Meaning making represents the foundation on which societies may construct their approaches to the management of persons and things, as well as the constraints on the forms these efforts may take. That is, meaning making touches on both the idea of a thing as well as its moral value in the context of a social order built around the arrangement of all kinds of things with moral values in ways that produce something of a coherent whole. In the case of surveillance, changes are feared to have profound effect, but these effects are conventionally measured against the status quo ante. Perhaps more interesting is the way in which the meaning of surveillance is being remade in the shadow of pandemic.
Here one speaks to the formation of surveillance as a cluster of ideas, techniques, principles and judgments that is obvious. The re-formation of surveillance as a set of obvious understandings, of common meaning, and with with obvious moral value (good or evil) may be more significant than the legal debate about the structures for organizing surveillance and assigning authority over its implementation and oversight across public and private actors, more important than the political and economic debate about surveillance. And yet the construction of the obvious--of surveillance as a set of significations with moral value that then drive economic, political, and legal debates--may be overlooked.
This post provides some brief thoughts on the role of meaning making in the age of pandemic with reference to its substantial effect on the obviousness of the morality of surveillance.
It’s spreading quickly now—governments around the world latching onto our smartphone locations as a proxy for where we all are, when and for how long. The data forms a map of population tracking to report on density and social distancing as well as anonymized travel patterns. Some governments are a level beyond, exploring movement tracking, contact tracing, quarantine enforcement. What started in China, Singapore and South Korea as an exercise in rigorous containment has rapidly expanded to Europe and the U.S., countries within which the sacrifice of freedom still causes anxiety, despite the clear public interest. It turns out that after years of critiquing China’s surveillance state, come the crisis there were some useful lessons to be learned. (COVID-19 Phone Location Tracking: Yes, It’s Happening Now—Here’s What You Should Know; and here).
|(COVID-19, surveillance and the threat to your rights).|
Stating the obvious, then, acquires a wholly different meaning. It loses its pejorative sense to become something far more important than a silly insult hurled by even sillier academics and their claques within governing or influencing institutions. Stating the obvious becomes an act of power--in this guide it serves as the expression of collective politics. It is also an act of authentication. In this guides it serves as affirmation of the authority of the maker to invest an object with meaning--collective meaning. Stating the obvious, then, is the highest function of those who claim authority for the direction of society and its operational systems. To state the obvious is to make the thing stated obvious. It is to incarnate the sense of the thing as the thing itself--what is obvious, then, becomes meaning. This act of meaning making then obscures the object onto which meaning is itself attached. It is the act of constructing collective meaning. It is the act of putting something in the way, of making something unavoidable. The etymology of the word "obvious" enriches this subliminal understanding. The word derives from the "Latin obvius "that is in the way, presenting itself readily, open, exposed, commonplace," from obviam (adv.) "in the way," from ob "in front of, against" (see ob-) + viam, accusative of via "way" (Etymology Online"Obvious"). To make a meaning obvious, then, is to put it in the way--to put it in the way of social discourse, in the way of understanding the word, and as the way in which it signals the allocation of authority within a human community. The obvious is meaning one cannot avoid.
It it in this context that one might understand the way that COVID-19 has exposed an acceptance of surveillance as a necessary tool of social ordering. Acceptance is meant here is a very specific way--not the way one accepts the marriage of one's children to people one might or might not like--but rather to acceptance as a recognition of the inevitability of the thing accepted or its place in the world. That is, one now accepts surveillance as a necessity, the way one might accept taxation or the role of the local police. "To the feelings of fear, restlessness, insecurity and sorrow taking hold around the globe, the pandemic era has added another certainty: being watched." (Cellphone monitoring is spreading with the coronavirus. So is an uneasy tolerance of surveillance: More than two dozen countries are tracking cellphones to help stem the spread of the coronavirus). One encounters surveillance here NOT as an object technique (its technical aspects, though forms an important subsidiary part of the conversation). Rather it reveals the way that the meaning of surveillance, its signification, has changed the way that surveillance is approached as a manifestation of social good; that is the way that surveillance as sign has undergone an inversion of moral meaning.
