Wednesday August 10, 2022

Surveillance state

December 07, 2021

It is time to take a serious look at what living in a surveillance state does to us. We can leave aside the usual question of what it looks like. Surveillance is by nature clandestine. It is a ruse. When caught in the act, it pretends to be unofficial, or even accidental. It wears a mask of many rationalizations, each of which presents itself as ‘evidence of the unseen.’ Thus, it demands that we take it on faith. Does that mean that those who accept a state of surveillance, of being watched, have simply enlisted in another faith-based community? Does surveillance belong to a competition of ‘faiths’. Who do we become when, politically and technologically, we are forced into such a ‘community’?

At the present time, in the US, the focus of surveillance has become the ‘crime problem.’ On the lookout for the incipient evil-doer, surveillance rationalizes itself through technological silence, while depending on sociological explanations. It is supposed to help prevent crime. But that just makes it more mysterious. Does it stop corporate crime? Does it rescue us from administrative corruption? These crimes reside in the domain of brave investigative journalism. When nine different people observed a woman being sexually assaulted on a train (Philadelphia, 10/13/21), all they could think of to do was record the event on their nine separate cellphones – thinking, perhaps, that that act of surveillance would stop the crime they were witnessing. Remaining in the hands of the police, will the technology of surveillance stop the crimes committed by the police?

Even the judicial system finds itself unable to prosecute crimes unless caught on viral video. It refused to charge the cop who shot Jacob Blake seven times point-blank in the back; it couldn’t even bring itself to charge him with cowardice on the job, let alone attempted murder. You’ve got to be either a craven coward or a dedicated murderer to shoot someone in the back.

The alleged act of crime prevention gives surveillance an aura of social value. Yet even then, its social acceptance must be rationalized in turn. Typically, one says: “I have nothing to fear from it. I’m not doing anything wrong.” But what reveals itself in such a disclaimer is a very complicated structure of fear. It is addressed to a primordial fear (of the state), for which it substitutes a postulated and fearful threat (a crime problem), with respect to which it takes sides (‘I’m not part of the threat’), as if afraid to be confused with those who are. In other words, surveillance strategies carefully brand themselves as protection against crime in order to assuage the more basic fear of surveillance.

Excerpted: ‘What is the Surveillance State?’