Watching and Being Watched

With the ongoing public debate about Edward Snowden, the NSA leaks, and the role of surveillance in our society, I wanted to share (without necessarily always endorsing) an interesting perspective from Dr. Eric Stoddart, a Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of St. Andrews, and author of the recently-published  Theological Perspectives on a Surveillance Society: Watching and Being Watched.  A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to interview him for the magazine I was then editing, Fermentations .  Here is the abridged version of the interview:

BL: Can you give me an outline of the argument that you’ll be making in the book?

ES: I start from the point that surveillance is now ubiquitous, in the sense that it is really our primary response to negotiating social relations in a world of networked strangers. And I want to challenge the current paradigms of surveillance that tend to see it so predominantly as an issue of control, and instead to take a different starting point: of surveillance as care—to take that theologically from the standpoint that God watches over us (Psalm 139), and to see that as our beginning place for thinking about how surveillance is a way that we can practice care. However, more fundamentally care becomes a critical hermeneutic for tackling issues of surveillance—care that is understood not simply within that domain of healthcare, childcare, or nurturing, but care that is a clearly political concept, that takes us into realms of challenging the narratives of our society; the social structures that inhibit and encourage the flourishing of human relationships. The theological angle is that we don’t start from the idea that God watches over us in surveillant care. We pray this, in the liturgy, but we don’t commence with our acknowledgment of God knowing all about us and from whom no secrets are hidden. We start the liturgy with our recognition of the prevenient love and grace of God.  We seek and receive absolution and then pray the “collect for purity’ (which I call ‘the surveillance prayer’).  I want to say that it’s actually not the omnipotent, all-powerful God who is our starting-point for surveillance, even as care—it’s the crucified God, where we start, and that crucified God is our theological hermeneutic, for asking questions about how surveillance helps and hinders care, relationships, social structure.

BL: What would you say to the objection that surveillance technology is our society’s attempt to play God—on the one hand, a desire on the part of some to exercise control over our lives; on the other hand, a desire on the part of the rest of us to be safe and secure via surveillance, rather than relying on God for that?

ES: I think this is where we have to start asking very serious questions about the type of society that we live in and the theological expectations that we have. I think it’s not at all appropriate to frame this as “Do we trust in God for protection, or do we trust in the technology?” I think it’s a completely false comparison. We wear seatbelts in cars. We don’t trust in God? We have brakes on cars; we have regular checks on vehicles. Is that somehow not relying on God? Let’s take it into the typical arena where this becomes an issue: surveillance in the face of terrorist threats. I think we have to grasp the nettle and say that it is not a question of trusting God to stop a terrorist attack. Maybe there are terrorist attacks that God has stopped, but there are certainly terrorist attacks that God has not stopped, and we all know it and could list off the dates and times. And I think there’s a false dichotomy placed there. We could think of surveillance technologies as God’s way for us to keep safer.

On the other hand, we have an obsession with being safe, and this is where surveillance reflects back on who we are. Part of the theological critique is to say, “How do we think about risk, about danger? How do we understand the world that we’re in?” This is not a world that is as predictable as those who calculate risk factors might believe it to be. Part of the theological task in my book is to question our reliance as Christians on the idea of risk, that somehow we can weigh up and balance and say, “On balance of probability, X is going to happen, or Y is going to happen, or not happen,” and somehow then navigate our lives through that. I think that’s profoundly atheistic, and the response is not a naïve rushing back to trust God, but a recognition that actually we need to be able to create communities that can handle risk, that can handle suffering. This is not as it were to retreat into the long grass with our theodicies and our explanations that somehow or other it will all come out right in the wash, but to assume that there is going to be a catastrophic terrorist attack again somewhere and God is not going to stop it. Christians can too readily either be frightened or turn to military response, revenge. What we should be looking at is building communities that can handle all types of risk—theodic communities (as Stanley Hauerwas and John Swinton call them)—communities where people learn how to live in a world that is dangerous, but with the right sort of fear, not the wrong sort of fear.

BL: Could you sum up for us what aspects of society’s attitudes toward surveillance you are wanting to challenge in your book?

ES: I think there are probably three. There’s the nonchalance, just not seeing it as a problem: the standard “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear,” as if somehow or other that makes surveillance okay. I think that has to be challenged in society, because it’s a very naïve response.

There’s also the self-centeredness, which is a major issue. In that I mean the self-centeredness that ignores the disproportionate effects of surveillance. So yes, you and I may be hindered slightly going through airport security, and we may have a lot of benefits, because we can swipe our credit cards getting money out of the ATM round the corner—we’re not particularly disadvantaged because of the social class, the economic group that we’re in, and the culture that we’re in. But we are very self-centered as a society, and we ignore the damaging effects of surveillance. There are groups who are disproportionately affected, and we just don’t take that on board in our naïve acceptance of surveillance.

And the third is that over-enthusiasm or over-trust that’s either overly negative because people have read Orwell’s 1984, or overly enthusiastic because they watch programs like BBC’s Spooks, which is a drama, entertainment series about the intelligence services—incredibly popular in the UK—and there the geek can sit in their London HQ and in a second’s notice call up every CCTV camera in the country on his screen. And people think that that’s what real operators can do! They forget that it’s entertainment. And that again creates a false sense of expectations.

BL: And among Christians particularly, what attitudes toward surveillance are you challenging?

ES: In addition to those three—because I think Christians need to be challenged on those as well—I think there’s a great issue about Christians being suspicious and frightened, suspicious and frightened of the other; and that is heightened by Christians’ endorsement of surveillance. It may be heightened by Christians’ readiness to use surveillance, perhaps on the church premises. Now, setting aside issues of the very proper checking and monitoring of those who are going to be working with children or vulnerable adults—let’s take that for granted and set that aside—the idea that nobody can be trusted anymore, that pastors need to be accountable for their use of the internet, using software in some cases for that. Where does that start breaching professional responsibility, and trust? We’re not at the stage where every pastor has to submit his or her weblog, for where they’ve surfed. But there are software packages being sold specifically to Christians as accountability tools. What is that going to do to relationships of trust? It may seem a good thing in the short term, but is it a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and what is actually going on there?

I think the other issue is this idea that we’ve touched on about risk and danger, and a naïve trust in God, that somehow or other we have two responses. We trust in God and make preparations, yes, but we sort of turn a blind eye to surveillance. I think it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who talked about having others get dirty hands—and there’s a grave danger, I think in Christian circles, that we turn a blind eye to surveillance, because we know that it’s messy and its murky but we want it, we want it for the safety of our children and our families and our communities, but we don’t want to ask too many questions. We want others (the security services, other public officials) to get dirty hands doing the surveillance that we wouldn’t actually like to be associated with as citizens. I think that is more problematic than the naïve idea that somehow or other God is going to stop a terrorist attack. I think that has to be abandoned in order that we can have greater faith and greater trust in handling the aftermath in a Christian manner.
BL: Some people want to say that we must sharply distinguish between a technology, which is neutral, and the uses we decide to make of those technologies, which may be good or evil. Clearly, there is something to this distinction, but others challenge it as ignoring the fact that technologies always have certain purposes and uses in mind when they are developed, or certain side-effects that should have been foreseen. What do you think?

ES: I think we make a mistake when we talk about technologies doing this or technologies doing that, because technologies are developed by people, technologies are deployed by people, their deployment is authorized by people, it’s legitimated. The choices we make about how technology is designed, those are made by people. And I think that we need to see ourselves much more from within a technological paradigm, instead of seeing technology as something external to us. That is—we are part of a technological system. Suchman talks about the “politics of the code,” meaning that, right down to the level of software coding, there are political issues. When someone designs a database, for example, the data fields that they create and that are going to be populated with data, the connections that they’re going to make between them; those are political decisions. And if we see technology as something outside us, that does things, we absolve ourselves, both as people who write the software code, or those who buy it for our companies, or as public officials.

We need to own the technology in a much better way, and in that sense, it’s not a question of technology being used for X purpose or Y purpose or whatever is intended. That is important, but I think that technology contains opportunities for reform from within it. Opportunities for, you might say, democratizing technology—not standing back from it, trying to resist and push it away, or creating alternative spaces that are non-technological. Instead, to acknowledge that we inhabit that technological world and to see it as a place where we can have influence, through our politicians, through our own actions, as software designers, as educators, as politicians ourselves, over not just what technology is used for, but how technology is designed. This can include asking why it’s designed in a particular way or what intentions there are right at the point where there are aesthetic decisions about it. It is there that we can find ethical decisions, right at the level of actual hardware design. I think we can be much more hopeful—but not necessarily overly so—for reform from within the technological paradigm.
BL: What are mistakes Christians make in thinking about technology?

ES: I think, if you want to boil it down to the mistake that Christians make about technology, it’s that Christians have never really come to terms with a technological world. Deep down, if you scrape off all the surface, most Christians, I suspect, would actually like to live in a pre-technological village society, where everyone knows everyone else—something not unlike the Waltons, but without the poverty. Christians have not really recognized that we are actually living in a world where we have to communicate across distance, that we have in some sense collapsed time and space with computer-mediated communication.

