I suppose we might understand the term “surveillance state” to refer to that amorphous mass and nexus of operations that integrates large tech companies and governments. Alternatively, perhaps some of us believe it only includes the public-sector side of things: secretive Big Government institutions such as the US NSA and the British GCHQ.
I’m not really sure, in online environments like today’s, that we will ever be exactly sure what we mean. And I guess, by the by, that the effect of this evening’s post will be to confuse matters even more.
Take a look, from the keyboard of Martin Belam, at these two recent and successive tweets:
When I saw them flit by, as a very non-journalist with zero experience of real newsrooms, I suddenly realised that this kind of analytical data will be available to all media writers. In fact the blogging tools bringing this post to you now are no different in this respect to the environment I imagine Belam has around him on a daily basis.
So have journalists – have we all – in a way become part of the surveillance state? If we take the phrase in its broadest sense, I think maybe we have. If we use any kind of content management system – virtual word-processors, essentially – we watch what people read; we count up the number of comments; we see the reactions that the more professional commenters lay out; we even begin to recognise the (emotional) buttons that can be pressed in order that page impressions may increase.
All well and good. Nothing new here. And yet, in a way, there is. We can hardly complain – or at least, not without a degree of hypocrisy – when the state surveills us, even as we surveill both it and our supposed compatriots back.
The trend towards measuring, in comparable metrics, the actions of normal human beings isn’t just the prerogative of the spooks, is it? In a way, we’ve all become spooks – or would like to be more than we are, anyhow.
There are people, newspaper environments, out there right now who are – in very good faith – looking to recover an older, more honourable, relationship between readers and journalists (I resist the attempt bravely to call the latter “content producers” …). But this will surely only be possible if hierarchies of knowledge are restored.
One example I saw earlier in the day: when the Tesco Clubcard programme was first mooted, the CEO at the time (I think it was) got quoted as saying to the outsourced designers of the scheme something along the lines of: “In six months you will know more about my customers than we have learnt in thirty years.”
This was kinda big data, way before big data ever was. Just think, decades later, where analytics now finds itself.
So I imagine all newspapers with an online presence will now have this capacity to know so much more about their readers than their readers know about them. Sound at all familiar?
I’m pretty sure it does.
If journalists – or even just ordinary you and me (readers, voters, lovers, friends, carers, workers or simply plain confused) – truly don’t want the surveillance state to take over everything, we have to ask ourselves not the question “Do I wish to tolerate their invasions of my privacy?” but instead “Do I wish to invade others’ privacy as they obviously do?”.
Is it possible for a journalist not to be part of the surveillance state? Was it ever possible?
I imagine you’d say: “You’re playing fast and loose with the terminology. Just because you use similar tools doesn’t make you a component of the industrial complex in question.”
Quite apart from the fact that your competition moulds you, there is another matter to hand.
Let’s admit that those of us who do not wish to be are managing not to form an extension of the surveillance state. Surely, by using the power of analytics to “understand” our readerships, we cannot avoid forming – at the very least – an extension of a surveillance state of mind.
Whether we like it or not, this last ten or twenty years or so have seen an explosion in voyeuristic behaviours. From the dawn of virtual porn to the continuing development of virtual ink, we observe, watch and record like never before in human history.
Has to have some impact, no?