Commentary

Surveillance alters behavior – and ultimately your thinking

When it comes to surveillance, people have scarce intellectual resources at their disposal to argue against it. Many consider it exclusively as an issue with businesses – and doesn’t even dare to condemn state surveillance. Most get sidetracked by the “nothing to hide” fallacy.

But the truth is, being observed alters our thinking whether we misbehave or not. It also alters the observer’s mind. And not in a good way.

The asymmetry of power between observer and observed makes surveillance’s impact different from what we expect from it. By giving information to the power holder, and none to the observed masses, surveillance enforces compliance to the rulers’ will – rather than honesty or the elimination of harmful intentions.

Through the example of a domestic surveillance victim, we have seen that as a consequence of the surveillance, she underwent a few, perfectly logical changes. Most importantly, she never had the time or opportunity to question the abuser’s actions, didn’t even know what he knows. She was motivated by fear and trying to look non-suspicious. She reduced herself to one goal: just to avoid being punished. That is a survival-level goal, not worthy of life, but to the submitted mind it appears that she doesn’t lose much by losing herself.

But if she raised her eyes above survival-level goals, she would have seen that all the excuses of beating her were made up. An abuser knows that he needs no excuse to beat and rape his wife – but giving her an excuse makes her blame herself, turns her attention to her own behavior, what she could have done differently to avoid the beating – when in fact there was no such thing. Surveillance made it possible to accuse her with an air of knowledge and distract her from asking “who do you think you are?”

Throughout the duration of the abuse the victim had nothing to hide – as is often the case. But that didn’t stop the abuse. Her social standing diminished and she became completely exposed to her abuser’s whim.

And it wasn’t even a poor, dumb couple, habitually blamed for all the ills that befall them. They had everything a highly educated, well-off couple can be expected to have. Big house, swimming pool, two cars, the holidays and the Instagrams. 99% of the time Antónia didn’t feel the leash – but that was just because she cut ties with everyone while she was married. And every time she amputated yet another social tie, she was rewarded with a period of calm, with the absence of abuse, maybe even flowers and nice words. The occasional good-cop behavior evaporates the last remnants of a victim’s resistance and makes her question herself. It reinforced her false belief that there is something she can do to avoid future beatings.

The occasional good thing, even theoretical good thing makes us helpless against surveillance. (But he was protective, he would have protected me.) The cost of being treated like terrorists or walking viruses don’t register to us as harshly as the punishment for resistance would. The threat (posed by the entity conducting surveillance) always appears bigger than the opportunity costs of not being left alone. Not thinking about our own goals and how to achieve them. Not having any bandwidth left for our own lives. Those things feel ephemeral compared to the ramped-up fear from whatever we are accused of. And of course the fear from the surveillor.

We have no idea what we are missing while preemptively complying with the (perceived) will of the ones conducting surveillance. We simply don’t calculate the difference between the two options because we don’t see there is another option. What good is keeping a count how much taller we would be without gravity – when there is no option to live without it?

But unlike gravity, surveillance (and accepting it) is a choice, even i it doesn’t seem to be optional right now. It feels like an inevitable force that is closing in on us, so we are incentivized to see the good things in it. Or find them when they are not apparent.

Domestic abuse dynamics are not at all different from state-level ones.

The promise of protection makes people go awwww and support the empowerment of the state – even at the cost of their own liberties. People are made to focus on pedophile terrorist viruses when discussing surveillance (or the loss of their liberties) – and they have no intellectual ammunition to argue against it. Because they don’t think through what exactly is enforced by surveillance. Most pervasively, they allow one-sided surveillance to happen, when the citizens are under a microscope, but the power-holders get themselves all sorts of privacy protections for whatever reason. And the asymmetry of information power ensues.

Surveillance also excels at finding out victimless crimes as well as real ones. Given our sense of morality being confused by what is legal and what is not, this means an absolute reign of the legal – which then has to cope with no oversight apart from itself. Is state enforced morality (law enforcement and surveillance) crowding out the real thing?

Replacing right and wrong with whatever the power wants is also a routine result of surveillance.

Featured image: Jm Navarro

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