Peepers and Flashers

Smile, the state is watching you

Text by Glen Newey

Illustrations by Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie

New technologies have altered the boundaries of privacy and publicity, giving a novel twist to our contradictory desires to be left alone and yet lavished with attention. Glen Newey, a political philosopher based at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and author of Hobbes and Leviathan (2008) and Freedom of Expression (2007), peers through the curtains at long-standing tensions between state snooping, commercial intrusion and individual identities.

Here’s looking at you, kid. No, here’s really looking at you. Edward Snowden’s revelations about the PRISM surveillance programme conducted by the US National Security Agency have shown that the Feds have their ears cocked, in principle, to any public electronic communications traffic in the world, and to most people this has come as a shock. Barack Obama, speaking in defence of PRISM in June, said that the measures had been given the thumbs-up by bipartisan majorities in Congress; adding that “you can’t have 100 per cent security and then also have 100 per cent privacy and zero inconvenience.” There’s no gainsaying that, but some people – for instance, the non-American 95 per cent of the world’s population, which is not represented by anyone in Congress – might have liked a say in whether or not US covert ops were going to pry into their personal communications. In defence of the programme, Obama said: “This does not apply to US citizens,” a further instance of what Edmund Burke called “geographical morality”. In any case, “100 per cent security” is a chimera, and security’s trade-offs against other goods, like privacy, yield diminishing returns at the margin.

Snowden’s bean-spill also brought to light the intriguingly named Boundless Informant, an analysis and visualisation system used to collate surveillance data and interpret telecoms metadata; apparently the NSA captured some three billion “data items” within the US during March 2013 alone. Senator Rand Paul is currently sponsoring legislation that aims to reaffirm citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights against indiscriminate government search powers and to get the laws facilitating Boundless Informant recognised as unconstitutional. Both PRISM and Boundless Informant attest to the rule that whenever a new information technology emerges – cursive writing, printing, wireless telegraphy, the phone – governments will seek to control and regulate (ideally to ration) it, as well as using it actively to further the reasons of state. Boundless Informant’s panopticism lies beyond Bentham’s wildest hopes and Foucault’s wildest fears. But pinning all the blame on the executive oversimplifies the push-and-pull between citizen and state, not just because voters are at least residually responsible for governments they elect, but because new technologies generally elicit self-disclosure.

Neither alarm about state snooping, nor its flipside – bland or polyannaish complacency about it – takes into account this novel dynamic. As defenders of data-creep often say, if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to worry about. Just because they’re out to get you doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid. What’s bugging you? And anyway, what’s the difference between being watched and just being seen? New media purport to make people’s visibility a matter of choice and degree. Surveillance – as visual or other eavesdropping on people whose guard is down – involves an exercise of power by unseen seers, but on social media, as on reality TV, participants attempt to reverse that imbalance, seizing control of the information flows. They try to reclaim for themselves the power alienated by covert surveillance. In a deft flip, the spied-on become spectacle, public gaze welcomed with all the demure retenue of a Madonna or Dame Edna – and, as with the material girl and the Melbourne housewife, the showbiz persona remains the property, and mask, of its inventor.

In the 20th century’s new media, such as film, radio and, later, TV, “stars” commodified themselves and gossip pros poked around for the dirt beneath manicured nails, the all-too-human husk beneath the peroxide. Now the rules of the game have changed: for one thing, sofa-spud normals who want to play A-list can mock up the look of having half the Twittersphere following them, simply by buying off-the-peg job lots of “genuine” followers from one of many online firms (going rate: a steal at just $31 for 2,500). This is the modern social-status version of George Berkeley’s esse est percipi – to be is to be perceived to have a lot of Twitter followers, even if it’s a got-up bunch of hirelings. The opportunity for prodigal unbosoming of not just the personal, but the picayune, to an audience that may with retweeting number anything from nil to the millions, is a real novelty. It’s also a rather nervy asset, precisely because the line between control and vulnerability seems cursor-thin – indeed, they often seem to be good and bad sides of the same coin. Facebookers fret that the privacy settings on their accounts are hackable, that their personal data may get hawked by hucksters to shysters. And of course the ads on Facebook and elsewhere bear sorry witness to ID-bots’ prowess in tracking one’s demographic, in my case with the usual gift-hamper of Viagra, life assurance, hair restorer and myriad complaisant Asian ladies supposedly eager to savour my occidental manhood. The image rears up of a better me, Valderrama-bouffant and helplessly priapic, fit to keep my geishas serviced before and after I lucratively croak. This, at least (though I’m sure the bots wish me nothing but well), doesn’t feel all that empowering. It feels like being on the business end of a boilerplate algorithm, which is trying to press a party bag into my grudging fist.

