Escaping the Panopticon

Regardless of whether you see uncontrollable mass surveillance by both governments and corporations as being a problem, the fact is that it is happening. This raises questions about lots of things in life that previous generations never had to deal with, if only because the extent and methods of surveillance are also largely unknown to (and even beyond the understanding of) most people.

From what we know right now, US and European government agencies have been listening to pretty much all private communications for a number of years. While this may now be declared unconstitutional in the US, there is no will to stop gathering data. Encryption systems previously thought reliable may even contain back-doors set in place by these agencies. Meanwhile, corporations have huge incentives to gather “big data” on their customers’ every action. That this data is anonymised is no comfort. Most indications point to more data being gathered, not less, and technologies are fast progressing to analyse the results.

Essentially then, we are past the point of no return. Life without access to the Internet or the phone network is fast becoming an impossible option if you want to participate in society. And that’s ignoring CCTV cameras, vehicle tracking, records sharing between health care and government agencies, data theft, rogue investigators, etc.

It’s hard to keep a perspective on this thought because in many ways it’s just unbelievable. If surveillance like this is possible now, what will it be like in the future? The effect of technological change on copyright gives us a lesson here: it will never be any easier to copy anything than it is now. What happens when we reach that point in surveillance – when everything I say, and everything I do can be monitored by almost anyone who wants to? How long will it be before everything I think (or perhaps everything I said or did in the past) is also caught by that net? Corporations and politicians will never want less information about people. The purpose of control is more control. And so it goes on.

But does this matter? Is it true that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear? In George Orwell’s “1984”, it wasn’t so much the fact that you were being watched, but at any time you might be watched, and that your actions or words might be acted upon by the authorities. In other words, the fear of surveillance was worse than the facts. Its therefore worth remembering that surveillance doesn’t have to be total to be a serious problem, it just has to be suspected and weakly understood by those being surveyed. This is exactly what is happening now. I cannot know whether expressing something in a certain context might be detrimental, even if I believe it is currently private. Combine this with the fact that what is permissible now might not be in the future, and you have the panopticon.

If surveillance carries on like this, the social and psychosocial effects will surely be unbearable. But humans are extremely adaptable, and I have hope we will adapt to defend ourselves against it. What follows is a description of a possible future based on such adaptations.

What offends us most about surveillance is its assault on our identity. If you are forced to live out your life as if you were in a perpetual press conference, you have lost control of who you are. You must express only what you think others want to hear; you must do only what you think others want you to do, or face the consequences of them knowing you have deviated. A possible remedy for this is to adopt several personae, and to inhabit each according to your desires.

One of the first ideas that took hold when people used what we now know to be the Internet was that it could successfully de-couple your identity from the persona you adopted on line. “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” That idea, taken to extremes, means that you could adopt more than one identity, and that your identities’ interaction with the world could be mediated by a sort of “identity firewall” that you control. But how far would you need to take it to ensure freedom from the panopticon? In the future, will we have to choose a new identity with each life stage or significant action that needs to be separated from the past in order for the future to progress smoothly for us? Will be have to abandon the idea of “curriculum vitae” or past history and instead rely on a proxy of some sort in order to judge others? If so, what will be the thread that links these identities together without divulging who you have been in the past?

This may well be something we are forced to confront in radical ways, because the effect of the panopticon is, literally, torture.