Seditious Surveillance

The following post is by Dr Eric Stoddart from St Andrews University, one of the country’s leading experts in the field of theology and surveillance. I need say nothing here. His excellent work speaks for itself.

Seditious Surveillance

It is one of the many ironies of contemporary surveillance cultures that a person makes themselves more visible when avoiding surveillance. Sending encrypted emails or using anonymous internet browsing has itself become suspicious activity.

Whilst there are many nefarious reasons that a person might seek to conceal their online activities from the police and security services, the assumption is now that taking extra steps to ensure privacy necessarily means a person has something sinister to hide. Such reasoning becomes bizarre when re-read in a pre-digital context – choosing to send a letter in a sealed envelope rather than write on a postcard must mean the writer is up to no good.

Similarly, using a personal video camera to monitor, even inadvertently, the activities of the police during a public demonstration attracts the attention of those officers. The investigation of the death of Ian Tomlinson in London in 2009 was challenged on the basis of a bystanders video. Finally, in 2013 the Metropolitan police issued a formal apology to his family for the “excessive and unlawful” force that had been used against Tomlinson (http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/aug/05/ian-tomlinson-apology-met-police).

Small, wearable, video recording devices can tilt the balance of surveillance-power a little more towards the active citizen than the institutions that watch. (The possibilities have been discussed for over a decade, see a good early piece on sousveillance (surveillance from below) by Steve Mann, Jason Nolan and Barry Wellman – http://www.surveillance-and-society.org/articles1(3)/sousveillance.pdf )

More recently, Adam Harvey has been exhibiting “Stealth Wear” http://www.ahprojects.com/projects/stealth-wear/ – fashion items that can counter body scanning equipment. These build on his earlier work using make-up that can camouflage users from facial detection software.

Subverting surveillance in these ways is seditious. The tools of the surveillance industry are reconfigured to watch the watchers. The human face, vital to social interaction and surveillance recognition, becomes a site of resistance when make-up, usually worn to make personal statements of identity, is instead worn in such a way as to confuse automated systems and thereby conceal by means of an identity statement.

Christian theology has traditionally reinforced surveillance through narratives and images of God-on-high looking down on men and women as they go about their daily activities. The apse of many a church is decorated with a fresco of Jesus Pantocrator, enthroned in glory, keeping a watchful eye on the world.

A seditious theology of God’s surveillance activities is required. Christ is a prisoner under execution partly due to having been under surveillance. It is from the Cross that he performs his surveillance of the world. Such a reversal of orientation better reflects Christ’s surveillance of humanity as an act of solidarity. He, the one who was under surveillance, identifies with and sides with those who are subject to unjust (albeit it often legal) surveillance. A seditious theology of surveillance thus confronts Christian legitimations of state surveillance that fail to question this nexus of nationalism, militarism and capitalism. Solidarity with those who experience the disproportionate allocation of surveillance – e.g., people of particular ethnic or religious groups, and people receiving welfare benefits – is then incumbent upon Christians. Sousveillance, much more than surveillance, is the paradigm for a theology of watching.

I explore this more extensively in Theological Perspectives on a Surveillance Society, published by and available from Ashgate http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9780754667971

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