Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Farhad Manjoo's Camera Reassura

Farhad Manjoo makes what he calls The Case For Surveillance in Slate today. "We Need More Cameras," rings out his thesis in a title that evokes the tonalities (and all the nuances) of a street chant, "And We Need Them Now!" I presume he means to conjure something like an image of this street mobilization of a concerned public when he glibly speaks in his title of the "we" who need more cameras in the first place.
Cities under the threat of terrorist attack should install networks of cameras to monitor everything that happens at vulnerable urban installations. Yes, you don’t like to be watched. Neither do I. But of all the measures we might consider to improve security in an age of terrorism, installing surveillance cameras everywhere may be the best choice. They’re cheap, less intrusive than many physical security systems, and -- as will hopefully be the case with the Boston bombing -- they can be extremely effective at solving crimes.
Since no city is not threatened by terrorism in principle, and since no square inch of any urban environment is not describable as a "vulnerable installation" once we begin talking in this way, this apparently modest formulation amounts, in the end, as an end, to a call for absolutely ubiquitous, absolutely intensive, absolutely totalizing even if only strictly aspirational, surveillance without end, a logical endpoint notoriously captured in the too revealing paranoid authoritarian dreamtime in the aftermath of the New York terror attacks September 11, 2001 as "Total Information Awareness." It does not matter once we start talking in this vein that there is actually no such thing as a realizable totality of information at which one can aim, since there is no end to the vantages in which information is potentially situated nor to the ends at which information potentially aims. This doesn't matter because one can always distract attention away from the impossibility of arrival at one's technological ends with the brute force expedient of an eternal mobilization of expedience, a mobilization of accumulation and amplification without end. What do we want! More cameras! When do we want them! Without end!

While Manjoo is very eager to insist on the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of ever more cameras in our hair, just as we would expect a good Benthamite panoptician to do, it seems to me just as significant that his demonstration of a reasonable anticipation of objections takes the form of the suggestion that all these cameras may make our squishy emotions squish. Hey, Farhad Manjoo doesn't like to be watched either. We're only human after all! Even when Manjoo offers up his brief genuflection to the quibbles of "hardcore" civil libertarians (average civil libertarians are presumably only, you know, "meh" on the whole reasonable expectation of privacy, no unwarranted searches and seizures thing, as compared to their "hardcore" colleagues) notice that these concerns are framed once again as feelings rather than arguments: "The idea of submitting to constant monitoring feels wrong, nearly un-American, to most of us." So many feelings we're feeling and stuff.

"These aren’t trivial fears," Manjoo assures us, but fears they remain, and not real objections. The problems of amplified surveillance, he insists, "are not intractable problems." He actually offers no reasons why such problems might be deemed intractable. For example, if a multiplication of cameras doesn't converge on transparent, authoritative "facts" so long as more cameras are accompanied by more readings of the images generated by such cameras, then what will matter are the stratifications that shape the circulation of images and then shape the authoritative interpretations of these available readings. (I made some of these points at greater length in a reading of David Brin's The Transparent Society a decade ago in my dissertation, available online, starting here.)

"[A]buses and slippery-slope fears" -- notice, again, these are all "fears" -- "could be contained by regulations that circumscribe how the government can use footage obtained from security cameras." When one notices that Manjoo spends absolutely no time at all specifying such regulations, one wonders just how trivial he really truly thinks these fears are compared to his hopes for technologized security. One might feel more reassured about the legal constraint of civil rights abuses "in principle" if not in, you know, any kind of actual detail, had Manjoo said a little more about all the ways in which actually-existing rights, laws, norms, regulations have NOT managed to constrain very real, very recent, very ongoing civil rights abuses in the name of the very same security in the face of terror threats Manjoo is re-enacting before our eyes.

