Eurorack modular synthesis

Eurorack is a modular synthesis format that has expanded enormously in the last five years or so. I started playing around with some modules about 18 months ago, initially as a way to get some more analogue filters into my home studio set up. Since then, I’ve become fascinated by Eurorack as a phenomenon comprising not only a set of technical standards and practices, but also a worldwide community of module producers and users, with its own terminology and cultural norms. Below is a recent production that makes extensive use of my own Eurorack set up.

With the straight to video disaster movie of the UK’s pre-Brexit meltdown consuming so much airspace, there is comfort to be had in a system that originated in continental Europe, which is profoundly internationalist, and which enables radically different elements to happily coexist and interact. The rise of Eurorack is also a good example of how technological change can move in surprising directions; a case study of how dead media can come back to life.

In the 1960s, when the first electronic voltage controlled sound synthesizers were developed by companies such as Moog, Buchla and EMS, most of these systems were modular. In a modular system, different audio generating and processing functions are performed by separate modules mounted in a rack. The user manually links these together into the desired order using patch cables. This type of design is extremely flexible, allowing for experimentation with non-standard signal routings and bespoke systems.

Back in the 1960s, the market for these unwieldy, complex, expensive systems was limited however. As synthesizer manufacturers sought commercial viability, they began to produce simpler, more portable and affordable instruments, designed around the needs of musicians. These machines hardwired synthesis elements into a fixed order, dispensing with the need for patch cables, and reducing the level of technical knowledge required to programme them. The Minimoog was the archetype of this shift, as documented in painstaking detail by Pinch and Rocco in their 2004 book Analog Days. A small, portable, all-in-one instrument, the Minimoog prioritised ease of use over the flexibility of Moog’s earlier modular systems. With its stable tuning and built-in keyboard, it fitted into Western musical conventions, and had wide appeal to musicians. Thousands of units were sold, and its basic design became the dominant form of the synthesizer from the 1970s onwards. Most classic machines follow its template: the Arp Odyssey, Sequential Prophet 5 and Pro 1, Roland’s SH series, Jupiters and Junos, and later classic digital synths such as the Yamaha DX7, Roland D50 and Korg M1 all have a keyboard attached to a more-or-less fixed sequence of sound generating and shaping elements. As Pinch and Rocco (1998, p.27) observe:

“The story of the analogue synthesizer is like that of many technologies. One meaning stabilises, and the other meanings slowly vanish or play a smaller role within niche markets.”

Thus by the mid 1980s, modular had been pushed to the margins of music technology. As the first generation of digital FM and PCM-based synths gave way to virtual analogue technologies in the 1990s, the dominance of keyboard-based synthesizers continued. Even with the introduction of Synthesis Technology’s ‘Mother Of The Modulars’ (MOTM) system in the mid 1990s, and the invention of Eurorack around the same time in the form of Doepfer’s A100 range, these systems were initially niche products aimed at a minority of devoted synthesis enthusiasts.

So why, against the grain of the stabilised form of the synthesizer, has Eurorack modular become so popular?

One factor appears to be how the format makes modular synthesis more accessible due to its efficiencies of size and cost. As a 2014 press release from NAMM (the US National Association of Music Manufacturers) puts it:

“Boutique Eurorack modular synthesizers were until recently considered ‘fringe’ but are now gaining traction in the mainstream as a relatively inexpensive way to pack a lot of functionality into a small space.” (NAMM, 2014)

It is worth noting that Eurorack is not the highest quality format available for modular synthesis. Its advantages are more prosaic: modest size, portability, and relatively low cost. Compared to full size modular systems, Eurorack enables even quite small systems to function as complex instruments. The techno producer Surgeon, for example, has recently been performing live sets using a Eurorack rig specifically designed to be small enough to fit into the dimensions of aircraft carry-on luggage.

