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, <em>The Trial</em>.

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)