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Tuesday, 25 June 2013

PRISM and total surveillance

PRISM, the United States’ global electronic surveillance programme, has hit the headlines since Edward Snowden’s revelations. In the British press, the activities of the GCHQ have been much commented on, and from what I have read I understand that as I have been exchanging quite a few emails with UK correspondents over the past few years, both professional and personal, they have all been stored or scanned or analysed or whatever “they” do with them. 
I see at least four possible reactions to this. 1°) Outrage—breach of privacy! If our own governments don’t trust us why should we trust them? Democracy is under threat. 2°) Irony—oh God, I hope they won’t pass on my notes to some rival academic who could publish an article on the yellow stockings motif in early Victorian fiction before me! 3°) Condonation—seriously, how do you expect security services to prevent terror attacks against us? 4°) Literary history—have authors discussed such issues in novels?

 There is, of course, George Orwell’s 1984, with its anticipation of the State’s total surveillance machine. On a smaller scale, Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon has long been used as a metaphor for surveillance systems (Foucault, Zuboff) and many see the Internet as a form of modern Panopticon. In The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, “the omnipresence of Eyes, Angels, Guardians, and Aunts—all agents of state sponsored repression—evoke an atmosphere of constant surveillance and social control in which biblical mandate, fascist tactics, and technology are all merged” ( And in Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, “the little people are trapped in a total surveillance state where hologram cameras are routinely used, every pay phone is tapped, supersonic tight beams are used for police assassinations, and the closest friends inform on each other” (Darko Suvin, New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction). Some of you may have seen Richard Linklater’s 2006 film adaptation, with Keanu Reeves as Arctor/Fred.

Think of more dystopian/utopian fiction on total surveillance? Please leave a comment!

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