The compact size of Eurorack seems key to its success. Shown here is an Intellijel uVCA module, which fits two voltage controlled amplifiers with bias and exponential-linear shape controls into a panel that is only 30mm wide. Note the use of mini-jack sockets for patching, and the tiny surface mount components just visible on the circuit board.

In this respect, Eurorack has an uncanny echo of the Minimoog’s emphasis on portability and convenience. Modules are often rated in terms of size: valued for offering a lot of functionality in a small space, or criticised for being too bulky. Erica synths’ Pico range and the company 2hp make a virtue out of slimline dimensions, squeezing maximum synthesis out of minimum space. The small size and low cost of Eurorack has been aided by surface mount circuit production technology and automated production. The video below, of Mutable Instruments modules being assembled at a factory in France, is revealing.

Eurorack has also risen to prominence in the context of networked computation – somewhat ironically for a format in which analogue signals are so crucial. With consumption increasingly shifting online, Eurorack has the perfect form factor. Small modules are easy to send via postal services, as compared to bulky and heavy keyboard synths. Many retailers operate primarily or solely by mail order, reducing the costs of premises and staffing. A thriving second hand market makes use of online forums, trading sites and payment systems. As vintage analogue synthesizers have become increasingly rare, costly and fragile, Eurorack provides a much simpler, cheaper and less troublesome alternative.

So there seems to be a kind of double shift driving Eurorack: on one side, an infrastructure of networked computing, online forums, web stores and computer controlled manufacturing; and on the other, a resurgence of interest in analogue, hands-on and experimental designs for electronic instruments. To quote Pinch and Rocco again:

“The synthesizer’s stabilisation as a keyboard instrument, while an attempt to increase its versatility, and a major step in allowing wide distribution and maintaining its commercial viability, may have begun the process of delimiting its creative freedom.” (ibid.)

Creative freedom is where modular really comes into its own. Its resurgence, in the form of Eurorack, can be understood as a kind of rebellion against the dominant paradigm in music technology. With modular, the stabilised form of the synthesizer is pulled apart and folded  inside out – literally, with patch points pushing signals from the inside to the outside of the box – opening up more space for experimentation. The media theorist Wolfgang Ernst (2012, p.184) suggests that all media technologies have this kind of experimental potential:

“All such mass media as the phonograph, kinematograph, radio, and electronic television were first developed for experimental research. Media are measuring devices, and as such they are scientific, analytical apparatuses…The public-use “synthetic” mass media represent a step from such measuring devices to worlds of mass media, as we often approach them, but we are able to also analytically approach the reverse experience: to go back to the experimentality of such machines.”

The modular renaissance can be understood as precisely this: a return to the experimentality of synthesizers. Indeed, some of the most popular Eurorack modules have high levels of indeterminacy built into their design, such as the Make Noise Maths module, which can generate and process control voltages, mix and slew signals, act as a level comparator, an envelope follower, a complex LFO, perform logic operations, and serve as a makeshift oscillator. With these kinds of designs, a degree of experimentation is required to operate them.

Indeed, the whole format of Eurorack can be seen as a form of experimentation that is proliferating difference. The number of module producers and the range of available modules has grown to dizzying proportions. There are numerous DIY kits and open source designs. Some of the larger and more established music tech companies have released semi-modular gear and equipment that can be patched into Eurorack systems, such as Moog’s Mother 32 and DFAM, and the Arturia Brute series. As a result, anyone building a Eurorack system can integrate elements from radically different electronic music traditions, approaches and design principles: mixing analogue and digital, west coast and east coast synthesis, modules from US, UK and European producers, classic and more experimental designs, factory produced and home made modules, and every conceivable mode of synthesis.

A DIY kit from Thonk for building the Pulses expander for the Music Thing Turing Machine. This was my first experience of surface mount soldering.

