Space the Nation: Are we being watched?

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Feb 8, 2018, 5:01 PM EST (Updated)

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The trope: Don’t look now, but Big Brother is watching. The era of mass surveillance just keeps getting more massive.

Where you can find it: Oh, where can’t you? Mass surveillance may be the most popular trope of the modern era; it may be easier to list dystopias that don't have some aspect of mass surveillance. The question for this list isn’t where to begin — it’s where to end. After all, the beginning is easy. Most people consider George Orwell’s 1984 to be granddaddy of all Big Brother narratives (making him more like Big Uncle?), and that is, of course, where the term “Big Brother” comes from. 

In Orwell’s 1949 novel, calling the tyrant ruler of Oceania “Big Brother” was partially just spin: an attempt to disguise a dictator as a babysitter. But the term “Big Brother” also illustrated how an authoritarian state co-opts and corrupts the idea of family; that today it is the name of a popular television show in which a group strangers playact a substitute family under the watchful eye of millions of viewers … well, maybe Orwell wouldn’t find that surprising at all. That many of us have televisions that watch us back is, in fact, something 1984 itself predicted.

Indeed, maybe Orwell’s real innovations were primarily technological. He foresaw those two-way "telescreens," of course, as well as the usefulness of degraded popular culture (produced without the spark of human spirit) to distract and numb the populace. But while Orwell popularized the notion that technology oppresses more than it frees, he was just elaborating on a foundational intuition: Knowledge is power. Isn’t omniscience a big part of what makes gods omnipotent? 

That said, fictional tales of mass surveillance are astonishingly rare until Orwell; after him, they came rather fast and furiously: the work of Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, the claustrophobic intensity of J.G. Ballard. The idea of the internet did seem to goose the production of “they’re watching you” narratives, and found a plausible future in the baroque creepiness of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. Popular movies featuring mass surveillance seem ironically more two-dimensional: from the glossy primer of The Net to the thudding literalness of Enemy of the State. And as the debate over national security versus privacy became more sophisticated, sometimes surveillance snuck in as a feature, not a bug: Person of InterestThe Dark KnightMinority Report. Today, mass surveillance isn’t even worth commenting on as its own phenomenon; in a show like Black Mirror, surveillance is just background noise.

If the subject of mass surveillance is so rich, why didn’t we seem to worry much about it before Orwell? There is only one novel prior to 1984 that appears on anyone’s all-seeing radar: We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin. But lest you think that paranoia about surveillance has to be yoked to modern technology, Zamyatin’s 1921 novel simply posits that people live in literal glass houses — the state police take it from there. What’s more, Zamyatin’s premise seems to have been plucked from a quite real 18th-century prison proposal: Jeremy Benthem’s “panopticon,” a circular building in which a literal central authority could observe all prisoners at once (through a “glass lantern”) but the prisoner couldn't see the authority. Benthem envisioned a situation in which the prisoners had to act as if they were surveilled at all times, and surmised it would be “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind,” and that power could be used as “a mill for grinding rogues honest.”

Perhaps the catalyst for nightmares about surveillance as a tool of authoritarianism, then, wasn’t any leap forward in the means of surveillance but an innovation in the means of authority. You don’t need modern communications technology so much as a modern police force and its lethal efficiency. By which I mean mass surveillance isn’t just about the logistics of surveilling en masse, but having both the social structure and sufficient technology in which a small group of people can keep the masses in line. Bentham’s proposal, while taken seriously by the British government, fell by the wayside in part because its logistics leapt beyond the imagination of an era where there was no easy way to force a large group of people to do something besides using the muscles of another large group of people. Firepower changes that equation, as does the growth of policing as its own institution. Professional police forces didn’t even exist in most countries until the 19th century, when governments began to see the use in regulating public behavior — rather than just to chase down criminals. (In the U.S., modern police forces have specific roots in systemic oppression: They are the institutional descendants of squads formed to chase down escaped or freed slaves.)

But I wonder if the real reason that we started worrying about mass surveillance so late in the game — despite centuries of depicting gods as all-knowing — is that it wasn’t until relatively recently that the sinister powers doing the snooping are people just like us. They’re not gods or kings or wizards; they’re bureaucrats and soldiers — or, as most surveillance dystopias acknowledge, they’re our neighbors. The horror of a mass surveillance state isn’t that we can’t trust the government. It’s that we can’t trust each other. 

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