The other side of surveillance

Imagine a world where everything we do, or say, or write can be seen, heard, or read on the Internet — in short, a world that has become the global equivalent of Big Brother’s house.  Such a world will not allow any space for solitude or privacy, except maybe a tiny cubicle in our minds in which we keep under lock and key what remains of our innermost personal thoughts.

This world of total surveillance will change the way we live, the way we perceive, the way we think, and the way we experience life.  It will transform human relationships beyond imagination.  It will overturn our values and beliefs.

Will it not wipe out crime, cruelty and violence, dishonesty and betrayal? Will it not make human beings follow the straight and narrow path of a clean and orderly life? Perhaps, for a while, yes: the awareness that an allseeing eye (what Jeremy Bentham called a “panopticon”) is watching all the time may act as a deterrent against deviance. But, in the long term, I think it will not. Deviance will just become more commonplace, gradually shedding off its shock value and strangeness.  Like reality TV, what initially elicits voyeurism becomes boring through repetition, and we lose our capacity for awe or revulsion.

All this may seem counter-intuitive in the face of recent events in our society where offensive behavior by those in power has been captured on tape or on camera and broadcast for everyone to see and hear.  The examples that immediately come to mind include: the “Hello Garci” tapes which exposed the conspiracy to rig the 2004 presidential election, the mobile phone video of what appears to be a police rubout of a gang of motor vehicle robbers, and the more recent video clip, taken with a cell phone camera, of a police officer torturing a crime suspect in a Manila police sub-station.  The airing of these audio and video recordings has, in general, had a positive “conscienticizing” effect.  It has awakened public vigilance.  It has made Filipinos see that an actively engaged public can help end the culture of impunity that is destroying the fabric of our national life.

These obvious benefits must not blind us, however, to the wickedness of living under continual surveillance.  The right to privacy is a hard-won right that belongs to the modern individual.  We cannot take it for granted. There are many aspects of our lives we prefer to keep private, to be shared, if at all, only with close kin and intimate friends.  There are moments when we wish to be left alone.  “We live thick and are in each other’s way, and I think we thus lose some respect for one another,” wrote Henry David Thoreau.  He sought solitude by living in the woods.  Today, it is not easy to avoid surveillance. A paranoid culture has enveloped our daily life like terrorism’s twin, treating the individual as a potential enemy.  Mobile devices like cell phones that can record sounds and capture images, and closed circuit TV cameras (CCTV) installed almost everywhere, have made every assertion or practice of privacy a possible form of terrorist concealment.

Some say that if you have nothing to hide, you should have nothing to worry about. Or, if you wish to remain private, you should completely stay out of the public limelight.  Or, that only the powerful who must hide their corruption and their oppression of others need worry about privacy. I think these are facile excuses for unwarranted intrusion into people’s private lives. Surreptitious recordings tend assume a life of their own.  Taken out of context, the most harmless conversations and images acquire the most insidious meanings depending on the narrative into which they are remixed.

Even actors who spend a good deal of their lives onstage crave for quiet moments backstage, where they can be themselves.  While it is natural to want to present ourselves in the best possible light, we pine for those moments when we do not have to perform. Imagine what life would be like if every conversation was potentially an interview — to be recorded, quoted, and broadcast.  It would drain all the pleasure out of human speech.  We would be choosing and weighing every word before we allow it to leave our lips as an utterance.  We would be saying things that mean nothing.  Burdened by distrust, all communication would ground to a halt.

The other day, I was having coffee with a long time friend from college.  We do this every other month when we can find a common time. We exchange news about family and career.  We talk about the country and the people of our generation who have gone away or are now in positions of power.  It was mid-afternoon and we were seated at a corner table in a spacious coffee shop.  Midway through our conversation, a young man took the table beside ours.  He casually pulled out his mobile phone, laid it on the table, and kept himself busy while waiting for his order.  I did not notice anything unusual, but, after a while, my friend suddenly lowered his voice and warned me that we were being recorded.  He looked at the young man’s cell phone on the table, and glared at him.  Immediately, the man touched a button on his phone, put it back into his pocket, and left.

How did you know? I asked my friend.  “There were more than a dozen empty tables in the room,” he said.  “Yet he picked the one next to ours.”  I kidded him that he was being paranoid.  I could not imagine why anyone would want to record our conversation. Times have changed, he said grimly.  Everyone is on surveillance.