Googling the phrase “surveillance society”, I see quite a bit has been written about it in recent years. I don’t have much to add, or even a point of view to endorse. I’m only thinking about it because of a couple of things that happened one day a few days back.
The first was Google’s announcement of a home delivery system (Prime members only, natch) that consists of a smart lock for your front door and a video surveillance camera pointed at the door. When a package is delivered, the driver has a one-time code for opening the door, will slip the package just inside the door, and Amazon will email you a video clip of the entire process. This is just the tip of a more comprehensive infrastructure—you can give friends or repairmen codes to unlock the door, you can install more surveillance cameras and have Amazon store and manage the video footage for you, and so on.
My original reaction to home video surveillance was to be creeped out, but as time goes on I can see the point better, even though I can’t see myself ever installing it. For one, I would be comfortable enough to give other people access to my home if I knew (and they knew) they were on video. For another, video footage can answer reasonable questions. Twice now I’ve had to deal with neighbors who came to me about things they caught my kids doing on camera. Nothing serious—once involved walking off with some small toys left lying around, the other was simply walking across a piece of property—but fair enough for the neighbors to be concerned. (The delight they took in having caught the episodes on camera was disturbing, though.) And there have been a few times in our own history where surveillance footage would have provided answers we weren’t otherwise able to get.
The other thing happened when I was looking at a Google map of Frankfort and saw a pin labelled “St Paul Methodist Church, January 12, 10:30am”. I clicked on the pin and saw “Your event: Zaycon Fresh Order Receipt – ZCF139160X18, Thu, Jan 11, 10:30 AM”. Aha. True enough, I had ordered some bulk meat from Zaycon to be picked up then and there. I hadn’t told Google about it—but of course I had, by using their Gmail service.
This sort of thing happens more and more, and it doesn’t bother me much. I live my life as an open book, so when it happens I mostly marvel at Google’s ever-improving skills at extracting meaning from the sea of noise that passes through its pipes on its way to me.
To me, the bigger concern isn’t what surveillance will discover, but how we will adapt to ever-increasing surveillance. Technology doesn’t cater to us, we cater to it. As the machines become more capable of watching over us, we will change our ways so that they are more easily watched. In our hearts we wish to be all watched over by machines of loving grace, and will happily adapt as needed to live into that illusion.
The good news (!) is that the inescapability of surveillance is also an illusion—at least, it will never be difficult to keep important things from the watchers, only inconvenient … and the most important things can’t be seen by their cameras anyway.