Christopher Antila

A Thought about How Power Works in Society

My reaction to the recent “revelations” about government censorship.

Like Martin Gräßlin (see here), I have a lot to hide. I’m not a particularly secretive person, I never consciously do anything for the negative or destructive consequences, and I have no reason to hide anything in particular, yet I still have a lot to hide. There are lots of reasons for this, but here are two obvious ones: (1) I know I sometimes do, say, and think stupid things that I later wish I hadn’t done, said, or thought; and (2) that saying things for an unknown audience requires much more thought than saying things to a specific person or group of people.

Imagine this situation. One day, in person, I discuss a social issue with a friend. The next day, I see a related article on a website, and decide to send a link to my friend, along with a sarcastic message that appears to mean the opposite of what I actually think. I can rely on my friend correctly interpreting my sarcastic message, because we know the context of the email. If some entity (say, “The Government”) saves my email for 20 years, then wishes to imprison everybody who thought a certain way about this social issue, can I rely on by email being interpreted in the right context? Not likely. In fact, 20 years later, perhaps neither my friend nor I will remember the email was sarcastic. As an especially sarcastic person, I’m a little worried about this possible future situation.

So I’m encouraged by the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF’s) push for more transparent surveillance. If “they” are watching “us,” then “we” should be watching “them.” But I have my reservations too.

You see, I’ve been reading a lot of Foucault work recently, which is about how power works in society. One of the most striking things is the extent to which you can encourage people to do what you want by creating the right sort of hierarchic supervision. The thing about hierarchies is that there are always more people at lower levels, so they could potentially organize themselves out of the hierarchy (this is part of how labour unions work, for example). But the hierarchy only works if people at lower levels know they’re being supervised.

This raises some interesting questions. For the supervisors we’ve been hearing about recently, are they actually so stupid that they forgot to tell us we were being supervised? I don’t think so, and I think the EFF and others are helping the supervisors do their job. The EFF will spend a lot of time and effort trying to fight for transparency, when ultimately “telling people how they’re being surveilled” is exactly what the supervisors need.

I don’t expect you will accept this at face value, since they’re not necessarily obvious. I also don’t know what this means about “what we should do.” As the title of this post says, it’s just a thought.