The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, May 09, 2009

A Jura for Julia

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.

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On the connection between management and surveillance, Foucault's Discipline and Punish (a misleading translation of the title, which in the original French reads Surveiller et Punir) makes the point that the focus on surveillance, micromanagement, and detailed observation of people's movements emerges historically around the same era in a variety of different fields, from prisons to schools to hospitals to the military to the workplace.

Yes, 'Foulcauldian' was a word that came up quite a lot in the discussion that followed. Any thoughts on Foucault (whom I haven't read, I hasten to add) as a thinker who might provide a common point of reference for left-libertarians and leftish civil liberties people?

I've been wondering about recent 'user-generated content' business models, such as Facebook, with its constant updating of what everyone one else is doing, and photos of all their significant (and not so) goings-on...

Not to mentiont that one of the three or so heads of FB works for the venture capital arm of the CIA. I don't mean to imply anything conspiratorial by saying that, precisely the opposite: somewhere along the way there was the creation of a (western) cultural climate where there is as much voluntary, "fun" reciprocal surveillance to worry about as any external, repressive state surveillance.

Here's something I wrote on Foucault a couple of years ago.

He's not going to fit comfortably into the political agenda of either left-libertarians or leftish civil liberties people (or into anyone else's, for that matter), but I do think both groups would profit by reading him. We can take heart from the fact that he frequently said he didn't want followers, and advised his readers to take from his work whatever tools they found useful and dump the rest. I mean, we would anyway, but it's nice to have permission.

Discipline and Punish is probably the best place for newcomers to start. His writing style before that is much more opaque; his writing style after that is much clearer, but tends to presuppose D&P.

On an admittedly tangential note, I highly recommend reading this marvelous 1865 letter from a slave to his former master.

A lot of intelligence gathering works by using negative information, e.g. to identify weeds, simply make sure they aren't the crop. For that reason, counter-intelligence realised early on that there are some problems with straight censorship; if one town in a war had war industries, it would have got highlighted for bombing by the very fact that more letters from there got censored. This led to a need to censor "harmless" stuff from other places too, to obscure the pattern, which led to much grousing about the stupidity of the censors among the general public who did not understand the issues.

That's background. I have recently wondered how it interacts with something else, now modern techniques are available. That something is, people in the intelligence area (as some of my late relatives may well have been) were trained to develop a sensible habit for telephone conversations, of never mentioning anyone's name - a habit I picked up, which I only realised when a girlfriend drew it to my attention. As it was a habit, they wouldn't use names on sensitive occasions. So I wondered if modern screening can now pick up people who don't use names on the telephone...

I tend to read 1984 as, among other things, a brutal satire on Christianity and in particular on Calvinism. The breaking of Winston Smith's will by the threat of unbearable torture, and his final coming to love Big Brother, seems a good fit to the idea of being saved by total surrender to the will of an omnipotent god, after he passes through a kind of "dark night of the soul" externalized as physical imprisonment, interrogation, and brainwashing.

Of course, I think it could be argued that the totalitarian state represents human political regimes acquiring powers that are at least imaginable as first approximations to the absolute rule that people in earlier millennia could only attribute to a god. What is the pantopticon singularity if not divine omniscience in material form?

Ah, you lucky git, spending the day with Kirstie, David, et al. I tend to catch up with them every so often in Sheffield, and it is fun. My role WRT to S&S is to act as the tame historian, pointing out 'Of course, not all of this is new' every so often. Although some of it is.

My SF touch-stone for the current level of surveillance has to be Bob Shaw's final Slow Glass story, with the killer punchline 'never be alone again' - partly because this is obviously a world where slow glass is ubiquitous, but you need tech and organistion to read it, so although retail surveillance is possible by non-state actors, to do wholesale you need a state.

As for Foucault, it's tricky. Luckily as a historian I'm under no obligation to engage with all his work, only the bits that are useful, and one big conclusion that I'v drawn is that although the C19th disciplinary society can't be enforced in prisons, let alone outside them, there are huge and significant elements of it in the way that organisations such as C19th police forces have worked.

