Surveillance and the Future: What Sci-Fi Isn’t Telling Us

What's to come?
July 30 2013 9:15 AM

A Future in Denial

What sci-fi isn’t telling us about surveillance today or tomorrow.

In this handout photo provided by The Guardian, Edward Snowden speaks during an interview in Hong Kong. Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA, revealed details of top-secret surveillance conducted by the United States' National Security Agency regarding telecom data.
As surveillance technologies outpace what we see in science fiction movies, the real-life version of the typical sci-fi hero may not be an outsider rebelling against the system, but an insider with security clearance.

Photo by Handout/Getty Images

In his defense of the recently revealed National Security Agency telephone surveillance programs, President Obama has also welcomed a national discussion about how to strike the balance between security and freedom. But this difficult balance, which has historically been negotiated through the give-and-take of politics and legal contest, may increasingly be turned over to nondemocratic, nondeliberative forces of technological innovation. In the process, one of society’s most powerful narratives of democratic struggle—the myth of the individual who rebels against social and political conformity—has been rendered implausible by the development of pervasive security technology.

Who can go on the lam anymore? Paying for car rentals, airline tickets, or hotel rooms with cash these days is almost itself an admission of guilt about something. The electronic economy pretty much eliminates the plausibility of any story that depends on everyday people getting voluntarily lost, and if you manage not to get caught at a cash machine or using your credit cards, then you might as well know that police departments are now routinely using devices that record the license plates of every passing car. And of course we now know that U.S. government security agencies have the capability of capturing everyone’s telephone activity. Whatever it is you’ve done, or whatever you’re trying to escape, if you’re not holed up in an off-grid hut in the north woods, like the Unabomber, you’re probably going to get caught.

The consequences are not just for the world we live in, but for the worlds we imagine. Today Marion Crane would have never been tempted by the office safe full of cash that allowed her to finance her road trip in Pscyho. For one thing, the idea of an office safe full of cash is no longer plausible—instead, Marion would carry a company credit card around. But she’d never think of using it for illegal purposes because she’d know she’d get busted. And even if she had stumbled onto a load of actual cash, investigators would have been hot on her trail the minute she tried to cover her tracks by buying a used car. Perhaps she would have still made it into the Bates Motel shower, but Norman Bates would have been safely behind bars shortly thereafter.

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So far so good. If one consequence of making the world safer is that certain reliable plot devices are no longer plausible, that wouldn’t seem like anything to feel sorry about. But what happens in a society where ubiquitous technological surveillance makes it increasingly difficult to act outside of accepted social norms? What about Thelma & Louise, the movie in which two social revolutionaries fight oppression by taking the law into their own hands, defying social conventions about gender and law enforcement authorities alike as they go on a cross-country spree of free will? The balance of power between the individual and the system of law and surveillance in the early 1990s was such that Thelma and Louise are plausibly able to elude police long enough to choose their own fate, to exercise the ultimate agency and drive themselves literally off a cliff, the police still just one step behind. Recent developments in technology suggest that such an American expression of open-space, road-trip defiance is no longer possible in America itself. Defiance is possible, to be sure, but off-the-grid space is increasingly constricted in a world where our financial transactions, our telephones, and our automobiles give away our locations.

Today Thelma and Louise probably wouldn’t even make it out of town. Given the state of our surveillance technology, these two rebels would not get much beyond their first run-in with the law, their adventures recorded for the most part by the license plate readers and speed and surveillance cameras dotting American roadways and cities large and small. Or suppose they did somehow get away. Then imagine this final scene: With the smart/Web-enabled or Google driverless car of the future, law enforcement could have tracked every mile of their road trip, and, armed with the manufacturer’s “master password,” could have taken control of their vehicle by sending a wireless command to the car’s computer to "turn off ignition/lock doors.” Instead of having control over their fate and choosing to end it all in a final expression of autonomy, Thelma and Louise would end up trapped in their own car as the authorities circled in. A movie about defiance, freedom, and integrity would become, instead, one about the futility of individual rebellion and the inevitability of conformity.

We’re not condoning lawbreaking by free-spirited rebels, of course. Yet the good society is not one where everyone conforms to a set of norms and laws, but one where those norms and laws keep things in check, without enforcing absolute conformity. And just as laws help keep civil society in check without demanding mindless conformity, it’s equally true that the ability to push back against conformity is crucial for keeping state authority in check. Thelma and Louise weren’t real people, but they spoke to the need that we all have to believe that we are still free to rebel against the shackles of convention, and free to accept the consequences on our own terms.