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Death by data: how Kafka’s The Trial prefigured the nightmare of the modern surveillance state

We live in a world of covert court decisions and secret bureaucratic procedures and where privacy is being abolished – all familiar from Kafka’s best-known novel, The Trial.

A 1915 portrait of Franz Kafka. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“Kafkaesque” is a word much used and little understood. It evokes highbrow, sophisticated thought but its soupçon of irony allows those who use it to avoid being exact about what it means. When the writers of Breaking Bad titled one of their episodes Kafkaesque, they were sharing a joke about the word’s nebulousness. “Sounds kind of Kafkaesque,” says a pretentious therapy group leader when Jesse Pinkman describes his working conditions. “Totally Kafkaesque,” Jesse witlessly replies.

If the word is widely misused, it is also increasingly valuable. Last year, when the attorney and author John W Whitehead wrote about the US National Security Agency scandal in an article headlined “Kafka’s America”, the reference to Kafka clearly made sense:

“We now live in a society in which a person can be accused of any number of crimes without knowing what exactly he has done. He might be apprehended in the middle of the night by a roving band of Swat police. He might find himself on a no-fly list, unable to travel for reasons undisclosed. He might have his phones or internet tapped based upon a secret order handed down by a secret court, with no recourse to discover why he was targeted. Indeed, this is Kafka’s nightmare and it is slowly becoming America’s reality.”

We live in a world of covert court decisions and secret bureaucratic procedures and where privacy is being abolished – all familiar from Kafka’s best-known novel, The Trial. This year marks the centenary of the book’s composition, though it was not published until after Kafka’s death, in 1925.

Kafka’s texts age far more slowly than those of almost any other author of his era. In The Trial, we are drawn so compellingly into a story of pursuit and fear that it seems like a nightmare we all share, even though most people in the postwar west have not been subjected to anything nearly as extreme. Readers under communism, however, pictured a situation that they knew all too well, in which the fundamental rights of the individual had been stripped away. Many gravitated to a political interpretation of Kafka, bolstered by his friend and literary executor Max Brod, who had proclaimed Kafka a prophet. Those in power did not appreciate having a mirror held up to them and attached the label of “bourgeois decadence” to Kafka; his work was banned in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The communist literary scholar and social scientist Georg Lukács was one of Kafka’s strongest critics but after his arrest in 1956 in Budapest, he is said to have admitted, “Kafka was a realist after all.” This about-turn was as narrow-minded as his earlier indictment because both missed the point of Kafka’s work.

Kafka was not a prophet. He did not foresee the systematic persecution and annihilation of the Jews to which his three sisters fell victim. As a teenager, he experienced pogrom-like conditions in Prague; his family had to barricade itself in the apartment for days on end and his German-Jewish high school was vandalised. But these persecutions had yet to turn murderous. The state-sponsored killing of Jews, which was occurring in Russia on a regular basis, was considered unthinkable in the multinational Austria-Hungary and the “highly civilised” German empire.

It is easy to see how The Trial resonates with those living under a dictatorship. However, even the most cursory look at the novel reveals that Kafka was not depicting the sufferings of innocent victims. The protagonist, Josef K, is not especially likeable; he does not have any relationships with others and he is clearly tormented by some hidden guilt of which the court incessantly reminds him. The execution at the end takes place with K’s assent and as such is a suicide. Kafka went to great pains at this juncture to show that the court is merely reacting. Nothing occurs in this novel against the unequivocal will of the accused man.

Kafka did not merely portray how people become victims; he also showed the extent to which power relies on the complicity of its victims. This phenomenon goes beyond the political and touches on the insights of psychoanalysis. If a son continues to obey his father long after the latter’s death, it means that he has taken into his own hand the whip that once held him down. Freud explained how this could be possible with the existence of the superego, a psychological entity that represents the father and renders him immortal, ensuring that his repressive values system is passed on to the following generations.

Kafka was deeply sceptical of the therapeutic promises of psychoanalysis but he was captivated by the way it described the propagation of power, which chimed with his own experiences. Someone who keeps getting told that he is incapable, inferior or guilt-ridden will have to expend a good deal of energy to resist such a self-image and not make himself guilty in his own eyes. He has to struggle not because the forces of power have violated or diminished him but rather because he has been infiltrated by those forces. The poison lodges in his own body.

One can follow this process of infiltration in The Trial in slow motion; Josef K’s voluntary walk to the execution site is only the unhappy culmination. The process begins quite subtly, with K being placed under observation. He is told that there is a large and powerful authority that will be dealing with him from then on. This is borne out by the way that many pairs of eyes are trained on him: neighbours peer into the window, work colleagues show up uninvited at his apartment, strangers know all about his case.

From the moment that he becomes the accused man and so the object of suspicion, he suffers the loss of his privacy. No one causes him harm, no one locks him up, even his initially belligerent outbursts at the court go unpunished and no one contests his right to keep his management position at a bank. Even so, K feels like a hunted animal, an impression Kafka steps up to the point where even the reader loses the ability to draw a clear distinction between real threats and paranoia.

