Killing the Public Space or The New Surveillance Paradigm

BY SUZANNE KHARDALIAN

The Snowden leaks have been overwhelming us in their complexity and in their scope. So far, though, there is little sign of a new political landscape coming together.

Why did we not see any mass protests after Edward Snowden’s revelations? Not even in Europe did we hear protests, see people occupy public squares, burn flags or throw stones against Google’s camera cars. How many have left Facebook in protest? Those who seem most annoyed by the revelations belong to the elite of society. Could it be that most people have simply moved into the new surveillance society and now feel at home within its parameters?

My impression is that the Snowden leaks are teaching us one thing, that we don’t even know what power is anymore, nor do we care. Yet the NSA is about power and its practice. The power of new technology invading our public and collective lives, introducing new norms that we have not had time to ponder over.

But the more the NSA story is simplified into an Orwellian tale chronicled in “Animal Farm”—rather than an intricate narrative about the power of technology sweeping over every value and norm from democracy to culture to business to media, a power that makes no distinction between the public and private—the more paralyzed we will be.

And the nature of our surroundings is a perfect illustration of that situation.
Anyone who wants to live a modern life, with modern amenities, can no longer avoid the invisible zone of massive data collection. No one can move through the world without leaving traces or being seen. Through mobile phones, credit cards and the internet, we record our own lives. The previous indisputable question of a choice between either surveillance or privacy seems to be swallowed by the cloudy sky. Monitoring has become an all-encompassing powerful system, where everyone wants to see everyone.

More and more we seem to be engrossed by an insatiable hunger for a virtual social life, to be seen, to be always available, to be prized and loved by everyone. Earlier in history, we saw in God the almighty as the all-seeing eye. Seeing everything was an essential part of God. Today, seeing/monitoring serves as the symbol of our society itself. We live inside the eye and move in front of it. And we love doing it!

What is surveillance? How can we describe it in a simple way to a society where surveillance and control has become a universal norm? The book “SuperVision: An Introduction to the Surveillance Society” (2013) by John Gilliom and Torin Monahan, two experts on surveillance and society, offers an answer. It provides the tools to understand and to question how deeply surveillance has been woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. The authors describe the growing, pervasive nature of modern surveillance like this: “imagine a rhizome-dense living, web-like system of plant roots that extend underground with countless hidden nodes and visible growth shoots.” (p 129)

During the 1900’s, we reflected upon surveillance and called it “big brother is watching” in the spirit of George Orwell, and we imagined as cold-hearted men with tape recorders and microphones working in obscure rooms, as in the German film “The Lives of Others” by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. However, the new landscape of the automated information storage we now know of and live in has to be understood in completely different ways. Why? Because our institutions and living environments have started to adapt to this new surveillance landscape.

The city has always been the focal point for stories on surveillance and the control systems are often described as a kind of architecture. But, can you see surveillance society’s social norms take shape in the city center of Los Angeles, or say Paris, Yerevan or Stockholm?

Not long ago I attended a city planning discussion where there was a new proposal for the city’s architecture. It struck me how much monitoring standards and urban ideals had started to blend together. The new city seemed to yearn to be supervised. It was not about cameras on every street, as is the case with London, but a more refined form of monitoring, where security was defined as social control in a city where everyone always was to be watched by others. This included closed housing blocks, port gates looking onto the street, street parking, large windows, and endless rows of cafés. As if the city had declared war against narrow passageways, parks and other “secret” places that stand in the way of oversight—places that give a city its charm. A typical explanation was that dense and well-defined urban spaces and more people with houses or living spaces looking over a street or a park actually increase social control and thus enhance security.

I am sure that the authors who made the proposal were not offering an evil manual for total surveillance. On the contrary, it seemed to me that unconsciously they were giving a nuanced expression of the current spirit. Everywhere, “risk and safety issues” are identified as particularly important for urban development. Democracy or justice are not mentioned. It is in these small shifts—what is omitted and what is instead being emphasized—that one can begin to imagine how the surveillance society has invaded our living spaces.

It is not difficult to be taken away by the contemporary desire for social control. It dampens for sure our anxiety. So the problem is really everywhere, not just Europe, or the USA. Look at the housing system developing in Armenia, where surveillance is part of the architecture, the high walls, the huge doors, the gated communities imported from the west.

A few years ago, Anna Minton in her latest book “Ground Control” wrote a timely and powerful study arguing that a flawed urban-planning strategy has turned our cities into unfriendly, suspicious places. She wrote about British cities adapting the new surveillance paradigm. Some British cities have adopted building codes and regulations that secure monitoring through law known as “secured by design.” Minton traced the concept to a book from 1973 by the American architect Oscar Newman. He had coined the term “defensible spaces” by creating a sense of space should the residents be able to experience what they consider to be their own private spaces, while strangers are unwelcome. If an intruder can sense a watchful community, he feels less secure committing his crime. The idea is that crime and delinquency can be controlled and mitigated through environmental design. So each territory will be defended. And the control mechanisms determine the architecture. In Newman’s spirit, monitoring nowadays both lies in function and aesthetics.

In the 60’s when Jane Jacobs wondered around in southern Manhattan and wrote her controversial classic “The American Big-City Life and Decay,” it was not the shielded city she dreamed of, but the small scale community where everyone knew everyone. In those days security was still about the right to work, to housing and a sensible income and a decent retirement. Free floating fear was then an unknown phenomenon.

It is both eerie and fascinating to see how smooth Jane Jacobs’s words have been lifted from the 1960’s democracy discussions and then lowered into the 2000’s monitoring paradigm context. Then what she called the eyes of the street have now charged with new meanings; monitoring formulated as a new reassurance of humanism, a new philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value of Surveillance Society as an attractive lifestyle dream.

But in the end against whom are we fortifying our homes, if not one another?
We pretend that our property obsession is a lifestyle choice. Giving away our privacy to get back security is seen as a small price one has to pay.

If so liberty, political or otherwise, is disappearing. And we seem far from beating the drums at the threat. We just don’t care! Instead, we celebrate it as our newly acquired security and a chance, in the manner of a reality show, to remind the world about our existence.

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2 Comments

  1. Tsoghig said:

    It is hard to know the value of privacy in this day and age with people throwing everything out there with Facebook and twitter. It seems like facebook is on it’s way out, but I’m sure some other social networking site will become en vogue. However I don’t think that city planners incorporating safety into their planning process is as big a threat to privacy. It’s a hard balance, to balance liberty and security, and I totally agree with you that facebook and the internet has brought a total end to the personal privacy that was held in very high regard, just a couple decades ago. But I am not sure I have a problem with city planners thinking proactively about making streets and cities safer. Edward Snowden is a hero and I think people didn’t hit the streets to protest in support of his actions because those who would have are disillusioned from last summers Occupy Wall Street movement, which very unfortunately, achieved little. The ACLU and other organizations have organized rallies in DC to protest NSA spying and there are a number of groups that are organizing online, but the general public’s apathy toward Snowden and the NSA is very scary. Thanks for writing this piece and thank you to Asbarez for publishing it. This issues effects every American especially Armenians who are more likely to make calls and send emails to the Middle East. Everyone should assume that they are being monitored at all times when they are online. Everyone.

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