The popularity of the app appears to be driven by Australians' pride in the success of their health-driven lockdown — fewer than 100 people have died of covid-19 — and by heavy security and legal protections that should ensure the app does not infringe on personal liberties. The software's main feature is under the control of each individual. When people test positive for covid-19, they are asked to activate a function on the app that sends their information to the federal government. Anyone else with the app who came into close contact with an infected person can then be identified and notified. Each person's location is not recorded — just whom they were near. The information is automatically deleted after three weeks, and steep fines and prison terms will be introduced for misuse. Once the pandemic ends, the government has promised to shut down the system and wipe the information. ("Australians toss aside authority issues in rush to sign up for virus tracking phone app: In days, 3 million signed up for an app to track potential contacts with those infected," Washington Post 29 April 2020).
And the proof of the making of meaning that is obvious--the indifference of the target population. "The pandemic has all but silenced the debate about encroachments on privacy by corporations, Scott-Railton said. "People are anxious. They are worried. They want to go back to normal, to handle doorknobs, to online date."We are looking to anyone who is pitching hope." (Ibid.). Yet there is more to the obvious than indifference; there is the acceptance of the thing and of its expression of the commonplace way of life. "Friederike Boege, a German journalist, began her second quarantine in Beijing this year on Sunday after returning from Hubei's capital Wuhan. Her building's management installed a camera in front of her door to monitor her movements. 'It's quite scary how you get used to such things,' she told AFP."(Inside the dystopian, post-lockdown China: Officials install security cameras pointed at people's front doors as Beijing tightens 'big-brother' surveillance to prevent a coronavirus rebound). Its power, ironically, can be measured against the extent and power of resistance as more at the margins. "After a trip to southern China, the 34-year-old Irish expat and his family were starting their two-week home quarantine, a mandatory measure enforced by the Beijing government to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. He said he opened the door as the camera was being installed, without warning." (Having a camera outside your door is) an incredible erosion of privacy," said Lahiffe. "It just seems to be a massive data grab. And I don't know how much of it is actually legal."" (China is installing surveillance cameras outside people's front doors ... and sometimes inside their homes; for the Chinese semi-official response, here). And again it is the perspective form outside, from the foreign element, that draws the direction of meaning making more sharply. If surveillance is obvious, then resistance is not; and it requires a substantial effort effectively to displace the obvious meaning with its counter.
The COVID-19 Accelerator Effect: The Situation in Hong Kong and the Virtual Conflict Between the United States and China). "Jason Lau, a privacy expert and professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, said people across China had grown accustomed to prevalent surveillance long before the coronavirus. "In China, people probably already assume that the government has access to a lot of their data anyway. If they think the measures are going to keep them safe, keep the community safe and are in the best interest of the public, they may not worry too much about it," he said." ((China is installing surveillance cameras outside people's front door ; supra). There is only a difference of degree (and cultural context) that separates China from the rest of the world in the meaning making, and the installation of the obviousness, of surveillance.
The fundamental importance of surveillance, as meaning, as authority, as the basis for the reformulation of the social order, can now be better appreciated. The role of the pandemic is obvious, but it is not unique, merely a more spectacular and time compressed illustration of an old social habit. There is much at stake. To the extent that one can change the way in which Americans, for example, view surveillance as obvious, that will change the way that surveillance methods and scope will be valued, assessed and thus as well affect the range of responses societally acceptable (and thus available) to state and private actors.
Amid this tension between personal privacy and public safety, 52% of Americans surveyed in early April say it is at least somewhat acceptable for the government to use people’s cellphones to track the location of those who have tested positive for the virus to understand how the virus is spreading, but a similar share (48%) believes this is very or somewhat unacceptable to do. At the same time, 45% of the public says it is acceptable for the government to use cellphones to track the location of people who may have had contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, while a somewhat larger share (54%) describes this type of tracking as unacceptable. (Most Americans don’t think cellphone tracking will help limit COVID-19, are divided on whether it’s acceptable).For all that, at the end of this exercise, we are left now with surveillance in a very different place from where we thought the baseline had been hardened by the end of 2019.