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You and Big Brother @Home online

- Amy Musgrave

Technology and surveillance cause a sense of moral panic, but such scrutiny has the potential to enhance society.

Cyber security, surveillance |

The tension between cyber phobia and cyber euphoria is one of the enduring questions of the technological age. And as the technologies of the modern world become more powerful – even more intrusive – the question becomes even sharper. 

“There is a global sense of moral panic about technology and surveillance,” says Keith Breckenridge, Deputy Director at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) and a history professor with a special research interest in information systems and surveillance. 

Personal space invaders 

This sense of moral panic is surely linked to the way in which today’s technologies intersect – and even take over – the most personal spaces in our everyday lives. Many of the technologies that resulted from the second industrial revolution during the early 20th Century carried with them a limited invasive capacity. This was the case even when these innovations were developed for mass consumption, and thus entered our homes. 

So the motor car, the telephone, the television set and video recorder became commonplace in the developed world, but they each belonged to a single identifiable place in the home. The car in the garage, the TV and VCR in the lounge, the phone in the study. The user could leave them in their designated place. Technology had also not yet broken down the distinction between home and office, work and leisure, or personal and public. 

Convergence calamity 

Modern tech is different and this altered relationship in the interface of the individual-to-consumer technology is perhaps the main distinguishing feature of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – and arguably a key driver of 21st Century techno-anxiety. 

It does not help the sense of moral panic that consumer tech also obliterates the distinction in the use of the various devices we own and operate, thus increasing the individual’s dependence on these devices. TV and recorder, phone, messaging, watch and office capabilities can now be had from a single device. Home, work, and play now also exist seamlessly, challenging established notions of work/life balance. 

Surveillance capitalism 

But is the sense of dread justified? Breckenridge thinks this anxiety has a lot to do with the fear of surveillance, which modern tech makes easier. Fear of surveillance is based on the notion that the state – or large corporations today – are gunning for maximum control of our personal information for dubious purposes. 

He cites the example of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, Shoshana Zuboff’s 2018 book about the quest by powerful corporations to predict and control our behaviour. “Zuboff vividly brings to life the consequences as surveillance capitalism advances from Silicon Valley into every economic sector.” 

But Breckenridge makes the point that states still collect more information than any corporation, despite the data collection and storage capacity of the mega corporations of the internet age. This is especially true of the developed ‘mega-states’, such as the US, China, and the European Union governments. And, he adds, there is nothing wrong with states collecting as much information as possible, even through surveillance systems. “Every just society has and relies upon vast systematic surveillance,” he says. 

Surveillance for citizen services 

To understand and appreciate the point, it’s perhaps necessary to shift from the popular understanding of ‘surveillance’ – with its connotations of spying, intrusion and invasion of privacy – towards what Breckenridge means by it: the collection, collation and categorisation of citizens’ information to enable the state to deliver services efficiently. 

One example is the developed welfare states of the Scandinavian countries, where citizens are required to notify local authorities within a certain period of relevant changes in their personal and family circumstances, such as moving to a new house. This allows better state planning and services such as schooling and healthcare. 

The surveillance state, according to Breckenridge, works best as a trade-off between the individual and the state: you give the state maximum information about yourself and your personal circumstance, in return for socio-economic “goodies” (social grants, health, education, safety), in other words a state that takes care of basic needs. 

In the South African context, better surveillance of citizens’ movements and lives will allow the state to be more efficient at paying out social grants, as well as tracking how the money the state pays out is spent, which is critical knowledge to have when planning local economic development. 

  • Amy Musgrave is a freelance journalist.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Research Office
  • Read more in the seventh issue, themed: #Ekhaya (isiZulu for ‘home’) about our homegrown research that crosses borders and explore the physical spaces we inhabit, where we feel we belong, where we’re from and what we identify with, including the physical/psychological space we may return to – or reject.