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Surveillance after "Big Brother"   Post comment Printer friendly versionMore notes

Surveillance after "Big Brother"
surveillance, Orwell
Saturday, February 21, 2004 21:25 GMT

The arguments of the media often proceed via the production of victims. That something is wrong is signalled by the fact that there is a victim. Solutions need to be found! - for how could we be so heartless as to ignore the plight of people such as these...

Proponents of the various kinds of surveillance have found many victims to justify their cases. Victims who no longer are so, thanks to technology. Once you had to fear walking down the street, but now there are cameras to keep you safe. You had to fear the people sitting with you on a plane, but now surveillance techniques are too good to let the wrong people through. You still might be afraid of "identity theft" but biometric ATM withdrawals and computer log-ins will soon make that fear disappear into the past too.

The other side of this argument is more difficult to formulate through victims, however. How can you be a "victim" of too much observation? Do cameras present a public danger? Have there been deaths, or at least psychological traumas? Anyone who tries to say that they don't like being watched raises the suspicion that they do things that shouldn't be seen. As the breezy adage goes, "If you have nothing to hide, there is nothing to worry about."

When arguments against surveillance are discussed in the media, therefore, they usually proceed along another route: that of dystopian nightmares. There is hardly an article in the mainstream media that does not invoke "Big Brother" in an attempt to encapsulate the ideas and feelings of those that would question the role of greater surveillance in our lives. Bureaucrats explain the advantages of national ID cards or new biometric identification techniques, but the responsible journalist feels it appropriate to point out that there are some who feel such innovations are leading us one step closer to the "Big Brother" society.

This ubiquitous image is completely inappropriate to the debate. It makes anxieties about surveillance sound stupid. As if the danger of surveillance techniques were not to be found in the present, only in some far-off nightmare of total, centralised control that is purportedly brought closer by every new use of personal data. Next to the bureaucrat's wise analysis, such a nightmare seems so exaggerated, so distant, so paranoid, that it can be instantly dismissed.

The fact is that the model of surveillance we have to engage with bears few resemblances to Orwell's vision. Even in this era of paranoid states, the infrastructure devoted to collecting, analysing and acting on data about an individual is highly distributed, spread across a myriad of institutions who all have very different motives for what they do. Employers capture employees' personal communications in order to optimise productivity and minimise security leaks. Telemarketers try to build up a detailed picture of an individual's buying habits so that they can target their selling more effectively. Mobile phone companies may aim to pinpoint people's locations more precisely so they can match advertisements to places. Et cetera.

It is certainly the case that all this information is occasionally brought together by intelligence agencies or lawyers in order to attest to an individual's interiority, his private idiosyncrasies, his scandalous fascinations. But these moments of absolute transparency are not the norm. The more usual experience is one simply of latent paranoia, born of complete uncertainty as to what information has been collected and how far it has travelled. We are not in the 1984 situation, where the private domain has disappeared and there is total, certain observation by a centralised power whose objective is our absolute control. We are instead in a position where there is constant doubt as to exactly when, and where, our thoughts and actions may be completely unobserved. We are careful, therefore; anxious, perhaps, that our actions, should they ever be scrutinised, would not appear quite pure or productive enough.

This anxiety is something more intangible than sweeping "Big Brother" allusions can ever capture. And yet it is only by finding a language to express the nature of such subtle changes to our interiority that it will be possible to offer anything that can place in perspective bureaucratic calls for more control. We need, in short, to find new images for life under 21st-century surveillance that can bury blithe references to "Big Brother" for ever and help us to understand where, imaginatively speaking, we are going.