Today, we are far more sensitised to infiltration that does not involve physical contact than the first generations of Kafka’s readers were. This is a result of atmospheric changes in our society. In 2004, the European Union decided to collect the fingerprints of all of its passport holders and take digital photographs of their faces. This came about as a result of enormous pressure from the US, which cited security issues. It is no longer possible to get a new passport in any European country without fingerprinting. Refusal to submit to this on the grounds that the state is not entitled to make baseless encroachments on the bodies of its citizens would make a person look ridiculous and suspicious. Not long ago, a character in a detective film being fingerprinted was an unequivocal sign of that character’s stigmatisation, a marker of social and moral failure.


Eyes in the sky: a security camera monitoring station in Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong 

Something similar is happening with facial recognition. The passport agency points a camera at me, an upstanding citizen. Other agencies point thousands of cameras at me as I walk through town. These cameras impart the message that everyone is a potential offender, including me and the nice lady sitting across from me in the subway.

A second message is that I am living more safely than before, since everyone else is also aware of being observed, even though it is unclear whether there are human eyes lurking behind all these cameras, or sophisticated recognition software, or nothing at all. Does one really want to know? Seeking the details could result in a fate like that of Josef K, who, in his desire to confront the anonymous powers, ultimately saps his vitality.

It does not take much imagination to fathom where the unrestricted accumulation of monitoring equipment will lead. Being suspect will become an inescapable and natural social condition, while surveillance staff will become invisible. That was apparent even before the NSA scandal, because data storage devices are voracious no matter whose hands they are in and electronic information tends to consolidate into increasingly detailed profiles. What ethical qualms would hold back a state with a serious security problem from using an instrument of this kind? Or a state that might some day be saddled with a problem like this?

Data collection has a crucial role in Kafka’s novels: in The Castle, there is almost incessant talk of record-keeping and the collection of personal data is shown in all its grotesque detail. This, too, has little to do with any clairvoyant abilities on Kafka’s part and instead a great deal to do with his professional experiences: he was an official at a state-run insurance company for workers and he quicklyrealised that the emphasis on statistical assessment was something new and daunting. In his office, individual lives and catastrophes became fodder for files and actuaries. Kafka, who was sensitive to the social implications of these modern means of bureaucracy, recognised that they also altered the thinking of people affected. Anyone who deals with this kind of agency has no choice but to adapt to its routines. Kafka was surprised that the system’s worst victims did not force their way into his office but instead filled out the forms submissively, then awaited their notification.

This can also be regarded as the result of infiltration. Kafka graphically portrays the process in The Trial, in which the accused man questions the proceedings quite forcefully at first but then less and less often. Like K in The Castle, he lets himself be bought off with a convoluted description of bureaucratic procedures and for a while labours under the delusion that this has brought him closer to an understanding of his fate.

Readers experience a shock of recognition as they travel down this blind alley. They know what it is like to be swamped with legal and technical details in public debates on surveillance and terror prevention, which often pivot on the notion that technical solutions are the answer. It is useful to know why the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which works in secret, has approved 34,000 government surveillance requests and rejected only 11 (in part because it has to provide written reasons for rejections – but not for approvals), or to consider the security of cloud computing and online storage. And it is legitimate for European governments to think about replacing US-based data lines with their own. Yet this single-minded focus on technical problems is bound to stupefy us in the long run.

Josef K loses his case because he loses sight of what set it in motion. In The Castle, K wants to know why he was summoned to work as a land surveyor in a remote village where he is not needed. The circuitous answer he receives amounts to the idea that bureaucratic procedures of this kind are exceedingly complex and, as a result, fateful decisions are sometimes arrived at spontaneously. No one is responsible and there is nowhere to address complaints. (This reminds me of a Dilbert comic strip in which staff members suggest that their boss should set up a customer service line – but keep the number secret).

It gets even more problematic when those with power argue that they are only implementing what we have been secretly wishing for all along. For years, any criticism of how social media sites such as Facebook were dealing with personal data elicited the flippant response that the classic idea of privacy was outdated anyway – as if the technology of social networks was only reacting to a historic shift in our mindset that had already taken place and no one was being forced into anything.

There is an element of truth to that argument. I don’t have to let Google Street View make a digital record of my property and post the image online but it is such a hassle to prevent this from happening that I don’t bother. No one forces me to check a box confirming that I have accepted the terms and conditions of Facebook but I do it anyway, without understanding any of the mumbo-jumbo. As a result, I get used to entering into contractual obligations blindly – which is taken as proof of my trust. Eventually, I make peace with a historically unprecedented form of “pseudo-privacy” (as the German blogger Sascha Lobo has called it) and tacitly allow the state to scrutinise my private affairs – as long as the neighbours don’t learn anything about me.

This sense of moral isolation in an overly complex, obfuscating world is something we can relate to. Kafka was the first author to understand what it means when people are turned into statistical entities and when every move they make is compiled as data. For Kafka, the problem was not the machine – bureaucracy itself is blameless; it is not an active agent. The blame is ours. We are the ones checking the boxes, sharing our photographs and forgetting to delete.

Officially, we have the freedom to do as we please in our personal lives and yet we have grown increasingly beleaguered by the feeling that we have already given away this freedom. “So then you’re free?” someone asks Karl, the protagonist of Kafka’s novel The Man Who Disappeared: “‘Yes, I’m free,’ said Karl, and nothing seemed more worthless than his freedom.” For once, we must not let Kafka have the final word.

Written for the New Statesman, this essay was translated from the German by Shelley Frisch. “Kafka: the Decisive Years” by Reiner Stach is published by Princeton University Press (£16.95)

 

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But it is still a question worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was the first person to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.