Opposition to the NSA’s data-gathering powers has made for some odd bedfellows – witness the narrowly-rejected Amash-Conyers amendment. Why are some people, on both ends of the political spectrum, so worried about PRISM and others not? How can it be that two-thirds of Americans (according to a recent poll) approve of a surveillance program that the rest see as a path to “totalitarianism?” According to Georgia Tech Associate Professor Aaron Santesso and Trinity College Associate Professor David Rosen, the answer, in part, is a basic confusion in current debates about what surveillance is and how it actually works.
For starters, we tend to treat surveillance as primarily as a technological problem with technological solutions (Senator Ron Wyden, for example, has argued that “increasingly advanced technology” is paving the way for a “surveillance state”). This overly narrow view is deterministic, even fatalistic, to a fault: the uses of a given technology are taken to be self-evident and impossible to resist – and thus to feared. We would suggest that the humanities – and literature in particular – overturn this conventional wisdom. Surveillance – how it may be carried out, but also how it may be resisted – is ultimately concerned with interpretation, narrative, and the capacities for empathy and anticipation: skills at which machines are helpless, but at which students of the humanities excel.
Humanism can also counter the common tendency to view surveillance as just one thing: an oppressive, “police state” practice meant to destroy individual freedoms. This tendency has arisen partly because surveillance is still understood by many as a recent phenomenon – a byproduct of twentieth-century totalitarianism (note the endless allusions to Hitler and Stalin in the current debate). In fact, recognizably modern, bureaucratic forms of surveillance began to appear at least three hundred years ago, and have always been allied with liberal democracy: if all people are equal, and are to enjoy equality of opportunity, some sort of political and legal monitoring will be required. Far from being incompatible with a progressive, tolerant and liberal society, surveillance is necessary for such a society to function. Ultimately, “surveillance” is a huge array of related practices, each with its own ideologies and objectives and consequences – some good, some bad.
Many members of the House – including those who helped defeat Amash-Conyers – and many individual Americans, have come to recognize that surveillance is a double-edged sword, as vital to democratic society as it is threatening. This is not to say that we should be unconcerned about government intrusions into the private sphere. Surveillance is most prone to abuse where popular oversight fails. But to appreciate the complexity of the situation, it is necessary to understand surveillance as something more than a narrow set of technologies inevitably in the service of authoritarianism.
Santesso and Rosen are the authors of a new book: The Watchman in Pieces: Surveillance, Literature, and Liberal Personhood.
For more information, or to schedule an interview, please contact: