“At some point we have to draw a line”, proclaimed Australian federal MP Scott Ludlam – referring specifically to controversial changes to data retention laws put before the Australian parliament for debate. A few months later (despite all his Youtubing, tweets, Facebook jibes and rousing proclamations in the Senate) the changes he (and many Australians) opposed passed through both houses of Parliament and became law. Maybe, just maybe, Ludlam is fighting the wrong battle here.
Maybe we should be asking ourselves if we ever had any privacy to begin with – maybe, just maybe, we started being a surveillance society a while ago. ‘Why bother [fighting it]?’ was the question posed by Richard Thomas, the UK government’s Information Commissioner who believes the surveillance society is already ‘a reality’… and that was back in 2006.
So on the one hand, Ludlum is saying we risk becoming a ‘surveillance society’, but experts are adamant we’re already there. What gives?
And even if we are already a so-called ‘surveillance society’ – where the government and big business can check our every move – is it really that big a deal?
SURVEILLANCE IS A RELATIONSHIP: The French social theorist Michel Foucault was very interested in this question, however he stressed that the rise of the ‘surveillance society’ was not spying per se, but a ‘relationship’. A fucked-up relationship, granted, but a relationship nonetheless.
Foucault believed that power should be seen as “the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society”. The society in focus here will not be any one in particular, and is certainly not relative to a particular country or place – he just means society as you and I experience it on an everyday basis.
HOLD UP!: But what, exactly, is a surveillance society? I’ve just come back from a trip to London, the city with the most CCTV cameras per capita in the world. Does that tick all the boxes… or is there more to it? In regards to defining the surveillance society, there is no agreed definition, but it can be best summed up as…
“the surveillance society is better thought of as an outcome of modern organizational practices, businesses, government and the military than as a covert conspiracy”.
So don’t take it personally… it’s just what they do.
NOW YOU SEE ME… : Visibility of power is by no means a unique characteristic of a surveillance society, but what is truly unique is the level of division and insulation in such a society. Foucault understood the importance of ‘permanent visibility’ in his assessment of Bentham’s infamous Panopticon prison (as seen in the image below. It allows the person in the watchtower to see every cell without the prisoner seeing them).
When these same characteristics are applied to a modern environment and in particular an urban space the “absolute visibility is legitimated with the claim and the guarantee of absolute security”.
This is best illustrated by the increasing use of CCTV cameras in public areas in cities around the world. In England in particular, to counter the “fear of terrorism, [and] crime” there are as many as 4.2 million CCTV cameras in the country – this equates to one for every 14 people, and a person can be captured on over three hundred CCTV cameras each day. However, despite this widening use of such surveillance methods, they have “had little overall effect on crime levels”. So what the hell are they there for?
You see, here’s the beauty of it all. According to Foucault, this ‘surveillance society’ was never meant to necessarily eradicate crime or terrorism, but rather to foster the idea within us that we live in a world of ‘regulated freedom‘. This may sound like a contradiction of sorts… and it is. The visibility of power, the CCTV cameras on every street corner, seeks to normalise the power relationship between the government and its citizens. The more camera’s watching you, the quicker you get used to it.
The scary thing is – everyone who’s anyone is in on it. Today, there’s now a shifting of alliances between diverse groups of power that are attempting to monitor your every move. Whether their watching your economic activity, your social life or your individual conduct – you can be sure someone is taking an interest. Such invasive urban characteristics as CCTV cameras and the power relationship channeling through their lens illustrate that we are progressing at a rapid rate towards some form of surveillance society. There ain’t no stopping it.
YOU’RE YOUR OWN WORST ENEMY: This age of surveillance is unique in that our very being has become another aspect of that being monitored, from fingers scanners on mobile phones to urine tests at work. For example, “PINs and passwords may be forgotten or lost, but the body provides a constant, direct link between record and person.” Our very beings’ may be our own worst enemy. Where this new surveillance society becomes more disturbing is in the division between who is being watched… and who is watching.
What we’re witnessing in this day and age is not so much ethnic, class or gender divisions – but rather a division between those who spy and those who are spied on. This set-up can’t help but manifest into an increasing world of inequality “between those who provide and those who gather personal information”. To Foucault, this divide signifies if a society is trending towards a surveillance society, because it reveals what he identified as ‘regimes of truth’. In this instance, those doin’ the spying (with complete and specific information) dominate not just power relationships… but also knowledge. They gain a monopoly in both. By creating an unequal relationship and dominating the available information society has to offer, the rise of these ‘information warriors’ (whether they be corporate, government or military) heralds another key aspect of a surveillance society.
To quote the UK’s Information Commissioner once more when questioned about this, he quipped – “surveillance society? We’re already there…”
So maybe, just maybe, we never really had much privacy to begin with. And maybe, just maybe, the rise of the so-called surveillance society isn’t so much about power and control – but about knowledge. So say cheese and hand over your homework!