Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

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How to Take Back Our Freedom in the Surveillance Society, by Alan N. Shapiro

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How To Take Back Our Freedom in the Surveillance Society
Alan N. Shapiro

These are a few excerpts from my upcoming lecture and e-book manuscript.

The topic of this lecture is “How to Take Back Our Freedom in the Surveillance Society.” I teach “Computer Programming for Artists and Designers” and media theory at the Hochschule für Gestaltung, Offenbach. I have published many essays in media theory and political theory in academic journals such as NoemaLab.eu and the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. Venturing into political theory, I will present today a theory of the surveillance society and a theory of freedom. Taking a media theory approach, I will show video clips of 5 examples taken from great films and TV shows about surveillance, and also offer some commentary on these ‘moving images’.

We will watch an excerpt from the 1967 British BBC television series The Prisoner, which was produced and directed by Patrick McGoohan, who also starred in the leading dramatic role in the series. The Prisoner deals with themes such as surveillance, the Information Society and ‘the Global Village’ (a concept which made the media theorist Marshall McLuhan famous in the 1960s).

Then we will watch an excerpt from the 1984 filmed version of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton, about a fictional totalitarian state that keeps all of its citizens under close surveillance.

This will be followed by an excerpt from the 1998 film The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey. The fictional character Truman Burbank is under surveillance by television cameras 24 hours a day within the framework of a carefully choreographed Reality TV show that is watched by billions of voyeuristic viewers all over the world.
Then an excerpt from the 2002 film Minority Report, directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Tom Cruise, and based on the short story “The Minority Report” by the great American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. In a futuristic scenario set in the United States in 2054, the police apprehend criminals before they commit their nearly-certain-to-take-place crimes, based on surveillance-acquired-like foreknowledge of the future that is regarded as being legally and scientifically legitimate.

Finally I will show an excerpt from the 1992 film Sneakers, starring Robert Redford and Ben Kingsley, which presents a narrative of playing with and hacking surveillance. Martin Brice and Cosmo, the characters portrayed by Redford and Kingsley, were university students in America in 1969 who hacked into computer networks to steal money which they then transferred to the bank accounts of liberal political causes. Brice and his present-day (1992) team of computer security specialists are recruited in mysterious circumstances by the National Security Agency (NSA) to carry out a dubious mission.

In Western Europe and in North America, we have lived for decades with a very strong myth of individual freedom that is associated with democracy, capitalism, and consumerism.

The classical statement about citizenship in the sociological literature was provided by T.H. Marshall in his essay “Citizenship and Social Class.”  The general concern of Marshall’s writing was the study of the class structure in Great Britain and its relationship to the history of democratic rights. Following an evolutionist schema, Marshall regarded modern history as the progressive unfolding of rights and extension of participation to more and more sectors of the population. The essential meanings of citizenship are equality and “full membership in the community,” and the historical extension of its influence has taken place through three stages: the emergence of the components of civil, political, and social citizenship.

Updating German sociologist Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money, we can take note of the distinct appeal of money as an object of eminent possession. Money is the quintessential token of cultural citizenship, and most perfectly embodies the unity of its antipodes: the regulation of an abstract code and the illusions of ‘personalization’ and individual freedom. In an economy which is increasingly ‘positional’, steeped in a culture of individualistic advance, people become excessively preoccupied with money and monetary gain. They are more likely to take uninteresting, high-paying jobs than interesting, low-paying jobs. More and more cash income is needed to maintain status. Time is purchased with money. More and more activities are drawn into the cash nexus. People speak more and more about money in everyday conversation.

Money is the decisive emblem of security and cultural citizenship in our society. Money could be studied in a myriad of ways: money and cultural citizenship, money in circulation, the handling of money, money as signifier, money and identity. Money could be thought of as related to a myth of ‘freedom in resolution’. It is suspended between its abstraction and fixed artificiality as signifier and the almost universal doctrine that it is a bestower of freedom and self-determination.

It should have been clear a long time ago that the emerging omnipresence of information technologies would lead to an explosion of surveillance in all areas of our lives.

We need to go beyond Foucault-, Orwell-, and Huxley-inspired models of how contemporary quasi-totalitarian systems of social control work. Individual freedom right now is in big trouble. American hyper-reality, hyper-work, hyper-consumerism, hyper-communication, and hyper-eating today strike me in so many aspects as being systems of mutual- and self-surveillance. The current system of ubiquitous cell phones is also a system of mutual- and self-surveillance. My friends, family, and co-workers want me to permanently account for myself. Where am I, what am I doing, and what am I thinking? And I’m asking myself the same disciplinary questions. We don’t need Big Brother anymore, since we are all keeping tabs on ourselves and each other.

We have so many new forms of surveillance now alongside the old ones: self-surveillance, mutual surveillance, the simulation of surveillance, the new workload that surveillance piles up around us, to name a few.

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