why porn may be the safety valve the surveillance state needs

Yesterday I curiously compared one of my favourite activities, proofreading, to what I described as “good sex” – ie voyeuristic sex:

But if truth be told, proofreading is like good sex – or voyeuristic sex, anyway. Unlike the role of writer, when everything unspools, when a handle on the work’s direction does not entirely belong to the author, when the characters themselves take on lives of their own … unlike the writer or the thinker or the salesperson, the proofreader sees everything – but everything – at a single glance.

Two things I’d observe with these lines: one, I never realised I might personally define good sex as voyeurism – though living in a world where everyone watches everyone, it’s perhaps hardly surprising that this has become the case.  From the state and its intelligence arms to neighbours on Facebook, taking in readers and their journalists along the way, all of us are fascinated by everything the rest of us do.

My second observation focusses, however, specifically on the question of the state.  In yesterday’s post, I go on to say the following (the bold is mine today):

Networks are popular things these days: everything, as you can see, can be interpreted as a network.  There is, of course, in all our lives a real place for love and attachment, with all its happy and sad complications.  But surely there is also a place for where we can feel in charge: something which briefly reassures our sense of being; of emotion; of character; of simple existence.

I wonder, then, in a society and civilisation where the levels of permanent, dragnet surveillance are increasing frighteningly, exponentially, in most anti-liberal ways, whether it’s an altogether intelligent thing to pursue – as the British do at least – those who consume online porn.  I would argue, at least today, and in the absence of any feedback which indicates otherwise, that the purpose of online porn – politically incorrectly of course, and something my inner sense and sensibility will automatically (maybe knee-jerkingly!) disagree with – is primarily to feed its users’ desire to be in sexually charge of the landscape they view.

This is probably a definition of bad sex in most people’s books.  So why do I think I may have described the instinct as good?  Maybe, for starters, I’m a bad person.  Maybe that’s the reality out there.  I don’t think it is: I think I’m just a normal person.  But the possibility must always be contemplated.

There is another explanation we could consider, however: as our inability to control our lives spreads to all parts of our existences, as large companies track and stalk our every online expression using big data, as governments watch our every intimacy, as even our friends and family gather in chat rooms, so our need (as I suggest above) to “feel in charge”, to have “something which briefly reassures our sense of being; of emotion; of character; of simple existence” … this all becomes so very important – and yet, simultaneously beyond us.

I’m not saying the surveillance state makes porn a physical necessity.  I’m being rather more complex (as is my wont) than that: rather, I would suggest that it – or something analogous – is needed to allow us to feel we still control our destinies.

There is nothing worse, nor more final for a thinking psyche, than to wonder if life is a set of aggressively trammelled tracks, out of which no being can step.

We need the tracks; of course we do.  Society needs structure to survive.  But as human beings, as social beings, we also thirst for freedom of choice.

And an intelligent society and civilisation, which doesn’t want to see itself self-consumed, should understand that before it’s too late.

I don’t think it is yet.

But one day it may be.

So just to make it clear and ultimately manifest: I’m not saying we need online porn to stick together as a species.  I am, however, suggesting that the temporary sense of control over what we are that online porn clearly provides is an instinct and impulse that any government worth its people would be well advised to study, assess and comprehend.

Finally, I’d be interested on your thoughts on this one.  Anything I’ve missed out, or got wrong, in particular.

Until the next time …

(in a way) total surveillance could equal liberty – here’s how (don’t hold your breath tho’)

There’s a fairly dumb contradiction being promoted at the moment.

On the one hand, we’re told – by those who do the surveilling – that surveillance was never more total nor complete in human history than now.

On the other hand, we’re told – by those who do the surveilling – that surveillance strategies, tools and orgs were never in need of more resources than today, and in the future.


Because the baddies are getting even worse.

The logical conclusion, as the baddies get so bad, and even total surveillance isn’t infinite enough, will be that no human rights will remain for us to enjoy.

As I suggested yesterday:

We don’t need this. We really don’t. We don’t need a state which perceives the condition-at-birth of every future citizen as being a potential criminal within the people.

Something else, however, in yesterday’s thoughts, continues to gnaw away at me.  In particular, this section from the Huffington Post piece I quoted, which in turn quotes from government documents:

The report also notes that “online networks and communities” could provide a “pathway into serious and organised crime”.

The underlying assumption – I presume, anyway – is that if you go with corporate-based social-networking, you’re OK as far as the government is concerned.  Corporate for them is good: you only need one meeting with one CEO to command the attention of 100,000 cascaded workers – and, also presumably, billions of end-users.  (It’s manifestly not true, as the various banking scandals demonstrate – but, hey-ho, when did the truth need to get in the way?)

Meanwhile, little micro-biz needs to be battered into submission, as the attention you’d need to give it would far outweigh the time centralised governance cares to fork out and spend on those millions of little people.

No.  I’m not trying to get you to shed tears for small people.  In a sense, I can understand government’s thinking here.  Unfortunately for them, and for us too, top-down communication of the minister-to-CEO sort we’re discussing is very 19th century; very kings and queens; very demonstrably inefficient as far as the goals in question are concerned.