A few months ago I had the pleasure of discussing some of these issues with Matt Preston, who runs the Matttech modular online store. He drew my attention to another important dimension of difference, amongst modular users. Eurorack appeals to a range of different groups. Matt mentioned:

  • maths-and-science nerds who are interested in analogue computing and signal processing;
  • collectors;
  • professional musicians and composers whose paid work involves finding new ways to generate and process sound;
  • live performers who want to build portable, configurable and highly interactive self-contained instruments;
  • creative artists who see modular as an open-ended means of experimentation;
  • dance music producers looking for something beyond the standard sample packs and preset sounds.

The coexistence of these overlapping ‘tribes’, as Matt put it, is part of what has enabled the scene to thrive.

That said, all of these groups are notably dominated by one identity type: male, white, typically heterosexual, reflecting male dominance in music technology as a whole. An informal online self-complete survey of modular users carried out in 2018 (n = 249) had 90% of respondents identifying as male and 85% as not LGBTQ. The sample was not representative, but these percentages are big enough to make the overall picture fairly clear. At the same time, there are notable contemporary female artists using modular, such as Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Lady Starlight, and important historical figures such as Daphne Oram, Eliane Radigue, Pauline Oliveros and Wendy Carlos. The contribution to electronic music of various black and multi-racial cultures is also hard to overstate: through funk, disco, hip hop, electro, techno, house, dub, dancehall, jungle, drum and bass, dubstep, grime, footwork and so on. Some of these subcultures have also been overtly LGBTQ, such as disco and house, while one of techno’s most well known hotspots, Berghain in Berlin, evolved from a gay fetish club.

This issue of diversity in electronic music is often debated at length, usually with trenchant views expressed on all sides. In Eurorack, the fact that the main forum for modular synth discussion is called Muff Wiggler can either be construed as a light hearted joke or as blatant sexism, depending on your perspective – see for example this article and the comments attached to it , and this article from FACT mag in which some of the artists featured discuss issues of diversity.

My own observation is that the Eurorack community is characterised primarily by non-dominant forms of masculinity. The tech-nerd aspect attracts men whose maleness is more aligned with stereotypes of tinkering DIY boffins than with misogynism and chauvenism. These non-dominant masculinities can still exclude people who don’t fit into them, but in ways that might be subtle; I’ve seen some people referring to modules using female pronouns for example.  Explicit sexism, whilst occasionally apparent, is increasingly being challenged, and is less of a widespread issue than more implicitly masculinist and heteronormative tendencies.

Emile Gillet, who runs Mutable Instruments, one of the most popular Eurorack producers, recently transitioned from male to female. As such, she has an interesting take on gender and sexuality in relation to the modular community:

“I have nightmares about being part of a “women in synthesis” panel, the growth of my company having benefited from the very male privilege that felt increasingly icky to me (and I could write reams about how uncomfortable I have been with some events, attitudes, MW posts, aesthetic decisions from other brands…).” (via Reddit)

The Eurorack community’s response to Emile’s transition appears to have been overwhelmingly positive, however (e.g. the Reddit thread quoted above), showing that the scene is capable of welcoming social difference, despite being majority male. When it comes to the technical and creative side of things, modular is strongly non-conformist, open-ended, exploratory and radically pluralistic, so one would hope that this attitude could be extended into other aspects of life. If there is such a thing as a queer or trans approach to synthesis, Eurorack is surely the place to find it.

Further information

There are a number of online modular synth enthusiast sites:

https://www.muffwiggler.com

https://www.modulargrid.net

https://www.reddit.com/r/modular/

The number of Eurorack module producers is vast. Some of the more well-known ones include:

http://www.doepfer.de/

http://www.makenoisemusic.com/

http://busycircuits.com/

https://mutable-instruments.net/

http://www.synthtech.com/

https://www.studioelectronics.com/products/synths/boomstar-modular/

http://tiptopaudio.com/

https://intellijel.com/

Some UK Eurorack retailers include:

https://matttechmodular.co.uk/

https://www.rubadub.co.uk/

https://postmodular.co.uk/

https://elevatorsound.com/

https://cymrubeats.com/

https://www.signalsounds.com/

https://londonmodular.co.uk/

One of the coolest places I have been for modular is CTRL in New York, a small shop packed with modular gear. The staff there were extremely knowledgeable and helpful:

https://www.ctrl-mod.com/

Worldwide, other notable outlets include:

Germany: https://www.schneidersladen.de/en/

France: https://www.modularsquare.com/

Norway: https://www.pyramidsounds.com/

USA: http://www.analoguehaven.com/

USA: https://www.controlvoltage.net/

Australia: https://www.patchcable.com.au/

Japan: http://www.clockfacemodular.com/

For DIY stuff, there are lots of sites. I recently built a Music Thing Turing Machine from a kit from Thonk, and based on that experience I would recommend their kits:

https://www.thonk.co.uk/

https://musicthing.co.uk/index.html

I’m also a big fan of DIY site Kassutronics: https://kassu2000.blogspot.com/

Finally, Oakley deserves a mention here – they don’t do many Eurorack modules, but they are highly regarded. Tony Allgood, who runs the company, is a super helpful synth expert:

http://www.oakleysound.com/index.htm

Empty Brexit and dead schools: the ghostly politics of Theresa May

Grey face, empty words, opacity and absence. Theresa May is a bad Thatcher tribute act. She does the voice better than the original, but everything else is just miming to the backing track.

During the EU referendum campaign she was nicknamed “submarine May”, but submarines dive because they have something important to hide. Our newly unelected Prime Minister seems to be hiding precisely because, so far, she has nothing to give us: no answers to the big Brexit questions, no coherent programme for government, just slogans on repeat and expensive brown trousers.

At a time when the UK faces massive political upheaval, she stands in front of an RAF chopper saying she wants a “red, white and blue Brexit”. An appeal not to principles of economics, democracy or sovereignty, but to the hollow nationalism of flag colours. Vacuity has become virtue.

Now we have the ‘shared society’. Only the Conservative Party could think it original to propose that society is something collective. Next up: edible food, wearable clothes, learning schools and a health service based on medical care.

With so little content on display, what can we say about Prime Minister May? One thing seems clear: she is riding the latest wave of what Simon Reynolds has called retromania, the addiction of culture to its own past. Brexit has become a rallying cry for those who view our country through a rose-tinted rearview mirror. The Leave campaign’s operative word wasn’t ‘take’ or ‘control’ but ‘back’. We want our country back. Way back. In a world stuck on fast forward, people are reaching for the comforts of the rewind.

So Theresa May has decided to re, re, wind, so the crowd won’t say ‘reject her’. Her style mixes the 1950s and the 1980s, like a wedding DJ trying to please everyone. With Corbyn in opposition beatmatching the 60s and 70s, all we need is Tony Blair’s 1990s Britpop revival and parliament will be like one of those clubs with music from different decades on different floors.

When warm nostalgia gets into politics, it curdles into something lumpier and less appetizing. We have seen this before in the UK. Thatcher used a romantic, backwards looking vision of wartime Britain as a cultural cover for economic policies that eroded the shared society we once had. Her idea of Britishness was inspired by Churchill, who in turn harked back to the British Empire and its sense of moral and cultural superiority. (Adam Curtis’s 1995 film The Attic deals with these themes, and is therefore essential Brexit viewing).

So Theresa May is a covers band of a covers band of a covers band.

Look at how she has dug up the rotting corpse of grammar schools as a flagshit policy. I say shit, because evidence on selective schooling is clear: it increases inequality, and decreases overall levels of attainment, which is the exact opposite of May’s stated aim of making “a country that works for everyone”. Even some of her own MPs oppose the policy.

Why would a politician want to invoke the ghost of such a dead dysfunctional system? Answer: not to improve schools but to  appeal to the aspirations of voters, particularly amongst the working and lower middle classes, in a way that requires little money or action. The PM has sent a message: “We want your children to have the opportunity to do well, like they did in the past” – even though grammar schools probably won’t be built near you, and even if they are your child probably won’t get a place.

