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before I start reading my text, I’d like you to take a short moment with us and
close your eyes
be aware of what you feel
be aware of your emotions
be aware of your body
be aware of what you perceive
now visualise, imagine, an eye inside of your chest
near your heart
it’s a special eye
keep your eyes closed
but not that special, inner eye
it has no eyelids
it sees in all directions simultaneously
it observes your insides
your lungs breathing
your heart beating
no-one can tell you how you should imagine visualisations during a guided meditation
there is no wrong way
but I never said this is a guided meditation
and you’re obviously seeing that inner eye as bigger than it actually is
meanwhile, I’m here to tell you you’ve got it wrong if you took that previous statement seriously
the eye is bigger than you imagined
open your eyes
Nothing to hide in a frying pan
Just last week, someone repeated the following old fallacy to me.
“If you do nothing wrong, if you have nothing to hide, then you will have nothing to fear from online surveillance.”
# double-slit experiment
With a technically inclined conversational partner I’d like to open my reply with the example of the double-slit experiment.
– What? No, it’s not that! Get your mind out of the gutter, it’s an old physics experiment! –
It demonstrates that measuring light, for example from a laser, influences its behaviour. The act of observation determines whether it will behave as a particle or a wave. Already on this fundamental, physical scale, the influence of observation matters. Even on a phenomenon that symbolises benevolence and purity in many cultures. The observation of natural light sheds light on the nature of observation.
# social scale
Speaking of culture, observation has an influence on people as well and it does not matter whether you do anything right or wrong. In public our behaviours and feelings change. This makes sense, we are social beings after all. But there is more at hand than just our awareness of social settings. Let me give an example.
# le panopticon
In the seventies the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault compared the institutions that shape modern societies with the panopticon, a certain prison design. This prison is like a hollow circle with a watchtower in the center. Apart from the guards in the tower, the inmates all face the other cells. They can be observed any time, but cannot know when. Over time, the possibility to be seen imposes discipline and obedience.
Foucault uses this structure as a metaphore for the mechanism of political power, gazing at the populace through controlling institutions. From prisons, the structural gaze had been extended to hospitals, schools and factories by the late 18th century. Over time, this gaze has increasingly been internalised by the citizen. Somewhat subconsciously, the norm to keep an eye on ourselves and each other has become accepted. This is very convenient for anyone striving to impose a certain kind of order. They won’t need to invest as much in police and prisons.
Anyway, that eccentric shirt is not for you. To deviate is, after all, abnormal by definition. You leave the store.
Are there any fans of the Lord of the Rings in the audience, by the way? Why do you think Sauron had a Great Eye on top of a tower?
It makes you think…
# a stroll through cameratown
Fortunately, other people have become superfluous to pass judgement. Nowadays we have surveillance camera’s for that purpose. An increasing number of cities have an increasing amount of those installed.
There’s no need to feel alone when you go for a stroll in the city center and there’s no-one around. Someone is sitting somewhere in a little chamber filled with screens watching over you. Scanning. Darkly. You will never know who that person is. You will never know how much that person knows about you. It does not matter whether they mean well. This person may be observing you.
[Phew.] Finally, you arrive home and you can relax, you can forget about all that. You’re in your private space, the only eyes here are yours (and perhaps your pets’, human or otherwise). The smartfridge reminds you that the salad’s almost overdue. You listen to a couple of songs through spotify. Gee, it looks like your friend Henrietta is listening to Molly Nilsson.
Meanwhile, you check your instagram. You see a comment thread pass by that evokes some thoughts you might share. Yet, something holds you back. You’re not ready for the commitment to share those thoughts forever with friends, acquaintances, strangers, Zuckerberg, shareholders, the NSA and the local intelligence agencies.
You’re doing nothing wrong and you have nothing to hide. Is there really nothing to fear from online surveillance?
[Sigh.] Time for some distraction. Time to put on some netflix. Black. Mirror.
You see the society of tomorrow. Everyone gives each other scores based on their social behaviour. Their scores are centrally managed and their social class and rights are determined by their averages. Big smiles and politeness all around. You follow an upper-class person who rapidly loses her social score. Eventually, she ends up in jail, where she and a fellow inmate find the freedom to hurl insults at each other.
But was it really the society of tomorrow, you may find yourself wondering. It sounds vaguely reminiscent of the society of yesterday, of today, of distant neighbours. But hey, it’s not as if that sort of disease would travel that far… right?
Once more you think about that shirt from the store. The weird one, the peculiar one. You’re free tomorrow. Perhaps you’d try it on after all. Autonomy once lost, may yet be reclaimed.