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I am surveilled, therefore I exist!

Living in a society of mass surveillance

Enrique Quintero

Synchronized vigilante-voyeurism

Strange as it may sound, for all practical purposes it could be argued that in contemporary capitalism we exist only as data. It seems all of us have been trans-mutated, turned into commodified digital beings. Yes, our corporeality maintains its flesh-based materiality and we continue shopping, working, loving our loved ones and feeling contempt for our enemies. As we age, we learn to keep track of our aches and pains with limited or non-existant health coverage.

Yes, ontologically we can claim we exist, and claim that we are a real species-being.  Nonetheless, the grand majority of our daily life experiences, both at work and at home, are being monitored, tabulated, organized, quantified, processed, and acted upon by either the government or private organizations. Together these branches execute synchronized vigilante-voyeurism, monitoring  our behavior and shaping our political, economic, and ideological experiences in the world. That’s how we exist for the system.

There is no escaping from surveillance, public and private

Given the nature of this Surveillance Society, there is no single inner sanctuary in the tabernacle from where public surveillance operates. This point is illustrated by the fact that in terms just of the national intelligence community, we have seventeen different agencies.  These are all enumerated in the Sidebar, as chances are some Americans may only be familiar with the big three: CIA,  FBI and  NSA.  According to the Los Angeles Times (Jan. 17, 2017) the combined total budget for the 17 agencies was $66.8 billion dollars in 2015. To this long list we must add more than 200 police departments’ intelligence units grouped under the Law Enforcement Intelligence Units (LEIU).

But surveillance committed by public agencies is not the only form of surveillance. We must also include surveillance via the multiple commercial organizations dealing with information technologies able to archive records of our everyday lives, such as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, etc. The latest congressional investigation involving Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data corroborates this argument.

An extensive article by James Vlahos in Popular Mechanics exploring the current technical capability of the surveillance industry, concludes  that:

“ We have arrived at a unique moment in the history of  surveillance [ …] Advances in processing power and software are beginning to allow computers to surmount the greatest limitation of traditional surveillance — the ability of eyeballs to effectively observe the activity on dozens of video screens simultaneously.”

This is an impressive task, particularly  if we consider Vlahos’ statement in the same article, that there is an “estimate of 30 million surveillance cameras deployed in the United States shooting four billion hours of footage a week.”  (Popular Mechanics has a circulation of 1,291,094 readers per month!)

Nonetheless, if we sync this ‘Panoptic Social-eye’ with other electronic surveillance equipment in the hands of private or public organizations and top it with the records kept systematically by multimedia corporations, it is not difficult to conclude that all of us are being watched and monitored 24/7 without interruption. Surveillance happens practically everywhere, nearly all the time. If you look around, chances are that when you picked up this innocuous newspaper, or while you are reading these lines, you are under the gaze of some contemporary aberration of ‘candid’ camera.

Adieu Michel Foucault!
(to some extent)

It was  the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926—1984) who pointed out that contemporary societies need docile individuals— or ‘docile bodies’ as Foucault called them—in order to maintain the functioning of the political, economic, ideological, and military institutions that reproduce the system. Foucault thought that what makes possible the construction of submissive individuals was a series of disciplinary institutions in society (work sites, educational institutions, military institutions, religious institutions, etc.) able to constantly  observe their members and keep close records.

Through the use of these disciplinary techniques, people would internalize the desired obedient behavior and regulate themselves without much need for the use of force. The disciplinary  model for this kind of society was based on Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon, an architectural structure designed to make observation a continued practice without making it evident that the subject was being observed.

New types of relationships

Foucault wrote his pioneer considerations in a book titled Crime and Punishment: The Birth of  the Prison, first published in 1975. Although the general tenets of Foucault’s book remain compelling, the current advances in computer and communication technology  (eg., the Internet and mobile phones) have prompted an update to what is now called surveillance theory. The new considerations have to do with the modes and types of relationships established between the institutions conducting the record-keeping and observations, such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc., and at the other end, the people being observed, who ironically, volunteer information about themselves.