As irritations go, it’s minor. But new technology makes more insidious inroads into the sanctum of the self, such as identifying computer users via their mouse movements, which apparently leave a trace as individual as handwriting – you could be tracked down whatever machine you’re using, wherever, by your distinctive murine squiggles. And then the vendor’s grail beckons of pop-ups and sidebar ads tailored to the idiosyncrasies of your mouse history. The same goes, clearly, for the physical movements and surfing histories traced by satnavs and cellphones as they chaperone their owners round the clock and globe. All that electromagnetic scribble leaves a signature, a thumbprint, that both fixes you as you and gives hackers, state or freelance, an eye on your doings.

Marketers are, of course, not the only non-state stalkers. Nor, for obvious reasons, are they usually the most surreptitious ones. I, a person of no public account, have been stalked both on Facebook and on Skype – and those are the ones I know about. The internet is naturally a stalker’s playground. Google Glass allows for real-time upload, via Google+, of the passing show as the wearer visits the shops or clips her toenails, though at this stage most of the appeal, presumably, is being seen to wear the specs. One can foresee stalker-vision YouTube channels starting up, where internauts can get the prowler’s eye view as he tracks his quarry. And in a way, anybody in camera-shot becomes prey, as they’re unwittingly uploaded via a purred behest from the wearer. No doubt much of your daily round – the credit refusal at the bank, panting aerobics, syncopated junk snacking – isn’t the sort of thing most people would want to share online with Joe Schmo, but those bits can be cut out. Glass-wearers keep editorial control.

Despite Obama’s aspiration to the full 100 per cent, informational coverage is not total. One reason security cameras do little to block drug flows is that in clubs, for example, human dignity demands that the spy lenses be kept out of the toilets, or at least the stalls themselves, so that’s where the deals get done. It’s an entirely foreseeable displacement. Ever more importunate demands, most obviously by the state, but also non-state bodies like credit agencies, elicit ever craftier ways of foxing the vetters. Technical progress trips the familiar pas-de-deux between online identity-spoofing and crackdowns via hi-tech fixes like biometric profiles and DNA databasing. And after all, it’s fun to cross-dress or otherwise ID-swap electronically, whether as a troll or an Amazon reviewer of one’s own works. Platform providers tend to take this amiss, as online personae who are out as fictional, such as BotGirl Questi, have discovered. I had a bogus Facebook account for a while in the name of Farmyard Animals, till the Zuckerberg snatch squad took it out; the fake bio identified FA as a young female. I got a lot of propositions from lusty young bulls.

It’s compelling to see the ID spoofing that’s possible online as a reaction to state over-surveillance. Indeed, the state grows ever keener on forcing people to bare their fizzogs in the name of identification. In France and elsewhere, face-covering in public places, including the niqab and burqa, but also secular head-wear that conceals the face, such as balaclavas and helmets, has been banned since 2010; in the UK, individuals can be required to remove face-obscuring items such as hoods or crash helmets in shopping precincts. On top of that, ludicrously detailed drills now govern mugshots for passports and driving licences in Britain and elsewhere. The government ID-photo rules sound a bit like a soft-porn manual: not too close, not too far away, no stray locks across the cheeks, no smiling, a certain amount of ear showing but not a full-on lug shot, etc. In some jurisdictions, like Austria, the rules for driving-licence and identity-card pictures allow exemptions for religious headgear, a loophole exploited by Niko Alm, a “pastafarian”, who stuck a pasta strainer on his head for his ID photo.

Alm was out to lampoon religious exceptionalism, but his sieve also, and more importantly, delivered a counter-blast to the culture of civic docility about all this intrusion. The supposed advent of equality in the modern liberal democracy serves to justify a culture of unmasking, where everyone has to show her face and hand over ID papers when interpellated by state functionaries. Resistance frequently involves either transgressive uncovering or covering up. Empowerment through self-disclosure, the wilful embrace of the gaze, marks a staking out of real or virtual space, a camped-up revolt against the unquestioning compliance of most social life. Hence the use of public nudity to up the register of protest, not just in campaigns for the right to walk around naked in public, but also in revolt against other systemic norms. For the Ukrainian anti-porn campaigners Femen, or the green-liberationist Fuck for Forest, the outing of the body serves as a nudge against forgetting.

