Commentary

The asymmetry of power between surveillant and surveilled

Surveillance alters our thinking. Living our lives exhibiting a pointedly innocent behavior means spending our mental resources on second guessing what is wanted of us – rather than on our actual lives. That delights certain people, since social pressure has been working on this very same basis since forever. They regard surveillance as some kind of technologically enhanced social conformism that only does good … as long as good things are enforced by it.

  • But there is a world of difference between social pressure and state enforcement with legal monopoly on the use of force.
  • There is a huge difference between partial monitoring and total surveillance.
  • There is a huge difference between mutually transparent monitoring vs unilateral surveillance with the absence of accountability for the power holder.
  • And finally, just as social conformism is not a neutral tool, nor is surveillance.

If you depend so much on who is conducting the surveillance, good or evil, it probably shouldn’t be in place.

Appeasing surveillance means perennially demonstrating the support of the powerful’s interest, acting according to his will. We will try to second guess what is expected of us, what behavior looks suspicious even if it’s honest, how everything looks for the observer – before we even consider anything else. That doesn’t leave much bandwidth to think about our own interest, desires, mood, or our own will. What is the point, when so much effort must be extended to demonstrate allegiance?

Again, this is what people have been doing to each other since the beginning of time on the form of social observance and peer pressure to conform. But at no time was the surveillance absolute and purely unilateral. Even the lowliest member of a social group could look back at his observer, the pressured niece at the pressuring grandma, and that put a damper on what the grandma could allow herself.

Surveillance destroys individual perspectives and replaces it with second guessing the surveillant’s interests and intentions. 

And losing sight of our own, individual perspective is a hallmark of authoritarian submission.

Crowding out the individual’s thinking about his own interest is a time-tested way to make him do what we want from him. Families have been doing that to their young forever, making them wonder how many kids to have and which dress they should marry in – rather than letting them ask the question: what do I want? But the young could fight back. They could also hold their elders to certain standards. And most importantly, the control of their elders was rarely complete. Even the most evil social group could not oversee everything a youngster did, some eventually escaped. The cracks of surveillance are not just the opportunity for terrorists – they are also where resistance can gain a foothold. Rooting for those cracks to close is dangerous.

Furthermore, under state surveillance it is not right behavior that gets enforced, but legal behavior. And just like grandma’s will on whom you should marry is not about right or wrong but about the family’s will, state enforcement of laws will also only enforce whatever flawed idea a state has about right and wrong at any given time. The old cliché about the Holocaust being perfectly legal is more relevant than ever, now that the same thing is unfolding in the world, aided by total state surveillance and the cracks of resistance and escape are closed by technology.

Under state surveillance we come to demonstrate with our every action is not that we don’t intend to hurt others – but that we don’t intend to go against the (perceived) will and interest of the power holder. That is a very poor proxy to innocence. It is not the same thing at all. But ultimately it crowds out the real moral behavior and our thinking about our own interest.

What surveillance enforces is the power of the current power holder. His will. His interest. Ultimately, even thinking about unseating him becomes rare – because what is the point of thinking it when one can’t act upon it. And the inevitable needs to be coped with – not fought.

And since we live in society, the impact is compounded by assuming the worst about others. I may be against surveillance and the rule of this party, but others are surely cowed by surveillance. Assuming that the others are also such allegiance-demonstrating zombies as we are makes the circle complete.

Asymmetrical transparency

By the ever expanding realm of surveillance, secrets become a rarity – and suspicious. At some point citizens start to enforce transparency on each other – but not on their elected leaders and public servants.

Observe the conflicting imperatives of a country in isolation vs a country that is part of an international environment. A group with or without outsiders.

When devising the ideal constitutional setup, the American Founding Fathers have acknowledged the importance of public service to be transparent – in order to avoid the abuse of power. Those who hold more power then the rest of us should be scrutinized more. Their actions, their reasoning, their motives must be transparent so that the citizens can evaluate them. Their finances must by scrutinized to discourage stealing from the money that was taxed away from the people.

There is, however, a conflicting argument: in the presence of the outside world, they can demand the end of transparency blaming foreigners, spies, etc. According to this argument foreigners makes it necessary to keep secrets even from the population. In a world where there are other groups, leaders can successfully argue that their own dealings remain secret while the population must be even more transparent, they must come under total surveillance.

Suddenly, in the real world, the power holder has more right to privacy than the power-less, upending every reasoning that was designed to keep power in check. Transparency of the leaders is a novel idea in history, and barely even happened before it was reversed by surveillance and the touchiness of politicians to be exposed to scrutiny.

Surveillance severs social ties and erodes social capital 

But surveillance has an even nastier impact: severing the ties of social trust. Consider the reporting systems of dictatorships. People are expected to report on one another – in which the content of the report doesn’t even matter most of the time. It if the fact of reporting (and being reported on by people who are closest) that is demoralising.

Understanding the role of a private sphere, or “secrets” (or the lack thereof) on behavior and morals provides an insight into the mechanism of political control and dissent.

It can easily be demonstrated by domestic abuse. After she finally broke free, the most startling thing our domestic surveillance victim realized was how few people she had and how few people she could call. And even those friends thought she was gone forever. Severing the ties of surveillance victims is the intended effect of surveillance. The less they can trust each other (because of the surveillant), the less likely they are to rise up.

Just ask the Stasi, who went on happily imploding families by making them report on each other. It didn’t have to be a consequential thing they reported, the fact that they were reporting was enough. The suspicion that someone we know might be reporting about us was enough to stop doing what we were doing and shut up instead. To retreat into our own shells and not to cooperate. To not trust anyone.

The motto of the East German Stasi was “To know everything”. For their victims, the result was not to trust anyone. That alone can keep a hated dictatorship in power, people not daring to talk to each other and organize. That is the power of mere surveillance, to know that they know. Of not knowing what they know but assuming the worst. Of adjusting our lives to appear non-suspicious, even when we really don’t have anything to hide. Assuming that our neighbor who is taken away must have been a terrorist – or carried the virus. We know that the state knows, but we don’t know anything ourselves.

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