We the watched

Print edition : October 05, 2012

A clarion call to societies and the individual to become alert to the continuous dangers posed by sophisticated systems of surveillance.

We live in times when suddenly our intellectual activities are shaken and the traditional rationales that underpin our daily lives stand discredited. Our subjectivities are completely in subservience to the structures of technological dominance, military violence and ideological legitimation. It is the return of George Orwells Big Brother. In the world we live in, there is nothing private; every private act is observed by the omnipresent camera. Yevgeny Zamyatins novel We comes to mind.

The power of the state and the media persuades the public to collude with the policies of the government. The hour has come to oppose all such excessive oppression of the individual. At this juncture, Armand Mattelarts incisive and tightly packed study The Globalization of Surveillance becomes relevant in revealing the strategies employed for spin-doctoring, image management and media manipulation geared to influence the public opinion for the so-called legitimacy of its state policies. The global capitalist surveillance economy is the target.

Across the world, from San Francisco to Shanghai, video surveillance, public records, interception of electronically transmitted information, cellphone tracking and use of hidden microphones have become endemic techniques that insidiously disregard the social right to privacy, a brutalisation of democracy and a regression of the values underpinning it. For instance, to get a broad view of what was happening during the recent Occupy Wall Street Movement, the demonstrations were videotaped, individuals photographed, websites monitored and the cellphone records of leaders spearheading the movement checked. This represented a new stage in the militarisation of government efforts to curtail mass democratic protest by identifying and tracking protesters. It is estimated that in 2011, over 1.3 million federal, state and local law enforcement data requests were made to cellphone companies for personal records. A fresh look at the relations between technology and society would show how details about citizens are constantly collected through identity numbers, camera images, or retinal scans without his/her knowledge. Such a pervasive technology-based scrutiny of citizens and consumers as they participate in contemporary societies brings us to the question of how Internet activism and international social movements are expanding globally with a parallel rise in the vigilance kept on citizens across the globe. Paradoxically, as the means of communication get facilitated with advance in technology, its emancipating virtues are constantly curtailed on the pretext of the reasons of the state or market requirements. The security society or the disciplinary society, argues Mattelart, together in their own way foment the production of a new knowledge of individuals as targets of an anatomy and economy of the forms of power.

An authoritarian state apparatus practice of nipping protest in the bud in China, North Koreas abuse of authority, and the surveillance obsession in the United States exacerbated by the war on terrorism are means of social control with the aim of influencing public opinion. One million cameras in Guangdong, and another half a million in Chongqing clearly indicate the fear of any signs of dissidence that China labours under. According to a recent survey, video surveillance constitutes over half the countrys huge security industry, and is expected to reach 500 billion yuan ($79 billion) in 2015. China will soon overtake Britain, with around three million cameras, as the capital of video surveillance.

You see hundreds of cameras used in prisons in Alabama and Mexico and also at the Heathrow airport in London to identify through high-speed surveillance computers and biometrics people leaving or entering the country. Technology has become so refined now that people stopping before an advertisement can be identified and the subject of the advertisement can be altered according to the gender or age of the viewer. Facebook can now recognise uploaded photos, and smartphones can identify their users. Public scrutiny has become the norm, converting the individual into a public figure. Increasingly, sophisticated surveillance techniques have slowly and imperceptibly eroded the strongly held human values of fundamental rights even in so-called democratic societies.

However, when an agency or a whistle-blower reveals the reality behind a governments actions, it is described as blatant infringement of international and diplomatic codes. Surveillance by a powerful nation goes unquestioned, while an expose of foreign policy secrets is pursued with all the power and international networking at ones disposal to bring the culprit to book. The recent leaking of classified memos by WikiLeaks is a case in point, a sousveillance (to watch from below) which stands unlawful in the eyes of authoritarian regimes. The internationalisation of practices and doctrines of so-called national security under the garb of protecting democracy becomes the primary concerns of surveillance and gains meaning in a highly insecure society.

Continuous dangers

Seeing how democratic societies have given up their rights and their freedom, Mattelart examines the genealogy of surveillance techniques from the 19th century to the Patriot Act, from finger-printing as a method of forgery-proof identification to the rise of worldwide identification and tracking systems that are slowly transforming citizens into socio-political suspects and victims of a predatory consumerist economy. The book becomes an eye-opener to societies and the individual to become alert to the continuous dangers posed by sophisticated systems of surveillance.

In a globalised world, the coming together of policing and marketing has the inherent agenda of controlling public opinion in the name of national security: In every instance, the logic of suspicion has reaped immediate dividends from fear and left a lasting punitive stamp on normal procedures. This almost blinds us to the gradual diminishing of our individual right to free speech. Security, surveillance and suspicion together build systems that gradually increase their power of control.

The globalising dynamics of such ubiquitous shadowing of our every move has resulted in escalating military and police repression. Mounting security concerns have been met with mounting technological response. It is a world ridden with tensions between security and freedom, secrecy and transparency, constraint and consent, and subjection and resistance. Democratic structures along with their foremost tenet of fundamental liberties stand eroded in the face of unbridled free market economics that exists only to control every facet of life, a system of the Panopticon visualised by Jeremy Benthem in the early 18th century as an architectural construction where the warden in a central tower can observe the prisoners in their cells without the prisoners seeing the warden.

In a similar vein, Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison spoke of the disciplinary society where the subject is caught in a situation of power which they themselves support. Foucault had borrowed the idea from Adam Smith about the art of governing, a new governmental rationality that took into account the masses, the human species, the multiplicity, the public. In other words, the population viewed from the standpoint of its opinions, its ways of doing things, its behaviour, its habits, its fears, its prejudices, its demands, whatever can be affected by education, campaigns or convictions.

According to Herbert Schiller (1976), The concept of cultural imperialism today best describes the sum of the processes by which a society is brought into the modern world system and how its dominating stratum is attracted, pressured, forced, and sometimes bribed into shaping social institutions to correspond to, or even promote, the value and structures of the dominating centre of the system. Stuart Hall, the famous cultural theorist, looks at the global cultural sphere as being dominated by the visual and graphic arts dominated by television and by film, and by the image, imagery, and styles of mass advertising. Corporate capitalism combined with the global narrative of surveillance thus works towards a cultural imperialism where the conspiracy of providing information is only a camouflage of the real intentions of complete domination and control. Global capitalism joins hands with cultural imperialism.

It was often felt in the 1970s that the exposure of the Watergate affair and the reportage on the wars in Indochina would finally exemplify the role of the media in telling the truth about global affairs. This feeling did not last long. We have seen the myth of the objectivity of media reportage and how the state and the corporate elite decide what the public must read and think. Any opposition to the views of the elite is labelled as subversion. Conformity with the ideology of the state-corporate nexus is expedient for ensuring power and prestige.

The truth-claims of all information are taken to be authoritative, credible and factual and used for the reproduction of oppressive relations of power across society, an everyday experience in relation to social divisions and hierarchies. Technology, therefore, is an instrument used for the naturalisation of power relations working in a way so as to bestow ideological validation on a range of social disparities and thus setting out to create a world of make-believe impartiality. It works to project the most even-handed and wise truths in order to replicate the essentials of hegemony. This unmistakably is the ultimate purpose of the globalisation of surveillance.

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