It’s not simply about whipping out the jugs for a photo-op and a bit of air. It’s about performativity, the willed insistence on being blatant, not latent, where the ambient norms call for covering up. Superficially, activists who refuse to bare their faces may seem to be making the opposite gesture, but in fact they are rupturing norms in a similar spirit. Occupy protesters sport Guy Fawkes masks and Pussy Rioters wear head-socks, as a symbolic nyet to the state’s ever beadier eye on its citizens. It recalls the old Venetian custom of bauta e tabarro, the white mask and black cape worn by citizens for transacting public business, including political participation. Since everyone’s bauta was more or less the same, people – nuns and priests among them – could take to the streets to trade, run errands, chat or visit brothels. When everyone’s identity was concealed, cloaking gender, social standing, race and age, it could provide a platform for civic equality. Facelessness offered low-tech encryption, proof against the prying eyes of all but the great snooper in the sky. His office has now been usurped by the Argus state: if not a window into men’s souls, PRISM and Boundless Informant offer a vista on their 21st-century equivalent, the e-smooching and thumb-blur textese of people who think nobody’s watching.

Although surveillance via police video cameras and in-store CCTV has also reached panopticist levels, people don’t take kindly to the idea that they, individually, are being targeted. The residual desire to control what bits of oneself get pitched into the public domain, or who can appropriate them, remains tenacious. I was able to see this at first hand recently.

Bored one Sunday afternoon, I have the idea of catching the tram into Brussels city centre and taking photographs of people who look like Michel Foucault. I snap a group of police officers in the Gare Centrale who remain impassive; it seems likely that they are Flemish. By contrast, out on the streets, the Michels don’t take kindly to being photographed and since my Ixus 750, cracked screen and all, is none too zoomy, it’s hard to snap people on the sly. At Horta, up the hill from the station, I happen upon a horn-rimmed slaphead straight off the dust-jacket of Discipline and Punish, but I’m too slow on the draw with the Ixus and end up photographing someone behind him, a skateboarder who, as it happens, looks nothing like Foucault. He tells me to Dégage! and brandishes his plank at me. A couple of others refuse point-blank to be photographed, even when I explain that it is part of a high-concept feature on surveillance for Tank magazine; but the deed’s already done. I go into the Celtic Bar, one of the city’s many neoprene-begorra boozers, where for some reason most of the customers are black. They sit watching, improbably, a game of hurling on Sky, live from Athlone. No Michels are in evidence, and in the Ladbroke’s next door the story is much the same. But outside, I have more luck. I run across a man who, bespectacled and bald, is a dead ringer for Foucault, apart from being black.

He, too, is far from snap-happy. His incipient expostulation can be viewed on my Facebook page, a form of semi-publication he probably wouldn’t thank me for. Things went much better on Brussels Pride day, in 2012, when I snapped many Belgian lesbians, who seemed delighted to be picked on. What does this show? That Foucault lookalikes are paranoid? That lesbians aren’t? People who go out and about are not agoraphobic, nor do many feel the need to treat their faces as private parts to be chastely veiled in public places. But they expect that strangers disattend to them, in Raymond Geuss’s phrase. A mass snap, say of the tourists thronged round the Manneken Pis, is OK, as long as it doesn’t look targeted. Pride is all about visibility, whereas people in their off-guard moments – or at least the ones who look like Michel Foucault – think they have a right to public privacy, even though they’re glad to be out in public, and so presumably also happy to be filmed by the ubiquitous city-centre spy cameras that output a permanent filmic trace of their journeys about the Arndale centre, their vexed wanderings in the Golgotha of Brent Cross.

What is it that we want when we want to be acknowledged but not spied on, to draw attention to ourselves on social media while objecting to that guy across the aisle on the tube staring at us? Maybe there’s no object that answers to that bundle of wishes. But maybe, too, the incoherence is the point: as with autocratic rulers who issue a diktat one day only to reverse it the next, there’s something residually Caligulan in the liberal autonomous self. That curious being doesn’t take the self – itself – as a found object, except insofar as it might furnish raw material for self-creation. In this ghost-writing process, wilful self-contradiction, the subjugation of fact to will, is the point, as Walt Whitman nearly said. What the self-creator doesn’t want is to be fixed (whether by plain watching or a collation of data traces) by the whim of another. What the liberal self is, beneath the tangled pile of contradictions, is simply the prerogative to define itself: it’s a locus of pure power, the will shrunk to a point mass.