So it doesn’t really matter whether the schools ever get built or not. The policy has already done its work, stirring up hopeful little voices inside parents’ heads that whisper, “my child is special, my child is clever, maybe my child could get in.” Theresa May is leveraging parental ambition to build political support, dangling before us a tantalising illusion of meritocracy that obscures the blunt reality of inequality.

Because again the evidence is clear: poor children are less likely to get into grammar schools, even if they are high achievers. There are exceptions of course, but exceptions are irrelevant when you are organising education for an entire population. Poorer children do tend to have slightly higher levels of achievement if they get in, but very few of them ever get in, because those with more resources will always find ways to boost their chances of selection, such as private prep schools or tutors to coach for the 11-plus. Grammar schools disproportionately benefit the affluent, for whom they provide a free alternative to private school. So the policy appeals to that demographic too.

We must not allow our instincts to be played in this way. Instead, let’s be pro-active and read May’s politics as a crystal ball for Brexit. She keeps saying she won’t show her negotiating hand, that we must trust her to get the UK a unique and favourable deal. Yet her leadership to date shows little to suggest she is capable of pulling something really clever out of the bag. As well as the grammar school proposals, her government has watered down the obesity strategy, passed a snoopers’ charter that violates privacy, kicked the Heathrow 3rd runway vote into the future, and dithered over Hinkley Point. Based on this track record, expecting Theresa May to come up with a brilliant solution for Brexit would be like expecting Michael Buble to drop a deadly grime banger on his next album.

Our new PM has not shown herself to be someone who produces ingenious, bold, innovative solutions to difficult problems. At best, she produces policies that appeal to English conservative voters’ love of authority, hierarchy, and Britain’s mythic past, whilst minimising any impact on the vested interests that support her party.

I therefore guess her Brexit priorities will be:

  • To appear tough on immigration, whilst allowing it to continue in thinly-disguised forms where it serves particular interests and sectors, such as food production and banking.
  • To maintain trading links with the EU, but without remaining part of the single market. This might involve special arrangements for sectors and companies seen as valuable e.g. large companies (like the deal with Nissan), the City of London.
  • To use Brexit as an opportunity to weaken laws on human rights and labour rights. As a friend of mine put it, May is instinctively illiberal – like many of her party and its supporters. She will be looking for ways to advance that agenda wherever possible.

Ghostly politics, but with very real effects. This is the terrain on which she must be fought.

The failure of voice

I’ve been writing a paper about the sounds of the voice. Thinking about the topic reminded me of a brilliant gaffe from BBC Radio 4 presenter Jim Naughtie a few years ago. I’m not sure if this will make it into the final paper, but here’s a bit lifted from my current draft, with a YouTube clip of the memorable moment.

 

Voices are machinic from the very beginning. They arise from vibrational systems, as lungs, vocal cords, throats, tongues and ears get hooked up to architectural spaces, bodies of air, microphones and amplifiers, telephones and answerphones, audio and video recording, headsets, headphones and loudspeakers, scripts and autocues. From the first moment that Bell spoke to Watson on the telephone, from the earliest etchings of Edison’s words into phonograph foil, sound machines have pulled apart the humanist subject, reminding the voice of its humble origins amongst vibrating body parts. Not only does listening to the technologized voice tell us as much about contemporary existence as the classic interpersonal interview encounter, but that encounter itself must be rethought to recognize the voice recorder as a key actant.

 

In its restless movements through multiple machines, voice can never completely express the self as a conscious, contained, definable identity. It may present an illusion of rational self-possession and self-presence; it may be eloquent, articulate and clipped, with received pronunciation; the machines may black box its body out of sight and out of mind; and yet still the voice fails.

