28 June 2013

Surveillance Society

From Spero News
One of the few philosophers I have any time for is Michel Foucault (probably because he's mainly an historian). He is more relevant than ever in the light of revelations by whistle blower, Edward Snowden. Snowden has revealed that, surprise, surprise, the powers that be are using that supposed tool of freedom, the Internet, to spy on citizens not only abroad, but at home too. One of Foucault's main contributions to the study of history was to show how hegemonic powers use surveillance to exert control and have done throughout history. He has also highlighted the methods and dynamics of this process of keeping tabs and showed how the power to over-see has shifted around to different parts of Western society over time.

I've already written quite a lot about how I see karma in this light. My thesis is that surveillance is a preoccupation for social primates, especially humans. Surveillance involves keeping tabs on who is contributing to the group and who is not. In human society it also keeps tabs on who is obeying the norms of the group and who is not. The actual content of the norms is largely irrelevant to my thesis - the medium is the message. The reasons behind this dynamic are not rocket science - the two main factors contribute to the smooth functioning of the group, and the long term evolutionary fitness and survival of the group. A third factor is the privilege of the alpha male and female (chimps have both). With more complex organisation the alpha human relies on a small cadre of intimates to hold power, and this is the origin of the aristocracy. Alphas have historically used this power to seize control of resources (for the greater good no doubt) and dole out rewards to underlings who are grateful to be alive. Owning resources allows for the creation of standing armies and such like. Such despots and their armies also provide a modicum of security to the group as neighbouring groups are similarly organised and busy trying to grab resources too.

However once societies get beyond a certain size, which is likely to be predicted by the so-called Dunbar Numbers, keeping tabs on who is doing and saying what becomes difficult. Robin Dunbar's breakthrough paper compared neo-cortex size in social animals with group size and found a positive correlation, now widely believed to be causal. Humans have an upper limit to the number of close relationships they can keep in memory. The average ought to be about 150 - known as the Dunbar Number despite the fact that Dunbar proposed a series limits at varying distance from the individual. Beyond the critical number we cannot know who is doing what with whom. Private actions and words become a feature of social life. And with private actions comes the possibility of blatant and large scale breaches of group norms. Testimony as a source of knowledge starts to become valuable, though the collective knowledge of old people was also a form of testimony. I'm thinking here of witness statements in trials.

And so some solution to the privacy problem must be sought. Many societies invented gods who live in the sky and look down on everything the individual does - and they take on the role of the alpha in dishing out rewards and punishments. This helps to give rise to a new kind of cadre who are expert at communicating with the gods, divining and carrying out their wishes. So we have kings, nobles and now priests - all justifying the subjugation of the peasants because it's for the greater good. We know that in India, for example, the overseer function was initially carried out by a pair of gods, Varuṇa and Mitra, but that sometime after about 1000 BCE this gave way to an impersonal arbiter: karma. I've argued that this was a result of interaction with and influence from Zoroastrianism via smalls bands of immigrants amongst which the Śākya tribe subsequently became prominent. But whatever else is true, it is true that there is no functional difference between impersonal karma and anthropomorphisized over-seer gods. Karma does not even quite manage to do away with priests, though their role was drastically attenuated for a short period and then clawed back rather vigorously (which is why the Buddhist world these days "takes" precepts from a bhikṣu/bhikṣuṇī). From an historical point of view bhikṣus are usurpers, having edged lay people and women out of any positive role in Buddhism for almost 2000 years - something which is slowly changing in the last 50 or so years. 

Foucault, for obvious reasons, dwells on the role of the Roman Catholic Church in subjugating the masses. The RCC emphasised the monitoring of private thoughts through confession particular thoughts about sex. They made pronouncements on what constitutes officially sanctioned sexuality. We are still in the process of wresting the control of sex from their cold dead hand, but part of the power has fallen to the state (which is currently wondering what it might do about all the unsanctioned sexuality of pornography). Buddhist's thoughts are also monitored by karma, and confession has been an important Buddhist practice for avoiding the negative effects of karma for many centuries. Indeed the Buddha himself focussed on thought and especially exercises of will in his teaching. Buddhists these days are (or feel) free to interrogate each other and pronounce judgements on each others' intentions or motivations. And many Buddhists believe themselves to be experts at divining the motivations of others from the flimsiest of clues. Buddhism, like the RCC, enjoined a strict abstinence from sexual activity on it's clergy - guaranteeing a powerful control over priests, and constant occasions for punishment, since most people are incapable of sustaining long periods of celibacy without breaches. There is a massive distinction between transcending desire and suppressing it. And in Buddhism such punishments as are meted out, are done in public, something the RCC could learn from. A celibate clergy also allows the institutions of the church/vihāra to become incredibly wealthy because property is not inherited by any family they might have (though Protestants and some Buddhist clergy have circumvented this by marrying).

