Sunday, May 03, 2020

Meaning Making and Making Meaning "Obvious": The Case of the Embrace of Surveillance in the Age of Pandemic

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.

Meaning that is obvious, then, represents a critical point of the exercise of authority in the United States (and elsewhere). And the ability to make something obvious today that was most certainly not obvious yesterday (e.g., the value of surveillance and the importance of sharing data gathered from cell phones across the nation) suggests the profound importance of understanding the way that meaning making, of making meaning obvious, is central to the ways in which the post pandemic order will be constructed in the next several years. Indeed, what makes the meaning of surveillance so interesting in the shadow of COVID-19 is the way on which what had been obvious about surveillance before January 2020, no longer seems to apply.  After March 2020, what may be obvious about surveillance (at least its moral meaning) may be an entirely different thing ("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 that difference may make all the difference in the world in the space within which societies may reconstruct themselves after pandemic.

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).
The lessons are profound indeed.  "If left unchecked and unchallenged, these measures have the potential to fundamentally alter the future of privacy and other human rights." (COVID-19, surveillance and the threat to your rights). And yet, a "growing mix of health and technology experts are convinced that if the United States is to ever effectively track the coronavirus and slow its spread, then both self-reported and more surreptitiously gathered personal data — a mix of information about location, travel, symptoms and health conditions ― must be gathered from millions of Americans." (Stopping COVID-19 will include monitoring and sharing personal data).
(COVID-19, surveillance and the threat to your rights).

 And yet, at least in the United States, it appears that appeals to technological efficiency or legal-moral imperatives do not seem to have swayed very much the group to whom all of these appeals are directed (for forms' sake, if not for the sake of the exercise of authority). "As governments around the world turn to technology to help fight the spread of COVID-19, a majority of Americans are skeptical that tracking someone’s location through their cellphone would help curb the outbreak. At the same time, the public holds mixed views on when – and if – this type of monitoring is acceptable." (Most Americans don’t think cellphone tracking will help limit COVID-19, are divided on whether it’s acceptable). More interesting still, in the US at least, surveillance is being driven by the private sector (Apple and Google are building a coronavirus tracking system into iOS and Android; and here; contrast here). Surveillance is not limited to location or condition "Twitter Inc will grant researchers and software developers access to a real-time data stream of tens of millions of daily public tweets about COVID-19, which they can use to study the spread of the disease or track misinformation, the company said in a blog post on Wednesday" (Twitter opens up data for researchers to study COVID-19 tweets). Government (and others) may then partner with the state to the extent sharing these technologies may be useful (to both)  (here).

In Colorado, for example, "“The (governor’s) Innovation Response Team is using aggregate data to understand the density of people in and around Colorado,” Gabi Johnston, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment joint information center, said in an email to The Post. “This includes (vehicle) traffic data and aggregate mobile phone data.” . . . Cellphone data from a variety of sources is actually being gathered and filtered for the governor by a team led by at least seven people, several of them high-level corporate executives with information technology companies in Colorado, The Post has learned." (How Gov. Polis recruited private engineers to analyze Colorado cellphone data during coronavirus crisis: Team offers few details about its work or the location data it’s using).

While that is consonant with the fundamental political-economic model of the United States--one grounded on private markets, (debatable) public regulatory oversight, and individual choice constrained only by law and the higher principles of our constitutional order--it has also served as the basis for traditional suspicion of the authority of private sector entities to harvest and utilize data touching on what has been considered some of the more intimate (and thus protected from view) aspects of individual life--where we are, who we talk to, what we do, and when. The power to know these things has always implied a power to either regulate them or to impose a system of rewards and penalties that would substantially reduce individual autonomy in favor of the choices made for the individual by those using data to impose consequences for the (now) known. 

All of this is interesting, and there is much debate about the meaning of these changes. They speak as well to a deeper debate that lurks beneath the surface of  the privacy-health debates, and that inform their meaning. American newspapers of late have developed an uncanny knack for stating the obvious with great authority--even more so when they are packaged as analysis. It might be that this is a necessary exercise of semiotic meaning making. Objects acquire meaning, signs and symbols point in certain directions, only when it is undertaken by community meaning makers.  That is a core function of newspapers (and now reputable elements of social media more generally).  An object does not exist--or at least it is not recognizable, until it is given meaning and thus "meaningful" can then be placed within the constellation of a reality in which objects can be understood in relation to each other.  So related, of course, objects can be invested with moral value (good or evil)--and thus moralized, can be made subject to the laws of religion,l of economics, of society, or of the state. Here one inhabits the lifeworld of Husserl's The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy (§ 34)), but one in which the functional differentiation  of human society assigns to some the task of making and others the burden of living within a reality constructed from the meaning given the phenomena around us. (Most Americans don’t think cellphone tracking will help limit COVID-19, are divided on whether it’s acceptable).

