The Violation of Surveillance

Whom the gods notice they destroy.
Philip K. Dick from The Man in the High Castle

At the heart of the Hong Kong protests is the implacable belief that citizens should not be controlled, tracked, singled out or digitally persecuted for who they are. 

And yet here, in the United States, we give ourselves freely to commercial organizations that surveil, track, and even attempt to control our thoughts. 

Voluntary submission is still submission. And the angst and anxiety of being watched and judged every day is real. This from Brock Chisholm, a clinical psychologist who has studied the effects of surveillance on mood and behavior: “There’s the kind of background, everyday anxiety that builds up, we know it’s there, but we kind of ignore it and we don’t realize how on edge we were until it’s gone. For those people, the kind of lower level but building up background anxiety—they’re going to have more relationship difficulties, more arguments, they’re going to be more hypervigilant, scanning for threats.”

That “virtual looking over your shoulder” can trigger anxiety. According to AJMC: “With increases in mental health problems concentrated among adolescents and young adults, ‘the results suggest that cultural trends in the last 10 years may have had a larger effect on mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes among younger people compared with older people’,” How much of this is related to the anxiety of being under constant watch is debatable. But it is worth recognizing.

There’s certainly surveillance and tracking that we understand and give permission to, like recommendations from Netflix or a shopping site. But it’s the uncertainty of not knowing what a tracker is really collecting, what a big tech company really knows, what false or incriminating personal data might be stored and used against us that creates the angst. 

We feel anxiety when we are surrounded by uncertainty, and when we can’t see any change on the horizon. We tend to blame the media for societal anxiety, and that’s probably true. But we should also look at the uncertainty surveillance causes and the hopelessness we feel because there seems to be no change in sight. It’s just something we have to accept. In societies under constant, oppressive surveillance and monitoring, the effects are chilling. Joshua Franco, a senior research advisor and the deputy director of Amnesty Tech at Amnesty International, talks about human rights activists and journalists living under authoritarian regimes: “The fear and uncertainty generated by surveillance inhibit activity more than any action by the police. People don’t need to act, arrest you, lock you up and put you in jail. If that threat is there, if you feel you’re being watched, you self-police, and this pushes people out of the public space. It is so hard to operate under those types of conditions.”

We lose positive discourse, innovative thinking, even rebellious ideas that lead to better solutions when we self-censor. Again, from Philip Dick (Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said) “Once they notice you, Jason realized, they never completely close the file. You can never get back your anonymity. It is vital not to be noticed in the first place.”

Paranoia. Anxiety. Self-censorship. These are all threats to a democratic way of life constructed to protect free-speech, and the pursuit of happiness. And what is America without the hope of Happiness? Do we really want our children growing up in a shame culture? It’s time to re-examine our cavalier attitude toward digital sharing and what emotional and intellectual long-term effects it will have. When we live and operate online, our identity is not solely created by us as the individual caretaker of that identity. It is shaped by those who share it, who even mention your name.

Jacob Silverman perhaps said it best in,  What Machines Know: Surveillance Anxiety and Digitizing the World

Who I think I am doesn’t matter — what matters is what the algorithms of Google, my potential employer, my health insurer, and the Department of Homeland Security say I am. Where does their influence end, and my own free will take over?
–Jacob Silverman

Getting back to our basic right to privacy, even in the digital world, is paramount to our emotional well-being, our intellectual freedom, and our social self-confidence. When you can shop, research, converse and travel without being tracked, a certain calm settles in. On weekends I leave my phone on the window sill. It’s liberating to drive up the canyon or to a grandson’s game in my pre-technology truck and know that no big tech is listening to my conversations, tracking my locations, or seeing me sneak into a convenience store for a donut.

If we are going to raise confident, innovative, emotionally well-adjusted children, we have to give them a world that allows them to create their own identity, over and over, with no record of the missteps they made in their youth, or the missteps a tech company made by misidentifying them. 

Trackers and the behavioral based monitoring tech they attach to our kid’s lives has to end. We can lobby, we can write big tech, we can even sequester our children from all technology. But the best answer in this brave, new world, is to take control ourselves. Because if we don’t…

The machines don’t care how old I am. They’ll kill me just the same.
Kid, in The Matrix Revolutions