On the Natural History of Surveillance

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Still from The Conversation (1974)

Upon hearing the phrase, we may not know exactly what a “cephalic sniffer” is, nor whether it is a real piece of technology. However, as to what such a nefarious device might be able to do, we could surely begin to imagine from the name alone. And as for whether it is technological reality (it is not, being invented by Philip K. Dick in his story Clans of the Alphane Moon), from its “sci-fi” sounding alliteration we might guess correctly that it is purely fantasy.

At least it was fantasy when PKD invented it in 1964. Today, advances in biometric identification mean that while a device that can search out an individual by his or her brainwaves is not yet on the market (at least publicly), searching out a person by face or speech pattern is decidedly real. Furthermore, brain-computer interface devices (BCI) have been commercially available since at least 1999. So how far are we from the technological reality of a biometric tracking system hacking BCIs and tracking individuals? If we change the name to “brainwave keylogger”, it suddenly is less fantastic, and frighteningly plausible.

Submitted for your consideration: an entire list of surveillance concepts, proposed by science-fiction stories. Note the technologically real items: Augmented Reality, ubiquitous surveillance, drones, eavesdropping rays, and tracking systems. These are all things that we might call “cutting edge tech”, but indeed, certainly real tech. Surprise, shock, uncanniness, paranoia— yes, it is repeated enough to be cliche--the future is here.

But what is truly uncanny about our present “not-so-distant future”, is that we continue to refer to it as the future. There is no need to speculate. We have a fully evolved culture of surveillance technology in the United States. Here is another list: this time of non-fictional surveillance concepts. They range from the slightly-troubling to the fully-horrifying, but they all are now employed by the government of the United States for the purposes of so-called “National Security”:

Palantir, No-Fly List, Full Body Scanners, “If you see something, say something”, Border Searches are Exempt from the 4th Amendment, Stop and Frisk, NYPD spying on Muslims, TSA harassment of children, the elderly, DHS spying on activists, That DHS exists, FBI terrorism entrapment, Domestic Drone Surveillance, Private Prisons, Over 1% of US Citizens in Jail, National Security Letters, FISC Courts, Immigration Policy, Abu-Ghraib Prison Abuse, Guantanamo Prison Camp, Extraordinary Rendition, Torture, Codifying Indefinite Detention, FBI seeking backdoors in electronic communications, ICE raids on websites, Iris scans of civil disobedience protesters, Warrantless Wiretaps, Recorded Future, The Domestic Communications Assistance Center

Nevertheless, the primary means by which we engage with surveillance culture outside of the news media is still speculative art and fiction. Speculation allows us, as both creators and readers, to play design-fiction with reality. It is rapid prototyping in emerging psychological patterns. But these thought experiments do not exist in a vacuum.

Francis Ford Coppola— in the DVD commentary to The Conversation, his 1974 film about audio surveillance technology and the crimes to which it leads--expressed surprise that viewers interpreted his film as being about Watergate, an episode revealed in the same year:

Not only was the script for The Conversation completed in the mid-1960s (before the Nixon Administration came to power) but the spying equipment used in the film was discovered through research and the use of technical advisers and not, as many believed, by revelatory newspaper stories about the Watergate break-in. Coppola also noted that filming of The Conversation had been completed several months before the most revelatory Watergate stories broke in the press.

Even in 1974, a film that attempted to realistically speculate about surveillance technology was surpassed by reality itself. The film becomes about Watergate, by nature of Watergate’s reality. 

That speculative art and fiction would be presaged by the reality it attempts to engage is not unexpected. The prescient author of speculative fiction, exploring near-future outcomes of technology with politically-expedient accuracy, is truly a public intellectual. Speculative work is hardly reducible to mere dystopic condemnation or fanatical futurism; it often forecasts and explores detailed and nuanced scenarios that would not be investigated as thoroughly without this speculation, nor with such a wide consumption among the public.

But there, lies the real question: why is it that speculative art and fiction— still relatively a niche production— is the only means of confronting and thinking about surveillance culture? It is not surprising that speculative art and fiction are currently best equipped to deal with reality. What is surprising is that the rest of art and fiction has not yet begun dealing with our systemic technological persecution.

This is “post-9/11” surveillance culture. Therefore, our growing surveillance state is not merely tied up with speculations on technology, but also with a neurotic response to a national trauma. Such a heavily-invested event within the cultural narrative of national history is a difficult thing to approach, regardless of one’s political reaction to the event itself. 

The heavy cultural wreckage to be assessed is visible, ringing the craters of nodes like the “Post-9/11 Novel”. As a literary response to said event, this is a prefigured piece of art that had already been defined in the cultural narrative before it existed. Said Zadie Smith about the novel Netherland: the work itself is a cultural event in which a “literary form in long-term crisis” meets “a community in recent crisis.” In other words, this post-9/11 book was, by its themes, already searching for the fantasy of the meditative “Post-9/11 Novel” like a bandaid for a scraped knee: 

The stage is set, then, for a “meditation” on identities both personal and national, immigrant relations, terror, anxiety, the attack of futility on the human consciousness and the defense against same: meaning. In other words, it’s the post–September 11 novel we hoped for. (Were there calls, in 1915, for the Lusitania novel? In 1985, was the Bhopal novel keenly anticipated?) It’s as if, by an act of collective prayer, we have willed it into existence.

This sort of meditative novel’s attempted subject is not speculation, nor the reality of surveillance, but an attempt to image reality via symbolism. Anxiety, suspicion, doubt, terror— all of these emotions are evoked in depth, piled up like so many New York Times cover pages saved for posterity. The problem with novels of this sort is the images become icons as they are cataloged and archived. As if in our recitation of these images, their symbolic power would allow us to heal. Writes Smith, “There was the chance to let the towers be what they were: towers. But they were covered in literary language when they fell, and they continue to be...” Rather than work through our psychological wreckage as human beings, we pile on the symbols, burying the site of our loss with symbolically overdetermined Freedom-Tower-style neurosis novels.

Meanwhile, more cameras are installed, more drones take to the air, more people-who-are-not-us are harassed at the border and on the streets, and our crime rate drops through the new everlasting-recession as we repress and oppress our cultural fears behind prison walls. We hide surveillance from our eyes, repressing it because this imaging technology is not under our control. The shadows grow behind our backs, in our recurrent speculative nightmares.

W.G. Sebald, in the introduction his book On the Natural History of Destruction, led his explanation of German literature’s inability to deal with the aerial bombardment of the country during World War Two in this way:

[...] when we turn to take a retrospective view, particularly of the years 1930 to 1950, we are always looking and and looking away at the same time. As a result, the works produced by German authors after the war are often marked by a half-consciousness or false consciousness designed to consolidate the extremely precarious position of those writers in a society that was morally almost entirely discredited. To the overwhelming majority of the writers who stayed on in Germany under the Third Reich, the redefinition of their idea of themselves after 1945 was a more urgent business than depiction of the real conditions surrounding them. 

It would hard to argue that American authors and artists, post-9/11, are “almost entirely discredited morally”, even if they ought to be. The cone of the blind spot is not turned into the past, like it was for post-war Germans. Instead, it is turned forward to the future. American culture leverages its future history on the empty symbolism of the event, closing its eyes in empty meditation, failing to perceive the undergrowth of surveillance culture upon the cultural agar plate. 9/11 trauma may not be the unilateral seed of surveillance culture, but it is the rich substrate upon which this growth has become endemic.

Because we can only speculate about it, we have trouble understanding surveillance culture as a massive, technological thought-holocaust that is interpolating our lives everyday, showing no sign of ceasing, and offering few ways of combatting it. We understand it only as an “act”, that is sometimes done by some to others; always by good people to bad, or by bad people to good. The actors are superheroes and villains, with an extrasensory grip upon these technologies, their deployment, and component ethical systems. They can “see the matrix”, and bend and break its rules. Even speculative art and fiction--along with treatments in other genres like horror, spy fiction, and murder mysteries--treat surveillance as an act in the hand of a limited number of special actors. Surveillance is a conspiracy, a crime, a limited new technology, a merely-potential dystopia, a thing that, Jason Bourne willing and SCOTUS don’t rise, would never happen to you and me at our suburban shopping outlet. But indeed, Target Stores is targeting you. This is not an isolated event or outlier, a conspiracy or a potentiality: this is normal. 

It may seem historically insensitive to compare surveillance culture to the aerial bombing of Germany, or any other act of widespread destruction. After all, we’re not even talking about terrorist attacks or drone strikes themselves, but the juridico-discursive present in which the technological regime that treats human beings as data to be purged become accepted as commonplace. While the deaths are seemingly minimal, this is a long-tail horror. There is no Berlin in which all of this will eventually end, at which point we can make hypothetical arguments whether certain technologies were worth it, quantified in lives saved or surrenders negotiated. There is no bunker into which all Muslims, Sikhs, People of Color, immigrants of all ethnicities, and activists can go to shoot themselves and end this via a climactic Downfall Event— after which the United States government will have “won”, and we can enter a post-war bliss. There is no Hiroshima to document by destruction, to photograph with a nuclear flash— after which we can open the internment camp doors, and eventually erect a monument to what was deeply regretted. There is only more surveillance, forever. There is only long and bureaucratic slow-genocide, a spreading morass differentiated only by another set of prison walls built around the last.

Sebald suggests that the only way for literature to deal with history is to treat those events as objective facts. In resorting to symbolism or other literary devices, literature becomes obsessed with its own symbolic value, rather than the preservation of history.

The ideal of truth inherent in its entirely unpretentious objectivity, at least over long passages, proves itself the only legitimate reason for continuing to produce literature in the face of total destruction. Conversely, the construction of aesthetic or pseudo-aesthetic effects from the ruins of an annihilated world is a process depriving literature of its right to exist.

Truth, objectivity, and legitimacy are dead letters in an age of ubiquitous surveillance. Authenticity has, through irony and atemporality, become no more than a sigil of itself, another hollow tower built on the reality of wreckage. But there is still fact. We can create a terrain of facts on which to base our actions in the world, rather than only playing with interpretive metaphor, or the architectural models of speculative.

Fact is what we take as acknowledged, by integrating it to our worldview. For instance, if a character in a narrative gets on a bus, we expect the character to pay a fare. We do not take the bus fare as a pivotal moment in the narrative. There is no need to speculate on whether or not there will be a fare, or how much it will be. Speculation is good, because it allows us to step outside of our assumptions about the world, and consider things differently. But once patterns of action have been accepted as facts, our speculation can tackle other issues. In this example, a we might ask where the bus is going.

We have yet to fully acknowledge surveillance culture as fact. We are still wondering “what if we have a full blown technological surveillance culture?” The culture we have allowed to be built is towering above us, but the majority of art and fiction have yet to agree that it is even there. We speculate about it, and generate some interesting scenarios, that occasionally, become built into facts. But this is a slow way of dealing with reality.

And naturally, this means that the methods of revolt via the facts have yet to be determined. Because speculation, while boundlessly creative, is no revolt. And if our art and fiction has trouble visualizing a way to revolt, then what chance does our politics have?