It has become dramatically easier to watch what people do from day to day on a very intimate level. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on psychology: if you live in a surveillance state for long enough, you create a censor in your head

There is a significant psychological price to being constantly aware of the variety of ways in which your activity might be tracked.

What do you do when you know nobody can stop you? Me, I like to travel. In the past three years, I’ve been lucky enough to spend time in a number of world cities, but lately when I come back home to London and ride the Underground, I am struck by a nagging sense that something is missing. It took a friend visiting from the United States to point out what it is. There’s almost no graffiti. The people of London do not habitually doodle on our public transportation system. That makes us unusual.

It’s very hard to stop people writing on their own city. In Berlin, in New York and in Chicago, buses and trains and public buildings have tags and drawings scrawled all over them, from the skilled and serious to the crudely anatomical. This winter, in the streets outside the Ittihadiya Palace in Cairo, a bold slogan was daubed over the latest attempt by state officials to whitewash over words of protest. When I asked my friend to translate the Arabic, he told me it meant: “Hey, nice paint job!” In the Athens subway, every surface that will hold colour has been annotated. But not the London Underground, which coincidentally is watched by more than 11,000 CCTV cameras.

We have murals and bits of street art, but everyday graffiti is far less common than elsewhere. What is stopping us?

It’s not that Londoners are afraid. Not quite. It’s that in the world’s most surveillance-heavy metropolis, in a city that unironically welcomed tourists to the Olympics with a mascot of a lidless panopticon eyeball dressed as a police officer, it usually doesn’t occur to us to be anything other than compliant.

After the revelations in the past few weeks that the US National Security Agency and British intelligence have had access to data from big internet and telephone providers through the Prism programme, it is worth thinking about how everyday surveillance changes our behaviour. I’m not just talking about activists. I’m also talking to you, typical New Statesman reader, you who are the picture of moderate liberalism and have only occasionally contemplated setting fire to the House of Lords. As it becomes easier and more routine for states to collect and analyse large quantities of data about their citizens, and as it becomes ever harder for those citizens to stop them, the changes are producing a gradual chilling effect.

Don’t panic: just because Google, Facebook, Skype, Verizon and other companies are routinely monitored by the CIA doesn’t mean that somebody is watching you every time you order groceries online or voice-chat your sister in Seoul. It just means that they could if you gave them a reason to do so. That means you can relax – right up until the time when you want to go to a protest, or your sister does, or you support the fact that several thousand complete strangers did.

It’s hard to talk about all of this sensibly without sounding like the proverbial streetcorner ranter, two screws short of an inflammatory sandwich board, telling everyone how the CIA has put cameras in our underpants. The problem is that the CIA probably wouldput cameras in our underpants if there were a subtle, easy and cost-effective way for it to do so, although I pity the poor surveillance grunt who might one day have to check out where my Marks & Spencer value-pack knickers have been.

As it is, it has become dramatically easier to watch what people do from day to day on a very intimate level. We knew this before the NSA leaks. We are reminded of it every time we tick the little box that says “I agree”. The big question is how it changes our everyday behaviour.

There is a significant psychological price to being constantly aware of the variety of ways in which your activity might be tracked. To be blunt, it makes you feel crazy. That is why, if you want a quiet life, you shouldn’t make friends with security analysts: they tend to get drunk and describe the ways in which your phone can be turned into a listening device until the skin on the back of your neck starts to crawl, because it’s their job to know about such things. There is a non-zero cost to this sort of awareness.

In a choice between paranoid vigilance and easy participation, few choose paranoia. It’s just easier to change your behaviour. A friend who works in computer security told me that “the most important censorship happens between your head and your keyboard”. Self-censorship is significant in a world where, increasingly, as the tech journalist Quinn Norton observes, “falling in love, going to war and filling out tax forms looks the same: it looks like typing”.

There are still ways to operate in private. If I want to have an online conversation or make a transaction that I’m absolutely sure can’t be snooped on, there are tools I can download, software I can teach myself to use. But it’s a faff, and it can protect you only so far unless you choose to go entirely off-grid, and I’ve been addicted to Facebook since 2006. It’s far less trouble to modify your behaviour so you don’t ever say anything that might give the wrong impression. It’s easier, in short, to behave.

Fighting for the basic privacy that our grandparents took for granted is exhausting, so, instead, we might change how we speak and act, subtly, without even knowing that we’re doing it. The word that Michel Foucault uses to describe this type of modified behaviour is discipline. We might not make jokes about blowing up airports on the internet any longer, because we know that if we’re caught there will be consequences. We might not make any more unauthorised searches on our work computers. We might take care what we download.

The chilling disciplinary effect taking place in the digital age affects everyone. Whether we tolerate further intrusions on our privacy or continue to self-censor as a response to surveillance is up to all of us.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.