we need new surveillance metaphors

The idea of enlightenment was that if we teach enough people to use their brain and to engage in critical thinking, our problems with bad governments will go away. The premise of enlightenment was “knowledge is power” and combined with democratic elements a tool to hold power in check. Therefore public schools where created to educate the demos. One of the new invention was the curriculum, a collection of material that every enlightened person should at least have heard off. Literature and history classes were created to teach the present of mistakes made in the past. That is still the reason why we study  cruel dictatorships or read fiction about dystopian futures. The idea is to educate a democratic citizen by learning about the opposite or “if democracy fails”. However, with budget cuts in public education almost in all Western countries (austerity and neo-liberal thought, yay), things got bad. School kids barely read. They don’t get the whole picture anymore. There is a hell of a lot wrong with the education system which I cannot address here, but I can give a small piece of advice that can be implemented by our teachers out there.

We rely on the 1984-metaphor because we don’t know the alternatives. That is part of the reason, why we are not able to grasp the surveillance machinery uncovered by Snowden last year. It is because we use the wrong terminology and metaphors, which pre-structures how we think and grasp reality. George Lakeoff explains this very nicely in this short clip.

The problem is nicely illustrated by Sascha Lobo in his talk @republica 2014 (starting min. 50.00). I agree with this diagnosis. The metaphor of a fascist all-seeing dictatorship does not match the current situation. The Orwellian state is one of terror, violence, poverty and political repression. He was describing a Stalinist totalitarian regime. Although some might argue  (I read the term economic dictatorship or anti-democratic oligarchies recently) that our western countries fulfill some of the aforementioned criteria, we still have more or less functioning democracies and can still influence the course of development. But we can’t do so if we rely on the false diagnosis. Therefore we need new analytical tools to describe our present situation. Luckily, brilliant writers have spent thoughts about that and alternative explanations are not far away:

A) “Legal and policy solutions focus too much on the problems under the Orwellian metaphor—those of surveillance—and aren’t adequately addressing the Kafkaesque problems—those of information processing.”Daniel J. Solove develops this great reformulation and argues that Franz Kafka’s Novell the trial more adequately describes surveillance.

To return to my discussion of literary metaphors, the problems are not just Orwellian but Kafkaesque. Government information-gathering programs are problematic even if no information that people want to hide is uncovered. In The Trial, the problem is not inhibited behavior but rather a suffocating powerlessness and vulnerability created by the court system’s use of personal data and its denial to the protagonist of any knowledge of or participation in the process. The harms are bureaucratic ones—indifference, error, abuse, frustration, and lack of transparency and accountability.

His analysis is very insightful. He argues that we should expand our notion of privacy and recognize, that privacy can mean many things, depending on the social context. Its content is not fixed! With that he brilliantly debunks the “I have nothing to hide” argument with handy counter questions such as: do you have curtains? He also shows that privacy is reframed by security advocates as something negative, something that conceals evil secrets (which is exactly what most of the intelligence agencies do). Therefore it is necessary to deconstruct this attached meaning.

B) Aldous Huxley’s book “Brave New World” describes the tyranny of entertainment and it’s attention-shifting potential. I think his diagnosis is closer to our reality. We are flooded with information, drowned in work and desire relieve and simple-minded entertainment at the end of the day. Critical thinking is not forbidden, but inconvenient because the joys of the entertainment industry are manifold and shiny. The terror is hidden behind shiny toys, which pretty much describes the problem of smartphones and their surveillance potential. The truth might be out there on the internet but is hidden behind lol-catz. A short summary can be found at this brilliant comic strip:Foto 14.05.14 22 13 35


C) “We” by Evgeny Zamyatin, which I haven’t read yet but it is on my list.

The long term solution is simple. We should read more Kafka, Huxley or Zamyatin or maybe even Glenn Greenwald’s new book on the Snowden story and we should start with our school curricula. You might argue, that this will take to long to have an effect which is true, but we just started to grasp the reality of surveillance. It is here to stay in the 21st century.

This entry was posted in language, politics, social science, technology and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s