See also:

One could write a book about it. In fact, I am writing a book about it and need to finish it.

Chris Williams

I think it's Pete Young who's the guest editor, not regular editor. I was privileged to be sent a copy, and the Nineteen Eighty Four issue benefits hugely from Pete's publication design skills.

They do really nice whisky there, hope you grabbed a bottle.

Yeah? All single malt is _good_, don't get me wrong, but I'm halfway down a bottle of Jura right now, and I can list an awful lot that's better and none that's worse. As ever in matters of taste, YMMV, and perhaps it was a duff year - but I note that when Banks and his Lucky Mates did their quest for the perfect dram, he too marked Jura down a bit.

Chris Williams

Closer to home, it might be worth looking at the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, inventor of the Panopticon, which he believed would give a means of 'obtaining power of mind over mind'. My understanding is the invention came out of a desire to improve the management of prisons to prevent prisoner deaths: in theory, it lessened the need for top-heavy (and heavy-handed) management. I think Bentham was later referenced by Foucault.

PS Link to Bentham's original:

Editing of Journey Planet corrected - thanks, Del!

Yes, Chris, Jura got quite a running down from the afficionados on the workshop, and they lobbied for a visit to Caol Isla distillery on the way back.

Mind you, Jura's still better than Victory Gin. I may have tasted something like the original in Turkey once: it's the Turkish state monopoly gin, and as I'm quoted as saying in Iain's book, the taste haunts your sinuses like a ghost in a damp castle.

Dalziel --

Yes, Foucault uses Bentham's Panopticon as the central leitmotiv of Discipline and Punish.

Ken - the problem for left-Libertarians wanting to utilise Foucault is that he was pretty dismissive of the kind of assumptions that most of them would make about human agency - i.e. that individuals are or can become free autonomous agents. As far as I understand him, Foucault isn't contrasting the disciplinary regime of the prison (or of modern society in general) with the idea of a truly free society, much less a mythical state of nature, but simply identifying it as one more disciplinary regime. For Foucault (at least how he is normally construed) there is no outside or beyond power. Contemporary Foucault fans therefore would see most libertarians as dependent on an 18th century view of human rationality and agency.


Well, see the post I linked to above on that subject.

Isn't the adoption of widespread surveillance tech also one of David Brin's preoccupations? I recall that in his novel "Earth", wearable cameras were the enabling factor of a widespread citizen response to crime. I (possibly incorrectly) recall at least one ironic twist scene in which senior citizens wearing camera glasses followed around younger people, convinced that they were hooligans and needed to be caught on film misbehaving. Regardless of accuracy of my recollection, I think one of the subthemes of "Earth" what the idea that pervasive surveillance would be a source of grassroots law and order.

In A. E. van Vogt's 1977 novel The Anarchistic Colossus (about which see here), all-pervasive computerised surveillance systems monitor everyone for physiological signs of aggression, and immediately stun-zap anyone who shows signs of behaving aggressively. This is supposed to be an anarchy because the machines obviate the need for laws and police (though it's not clear to me why the technicians who program and maintain the monitoring devices aren't the government).

Of course, something goes wrong ....

Going even farther back, there's Asimov's 1956 story "The Dead Past" (about which see here), in which a device intended for viewing the distant past turns out to work only for viewing the very recent past -- but it can view anything that was happening in the past few days, anywhere in the world, and privacy is ended forever.

Anon and Roderick: I did mention Earth and 'The Dead Past' (and of course Shaw's slow glass stories) in my talk.

Honesty compels me to say that it's not really my notion about the Appendix, it's Thomas Pynchon's, to which I responded positively. But the idea that the fall of the system is prefigured in the final sequence is all me.

... but thank you for your kind words, of course!

Thanks for the plug for Journey Planet (I'm the American 1/3 of the Anglo-Irish-American Triumvirate) and Pete did an amazing job.

I'm shocked to see it referenced so widely as yours is the 4th or fifth blog I've seen note it's existence. This is rare for zines I'm involved with!

Tony's piece was certainly a highlight. I hope he keeps appearing in our pages!

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