But it’s even more profound than that: Christians tend to see the individual relationships, the face-to-face encounters that Jesus had with the people in Galilee, as not simply paradigmatic of how people are to relate, but as actually the only real way of relating. They almost fossilize the cultural dynamics of Jesus’ day and equate that with what the Incarnation is really about. The Incarnation, from such a perspective, has to be about embodied face-to-face relationships and anything else is somehow not so good or it’s a compromise. The mistake is to be unable to grasp technology, to be unable to say that we are actually technological people, that we are embedded in a technological world. Even in Jesus’ day, they were partly technologized: they built boats, they sailed, they had wheelbarrows, they had chariots, they had technology. As a carpenter, he was using technology. Somehow that gets forgotten by Christians in this romantic longing for unmediated relationships. I think that is profoundly sad because it does mean that Christians start from the place of being suspicious and frightened of technology. If you switch the perspective and say that this is a world that has technology, that we are part of a technological social system, you then ask how can we become who we are more effectively, more faithfully—not in spite of, but through that technology? Not idolizing it, not failing to see its real challenges and problems, but taking a critical stance.

BL: Just there you talked about the danger of idealizing this notion of personal face-to-face relationships; but earlier you’d seemed to suggest that one of the problems with surveillance technology was relying on it instead of personal relationships and trust.

ES: Yes, I think that part of the difficulty is that we’re in a world where our first response to having to relate to strangers in a networked world is to go to surveillance. And I think that yes, in terms of having to gather information about the stranger, trying to understand, trying to categorize, I think there’s all legitimate elements of that. But I think that if it’s our first and only response, we lose out on something. It’s surveillance tied in with those issues of fear, and surveillance tied in with a misunderstanding of risk. I think that if we recognize in our society that yes, we have to deal with strangers, we have to exchange tokens with strangers, do we have to always have so much surveillance in order to do that? Can we afford to cut back on some of the surveillance, and still relate to strangers? By using money, coins, notes, that’s a form of technology, and it’s a token of trust between strangers, but that doesn’t define our entire relationship with strangers. And the problem with surveillance is that, because it is ubiquitous, it tends to dominate, and our only way to think about one another is to think in terms of the stranger as a threat, the stranger is someone to be feared. That’s our starting point, so I think that in that way, we can still make some use of surveillance—we have to—but is it the only paradigm?

BL: In this book and much of your other work, you are engaging with issues affecting all of society, a society that is largely non-Christian. What do you see as the role of your Christian faith in engaging this context?

ES: I take my starting point from the fact that most people who are Christians spend most of their time in professional occupations, in family life, in meeting with their neighbors, and a tiny proportion of their time in church as we traditionally know it. But we seem to devote such a ridiculously disproportionate amount of time to the activities of church, in terms of our scholarly activity, in terms of our considerations and thought.

Now I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be narrative communities that maintain the story and teach people. But part of this is an obsession with Word and the teaching ministry. Are we really enabling people with the tools, with the critical thinking, with the theological awareness, that they can then deploy when they are, for example, serving coffee in a coffee shop and making decisions about how they are going to treat people?

We often can reduce it to: how are you going to think about being kind? Now, that’s not unimportant. But what about the person who is involved as a professional software designer? How do we help them to think theologically about what they’re doing? What about a person who is buying an IT system for their company? How are they as a Christian going to think theologically through the issues? Where are the resources coming from for that?

And that’s why I think that most of what I want to do is giving tools, critical ideas, funding the imagination of people who are Christian and who are not otherwise being helped to think critically about what they are doing in the wider world. That’s whether it’s as a politician, as a public official, as a cleaner, as a bus driver. It’s about the points where they have decisions to make, not just about how nice or kind they are to people, but, depending on the profession, certain really quite strategic points of influence. How can they think critically about it—not to impose their view on others, but to take up that responsibility.

So I think that the role of a practical theologian in this way is to offer people theological tools for where they spend most of their life.

One thought on “Watching and Being Watched

  1. Enjoying this Blog

    Very interesting discussion of surveillance. Will it include the analysis of the effectiveness of surveillance in preventing crime/terrorism and whether/how such effectiveness outweighs the down-side of handing more (probably unaccountable) power to a relatively small group of inherently sinful people?Perhaps this calls for a blog post which explores the issues that are mutual to government surveillance, gun control, and Romans 13?


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