One Nation Under Surveillance


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What do we envision when we envision the surveillance state?

The latest item in the Snowden surveillance files comes from  Barton Gellman of The Washington Post, who tells us that the messages of law-abiding Americans outnumber ‘legitimate’ targets of NSA surveillance nine to one. We’re talking about love stories now, trysts, hook-ups, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial nightmares. They have no ‘intelligence value’, but the NSA is saving them all the same.

Still, there doesn’t seen to be any real outrage. We the People under surveillance seem to be confused about how much our liberty and our privacy are worth in exchange for convenience  and connectedness. We beg to be followed on Twitter and stalked on Facebook, even as we’re wonder, in an abstract way, how bad it would be to pop up on a government watch list.


It’s the artists — from Orwell of Nineteen Eighty-Four, to Philip Dick and Margaret Atwood, to Trevor Paglen and Banksy — who raise the big questions: about voyeurism, about safety and risk, and the essence of our public and private selves. Is there a book or a movie that tells us what kind of world are we living in, or where the surveillance state begins and ends? What impact does mass surveillance have on our selves, on our national psyche, on the way we interact with each other, on the art we make and the way we live?

Here’s a short excerpt with the surveillance artist Trevor Paglen:

For a lot of moviegoers the thought of the surveillance state conjures the entirely sinister images of East Germany under totalitarian Communist control after World War II – all of it made vivid in the film “The Lives of Others” from 2006 about an eavesdropper for the security police known as the Stasi. Fritz Pleitgen was a celebrated correspondent for German TV during the Cold War, and warns us about giving up our privacy.

Read More

  • Our friends at the Boston Review convened a forum on privacy and surveillance, with the former FCC chairman Reed Hundt at the center, and comments from Rebecca MacKinnon, Evgeny Morozov, and Richard Stallman.
  • Glenn Greenwald has argued that we’re closer to Nineteen Eighty-Four than we’re willing to admit, while our other guest Benjamen Walker sees it differently on his Theory of Everything podcast;
  • Judith Donath traces the line between public and private space in this lecture;
  • The photographer Trevor Paglen told a conference this winter that secrecy doesn’t describe all the things we’re not allowed to know, but rather a behavior of powerful people — a whole world, with a look and a feel, if you care to seek it out.
  • Facebook has been manipulating your mood, and you can read about it at The Atlantic.
  • Michael P. Lynch on privacy and the threat to the self on the New York Times philosophy blog.

Photo credit: Trevor Paglen; Flickr. 

Related Content

  • Pete Crangle
  • Doug McCallum

    “The Lives of Others”, 2006 German movie – especially that final scene where with the fall of the Berlin wall the author and former party boss realize that their symbiotic relationship is over and there is no longer a place for art based on resistance.

  • Kunal

    Here is Chris’ report on Beijing’s 798 art district:

    Curator Philip Tinari talks about why modern art is thriving in China, and the relationship between artists and the Chinese government.

  • Geriborg

    There are times that it seems we lack the abstract language to adequately frame the intensification of surveillance in everyday life: The way it is built into our digitally-mediated interactions, the multiple and continuous feeds from what Kevin Haggerty and the late Richard V. Ericson called “the Surveillant Assemblage.” (This is a term that they use, developed from their reading of Gilles Deleuze, about digital, visual and audio artifacts that may not have been designed to work with each other in specific networks, but are subsequently fitted into such network. [It’s also the title of their 2000 piece in the British Journal of Sociology, which is available here: ]

    One of the useful elements of the article is the way it examines and then finds lacking the typical metaphors for surveillance, such as the use of the ideas of “Big Brother” and “The Panopticon,” given the technical developments around surveillance.

    I find the metaphors inadequate, as well, particularly given the rise of The Internet of Things, and the concurrent rise of the exercise of power via digital means. I’ve called the rise of the New Surveillance, as reminiscent of a 17th Century project, called Polizeiwissenschaft. In 2006, I described it as the following:


    In the late 17th Century, German political theorists developed a meta-notion of policing and gave it a name: Polizeiwissenschaft. The term embraces broad policy and policing functions. In The Foucault Effect, Colin Gordon assembled a pastiche of snipped citations and paraphrases to convey the ambitious sweep of the object and the practices of Polizeiwissenschaft. I’ve reshuffled this mini-mosaic (below):