Foucault spent a whole book, Madness and Civilization, outlining the way attitudes to madness have changed. It is definitely worth reading. For example, the new idea of locking mad people up only occurred to the powers at be after the decline of leprosy in Europe left the lazar houses standing empty. The example of our treatment of the insane also provides a clear example of how control over the minds and bodies of followers slipped from the grasp of the Church following the Reformation and the Enlightenment. But society did not simply stop overseeing it citizens, it allowed that power, in the case of madness, to drift into the hands of the medical profession. Madness, once a moral issue, is now a medical problem; where once it as the domain of priests it is now dealt with by doctors. We now all accept the metaphor that the mind has mental symptoms that respond to drugs just as the body has somatic symptoms. But it was not always so, and there have been notable rebellions against this doctrine (notably by R.D. Laing). 

If not before, then certainly in the days following the end of World War II, the various governments of the world extended their spying activities to include the lives of their own citizens. Governments developed paranoia, and it was true in some cases that people, there own people, were out to get them. Every spying government has had it's share of high profile double agents. Paranoia lead governments to cast their nets ever wider. Corruption meant that powerful individuals and agencies have regularly exceeded the powers allowed them by law. This paranoia was greater in totalitarian Soviet Russia and it's satellite states, but not confined to them. Also, with the war over, the grievances of the colonial period began to boil over again. Terrorist became a household word. Terrorism is a paranoid's wet dream because it proves that people are out to get them. Since terrorism threatens security, freedom must apparently be sacrificed to keep us safe and the government must judiciously spy one everyone. But not content to deal with the legacies of imperialism, the imperial powers of Europe and the USA set out to antagonise the weaker nations of the world by arming rebels and toppling governments. Small countries frequently became proxies for conflicts between totalitarian Soviet Russia (which was in fact not so different from Tsarist Russia and still is not) and China, and democratic Western Powers. 

If we take the case of Iran (outlined in How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World) there were a whole series of interventions through the 19th and 20th centuries, including the installation of an anti-democratic autocratic king (or Shah) who lasted for 25 years before being brought down. Then later the West encouraged Sadam Hussein (then a "good guy") to attack post-revolutionary Iran and sold arms to both sides. As a result Iran now sponsor groups who carry out attacks on those interfering powers and are keenly pursuing the acquisition of the one weapon that will guarantee no further interference by foreign powers in their country: Iran want a nuclear deterrent. It is demonstrably the lesson of history that Iran has more to fear from us, than we do from them. They have been constantly bullied  for a good couple of centuries and thus my sympathies cannot help but be partly with them despite my abhorrence of oppressive religious fundamentalism. The West has promoted conflict and discord throughout the Middle East in order to divide and conquer. I simply do not believe the protests of Western governments that they are only want to bring peace, stability and democracy to the world. I'm more inclined to believe people like Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. Though it gives me no peace of mind to do so. 

In any case during the late 20th century surveillance of citizens became ubiquitous. From time to time scandal would erupt as corruption was exposed, but on the whole operations to spy on citizens were secret and stayed that way. Whether this meant they were largely legal is something that we cannot know because the information we would need to answer that question is invariably classified. 

What Edward Snowden has done is remind us that this is all going on and that the scale of it has increased as technology has improved. It's long been a banal fact that the UK has more CCTV cameras per population than any other country including the oppressive dictatorships of the world. We are constantly under surveillance. And increasingly we the people are participating in this via phone cameras and YouTube. The more stupid amongst us even film our own criminal activities and get caught because of it. Kind of a benign version of the Darwin Awards. 

A lot of Romantic people still believe that the internet will set people free. I stopped believing this years ago. It certainly had the potential. And I am still actively uploading original content with a view to participating in the information revolution. But most people I know only download and contribute nothing, except a modicum of self commodification for other consumers. And they mainly download entertainment. Rather than setting people free the vast amount of entertainment and distraction on the internet has enslaved more people than ever to the ersatz vicarious thrills to be had on a small screen (see also my essay on pornography). The internet has become the opiate of the people in most cases. Not in all cases. No doubt the potential for internet fuelled revolution still exists - especially where revolution exists in any case - but in the last 15 years couch potatoes have expanded in both number and size. 

And most of these lazy people have little to hide from the government and aren't bothered enough by the intrusion to protest. Many of my friends simply shrug when learning that their emails are being read because the content is so banal that even they are bored by it. I live in the UK and despite obvious corruption amongst our leaders there's no chance of revolution here. Most people are too comfortable to consider risking their lives. They're confused about the issues (a situation promoted by media and politicians alike) and just adopt pre-packaged opinions without thinking very hard about why (something the present Education Secretary seems keen to encourage through his curriculum reforms). We may have the occasional riot, the occasional home-grown terrorist, but we're not looking for change. Oddly our so-called Conservative party are radically reformist liberals these days and people still vote for them. The spectacle presented in the media--the daily diet of vicarious scandal, crime, war, disaster, crisis--has people enthralled in a way that discourages them from really thinking about what is going on. And the internet is just an extension of this entertaining spectacle. 

