Enlightenment Surveillance?

A recent post in Oxford's "Practical Ethics" blog prompted me to think about some of my past work on surveillance. I've posted a few comments here.

New York City contemplates using aerial drones for surveillance purposes, while North Korea buys thousands of cameras to spy on its impoverished population. Britain has so many cameras they cease being newsworthy. The stories multiply – it is trivial to note we are moving towards a surveillance society.

In an earlier post, I suggested surrendering on surveillance might be the least bad option – of all likely civil liberty encroachments, this seemed the less damaging and hardest to resist. But that’s an overly defensive way of phrasing it – if ubiquitous surveillance and lack of privacy are the trends of the future, we shouldn’t just begrudgingly accept them, but demand that society gets the most possible out of them. In this post, I’m not going to suggest how to achieve enlightened surveillance (a 360 degree surveillance would be a small start, for instance), but just outline some of the positive good we could get from it. We all know the negatives; but what good could come from corporations, governments and neighbours being able to peer continually into your bedroom (and efficiently process that data)? In the ideal case, how could we make it work for us?

Stuart Armstrong, "Enlightened Surveillance," Practical Ethics, The University of Oxford - http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/?p=5487

surveillance shot elevator.jpg

There are two things about this post which I wanted to question briefly.

Firstly, yes, I think this is basically right, we are moving towards a surveillance society and the social and economic logics which are driving this move are seemingly inevitable. It's important to note however that although the electrification of surveillance is new, the practice of tracking and tracing citizens has a much longer history. Surveillance is linked to the history of writing, which begins not with poetry but with mesopotamian bureaucracy. Enlightenment scepticism about surveillance is rooted in a critique of this bureaucratic power. Current concerns about privacy and the integrity of individuals are only one symptom of this longer history. In this sense, surveillance is very old and public concern about its electronic and digital forms are a continuation of a longer engagement. Thinking about how to get the most out of surveillance is, then, a rather banal comment. It's a central concern of democratic cultures for the last three hundred years and is written into many of our constitutions.

Secondly, however, the author of this post passingly notes that "we all know the negatives." I disagree. Part of my previous research on this topic was to uncover some of the hidden costs and dynamics of a surveillance society. The key paradox I tried to show was that the very camera which is said to bring safety, simultaneously undermines it. The reason is that precisely by tracking an individual, it alienates them from their neighbour. We see this time and again in the way people live in highly surveillanced societies. The goal is not to get to know your neighbours, but rather to get a camera up in your neighbourhood, so that when they do something wrong they can be caught by somebody in power. This practice undermines the reciprocity of human relationships, the engagement and communitarian practices where people do not live in constant fear of who is lurking beyond their surveillanced boundaries. The very idea of total surveillance demonstrates the paradox. Human people cannot be completely surveyed. It is a practical impossibility to see all that a person is and is doing. More to the point, however, there is always an excess lurking beyond the data being tracked. This excess leaves citizens with an even more severe fear, of the "other" beyond the camera'd walls, or the "other" beyond the political reach of the particular state in power, or indeed, the various ways in which people always find ways to circumvent the surveillance apparatus. The farce of "360 degree surveillance" only perpetuates the possibility that such a goal may, in the end, produce the least safe society in human history. 

A recent Brazilian film, Neighboring Sounds, directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho, explores this dynamic of safe, surveillanced building complexes in neighborhoods that are springing up all over the globe. The geographer Emanuel Castells' notion of a "space of flows" is relevant here, in that it is increasingly possible to land in any city in the world and enter a frictionless, glass walled pleasure ground just like the one you came from. All the while the makeshift rick-shacks of the have-nots and service class live just out of view. The film brilliantly captures the paradox of the safety these neighborhoods promise. The soundtrack and camera work both foster a sense of unheimlich, of terror. As the film critic A. O. Scott commented, "No one can quite see or hear what is coming, but something is out there, just on the other side of the whatever we think keeps us safe." 

The high-rises of Recife provide a vista for "Neighboring Sounds."
The high-rises of Recife provide a vista for "Neighboring Sounds."

In the end, I agree that surveillance is an inevitable part of contemporary society and will continue. So too, the idea of enlightenment surveillance is redundant. Enlightenment thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, who promoted independent thought and self-governance were acutely aware of the power of governments to survey their citizens. However, this very recognition of the longer condition of surveillance should make us even more critical of its current uses and abuses. The "negatives" are not well known, and turn out to be far more problematic and paradoxical than a mere concern for privacy might suggest. A luddite response is impossible at this stage. We must think technology through.