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.

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The rebel who refuses to conform is a powerful democratic narrative, yet one whose plausibility seems to be under threat from the rapid advance of surveillance technology. How will our narratives of the future handle this change in today’s technological landscape? Bizarrely, what seems to be on display above all is a sort of denial of reality. A number of science fiction movies have actually had to “disinvent” existing technologies in order to retell the myth of how rebels against “the system” help preserve free and open societies.

In the film In Time, starring Justin Timberlake, technological advance in a distant future has brought immortality to humanity. But to prevent a population explosion, the longevity of some people must be limited by a capitalist clock. The more you earn, the longer you live. Time is added to the scan bar embedded in your forearm and linked to your heartbeat. Run out of money, run out of heartbeats. It’s a nice thought experiment about the future of a society obsessed with both wealth and longevity. Of course, a hero arises to confront the unjust system: Timberlake, who steals the heiress to one of the great robber barons of this future dystopia. But in the ensuing car chases and fight scenes, there is a complete lack of even the most rudimentary surveillance technologies that would quickly have empowered even a modest police force (not to mention that of the capital city where the film is set) to close in on this solitary revolutionary. What, a society that can control immortality but can’t track a criminal in a car? We bet O.J. Simpson wishes he had lived in that world.

Similarly, in the wildly popular teen film The Hunger Games, we see another dystopian high-tech world, but again, one where surveillance capabilities seem to predate present capabilities. In the unruly outlying provinces of this society, which verge on the edge of rebellion, control is exercised by storm-trooper-suited police, not much more technically advanced than those of 1930s Germany. Really? A hundred years in the future, and a dictatorial power that can contrive a global gladiatorial reality TV show can’t manage to monitor people in their homes? Our law enforcement and parole officials today use locator devices on any number of society’s troubled members. But a century from now, such technology or social control does not exist?

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Amazingly, science fiction movies must posit a future that is less technologically developed than the present in order to allow a standard narrative of social redemption—the virtuous, solitary renegade—to remain plausible. We’ve seen a similar need for this sort of future anachronism in sci-fi movies like Enemy of the State, The Adjustment Bureau, and Total Recall. What are we to make of this denial of current reality as part of envisioning the future?

One paranoid possibility is that, in the desire to sell tickets, sci-fi filmmakers have unwittingly become part of the control mechanism. If sci-fi movies continue to perpetuate the myth that people of independent spirit will always find a way to rebel against the excesses of “the system,” then why rebel now against ubiquitous technological surveillance networks and their continued expansion into every crevasse of our lives? The necessary hero will come along to save us when the time is right.

Like, in the mind of some, Edward Snowden, perhaps? Therein lies an irony, for he is hardly an ordinary citizen. Indeed, perhaps the most important lesson in the Snowden affair is that the rise of ubiquitous surveillance technology means that future rebels will have to be insiders with security clearances like Snowden. Or, in the world of science fiction, they will have to be super-expert technologists like the movie characters Jason Bourne or the rebels in The Matrix, who have the technical chops to evade and hack their way out of the security web.

And yet, if our narratives of rebellion against social and political conformity are plausible only when the rebels are security-state insiders and technological super-experts, shouldn’t we begin to wonder whether the future that such narratives are supposed to be warning us about has already arrived?

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter. The views expressed here are the authors' alone and do not represent those of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or the U.S. Naval Academy.

Mark Hagerott is a distinguished professor of cybersecurity studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is an Afghanistan War veteran and held several positions in the Navy managing combat system and information networks.

Daniel Sarewitz co-directs the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes and is professor of science and society at Arizona State University.