 

Take the Scottish radio presenter Jim Naughtie. For over two decades his voice was a regular feature of the Today programme, BBC Radio 4’s flagship morning news and current affairs show. Naughtie’s voice, like most official BBC voices, produces a sense of effortless rationality. It’s male Scottish accent achieves perfect clarity of enunciation, authoritative without ever being overbearing. Vocal apparatus combines with large diaphragm condenser microphones, pre-prepared scripts, acoustically treated studios and carefully optimised dynamic range compression to produce the most articulate and comprehensible of utterances. Phonemes roll out fully formed. Cadences rise and fall properly. And yet on one memorable occasion in 2010, when introducing Conservative minister Jeremy Hunt the Culture Secretary, Naughtie’s voice accidentally swapped the ‘H’ of Hunt and the ‘C’ of Culture to shocking and hilarious effect.

Whether this incident was simple Spoonerism or Freudian slip is beside the point. Of more interest is how Naughtie’s voice broke down in the immediate aftermath, like a tower block crumbling following the dynamite blast of demolition. Valiantly continuing to read out the headlines, the voice starts choking on its words, beset by dry coughs and awkward pauses. Utterances are spat out, forced through hoarseness, vocal cords seizing up. In this thickened, viscous tone, veering between laughter and tears, mundane lines about high speed broadband networks and Egyptian shark attacks take on a strangely gasping, almost morbid quality. The rational voice-from-the-ether suddenly acquires a body, which intrudes noisily, all-too-human in its frailty and fallibility. “Excuse me,” Naughtie eventually splutters, “coughing fit” – an excuse whose obvious inadequacy compounds matters. Such is the desperation of a man struggling with his own mouth. At points the strangulated voice is reminiscent of a scene from TV comedy I’m Alan Partridge, in which the eponymous antihero, invisible in a darkened bedroom, tries to speak about the pedestrianisation of Norwich city centre whilst receiving fellatio, vocal tone becoming warped by sexual arousal.

 

Such incidents, where the body trips up the voice, are not uncommon. Broadcasters, presenters, actors and singers routinely experience voices misfiring, script lines being forgotten, communication lines going dead, bouts of laryngitis, guests who say too much or not enough. There is a whole programme genre based on outtakes and bloopers, exploiting the humour that bubbles out when gaffes and fluffed lines puncture the performance of voice. If vocal breakdown can happen to trained, experienced, rehearsed voices surrounded by sophisticated technologies, it can happen to anyone.

 

Teach ballet to dogs

Yet another splendid plan from David Cameron: teach English to Muslim women living in the UK, to help them integrate and reduce the risk of becoming radicalised.

 

The PM has made it clear that there is no simple cause and effect going on here. Nevertheless, he says, not speaking English probably contributes to a lack of integration, which might make people at more risk of something or other, affecting something something, and in the end you get more terrorists.

 

Cameron apparently said this actual sentence:

“some of these people have come from quite patriarchal societies and perhaps the menfolk haven’t wanted them to speak English” (source: here)

 

First, calling them ‘menfolk’ instead of just ‘men’ makes them sound like some tribe whose primitive rituals he is documenting during an expedition in the 1800s. Picture him in a bright white pith helmet, striding purposefully around our inner cities, instructing people with brown skin on how to enunciate properly.

 

Second, if there is any truth in this statement, then Muslim women who have male family members trying to influence their language abilities now also have a highly privileged white man they have never met trying to influence their language abilities. Is that supposed to be an improvement? It is reminiscent of Spivak’s critique of ‘white men saving brown women from brown men.’

 

Inspired by all of this, here are some more bold policy ideas based on imaginary chains of possible influence that certainly seem plausible inside my own mind. I hope Team Cameron will give them full consideration:

  • Teach ballet to dogs to prevent them fouling our streets.
  • Teach camouflage to black people to decrease their likelihood of being shot by police.
  • Teach tax evasion to junior doctors to help them get by on lower wages.
  • Teach badminton to lesbian wheelchair users to make them get out more.
  • Teach law to criminals to stop them filling our jails.
  • Teach swimming to Syrian migrants to enable them to avoid drowning.
  • Teach Mandarin to bigots to broaden their horizons.
  • Teach suicide bombing to pigeons to reduce their numbers.

