Deleuze once remarked that the ‘socio-technical study of the mechanisms of control, grasped at their inception, would have to be categorical’. While there are undoubtedly a plethora of mechanisms of control in need of categorisation, one in particular embodies the logic of control like no other: dashboard interfaces. Such mechanisms, of course, are also called ‘control panels’. The inception of these interfaces precedes that of the automobile, but it is in relation to this machine of the open road that dashboards – and control more generally – took on many of its contemporary characteristics. Dashboard interfaces have since made their way in one shape or another into the ‘corporate systems’ that Deleuze considered indicative of societies of control. They were instrumental in the separation of the factory floor with the corporate headquarter, effecting a newly established ‘control at a distance’ through elaborate systems of feedback. When dashboards were married with computers from the 80s onwards, their logic and functionality intensified. A whole science emerged around key performance indicators, and the general question of how best to visualize the varying components of the graphical interface. Dashboard interfaces are now leaving their corporate existence and working themselves into ‘smart devices’, including phones, tablets, and so on. The motto of the Google Now dashboard is ‘just the right information at just the right time’. The entire field of relations embodied through ‘control’ is becoming a mundane technique of the self. But what if control was always already ordinary? What if it is the car dashboard, perched as it is in between the panoptic or panoramic gaze of the skyscraper and walking in the city (De Certeau), that reflects the allure but also banality of control? In short, what can the history of control panels tell us about the societies of control described by Deleuze?
Nathaniel Tkacz is Assistant Professor in the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies at The University of Warwick. Currently, he is PI on the ESRC-funded project “Interrogating the Dashboard: Data, Indicators and Decision-making”. He has contributed to journals such as Fibreculture, Platform, Ephemera, and Communication, Politics and Culture. His books include Critical Point of View: A Wikipedia Reader (with Geert Lovink) and Wikipedia and The Politics of Openness.