British psychologists Darren Ellis, Dave Harper and Ian Tucker have researched the social-psychological implications of surveillance (The Psychologist, vol. 29 no. 9. September 2016). They define current surveillance as “a complex web of heterogeneous but interconnected elements, including people, technology, institutions […] surveillance is not seen as a stable entity but rather as multiple, relational and shifting over time.”  These authors notice how

“on social networking sites such as Facebook, people disclose all kinds of personal data — photos of themselves and family, updates on their location, information about their behavior and activity. All this data is potentially visible to others. Whilst people may be aware of privacy issues in terms of what other Facebook users can see of their data, they are often not so aware of how Facebook itself collects and stores information about its users.”

The Cambridge Analytica connection with Facebook comes to mind, again.

We the docile, we the surveillers

The high levels of acceptance among Americans regarding surveillance (See David Price’s “A Social History of Wiretaps” in this issue) requires an explanation that explores the new  technology and its social implications not as exclusively  governed by the disciplinary role of the state and its institutions, but as a condition that has its own logic or program of conduct. As suggested in the previous paragraphs, surveillance is a two-way street. It is not only the state and big commercial corporations who harvest data and process information. Given the embedded surveillance capabilities of the newly available technology,  we also have become observers of others. We are now  at the same time subjects and objects of surveillance.

With this in mind, we can examine  how in the  current cultural context the construction of the self is done mostly digitally. That is to say, we construct a self that is on display to others.  Facebook and the platforms of multiple professional or semi-professional organizations parade our bibliographical notes and career attributes regardless of whether these are real, imaginary or enhanced.

Surveillance technology in individual hands

Another factor to consider is the historically unprecedented possibility of acquiring surveillance equipment for our own use in order to monitor people and property. In other words, surveillance has become at many levels another commodity in the market. These two factors—the construction of digital selves and the commodification of surveillance equipment–in my opinion mediate the friction and contradictions between the subject and the surveillance state; between our desire for civil liberties and our desire for security. At least partially, we are complicit with the narrative of surveillance.

We have gone from Foucault’s docile bodies who accept the disciplinary script written by the state and its institutions, to docile observers who bow to the same core script. The only difference is that now we are allowed to add a few irrelevant storylines to the surveillance narrative. Granted, we must not lose track of the magnitude of the surveillance undertaken by the state and commercial organizations which is unrivalled by our minuscule panoptic capabilities. Nonetheless, it appears that now we are much more disposed to tolerate the panoptic surveillance upon us, because at the same time, we can practice it in small doses.

Neither the abacus nor the messenger pigeon

The relationship between the uses of surveillance by the state and corporate institutions versus our rights to privacy, freedom and security is not an easy problem to solve. It has to do with the logic that animates the integration of science and technology in capitalist societies. This logic can be summarized in ways loosely based on Marx’s theory about the integration of science and technology in society: 1)  technological advancements are closely related to the needs of capitalist expansion; 2) the alienation of the general worker or citizen increases with the complexity of the technology in question; 3) the new technological advancement could be used to improve social conditions, or to benefit those who control their use; 4) those who currently control the use of technology generally oppose the possibility of a different social arrangement;  5) there is the possibility that among the people, the levels of “sleep walking through the surveillance society” are high enough to make it impossible for them to conceive, or imagine political opposition, or a different social reality; 6) yet only if this deficit of political imagination is broken, can technology be subordinated to human liberation.

There is no going back to an idealized past. Technological advances do not listen to the lamentations of the Luddite, and neither the abacus, nor the messenger pigeon is expecting a historical recurrence. (Although plagued with grammatical mistakes, even our not too enlightened president uses Twitter. ) The final irony of the surveillance society is that in spite of the power of its panopticon capabilities, it seems blind when it comes to noticing poverty, inequality, and other forms of human suffering.

Enrique Quintero is a member of the Publishing Committee of Works in Progress

Less known US Intelligence agencies 

Office of the Director of National Intelligence,  the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Department of State Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the Department of Homeland Security, the Drug Enforcement Administration Office of National Security Intelligence, the Department of the Treasury Office of Intelligence and Analysis, the Department of Energy Office of intelligence and Counterintelligence, the National Geospacial-Intelligence Agency (GEOINT), the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO),  the Joint Functional Component Command for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, the Army Military Intelligence Corps, the Office of Naval Intelligence,  Marine Corps Intelligence, and Coast Guard Intelligence.


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