On Surveillance and the Importance of the Exit
A discussion of agency in a world removed of privacy
Production shot from Terry Gillam’s Brazil (1985)
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
When warnings become blueprints
It is not a new nor controversial statement to say that every action we as individuals do today, both online and offline, is monitored to some degree by a form of authority. From tangible, seemingly antiquated surveillance such as closed-circuit television to softer yet more prevalent forms such as online data collection, the scope of surveillance in our current age surpasses that warned against in such popular works as 1984, Brave New World or Brazil. While this is a vast problem within the fabric of society as a whole, a secondary, more personal problem is the extent to which we accept such forms of surveillance as unavoidable or, worse, normal.
The key metaphor upon which the majority of modern surveillance theory, and subsequently much surveillance practice heretofore, is based on that of the panoptic prison structure, or simply ‘panopticon’, originally designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. The design of panopticon consists of a circular or octangular building with a central tower inhabited by an inspector who oversees the activities of inmates within their cells surrounding him. While at its core a solely architectural vision, the panopticon results in what Bentham described as a “new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind in a quantity hitherto without example”.
The idea of the panopticon forms the basis of one of Foucault’s most popular works, Discipline and Punish, which acts as an analysis of the social and theoretical mechanisms behind the development of penal systems in the west. For Foucault, the definitions of this panoptic structure differ to what was originally envisaged by Bentham, with panopticism itself being defined as:
a type of power that is applied to individuals in the form of continuous individual supervision, in the form of control, punishment, and compensation, and in the form of correction, that is, the modelling and transforming of individuals in terms of certain norms.
A drawing of a panoptic prison structure by Willey Reveley, circa 1791
Discourse around Foucault and the panoptic is viewed nowadays as somewhat outdated; the advent of ubiquitously interconnected information systems has dramatically changed this idea of panoptic surveillance into something darker, something more alien. Manuel DeLanda, in his pertinent 1991 work War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, coins the term ‘panspectron’ to describe the nature of surveillance as it would come to be in the current age. Notably, the key differentiating factor is that, instead of a number of human bodies surrounding an inspector (or “sensor” in DeLanda’s writing), as is the case in panoptic surveillance, in the panspectron “a multiplicity of sensors is deployed around all bodies”. Specifically, such a system
does not merely select certain bodies and certain (visual) data about them. Rather, it compiles information about all at the same time, using computers to select the segments of data relevant to its surveillance tasks.
In other words, data is collected continuously, about everything, from every possible source. Sandra Braman, professor at Texas A&M University, details the prevalence of this system in daily life through the absence of a prerequisite for a subject:
no surveillance subject [needs to be] identified in order to trigger an information collection process. Rather, information is collected about everything and everyone all the time. A subject appears only when a particular question is asked, triggering data mining in information already gathered to learn all available information in answer to that question.
It is important, now, to recall the dates of origin of the aforementioned terms. Bentham’s panopticon stems from the 18th century; the panspectron from the early 1990s. Since then, global society has been shaped by the catastrophism of communication, of the Internet, of interconnected information systems allowing for such vast information conversion of scales unfathomable not long ago. The warnings of authoritarianism from the works of Orwell and Huxley have been factored into the creation of a blueprint for societal development, but not in the way one would have hoped.
Exit, pursued by a bear
From this point, several options lie before the individual. The majority viewpoint on this simply takes the form of placid acceptance; if an awareness of the problem exists at all then there is seldom ever a care for a solution — whether this is characterised by feelings of powerlessness or a lack of agency or even a lack of regard altogether depends on the individual’s own personal Weltanschauung. Those with this view accept the commoditisation of the Self, that they themselves become a product for others to use as they see fit, becoming nothing more than several strings of binaries across an interconnected network.
The minority viewpoint, and one that I would advocate, encompasses many diverging paths but can all be characterised by a singular desire: the desire for an exit, to leave the system, whether by becoming invisible, by using a different system, or by opting out altogether. On all these paths towards the exit the individual is pursued by the system in all its forms, luring you back in.
Jacopo Vezzani after Giuseppe Rocchetti, “Grotta d’Incanti”
To become invisible, or at the very least obscured, is the easiest but least effective of the various options available. By being invisible the individual is still present within the network, but can only be perceived by certain means. It offers a surface-level hiding space, a first line of defence, a trench in which one can wait for the inevitable whistle which draws them back out into the open. This obscurity can take the form of many obvious means: ‘anonymous’ social media profiles; virtual private networks; specialised private Internet browsers. It is important to realise that the parts of the Self that one is hiding will only be hidden from the same parts of the Other; hiding your person will only make it hidden from other people; technology, that alien being, can easily find you here.
The next path requires the use of another system, or series of systems, and while this is definitely still the path less travelled it has had a vast exponential uptake in followers in the past decade. On this path you will find many widely-recognised systems and softwares: blockchain technologies; decentralised finance; decentralised networks such as Urbit. These are great systems, but do not come without their fair share of problems; they are all, still, in their infancy, and have been characterised by many teething problems as a result. The most recent and obvious example is Solana, a blockchain network which intends to rival Ethereum, which had shut down entirely for over sixteen hours due to a network outage on September 15th. This is not what decentralisation means.
The process of exit is mentally exhausting. Freedom is largely sacrifice.
James Ellis, Exiting Modernity
The last option is the most radical. It requires a full and complete exit from all systems and networks in their entirety. This is by no means a new idea; there are many such examples in popular history of people choosing the only exit which is not a revolving door: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden details his temporary exit; Nietzsche’s Zarathustra had undertaken the same task and lived up his mountain, as did Theodore Kaczynski. What all of these individuals have in common, however, is a lack of complete contentedness in the situation. All three returned to society, in one way or another.
The true solution, then, is an amalgamation of all potential routes. Take care about the information you give out online, for you will never know who you may meet there. Shield yourself as best as possible from the attempts to commercialise and commoditise your data, remembering that if a service or software is free then the true product is likely yourself. Look into the various forms of decentralised technology that are offered to you, for communication, for research, for paying and being paid. And, importantly, strive for autarky and self-sufficiency. Leave the cities behind, and you may find your worries are left there too. There is a reason that homesteading has had an upsurge in recent years; such is the philosophy of the doomer optimist.
Or, if you so wish, run towards the collapse with a smile on your face. The choice is, as always, partially yours.
If you waste your time a-talkin’ to the people who don’t listen
To the things that you are sayin’, who do you think’s gonna hear?
And if you should die explainin’ how the things that they complain about
Are things they could be changin’, who do you think’s gonna care?
Kris Kristofferson, To Beat The Devil