|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Saturday, May 09, 2009
Last week I was on Jura, the Scottish island where Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, at a workshop on surveillance organised by the Institute for Advanced Studies. Most of the dozen or so present were associated with the journal Surveillance and Society. From a variety of backgrounds - in sociology, criminology, organization theory, law - they've all contributed to the small but fast-growing field of surveillance studies, which Kirstie Ball in the opening session rather wittily described as a 'trans-disciplinary sub-discipline'. She went on to show that the standard sociological definition of surveillance coincides with the standard organization theory definition of management. So - does that make management sinister, or surveillance banal? Or does it point to some lack of precision in the definitions?
Just what constitutes surveillance, and whether defining a situation as one of surveillance is necessarily to take a critical or oppositional view of it - and, indeed, whether the activity of surveillance studies might itself sometimes have harmful consequences - was discussed quite thoroughly at several sessions and workshops. This was more interesting and more productive than it sounds.
I was there to give a presentation on surveillance in science fiction. The convener of the workshop, Mike Nellis, preceded me with a talk based on his chapter on surveillance in fiction in the just-published New Directions in Surveillance and Privacy. In the written version he covers SF and other popular genres with respect and expertise, but in his presentation he left SF to me.
What I said was something like this.
There are a couple of paradoxes in the relationship of science fiction with our understanding of surveillance. One is that science fiction has provided the language and framework for discussion of surveillance - Nineteen Eighty-Four, of course, being top of the list. What's paradoxical about that is that no society has had, or even attempted, the sort of universal technological surveillance we see in Orwell's book - even the most repressive socialist states relied (and those in existence still rely) on secret police and informers far more than on bugging. And if we read Nineteen Eighty-Four as SF we can see certain problems with its world-building. For instance, just as pervasive surveillance breaks down trust, maybe pervasive propaganda breeds skepticism. Even in the book, we see Julia convinced (rather like a 9/11 Truther) that 'the rocket bombs which fell daily on London were probably fired by the Government of Oceania itself, "just to keep people frightened".' For these and other reasons I once wrote a short story whose best bit was the title: 'Nineteen Eighty-Nine'.
The second paradox is that there isn't much SF specifically focused on the issue. Rather, SF and related genres shape our concerns about surveillance by imagining scenarios of coups and conspiracies and so on which have so far at least been a lot rarer in real life in the advanced countries, and which often don't relate very well to how government agencies, multinational corporations and other such usual suspects actually work, even when they do terrible things in secret.
To summarise what I then went on to say about surveillance in SF: we can identify three phases: pressing down, spreading out, and hacking back. In the first phase, pervasive surveillance is a feature of dystopia. In the second, it becomes a default feature of most imagined future industrial societies. In the third, the emphasis is on ways in which citizens can subvert rather than evade surveillance (the perfect example being Cory Doctorow's Little Brother - I can't remember whether I put Paul McAuley's Whole Wide World, perhaps the most thorough recent SF exploration of surveillance, in the second or the third group).
In the course of the talk I mentioned some relevant bits of my own work, for instance the significance of small cheap video cameras, referred to in The Star Fraction as making torture difficult to keep secret. I hadn't, however, predicted that the torturers would use the cameras to make their own home movies.
It was only after I'd finished the presentation that I realised that the three phases could be neatly mapped to the increasing cheapness and availability of the technology of surveillance and data processing: from being only available to states, to being available to large companies, to being mass consumer items. As Teresa Neilsen Hayden once said of Photoshop: 'The tools of dictators! In the hands of the people!'
The discussion was followed by David Murakami Wood (who blogs here) giving a presentation on surveillance in the work of Philip K. Dick, and Michael Nagenborg talking about surveillance in video games. Both talks were interesting and well-informed.
The symposium got down to brass tacks about databases and DNA and electronic tagging and so on in the subsequent two days, which I wasn't able to attend. It'll all be in a book some day.
Meanwhile, there's some excellent discussion on Nineteen Eighty Four in the latest issue (PDF), guest edited by Pete Young, of James Bacon et al's fanzine Journey Planet. I was particularly taken by Tony Keen's '"If there is hope ...": An optimistic reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four', which makes a case that the Appendix on 'The Principles of Newspeak' is the book's real, and happy, ending - and, even more intriguingly, that Oceania's end is foreshadowed in the very chapter where we see Winston Smith finally broken and learning to love Big Brother. I like to think that some day - perhaps sooner than we might expect, maybe even by 1989 - in the Chestnut Tree, a bottle of Jura replaced the Victory Gin.