 

All of the above will definitely work.

Power, surveillance and digital media

Yesterday I was teaching some of my students about Foucault, power and surveillance. These themes have never been more relevant to everyday life. The expansion of digital communications has created innumerable opportunities for the exercise of power through monitoring human activity, creating new kinds of vulnerabilities. This is especially the case for children and young people, whose lives are increasingly being played out online, warts and all.

Take Paris Brown, a 17 year old appointed in 2013 as the UK’s first youth crime commissioner. Her remit was to represent young people’s views to the police in Kent, and she invited them to use social media to do so. But social media came back to bite her. The tabloid press dredged up offensive posts from her Twitter account, including ill-advised racist, homophobic and violent comments, probably written whilst drunk. Her reputation was trashed, and a few days later she resigned.

Taken literally, the Tweets are lewd and unpleasant. Thinking about the context, however, it looks like this was just an adolescent seeking attention, perhaps showing off to her friends, expressing anger and confusion in a clumsy and foolish way, and pushing social boundaries to see what would happen. So – normal teenager stuff. For my generation growing up, you could say and do stupid stuff to get a reaction, cause a bit of outrage, and it was rarely recorded. That has all changed.

I also talked to my students about the UK government’s monitoring of communications through GCHQ. Afterwards, the question came up: is this sort of surveillance really such a bad thing? One student pointed out that GCHQ came out of Alan Turing’s work at Bletchley Park, including cracking the Enigma code during World War II, which helped defeat the Nazis. GCHQ’s current work involves foiling terrorist plots, saving lives. What’s wrong with that?

Clearly it is too simplistic to suggest that surveillance systems are driven by malice, like a bunch of Bond villains trawling people’s emails in a secret underground lair. Surveillance is more rational than that: the state is threatened by actions such as terrorism, and the production of knowledge is a crucial way of exercising of power to regulate these threatening actions.

But in any kind of rationality, there is always an irrationality. The power exercised by GCHQ doesn’t just block terrorism. It helps to produce terrorism as a definable thing – a set of ideas and subjectivities that can be monitored, documented and regulated.

Mass surveillance also has unintended consequences, like the unpleasant side effects of a medical treatment. Storing all electronic communication in the name of counter terrorism compromises the privacy of entire populations. That changes the nature of social life, in ways that may be hard to perceive but which are nonetheless pervasive. Autonomy is inevitably curtailed. An email, for instance, might look like communication between two people, but it isn’t. Other people can examine it, log it, store it. It could be used in a court of law at a later date in some way that is impossible to foresee.

We don’t have to look hard to find examples of such powers being used abusively. I imagine many of those who helped gather information for the East German Stasi believed that they were doing good, protecting their state from dangerous ideologies. The power they exercised no doubt enabled certain things, protected certain values – but it also crushed people and ideas that didn’t fit with the dominant view. It is all too easy for power to slip into violence.

Foucault poses the question of how to let power flow whilst avoiding it solidifying into authoritarian forms of domination. There are no easy answers. But we have to at least keep asking the question. It may well be that many of those working in surveillance wrestle with this on a daily basis. However, if you believe Edward Snowden’s description of America’s National Security Agency, the employees there were definitely not questioning what they were doing enough, or even at all – and that is when power becomes dangerous.

Alan Turing’s groundbreaking role in surveillance may have helped to win WWII, but look what happened to him: suicide, following persecution for his sexuality. The state monitored his private activities, criminalised him and subjected him to enforced medical castration. Government interference in the most intimate of matters caused him irreparable harm. It is an unfortunate irony that the machines he dreamt up are now being used to insert surveillance ever deeper into people’s lives.