In a sense, surveillance is simply another manifestation of an anorak tendency, its target being people rather than locomotives. As a boy, I was on the autism spectrum (AS) before the spectrum was properly dreamed up. As it turned out, it was only Asperger’s, which has just been ruled out of existence again in DSM-5, the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, so after a brief starburst in the media and popular culture, the condition will slump back into the demimonde where it languished before, a vanilla travesty of full-bodied autism. Like many AS geeks, I mainlined numbers, especially dates, as well as geometric lines, patterned tiles – anything that aerosolled out the “human” dimension. I talked a lot to myself and my Lego but, after a certain age, to nobody else. I still don’t, which you’d think would make for a challenging life as an academic, but in fact the set-piece oration, as opposed to the give-and-take of conversation, held few difficulties for me: I found I could drone on, in a voice devoid of prosody, for an hour, two hours if necessary. Boringness in the lecture hall was expected, even a professional virtue. Most people get the emotional Velcro that enables them to see, interpret, respond to their fellow neurotypicals. Unlike the NTs, we spectroids only get the hooky strip, not the soft fuzz it hooks onto.

That Velcro is what holds most narrative together. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation, for instance, made little sense to me when I first saw it, aged about 20. No film did, or at least none that jiggled viewers along a narrative seismograph whose main inflection points were marked by emotional complicity, an affective cahoots between film-makers and audience. The easiest movies to take in were musicals, where outbursts of song would regularly butt in which, although bizarre, didn’t seem to make any demands on the viewer; I used to enjoy trying to forecast precisely when an innocuous-looking bit of chit-chat would segue into warbling, stridulant viols and the choir invisible, with no sense of its narrative purport. When I watch now, I can usually work out from cues like the music or cinematographic nods and winks what I think they are trying to make us feel, and situate this in a storyline that I laboriously reconstruct in my mind.

When I watched The Conversation again, it struck me as obvious that the Gene Hackman character, Harry Caul, is a co-spectrumoid with all the empathic range of Mount Rushmore and the inner life of a gargoyle. A geek of 42, obsessed with privacy and the paraphernalia of covert ops, he wears a flasher-spec grey pac-a-mac and lives alone in a bleak apartment with a quadruple-locked front door. His on-off girlfriend Amy lives in bed somewhere else and doesn’t know what Harry does. But unlike his co-buggers, who take pride in their craft, slickly ear-wigging without scruple, Harry has a tragic flaw: he actually does care; he’s troubled by his own Mogadonnish lack of affect.

As a top bugger, Harry expertly picks out the conversation of the film’s title, a meandering exchange between a young couple who talk nervily but desultorily in a lunchtime city crowd. At one point in the conversation the man says: “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” The irony is that though Harry can make the words out, he can’t make sense of them; in fact, the plot pivots on his inability to grasp what they mean, what inflection they bear. It’s a powerful image of AS isolation, even as Harry struggles to create an emotional life for himself beyond that of pure observation. As in Hitchcock’s Rear Window and the 2006 Stasi drama The Lives of Others, the listener-in’s unavoidable passivity, the hollowed-out routine of the snooper – and the audience’s inevitable complicity with him – becomes the foil to lives which, if banal, are at least lived in. The cinema of surveillance, clearest in the P.O.V. take, drags the audience back again and again to its status as voyeur, to its gawping at the screen’s objects of envy and displaced wishes. The silver screen’s apotheosis is as a mirror, reflecting back exactly what the spectator hasn’t come to see, yet cannot help but gaze at.

Surveillance is power, and since most social life involves a two-way negotiation of seeing and being seen, we have to learn to manage the affective to and fro that marks successful socialisation. It’s not a matter of having raw feelings and then just emoting. It’s also about getting cues as to how, in situ, a human being is supposed to feel. As Wittgenstein said, even pain behaviour has to be learned. Much myth can be read with this in mind. Echo and Narcissus’s doomed union is also a tale of selves doomed in their own terms, as pure dependency and equally pure (and thus barren) self-sufficiency. It’s not that either lacks affect; just that neither can convert it into a capacity to give and take.

At the end of The Conversation, Harry discovers that the couple – seeming-victims turned killers – know he knows their secret, and have taped him playing the saxophone in his flat. He rips the place apart, vainly trying to root out listening devices. Thwarted, he sits in the wreckage, tootling on his sax the tune that the killers have taped – a scene that evokes the Dylan line The one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn. It’s an onanistic moment, of someone turned in on himself, while the buggers echo him with their recording devices. And Harry’s predicament typifies that of modern narcissistic individualism: the longing to see, but only let ourselves be seen on our own terms. Meanwhile the state seeks to shadow, to echo our every peep. There it is: the inescapable pathology of the modern-day Echo state’s relation to citizen Narcissus. § 

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