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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 36, August 29, 2015

Anonimity, Fear and Surveillence

Monday 31 August 2015

by Vikash Sharma and Ananya Pathak

The modern civilisation has brought with it the expansion of urban centres, the growth of specialised occupations, the ever growing anxiety for basic resources and a perpetual threat upon one’s need to make an identity in an increasingly competitive, ruthless cultural ethos.

Our lives are today extremely preoccupied with professional demands leaving us with little or no time to reflect upon matters that are not utilitarian but existential in their character. This new orientation towards life has in fact erected huge walls of seclusion around the modern man, who is so lost in acquiring his material wealth, his official position and the associated qualifiers of status that he does not have time to realise that he has quite easily been seduced by the consumerist-neo-liberal dream of the ‘good life’. This paralysed consciousness of the modern man which cannot think beyond the parameters of ‘me and mine’ ‘is brilliantly captured by Jean Baudrillard when he argues that advertising, display, fashion, mass media and the proliferation of commodities multiplies the quantity of signs and spectacles and produces a society that adds value to these special signs (as emblems of style, prestige, luxury or power). Thus the hyper-real gains so much importance that the real is forgotten in this ever expanding modern spectacle.

This has led to the breakdown of the social fabric as it has promoted the culture of atomized individuals, rather than social beings that collectively create and construct communities. As people become overtly individualistic there is an automatic growth of fear and suspicion of ‘the other’. Hence he who is unlike me is seen as a threat to my survival and security, and thus becomes a target of my ‘suspicion and doubt’. At one level this has challenged the ethos of multicultural tolerance and acceptance of the ‘other’, it has created fear and generated mistrust as an essential component of survival, the proliferation of gated communities with round the clock security, public places being continuously monitored by video-audio mechanisms, the police calling our attention to unidentified ‘objects’ in markets, under bus seats, or near schools have all given birth to a society where fear is seen as natural and suspicion is seen as equivalent to alertness!

These new definitions of ‘alertness’ and ‘security’ have indeed created an environment that replaces the ethos of mutual trust and acceptance with doubt and fear. It is in the era of global terrorism that this trend has assumed an altogether new intensity. Nation-states across the world have taken it upon themselves to keep their territories safe from terrorist attacks. The neo-liberal world that we inhabit is undoubtedly threatened by many forces who seek to upset national integrity and destroy human lives that are innocent but in order to keep vigil and avoid terrorist activities we hardly realise, but all citizens are beginning to be seen as ‘potential terrorists’. Thus silently this culture of suspicion has also made us its victims. We appreciate our nation-states for increasing security levels at public places, airports, cinemas or malls and feel utterly pleased at the growth of modern technological gadgets that make security even more effective but ironically that very security enterprise which would one fine day ‘catch hold’ of a terrorist and save thousands of lives is in this very moment becoming a threat to the faith between me and my neighbour, between me and my maid servant who takes care of my baby when I am away at work. In the race to nail down potential sources of threat we all are seen as possible criminals, thieves or terrorists.

The state mechanism keeps surveillance on every individual in the city, through police checkups at every place in the city, CCTV cameras keenly recording all activities and of course cyber surveillance that stores the details of every individual. These equipments that are employed for security keep warning us, reminding us that any object or person nearby could be a potential source of harm; therefore it asks us to be suspicious, be doubtful and immediately bring to the notice of the authorities any anomaly observed. These so-called ‘anti-crime symbols’ bombard us with increased fear and insecurity through both audio as well as visual representations. Needless to add, the mechanism for keeping all public actions under surveillance is at its peak today, the culture of fear is naturalised and suspicion is seen as a necessary tool for survival but then this also raises a very fundamental question,

Amidst our increasing insecurities and the fear of threat to our lives we are insisting on expanded networks of surveillance but in this process are we losing the essential ideas of mutual trust, social bonds and collective living that make us humans?

Everyday innumerable times our bodies are being checked by security personnel to detect the presence of bombs, at every juncture we are asked to produce our identity cards to prove that we aren’t ‘terrorists’—thus what we regard as being for our well-being and security is also at the same time seeing us as a threat to ‘others’ security. We are perpetually caught in the web of mutual doubt and suspicion. This culture of surveillance deeply influences our consciousness and generates mistrust and fear. Its impact is such that it is making impossible the dialogic relationship between individuals.

 This culture of surveillance also stands as a symbol of state power. This notion is very sharply captured by David Lyon when he argues that mechanisms of state-led surveillance symbolise its control over both the personal as well as the public lives of its citizens. Thus by keeping records and a detailed database of individuals the state is able to assume a totalitarian character which gives it the power to dictate the destinies of individual citizens. This makes the state powerful and in control of people’s lives in totality.

It is quite interesting to see how even in schools where young children come to partici-pate in the culture of learning, the cult of surveillance has penetrated so deeply. In fact the moment one walks into the school environment especially in urban centres one is immediately reminded of the Focauldian notion of ‘docile bodies’ created in a circumstance that acts like a prison closely observing one’s action through the paradigm of disciple and punish-ment. Huge boundary walls, a well-connected security network and a hierarchal structure of bureaucratic authority—all these together speak the language of overwhelming power, control over subjects and the need to see every other individual with the eyes of doubt and mistrust.

Each activity of the child is recorded by CCTV cameras installed in every significant corner of the schoolchildren are continuously aware that the cameras are watching them, that even a little bit of indiscipline will be keenly punished. The school authority ensures in every possible manner through these elaborated machines of control that the child come to the conclusion that being ‘childlike’ is unacceptable and deserves punishment. This metaphorically goes on to explain that this world has no place for innocence. The bodies of children clearly display this forced notion of ‘discipline’ which the child is seen to be free from the moment the school is closed for the day and children run out of its gates, likes prisoners on gaining freedom!

This is how, the child learns the language of mistrust and fear right from her school days and as an adult when she steps into the bigger world, she accepts surveillance as a natural and necessary part of social existence.

The main philosophical insight that this article tries to give then is that in the modern world that has witnessed the massive expansion of science and technology, that has given voice to the numerous struggles for the propagation of multiculturalism, that values the enlighten-ment ethos of rationality, equality and social justice, is the culture of surveillance not breaking the foundations of our society? Is it not effectively displacing faith and trust with doubt and fear? Are we not being seen as terrorists ourselves when we doubt others? Are we being perpetually caught in the trap we ourselves made to catch the ‘others’? As a society becomes more cautious, it simultaneously becomes more insecure and this insecurity disrupts the social fabric. We are its ultimate losers; it is time we give thought to this serious concern and collectively build a society based on trust and acceptance rather than doubtful surveillance.

Vikash Sharma and Ananya Pathak are working in the field of education, and bring out The New Leaf, a magazine on Pedagogy, Aesthetics and Imagination.