But it is right here, right in this moment when what is demanded is some specificity about how we can ensure the pursuit of security will not render us merely differently precarious, that Manjoo signals a shift into greater generality (act surprised): "In general," he declares, "we need to be thinking about ways to make cameras work for us, not reasons to abolish them. When you weigh cameras against other security measures, they emerge as the least costly and most effective choice." Whatever our concerns about abuses, whatever anybody proposes to respond to these concerns, Manjoo draws a line in the sand: any such thinking can only be offered up in the service of facilitating the technological regime of surveillance, never at abolishing it, never at proposing alternatives to it. "When you weigh cameras against other security measures" -- all others? really? how do you know you know what all the others are? could be? -- cameras "emerge as the least costly and most effective choice." You'll have to take Manjoo's word for that, since he hasn't actually weighed any alternatives in his piece after all. What may be worse, he hasn't shown that his is an analysis that recognizes just how many different costs appear from the different vantages of different stakeholders to questions of security, he hasn't pressured or elaborated just what he means by "effective." To be obvious about it, is a longer life spent without freedom of assembly or expression a more "effective" outcome? To whom? By what standards? You know who made the trains run time...

Look, I don't so much begrudge Manjoo the opportunity of holding and airing different views on these questions of "cost" or "effectiveness" than I might. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised to find we agree on many of the basic questions at hand. I simply think "a case for surveillance" taking up objections and concerns in a less trivializing way would force Manjoo to foreground political stakes here that are actually at the heart of this discussion but which are vanishing from his discussion of it. It's simply not enough to declare them non-trivial, and then bulldoze them away in a paragraph.

So, let us return, for a moment, to that imaginary "we" clamoring in his title for more and more cameras. As I said, it seems that this is a political "we" figured as a "we" under threat. And while nobody will deny that crime and terror are indeed ways a political "we" might be threatened, few will deny either that these are not the only ways a political "we" might be threatened or that sometimes it is our very address of one sort of threat that yields another threat.

When Aristotle described humans as "political animals" he meant to describe animals rendered different in their essential natures by their exposure to the diversity of their fellow citizens, their fellow city-dwellers (a definition not so different after all from his other definitional effort, humans as "rational animals," reasoning in public). Aristotle's insight is that there is something indispensable to the constitution of the human "we" in our exposure to the scrutiny of the diversity of others, promising, threatening, unpredictable as this exposure is. Indeed, part of what is so curious about Manjoo's rather trivializing insistence that Americans don't "like" to be surveilled and monitored in their everyday lives is that this is an observation flying in the face of a generational explosion of eager disclosures and exposures, self-published images and advertorial profiles, submissions to the targeting of strangers, insurers, advertisers, political campaigns, stalkers and fans.

As Manjoo puts the point himself: "when anything big goes down, we all willingly cede our right to privacy -- we all take it for granted that photos provide valuable insight into news events, and we flood the Web with pictures and clips of the scene of big news." But it seems to me that the "publicity" generated by our flooding of the public square with pictures and clips of the scene is not necessarily so different from our flooding of the public square with testaments to our emotional reactions and contextualizations of such events, in which case this may be a publicity that depends on rather than cedes our privacy. The political publicity of shared concern materializes the shared world not only as a piecing together of evidenciary fragments into an "informational whole" but as the sustenance of an ongoing opening and re-opening of actively contested spaces.

One suspects there may be differences that make a difference between the "we" who live together in cities, the "we" who are documented citizens, the "we" who exist as profiles in government or marketing databases, the "we" who are heat signatures in a drone's gun sights. It is not a putatively neutral, insistently de-politicizing discourse of utility, of effectivity, of security that enables us to explore and elaborate distinctions like these in a critical, enabling way. What cameras are capable of doing in the world is not circumscribed by their technical specifications, what the politicizing force of cameras will be is not measured entirely or even primarily by the number of cameras on the street, whether more or less.

An argument like Manjoo's that seeks to ramify abstract cameras to fight crime needs to take up concrete questions of who holds the cameras, who the cameras are aimed at, where the cameras are located. But it also needs in my view to address questions of the political substance presumably violated by crime and the ways cameras might materially contribute to the support and contestation of that substance. These are the assumptions and stakes always in the background of arguments like Manjoo's, and it is crucial to grasp that such arguments over privacy, security, and surveillance rarely manage to clarify much that matters most until these assumptions and stakes are foregrounded and subjected to scrutiny themselves. This is the last thing that happens when arguments simply stage conflicts between presumably already-adjudicated costs and benefits acted upon by presumably already-characterized technical capacities and proceed as though fraught political deliberation can be circumvented by simple matters of additions and subtractions.

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