A Quote About Surveillance

Warning: long quote ahead. The tl;dr of it is that reassuring yourself that we live in a free and open society probably, in the long run, strengthens the surveillance State.

Wife-unit and I have watched the classic British sitcom Spaced so often, that the jokes have receded out of context and in the normal course of affairs we just recite lines to each other when it seems apposite, as a weird kind of code that makes us laugh. One of these catchphrases, used whenever we are talking about any kind of overbearing authority is “Nobody’s listening.” This is like a verbal short-circuit button that brings us back to this shot in Spaced, which we find hilarious:

With the whistle-blowing of Ed Snowden, what we all knew is now actually knowledge. “You never know who’s listening” but you can be certain someone is.

In his 2010 book “Christian Ethics in a Technological Age“, Brian Brock treats surveillance in a brilliant digression. He is writing about Michel Foucault when he says:

The gain of Foucault’s use of historical case studies is that they give us more effective purchase on the culturally specific evolutionary trajectories of modern Western political economy than any technical abstraction could. Although his account of the evolution of prisons should probably not be assigned as a history textbook, it most certainly exposes cultural dynamics of which every politician and prison engineer ought to be cognizant.

The loss of a sharp line between government and business is also a central feature of the surveillance society to which Foucault has drawn our attention. He has indicated why the centralizing and efficiency-seeking forces at work in modern government will always gather surplus electronic information about citizens (with the issuing and tracing of ID cards, computer license plate monitoring, electronic medical records, and so on) and why this information is always shared with other institutions or agencies who desire to shape the activity in the populace (the “war on terrorism” licensing the monitoring of license plate recognition information, airline manifests and so on). Such sharing of information is not a special occurrence for emergency situations, but a regular feature of the surveillance society. The closed-circuit television (CCTV) control centre for central London, for instance, is typical in being registered as a charitable trust and funded by the city council, police, and private business. The blending of governmental and entrepreneurial activity is mirrored by the mutation of modern citizens into actors whose behaviour reflects the understanding that they are “known” to authorities, whether shop owners or police, at all times and in many modalities. Discipline, while not always susceptible to direct legal enforcement, is nevertheless constraining and directing because it is internalised.

On the surface, such evolutions in Western penal mechanisms and the apparently more benign surveillance mechanisms of capitalism, with their interest in demographic patterns and consumption, seem a far cry from the former Eastern Block surveillance societies. But Foucault, as a Western democrat, has suggested that even Western democracies are strongly marked trajectories familiar to those who experienced communist totalitarian systems. The Western preservation of the ideal of free speech has rendered the surveillance society more subtle, more powerful and certainly more enduring. Here anything can be said, but not everything can be done. The gathering of knowledge and penality become ever more seamless, from the subtle incentives of direct marketing to the micropenality of speed cameras to home detention. Resistance to guiding forces creates a trail that attracts attention and, potentially, microsanctions. Here the employee who refuses to consent to be tracked by a computer chip is first reprimanded, then fired, but never charged with theft, while the convicted thief is tagged, tracked, and punished by being pinned in the “private” realm.

Brian Brock, Christian Ethics In A Technological Age, p. 127-128.

This passage has stuck with me and haunted me for the last fifteen months. The legislative back-breaking involved in assigning charity status to the surveillance centres seems particularly illuminating.

Your Correspondent, The world’s biggest single-cell organism