It's too hard for most people to imagine what the government might do with this information beyond stopping terrorists. Recently I read one pessimistic view on where it might lead in Ken McLeod's Intrusion. In the near future all women of child bearing age will have their health constantly monitored - if they endanger their health, through exposure to drugs or alcohol for instance, the authorities will know. The surveillance is carried out by rings with are worn "voluntarily". Equally health and safety concerns mean that most work places are unsuitable for women of child bearing age because they are exposed to dangerous situations. Women can very easily become unfit mothers and their children can be taken from them. The concern for terrorism means that police routinely grab people off the street and question them under torture. This practice is illegal and is occasionally taken to court, but most people never report it - from shock and fear of the consequences of failure to cooperate. Victims are given leaflets on trauma counselling as they leave - so the police can show that they do care and are only doing what needs to be done. "People with nothing to hide, have nothing to fear", as our present Foreign Secretary said recently (though presumably this does not apply to foreigners). All of these scenarios are relatively easy to extrapolate from the present situation. And there are other ways it might play out as well. 

If you follow the BoingBoing blog you'll know that personal freedom in the USA is under sustained attack from law enforcement agencies at present - be it spraying non-violent protesters in the face with pepper spray from an industrial sprayer, or illegal 'nationality' checks by Homeland Security officers. Indeed the USA seems quite a lot more paranoid that Britain (e.g. see Obama’s crackdown views leaks as aiding enemies of U.S.)

We probably should be concerned that the government is spying on us. History suggests that our governments are not to be trusted. Given an inch they will take a mile and retrospectively redefine the inch if necessary. It's apparent in the UK that government ministers routinely lie and manipulate information to their own benefit. They don't get caught very often, but often enough to be alarming. Lying about employment figures for example is de rigueur, though not a major scandal it seems. Professional politicians are concerned with being in power, and staying in power and not much else. They may want to make the world a better place, but only for themselves and their wealthy peers.

The oppression of state scrutiny of our lives, however, is just a continuation of the scrutiny all of our ancestors were under. Since the dawn of civilisation ruling elites have always used surveillance in one form or another to help control their citizens. There is at least one episode of espionage in the Pāli Canon, though it was directed against neighbouring states (I wrote about it in How to Spot and Arahant). We, the people, put up with the seizure of resources and wealth, and the surveillance, for the same reason that lesser members of chimpanzee troops put up with the tyranny of an alpha male. We know there is safety in numbers and that group membership equals survival. And a strong leader helps to organise and focus the group for collective survival. Which is not to say that we do not kick against authority, we do. But usually only because we fancy that we could do a better job. There's an interesting discussion of this with respect to Australian politics in Chimpanzee Politics.

"People with nothing to hide have nothing to fear." This has never been true at any point in the history of civilisation. Because it assumes that the one's doing the looking are benevolent, rational beings with pure motives. And they never are. And in the age of professional politicians, whose only ambition is to rule, it simply cannot be true. Governments themselves never operate on the this principle - they can always justify having secrets: people with something to fear, always have something to hide. It's only people with nothing to fear that have nothing to hide. We'd be foolish not to at least be suspicious of our government.

Our thoughts have been scrutinised for a long time now. Often what holds the alphas and their cadres of aristocrats and priests at bay is the sheer numbers of the masses. They can't fight us all at once. They can't control us if we are united against them. This is lesson one of revolutions (lesson two is that we inevitably replace one tyranny with another). Which is why the present splintered and alienated society is a gift to peeping Toms, snoops and sneaks. I doubt we'll get to the level of surveillance of Stalinist Russia here in the UK. But Big Brother is in fact watching us and in most cases it's only the fact that we are mind boggling boring that saves us, not the benevolence of the powers that be. Unfortunately Al Qaeda and groups like them succeed in making everyone a little more paranoid and this has lead to the erosion of freedom in the West generally. When we compare the goals of the sides in the so-called "War on Terror" it's not at all clear who is doing better. Certainly calling our side "the free world" is starting to sound a little optimistic.

I think it's worthwhile trying to become informed and to reflect on what kind of society you want to live and to make common cause with people who share your values. Us peasants only ever have numbers going for us. United we stand, divided we fall. And we have so much in common. We could probably do with a little more enlightened other-interest right now, rather than this bullshit, but pervasive notion of enlightened self-interest. Enlightenment and self-interest are inversely correlated. We also might want to reflect on who we share our private thoughts with and how. In this age of the commodification of the self someone is monetising those thoughts and you aren't getting any benefit from it. And they are also allowing the government easy access. Log off and hang out with your friends. You'll feel better for it.

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