    Life is the object of police: the indispensable, the useful, and the superfluous … Police ‘sees to living;’ ‘the objects which it embraces are in some sense indefinite … [The task of] calculating detailed action appropriate to an infinity of unforeseeable and contingent circumstances is met by [the desire to create] an exhaustive detailed knowledge of reality… [that extends from cataloging the behavior of masses to the micro-details of an individual’s life]. . Police is a science of endless lists and classifications … a knowledge of inexhaustibly detailed and continuous control … a kind of economic pastorate of men and things … where the population is likened to a herd and flock … [1]
    Compare the vision of these Polizeiwissenschaft theorists, as described by Foucault and Gordon, to this description of the near-future, as portrayed by Albrecht and McIntyre:

    Imagine a world where your every purchase is monitored and recorded and your every belonging is numbered … [Imagine] someone … in another country has a record of everything that you have ever bought or owned … every item of clothing… What’s more, these items can be tracked remotely… [and] you can also be tracked and monitored remotely through the things you wear, carry and interact with every day. [This is the vision of] the world that Wal-Mart, Target, Gillette, Procter & Gamble, Kraft, IBM, and [various entities of] the U.S. government want to usher in [by 2015, through the use of cheap, ubiquitous and nearly invisible Radio Frequency Identification technologies]. [2]

    More than three centuries later, the actual, possible and probable use for “an Internet of Things” has met the knowledge production requirements and governance agenda of 18th Century Polizeiwissenschaft theorists.


    For more, see “Policing the Convergence of Virtual and Material Worlds: The True Object of Police is Man” at CTHEORY:

    • We’re policing ourselves…..

      I once tried to remember whether I stayed at the
      Ambassador West or was it the Ambassador East?
      In my research, I came upon a blog of a young woman who had photographed inside the abandoned Ambassador West.

      Her blog was a minute by minute diary, which also had every bit of personal data – resumes, SS
      number, college transcripts, high school transcripts, all her friends names and addresses. The diary entries started with a picture of the weather outside her apartment and went on to chronical what she ate at every meal, every song she listened to, every TV show she watched, every discussion she had with her friends that day.

      The blog ended when she got a job in London at an Ad agency.

      ….the limits of control have been reached.

  • Dave

    Some of the participants tipped their hand by mentioning the issue of ‘conformity’ that is likely more central to the issue. While I’ve been a huge fan of Mr Walker’s Cambridge fantasies c2001 on ‘ZBC, this hang-up is what drives most of his work. While privacy is a legitimate issue, persons who are broadly threatened by authority and structure always seem to be the primary players in this fandango.

  • carl

    Is anyone concerned about commercial entitles trying to teas e out and target our subconscious based upon the subtle mouse or finger movements as we navigate the Internet? The research seems to be in its infancy, but it is clearly where we are headed. Here is an example proposing that tracking mouse movements can work as well or better than a polygraph test:

  • wayne

    Dr. Michael Parenti has been telling us about the state and it’s powerful abilities for quite some time now. I wonder if you might consider exchanging words with him at some point ?

  • Geriborg

    A useful, dramatic, ironic, and frightening exposition of many of these issues, here, in an interactive multimedia presentation: NetWars:

  • Cambridge Forecast


    The recent ROS panel discussion on Surveillance Nation brings to mind this perspectival comment:

    “ Through surveillance, constant observation….produces dossiers containing minute observations. The dossier replaces the epic.”

    (Dreyfus and Rabinow, “Michel Foucault,” second edition, 1983, University of Chicago Press, paperback)
    We can fuse various ROS shows to understand this more deeply: The absence of Edmund Burke “brakes” have led to a rampaging American imperial style (recently turbo-charged by Israel anmd the neocons) which makes it necessary to create a surveillance nation as America becomes not so much a country as an “internal money colony.”
    The soullessness of this transformation leads to David Foster Wallace exposes of ‘the stomach-level sadness” (DFW phrase) governing American life. Thus the ROS show on surveillance nation can be meaningfully linked to these other ROS shows including Piketty-watching as well as the overcoming 9/11 one.
    “The dossier replaces the epic” (mentioned above) captures the sum total of these discussions.
    Judith Donath of Harvard mentioned Bentham’s Panopticon during the discussion. Here’s a comment on this:

    “The major benefit Bentham claimed for his Panopticon was a maximum of efficient organization….via permanent visibility….he is the object of information, never a subject in communication. Surveillance is constant, unending, and total.” (Dreyfus and Rabinow, “Michel Foucault” book, pages 188-193.)
    One is reminded of the 1974 Francis Ford Coppola movie, “The Conversation” with Gene Hackman, write very large. Cointelpro goes national and eternal.
    Finally, there’s a fusion between government “meta-data” and commercial “data mining” by corporations. The dossier replaces the epic and the dossier is monetized.
    See also:
    Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies

    Richard Melson