The leading forces within organized society (whether liberal democratic, Marxist-Leninist, or theocratic) do not speak the language of semiotics even as they make meaning.  They speak the language of politics, of economics, of culture, and of religion. Here one moves from the language of semiotics in the understanding of phenomena that rationalized is meant to represent reality, to the language of the sociologist (e.g., Niklas Luhmann, Introduction to Systems Theory) ) and political philosopher (Habermas, Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason (Vol 2 of The Theory of Communicative Action (1981). Each language can be understood as a fractured part, a specific manifestation, of a worldview that is as powerful as its core premises are understood as being so ordinary as to be beyond debate (e.g., markets in the West).  Narrative is the way that the language is manifested in context and represents the ground on which battles for control of meaning and the power to make meaning are fought. The language of narrative itself is either organized around words, and is bound up in the contests over control expressed through the control of the meaning and morals of words (Broekman and Backer, Lawyers Making Meaning). Increasingly it is more directly expressed through data and simulation--through the reduction of human activity and its meaning to mathematics expressed in the political language of numbers (data, analytics and modelling) to manage meaning. Rating systems and Chinese social credit programs have reminded contemporary society (again) that numbers can also be invested with substantial moral value at every level of regulatory generality (from grades n an exam to the determination of rights to social benefits based on assessments of social utility).

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.

This path from semiotics, to systems sociology, to politics and power brings us (at last) to a contest over meaning that has been very much at the center of a contest for meaning making among those who appropriate for themselves the power power to order meaning and rationalize human community.  I speak here to a cluster of acts, organized around sets of normative and operational principles, and invested with a moral value (good-bad) which in global discourse is referenced as surveillance. The word is an object to be sure (again in the semiotic sense)--but it is also a container (of meaning) which in this case is a meeting point of actions, principles, ideas, and practices which together  rationalize a host of human activities whose meaning is coded as "surveillance."  What does this word container "look like"?   In English, the word comes form the French "surveillance "oversight, supervision, a watch," noun of action from surveiller "oversee, watch" (17c.), from sur- "over" (see sur- (1)) + veiller "to watch," from Latin vigilare, from vigil "watchful" (Etymology Online Surveillance) It migrated to the English speaking world along with the revolutionary politics of a nation about to incarnate political meaning from the Place de la Revolution and its transformative revolutionary disciplinary structures--the surveillance committees established after 1793. Through 2019, the word and its underlying meaning (expressed as action--as specific forms of surveillance) has been morally neutral in the sense that some surveillance is highly valued (in the forms of accountability) and some have been rejected (when they are deemed to diminish higher value concepts, for example individual rights). In the middle are the forms of surveillance of persons and objects undertaken itself for even higher value principles--health, safety, and the preservation of the state (though in the later form always controversial for its capacity for easy abuse).

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. 

Something is not obvious--its meaning (and its moral compass) is not set, merely by the pronouncements of politicians and news people.  But those reports and those pronouncements help naturalize the obvious within national discourse.  That naturalization comes the way language comes to the young--by a constant and banal repetition. Yet there is more.  Beyond the repetition are an array of authoritative institutional voices all of whom contribute to the construction of the obvious.  Medical-health techno-experts contribute the fruits of their data driven simulations to the conversation.  Their conclusion--that surveillance can serve as a factor in the manipulation of outcomes in health favorable ways changes the vectors of valuation moving it from negative to positive (though not, of course, without reservation). Foundations add to this discourse both by the way in which they spend their money on research and by their access to social media.  In this context, Bill Gates and his foundation might be worth further study for their role in the revaluation of the value of surveillance ("The Billionaire Who Cried Pandemic," Washington Post 2 May 2020)). Administrator babble--a specialized language now used increasingly by political as well as administrator elites also contributes in its own obtuse way.  These pronouncements, caste in the veiling language of administrators also suggest that (1) surveillance is a plausible alternative; (2) that the plausibility can be given more positive effect by at least the appearance of a concern for its alignment with traditional (prior or superior) values; (3) that it does not unnecessarily entangles the state; and (4) it actually produces positive results in excess of a (re)valuation calculus of its detriments (in terms of its negative effects on privacy and personal autonomy).  Most importantly, the thrust of administrative obviousness is in the chanting, repeated over and over, tat abuses can be controlled and damages mitigated. 
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).
The most telling effect of making meaning obvious, of course, is that it puts the older order on the defensive. One does not have to prove the value of the obvious; one must prove that value otherwise. ""This is a Manhattan Project-level problem that is being addressed by people all over the place," said John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, a research center at the University of Toronto. He is among a group of researchers and privacy advocates who say there is not enough debate over the consequences and utility of the new surveillance tools, and no indication how long the scrutiny will last — even as the flood of prying apps are becoming a reality for millions of people, like solitude and face masks. " (Cellphone monitoring is spreading with the coronavirus. , supra).

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 Chinese case merely makes obvious for the outsider, the lines of convergence of those elements that make the meaning of surveillance, and that make that meaning both obvious and with a moral direction. It also makes obvious the accelerator effect of the pandemic (e.g.,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.

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