Two surveillance cameras, one looking at me, one not.
Hi there! Yes, I’m over here. Now, listen carefully… My picture.

Surveillance activism

If the surveillance state is paying attention to everything we say, we might as well tell the surveillance state what to do. Even in a surveillance economy, the ideas have got to come from somewhere — and they don’t seem to be coming from above. Look around you. Watch the news. We need some original thinking.

This is not to criticise the sort of person who takes a job watching other people on concealed or not-so-concealed cameras. Many of them are algorithms, anyway. There is no active human intelligence behind the insight that — for example — once you’ve bought an item online, you’ll want to be deluged with advertising for the self-same item.

Nor is this a criticism of the sort of person who scrambles to the top of the political heap, nor of the people who sit at desks behind grey net-curtains kidding themselves that they’re really running the country. No, none of them, nor any of their machines, are bringing us to the over-promised land.

Political change is invariably crowd-sourced and, given the tax system, crowd-funded. Populism can sit at the top for a while (and the longer it lasts, the harder it falls); politicians and the rest can pretend to direct — for a while. But real change comes from below — and curiously enough, it need not come violently.

We have words for violence — revolution, regime change, et cetera — and in a strange way, we’re drawn to violence. We “fight for” just about everything these days — there’s a new “fight for” justice kicking off every five minutes on a news broadcast near you, probably a “fight for” peace going on somewhere close by, and even the British Heart Foundation’s advertising invites me to “fight for every heartbeat” (not “get fit for” or perhaps “eat healthily for”).

Think about this. Violence meets violence. There are established procedures for dealing with a riot. Police, water-cannon, arrests, et cetera. There are also procedures for policing a protest, and whatever the term “civil disobedience” means in real life — the forces of Laura Norder have a procedure for dealing with it.

And it’s all head-to-head. Direct confrontation. Arm wrestling writ large. One side or the other wins the confrontation, and what’s left behind is simmering resentment. Brexit got to the point of protest in the UK, and it’s still a live and divisive issue. US politics. 6th January 2021. Name one likely presidential candidate in the 2024 election.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The one big weakness of the surveillance state is that it listens. It listens closely, and at an individual level. If you think about that “buy it, get advertising for it” experience that we’ve all had, and if you assume the state has a bigger tech budget than, say, Amazon, then the point is not that they can see you, nor simply that they can hear you, but that they’re listening to you.

Tell them what to do. I don’t mean go into the fake-news business, nor protest in a way that triggers any of the anti-protest procedures, nor even necessarily sign a petition. Just say it. I’ve used several key words in this piece — do we still talk about search-engine optimisation? Revolution! Protest! — and it’s a fair bet that Big Brother is listening to me. Hey, bro. Did you see how well the Green Party did in the recent UK election? More green policies, please.

We’re all scared of the surveillance state. But turn that around. The surveillance state has invested so much in listening to us that it can’t shut us out now. Our voices are whispering through the corridors of power. They’re listening to you. So tell them what to do.

By way of a footnote — this has nothing to do with what I’ve just written, but it seems significant — when the Chinese authorities shut down Shanghai in pursuit of their Zero Covid Policy, Shanghai residents eventually protested by banging pots and pans on their balconies. That was reported around the world. I like to think of those individuals in China using their frying pans to communicate with policy-makers in Washington. Technology’s wonderful, isn’t it?

Escape Mutation by William Essex. Published by Climbing Tree Books. Find it wherever you look for books.



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