Why we must stop deferring to authority

In the run-up to next week’s spiked debate on the ‘surveillance society’, speaker Dolan Cummings sorts fact from science-fiction.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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A generation ago, the idea that you might be monitored by spy cameras everywhere you went in any British city would have been considered deeply sinister. And a generation ago, the idea that smoking would be banned in British pubs – pubs – would have been considered laughable. A lot has changed in a generation.

The funny thing is that there hasn’t been a revolution or a coup d’etat, nary a jackboot stamped or a shot fired. Britain is not a fundamentally different society, by world-historic standards, than it was a generation ago, and yet in certain respects its culture is fundamentally different. The kinds of changes people might have anticipated – the transformation or breakdown of the political system, or the development of flying cars and rocket boots – have failed to materialise, while many of the changes that have taken place – the politicisation of children’s lunches and the emergence of MySpace – simply would not have occurred to anyone a generation ago. Plus c’est la même chose, plus ça change.

This is the context within which we should understand the ongoing debate about whether Britain is becoming a ‘surveillance society’. The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee has launched a major inquiry to investigate the Information Commissioner’s claim, discussed on spiked last year, that we are sleepwalking into such a society (1). The mistake is to think of the surveillance society as a fundamentally different kind of society lingering somewhere in the near future. Most commentators have discussed existing surveillance measures, from CCTV to supermarket loyalty cards, as disturbing precursors of an authoritarian society to come, or the top of a slippery slope. What if, instead, the ‘surveillance society’ is simply the sum of unanticipated changes that have already happened?

In that case, CCTV is not a sign of things to come, but the natural outcome of well-established developments. Indeed, the perceived need for CCTV schemes has always been explained in the uncontroversial terms of public safety and even urban renewal, rather than social control. Rather than looking for a sinister hidden agenda behind these seemingly innocuous justifications, we should consider what they say about society as it already is. The assumption is that we are not safe in public places unless someone in authority is keeping an eye on things, that ‘community support officers’ – along with a battery of legislative devices like Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) and ‘good behaviour contracts’ – are the way to heal a seemingly fractured society and restore lost community.

What is missing is any sense of the public sphere as a vital and life-enhancing aspect of society that is independent of the state. This is nowhere clearer than in prevailing attitudes to children, which are marked by anxiety bordering on paranoia. When it comes to children, ‘the public’ is understoood almost exclusively as a threat from which they must be protected. Official monitoring of children and anyone who works with or even comes into contact with them is so accepted that it isn’t even considered ‘surveillance’. Today’s culture not only misrepresents the reality of public life, but institutionalises its pessimism, making it harder for people to do ordinary things like volunteering or talking to neighbours’ children.

The surveillance society is not a terrifying science-fiction future to guard against, but a mundane aspect of present reality. ‘Resistance’ does not mean going underground and taking potshots at stormtroopers, or dodging CCTV cameras and adopting false names. It means insisting on our ability to lead our lives and relate to one another without the supervision of the authorities. Indeed, the point is not to resist change, or to defend existing mores against encroachments, but to transform the culture that breeds surveillance – to aspire to a better society.
The ‘surveillance society’ is objectionable not as an undesirable development on the horizon, but as a clear and present obstacle to a better way of life in the here and now.

Dolan Cummings is editorial director at the Institute of Ideas and author of Surveillance and the City. He is speaking at the spiked/Clarke Mulder Purdie seminar ‘Living in a “surveillance society”‘, which takes place from 6.30pm to 8.30pm on Wednesday 20 June at the Commonwealth Club. For more information and to book your ticket, click here.

Previously on spiked

Dolan Cummings asked: Why do we submit to the ‘surveillance society’? The spiked/02 debate on mobile phones and child protection considered how far we should go. Rob Killick asked: Should we be afraid of State 2.0? Jennie Bristow said children are over-surveilled and under-protected. Tessa Mayes argued for the right to be free from state scrutiny in public places. Or read more at: spiked issue Liberties.

(1) See Why do we submit to the surveillance society?, by Dolan Cummings

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Topics Politics


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