent beautiful book – if we are to understand ‘algorithmic governmentality’ (as Antoinette Rouvroy dubbed it). But the importance of a show such as House of Cards is that it attempts to visualize both the shift towards a new form of knowledge generation and to question its limits and its everyday integration into current political practices.

So long, the key of success of the main characters (and by extension of all those that seem able to play politics) is ‘performance’, often in its most theatrical sense. In many episodes, House of Cards shows us how the Underwood couple overcomes an obstacle or ‘turns the table’, and it does so by juxtaposing in the same sequence both the rehearsal and the enactment of speeches and socio-political interactions. The Underwoods continuously ponder how to play their cards. However, faced with the challenge of governing the mass of potential voters, and not only governing the ‘house’, in this last season they discover that they need to learn how to play data (analytics) too.

Per se, this (dis-)continuity should be no surprise to the House of Cards fans. Issues and instruments are introduced via the overall narrative of the show as tests to be passed. They may cause trouble or open new opportunities – but ultimately power is represented as both the ability and the result of succeeding (or bypassing) these tests. When it comes to data analytics, one solution to by/pass the test is to adapt the text of public speeches – so to include terms that correlate with desired voting postures. While initially successful, this solution quickly shows its limits: ‘feeling’ and ‘feeding’ the public through numbers is not enough. As a new character – a data scientist – states: “people did not like jazz before listening to it” – you need more than number: you need to spell new fictions.

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