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The age of surveillance: a new 'dotcom boom'?

About the author
William Davies is a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is Director of the Political Economy Research Centre. His weblog is at and his new book is The Happiness Industry: How the government & big business sold us wellbeing (published by Verso).

The most important lesson that marketers and futurologists can learn about new technologies is not to extrapolate too far from the “early adopters”. Be it cars, telephones, televisions or computers, the long-term implications of new tools are never apparent at the outset, but only emerge once they have become ubiquitous across society.

The car began life as a rich man’s toy, but its most profound long-term consequence was the growth of suburbs. The television was initially an object of fascination for the family to congregate around, rather than the perennial and solitary experience that it has become for many individuals. In recent years, we’ve witnessed what happens when mobile phones and internet connections shift from the margins of society to the mainstream.

William Davies is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr), and author of a new report, Modernising with Purpose: A Manifesto for a Digital Britain.

Marketers use the term “tipping-point” to describe the moment when a product makes the transition from being unusual and eye-catching, to being pervasive and invisible. One minute an item is being paraded like a trophy, of rarity and novelty value. The next it is a necessary accoutrement, without which modern living would seem impossible.

The language of “early adopters” and “tipping-points” is generally used when looking at the fast-moving though ultimately frivolous world of consumer habits. But perhaps we can identify something analogous to a tipping-point that took place on a more historically significant level, around five years ago, in the eighteen months that followed the dotcom crash.

Speculation about the shape and politics of the “digital age” had been rife for decades. The tipping-point in question occurred between the collapse of the Nasdaq and that of the World Trade Center, when one narrative about the function of digital networks in our society stuttered to a halt, and another one emerged. The underlying purpose of mass digitisation changed.

Same technology, different story

The purpose of digital networks is not something that the IT industry likes to dwell on too much. It is very often quite happy letting hype sell its products for them. But one doesn’t need to scratch beneath the surface too far to recognise that the Bill Clinton era of the “information super-highway” and stock-option millionaires was driven by a very different type of sales-pitch than the George W Bush era of iris-scanning and data retention. An economic narrative of wealth creation has been firmly replaced by a political narrative of control, yet each is rooted in the same technologies.

In the wake of the London bombings of July 2005, the pessimistic question has to be asked: did that period between April 2000 and September 2001 represent a tipping-point? As moronic and greedy as the dotcom boom and its associated fripperies may have been, there was an innocence about all of that investment and innovation, as if the benefits would flow later somehow or other.

But having been drawn into the digital age by the allure of its newness – just like any “early adopters” – we may now be settling down into a surveillance society where privacy is at best conditional, and contingency is monitored and dealt with. Historians may one day reflect on the bizarre coincidence by which westerners exuberantly flooded their societies with digital technology for very little reason whatsoever, just in time for it to be put to use as part of the largest international policing programme ever.

This is not to say that the economic narrative for digital modernisation never stacked up at all. There are plenty of areas where businesses and public services have been made more efficient or effective, but there are also many that have fallen at the hardest hurdle of innovating the social and managerial processes through which productivity gains are made.

Compared to the surveillance possibilities that this infrastructure has opened up, the business case for pervasive computing looks comparatively weak. After the first London attacks on 7 July, the British home secretary Charles Clarke defended plans to track internet and email records, saying: “the more we can survey the way in which people operate, the way in which they make their phone calls, the better your chance of identifying patterns of behaviour which are a threat.”

The IT industry will be relatively unconcerned by this transition. Like the stock markets, technology companies are unlikely to do much more than shrug, and shift additional capital into biometrics and out of e-commerce. In academic departments, meanwhile, debates between Nietzscheans and Marxists, which dominated 20th century European philosophy, seem to have been won for the time being by the former. Marxists such as Giovanni Arrighi struggle desperately to explain how contemporary politics is still explicable in terms of the logic of capitalism, but common sense suggests that, à la Nietzsche, it is far easier to explain in terms of the primeval desire for control.

So were we duped by the story about the “information society” and the “digital revolution”? Many companies certainly feel so, and as these digital networks become a growing battleground between extremists and internationally coordinated police forces, many citizens may be wishing we could turn the clock back. As one blogger, Lee Maguire, jokes grimly on his website:

“Homepages, eh? I've always suspected there was a huge 'Big Brother' database containing everyone's private details ... and now I'm responsible for writing my own entry.”

The high-tech fetish

Both libertarians and capitalists – always fairly comfortable bedfellows – have been pushed to the margins of the digital age for the time being. The worry, but also in a way the hope, is that we will now charge headlong into a high-tech surveillance society. Why is this both a worry and a hope? Because it won’t work. In fact it could potentially make our security situation worse.

As the American security guru, Bruce Schneier puts it:

“technology will continue to alter the balance between attacker and defender, at an ever-increasing pace. And technology will generally favour the attacker, with the defender playing catch-up.”

Ever more complex technology can not only produce new security threats, as the internet itself has demonstrated, but also create distractions for security services, as they become more focused on spotting patterns in complex systems, and less on human judgment.

It could be that we are about to enter the equivalent of a dotcom boom in surveillance technologies. There will be no shortage of suppliers eager to join in, even if they hesitate to become too openly enthusiastic about this bubble compared to the previous one. But a boom would inevitably be followed by a crash in confidence in technology. Just as companies discovered that productivity gains depended on improving their social processes, and not on infrastructure alone, security services will have to learn the same lesson. The question is whether they will have to go through the same painful process of boom and bust to get there.

The primary hope must of course be that terrorism is dealt with effectively, which will be a political feat not a technological one. In the same way that we hope we have not entered a sustained era of terror, we must also hope that surveillance, tracking and pattern-spotting does not turn out to be the long-term role of digital networks in society. If police forces and governments put their faith in IT and under-invest in social capabilities in the same way businesses did a decade ago, they will get the same nasty shock as those businesses did. But then, hopefully, another phase of the digital age might begin.

Further Links:

Institute for Public Policy Research

William Davies's weblog

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