So we do need another way.

Back to total surveillance.

If it could be made to work as they claim it already does (something I’m not absolutely sure events are proving to be currently true), we could all have the freedom to set up in perfect transparency any number of local community websites, wikis and communication tools that we’d like.


Total surveillance, once the original shock of the new was overcome, could quite logically lead to a set of greater liberties – different from those previously enjoyed, but just as real all the same.

The liberties would be, at the very least, twofold:

  1. Freedom not to have to communicate via exclusively corporate means.
  2. The right to choose any size or structure of local communication networks.

Coupled with the manifest aim of democratic constitutions for such local organisations and infrastructures, we could actually use the concept of total surveillance to our benefit.

One problem.

I don’t believe those who run total surveillance believe in making it easy for micro-biz to do its thing, nor difficult for large corporate orgs to be in more or less complete control.  Those who run total surveillance are, themselves, working in corporate orgs.  It’s natural, then, that they should find it easy to discard corporate corruption and crime as occasional exceptions to the rule of broad corporate probity and see micro-orgs as generally threatening.

Is this problem insoluble – or does it require a process of education?

Education, after all, has allowed much of the good in the world to continue its steady march.

We’ll see.

I, myself, have to be hopeful.

Without hope, where would we be?

piecemeal rearguard action vs a full-blown bill of rights: why we must forget the #snooperscharter

Cameron & Co are certainly showing their true colours.  From waiting on the death of a key witness, whose presence was much required in the much hobbled child sex abuse inquiry, to this weekend’s news about the return of the #snooperscharter, they aren’t half effectively managing their unhappy politics.

Open Rights Group informs us thus:

The Counter Terrorism and Security Bill is being debated on Monday, but suddenly it’s turned into a totally different beast. Four peers have decided to insert the Snoopers’ Charter into the law, as 18 pages of amendments.

The amendments are nearly identical in form to the draft Communications Data Bill, which was previously scrutinized by a parliamentary committee who concluded that it was inappropriate. All the problems with the Snoopers’ Charter – that its figures were “fanciful and misleading,” that it, “pays insufficient attention to the duty to respect the right to privacy,” are still there.

Laying 18 pages of amendments before the Lords to insert the Snoopers’ Charter into an already complicated Bill is an abuse of our democratic system. The Lords cannot have time to properly consider the bill, and would deny the Commons the opportunity to consider the clauses as well.

Meanwhile, Paul makes many similarly useful observations – and even EFF quite rightly gets in on the act.

I am, myself, minded to take another route thought.

Tech, whether surveillance tech or consumer tech, whether state or private sector, has analogous relationships with parliaments and legislative bodies everywhere.  As long ago as the late 1970s, good people were warning of the risks:

The Rockford Files in 1978

And yet, even so, tech culture (Google, Apple, Facebook etc) was allowed to develop faster than people were allowed or able to legislate.

I’d argue, therefore, that in a parallel way, the laws which have been drafted and passed to provide oversight of surveillance culture – at least here in Britain – have done little to lead current or previous practice and everything to weakly follow the same.

The yardstick being that if it’s in a bill of Parliament, they’re already doing it anyway.

If the #snooperscharter gets passed before the next general election in May, hidden amongst clever, sneaky or abusive amendments in a symbiotic or parasitical way (depending on your point of view, of course), the failure to stop it will be little more than symbolic.  Even if good, grand people and organisations like ORG, EFF and Paul do manage to prevent it, its prevention will only stop institutions which act entirely within the law from continuing their shady behaviours.  Those actions which take place, which have taken place and which will continue to take place in the future – in the quite extra-legal circumstances which befit the sector we’re discussing – will continue to operate extra-legally, as if nothing had changed or been implemented.

This is why I’m saying we need to accept the #snooperscharter as a done deal, much as the Googles and Facebooks of the world have bulldozered through much of European privacy legislation in the past.  Yes.  There are useful things, markers in the sand we can draw I suppose, that piecemeal rearguard activities can achieve – but they continue, as I’ve already said, to be more symbolic than real.

The circumstances are such that it’s no longer surveillance legislation we need to address but surveillance culture.  Good government can only work, taxes can only be cooperatively collected, when people trust they have the best governance that civilisation is capable of offering.

Tech-located laws which follow, which rubber-stamp decades later, underhand practices in both private and public sectors are not the best way of offering a better governance.

Nor are they examples of good and honest lawmaking.

We need a much broader instrument to deal with the preoccupying collapse of good governance in the Western world.

That instrument, I suggest, should be a sweepingly explicit Bill of Rights which re-establishes, for everyone to see, feel and absorb, the importance of privacy to the good functioning of a liberal society.

A liberal society can only exist when the levels of trust and privacy are high.

At the moment this is not the case – and liberal society is not what we have.

So whilst it’s fine – on occasions – to fight rearguard with rearguard, it’d be far more intelligent, useful and constructive to fight that manifest lack of liberal culture we find almost everywhere with the undeniable touchstone a liberal Bill of Rights could represent.