On Saturday January 6th of what is still next year – Happy New Year when it comes everyone! – I will be giving the first of Christian Michel’s talks in his 6/20 Series of the year 2007. My talk will be entitled “Getting to grips with the Total Surveillance State and the Total Surveillance Society”. And for reasons which will become all too clear if you read the rest of this posting, I would appreciate some help. Last week I sent Christian the rather long and discursive ramble below concerning my thinking on this subject, which he had to shorten to turn it into a useful email announcement. What follows is a very slightly amended and extended version of that original ramble. As I say, all pertinent answers to and comments on the many questions I am now asking myself would be greatly appreciated… by the way, I already know that I need to be paying a lot of attention to this guy.
Some talks are given because the speaker has something important to say, and is very confident about what that something is, and that it is important. The first talk I gave to the 6/20 Club (on January 6th 2006) was of this sort. Oh, it had blurry edges, as all talks will, but the central thesis was something I was really pretty sure about and still am, namely that A-bombs and H-bombs had turned major war from something that Great Powers had to prepare for at all cost, into something they had to avoid at all cost. Hence globalisation. A nice and clear, nice and understandable thesis. Not necessarily right, but if wrong, then wrong in a nice clear way.
But then there are the talks such as the one I will be giving on January 6th 2007, which I am giving not because I know what to say about the Total Surveillance State and the Total Surveillance Society, but because I do not, but want to find out. About the only thing I am sure of concerning this topic is that it is an important topic, and worthy of all our best efforts to make sense of it. And if I agree to talk about this topic, I will have to think about it, no matter how much of an effort that may be.
Here are some of the questions, points, thoughts now rattling through my head on this topic:
- Total Surveillance is definitely on its way. Saying that the technology won’t work is delusional. Sure, governments waste millions on technology, but it eventually works, if only because eventually you can buy the necessary kit in the High Street. On the other hand, so long as progress persists, new kit will means new blunders, neand w surprises (often nasty) about what it can be used for.
- The USSR tried totally to control economic outcomes. Can its abject failure illuminate what I now sense will be a similar failure to control safety outcomes and crime outcomes? Crime statistics certainly have a USSR steel production feel to them.
- Is total surveillance such a bad thing? Maybe not, if the only laws and behaviour enforcements are modest in scope, and very reasonable. But total surveillance enforcing crazily voluminous and tyrannically intrusive laws is very bad news.
- In general, what happens to the world when everyone else can easily learn anything in particular about us that they want to learn? What social institutions falter? (Marriage? Insurance?) Is privacy a human right or a mere historical phase? A phase which now may be passing?
- Is celebrity obsession a pre-echo of a world in which all are potential celebrities, due to the ubiquity of completely invisible and unblockable cameras and microphones?
My main conclusion so far is that Total Surveillance will mean very different things depending on what else happens along with it. You cannot analyse the phenomenon in isolation.
For instance, just who will be allowed to browse through all those sound and vision files. Will it be everyone? Or only a self-appointed elite? Both arrangements have major hazards attached to them.
Since writing the above stuff to Christian, I have begun to fixate on another question, which is this: What does an individual have to gain by being totally surveilled? Fewer aggressive attacks against him is an obvious answer. Insurance premiums might be another. (If you live a totally safe and careful life, you might gain greatly if your insurance company can see this for themselves.) But I suspect that there are many other answers. (Simple showing off springs to mind.) Which is why I think that a great deal of, if perhaps not total, surveillance is probably here to stay.
As already stated above, I wish all of Samizdata’s readers a Happy New Year, but fear that for many of them, the above thoughts will have done little to contribute to such happiness.