They’ll Be Watching You

Keeping a look out.  This edition published by Penguin Books 1975.  Cover photograph by Humphrey Sutton.

Keeping a look out. This edition published by Penguin Books 1975. Cover photograph by Humphrey Sutton.

Colonization of other worlds is often seen as a means of establishing free and independent societies, far from the restrictive and suffocating existence of the civilizations that the colonists have left.

In the literature on the subject, both fact and fiction, this is frequently a development of the frontier culture which evolved during the colonization of North America from the sixteenth century onwards.  First the setting up of colonies on the east coast, then the progressive opening-up of the western territories – a determined expansion by groups of people who valued their freedom.  Freedom from oppression and tyranny, and perhaps equally significant, freedom from scrutiny.

In Space Cowboys (Scientific American, August 2015), Linda Billings points out that the American human spaceflight programme’s focus on frontier conquest may not have quite the same appeal to those outside the USA, and perhaps the rhetoric should be re-examined.  True enough – we may eventually see the colonization of distant planets as little more than extensions of the societies left behind.  And can we really believe that any advanced nation, the USA included, will be entirely happy to lose all control over the colonists that it has sent out, and quite probably financed?

We live in an ever more scrutinised society, which is more than likely to continue on this or any other world, and the means of surveillance will become ever more sophisticated as a method of control.  Only a couple of years ago, the well-known privacy activist and former CIA employee Edward Snowden revealed the ability of the security agencies to switch on smartphones remotely and listen in to conversations without our knowledge.  We cannot seriously think it will stop there.

Biometric surveillance will also happen, if it hasn’t already.  A scene in the 2002 science fiction film The Minority Report shows an all-too-feasible future where simple detection and reading of a person’s features, such as automatic retina scans when walking through a shopping mall, provide information on their whereabouts and activities.  All that and CCTV too.

In his 1975 book Discipline and Punish, the philosopher Michel Foucault made the point that, in order for state control to be truly effective, its power must be visible but unverifiable.  We can’t confirm that the authorities are necessarily observing us at any given point, but they might be.  We are left with the illusion of omniscient authority, and regulate our own behaviour accordingly.  To use one of the radical slogans I recall from my student days – “They’d love you to police yourselves.”

The ultimate such society is no doubt that described in George Orwell’s 1949 classic 1984.  Constant surveillance enables absolute control by the state – though can we be certain that it is really constant?  The idea of the Thought Police, an agency using advanced surveillance to uncover and deal with “thoughtcrime” by those who challenge the Party’s authority, has become a regular theme in both fiction and reality as a means of enforcing ideology, and even political correctness.

The methods of keeping an eye on us will undoubtedly grow more cunning and complex.  In Bob Shaw’s 1972 novel Other Days, Other Eyes, the invention of “slow glass”, which permits the storage for long periods of the images of what goes on in the world around it, provides an almost perfect means of recording what people are doing almost anywhere on the planet, without their knowledge.  With improved nanotechnology, it could well represent the shape of things to come.

And so for the foreseeable future, in the words of the farewell salute used in the Village, that remarkable surveillance society from the 1960s television series The Prisoner – “Be Seeing You.”

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

Be sociable; support the BIS!