Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Who Cares If You Listen? Agency and Surveillance in Societies of Control

-- By AudreyAmsellem - May 30 2017

In 1984, George Orwell imagined a future society in which surveillance is a totalitarian tool to control and subject populations. In Orwell’s scenario, a centralized power structure is surveilling subjects, and the hand of the government has transcended the public space to be present in every home. The Orwellian fantasy has been used to express a worry; following Trump’s election, the sales for the book have been at an all time high (Freytas-Tamura 2017), and nationwide screenings of the film are currently happening as anti-Trump protests (Lull 2017). Yet, what the Orwellian nightmare does not present is that surveillance could happen with the consent of a population who willingly submit themselves to being constantly recorded. The type of agency that exists in dystopian literature is usually that of resistance, not that of submission.

The Snowden revelations of 2013 revealed the NSA’s activities and the extent of mass surveillance. Yet neither private nor federal surveillance have elicited much concern from the public. Several polls have concluded that the majority of Americans find the NSA’s activities acceptable (Rassmuren Reports 2015). That is not to say the Snowden revelations had no impact: an average 25% of people have changed their online behavior in response to surveillance and taken some steps to protect themselves from invasion of privacy (Gao 2015). Those numbers do not reflect a consensus in how surveillance is perceived by populations, but do suggest a tendency towards complaisance. In this essay, I will investigate the questions: does the general public not care about being recorded? Who has agency in surveillance?

My aim here is to describe and problematize the irresistible desire that both consumers and data gatherers feel, as I argue that the Behavior Collection Network (Moglen 2017) is both derived from and exploiting desire: the desire to listen, and the desire to be heard.

In his 1992 “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” Deleuze argues that while Foucault identified the 18th to early 20th centuries as disciplinary societies, we are in the process of inhabiting societies of control, in which corporations have replaced factories. While in disciplinary societies, humans are constantly incarcerated or in between incarcerations, in control societies, humans are within a continuous network, governed by data. Deleuze has in many ways foreseen today’s society in which data is used as a tool of control by higher powers in place. But what Deleuze describes is an apparatus in which citizens have no say or power over changes inflicted upon them. He doesn’t even call for resistance: “There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons,” he argues.

Within the behavior collection network, we expose ourselves. This is partly because the technological tools at our disposal are effective means of communication. However, there are other ways to communicate that don’t invade our privacy, but these are perceived as less accessible, due to technological illiteracy. Furthermore, the absence of obvious physical means of surveillance in virtual surveillance make it look harmless, because the virtual has been associated with opportunity, freedom, and the advent of a more democratic age, through the utopian discourses and marketing strategies of techs. Techs have provided sophisticated entertainment wrapped up in a constant reference to freedom. Thus, both the illusion of freedom and the illusion that technology is their domain, and not the domain of the people, are purposefully perpetuated by techs.

The strategy in 1984 is to crush desires, not to enhance them, as Silicon Valley does. The political apparatus of Airstrip One is built around anti-sex leagues or hate songs. Social media is the opposite. Access to sex and culture is much easier, and social media plays on the need to be desired and desire in others. This is particularly apparent with Facebook, which creates an alternative social circle, giving the illusion of control over one’s image, and through this, their identity. We post and receive forms of gratification through ‘likes’ or comments, and we have the ability to delete those that we don’t wish to see.

The service that techs provide, the bait, gives us the impression of being ‘the center of the world.’ These new technologies are ones of personification and individualization, allowing for a continuous life-assistant. The collection of big data allows them to offer all sorts of tailored services letting the consumer satisfy his narcissistic desires. Social media satisfies an old fantasy of both observing (the common Facebook ‘stalking’) and being observed, while Facebook satisfies the same desire: it observes us observing others. But data gathering does not only play on people’s desire, it is derived from it. Talking about big data, an engineer with IBM said: “It will change our existing notion of privacy. A surveillance society is not only inevitable, it's worse. It's irresistible.” (Pariser 2017). Today’s society is the achievement of an old fantasy: the desire to hear everything. This has been successful because it was done without the totalitarian connotation, the imposition of surveillance. As federal surveillance has played on the desire to be safe, corporate surveillance has played on the desire to be heard. The question then becomes why this desire to be heard is more powerful than privacy, and why isn’t secrecy a desire? Desire, as opposed to need, is never fulfilled. It is this very nature of desire techs have exploited to gather users data, and are themselves subjected to when they gather data.

The temptation here is to interpret techs as an all-controlling force, thereby removing agency from the people, describing them as submissive to the enthralling force of the capitalist agenda. However, there are examples of civil resistance, most notably through hacktivism. A clearer picture might then be to understand people as not being solely subjected to their rulers’ desires, but being subjected to their own desires. Towards the end of 1984, a thought police officer tells Winston: “The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.”


Deleuze, Gilles. "Postscript on the Societies of Control." October 59 (1992): 3-7.

Freytas-tamura, Kimiko De. 2017. “George Orwell’s ‘1984’ Is Suddenly a Best-Seller.” The New York Times, January 25.

Gao, George. 2015. “What Americans Think about NSA Surveillance, National Security and Privacy.” Pew Research Center. May 29.

Moglen, Eben. 2017. Class Lecture. Columbia University, January 18.

Orwell, George. 1949. 1984. New York, NY: Signet Classics.

Pariser, Eli. 2017. “Welcome to the Brave New World of Persuasion Profiling.” WIRED. Accessed March 3.

Rassmuren Reports. “Illegal or Not, Voters Are More Supportive Than Ever of NSA - Rasmussen ReportsTM? .” 2015. May 11.

Snowden, Edward, and Oliver, John. 2017. “Government Surveillance: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO).” HBO. Accessed April 17.

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r5 - 30 May 2017 - 16:19:28 - AudreyAmsellem
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