Surveillance in Snowcrash

This is my offering for Blog Action Day. This year’s theme is Human Rights, so a post about surveillance and my ongoing notes on ‘Everday Human Rights’ seems appropriate (if obvious).

Snowcrash is Neal Stephenson’s break-out novel. It was published in 1992, when the World Wide Web was still a nascent and obscure technology. Nevertheless, it is a remarkably prescient book that predicts the ‘always on’ internet we have today, especially the Massive Multiplayer Online Games like Second Life and World of Warcraft. It also predicts the rise of cyber-attacks and the need for security in this area.

However, the passage that has stuck in my mind since I read the book a few years ago is an amusing piece of ‘world building’ that Stephenson constructs around one of his minor characters. Through the morning of ‘Y.T.’s Mom’ he describes the oppressive atmosphere of having to live and work under constant surveillance.

I’ve posted several paragraphs over on my commonplace book. Here’s just one:

She has passed the frisking with flying collars. Put the metal stuff back into her pockets. Climbed up half a dozen flights of stairs to her floor. The elevators here still work, but some very highly placed people in Fedland have let it be known—nothing official, but they have ways of letting this stuff out—that it is a duty to conserve energy. And the Feds are real serious about duty. Duty, loyalty, responsibility. The collagen that binds us into the United States of America. So the stairwells are filled with sweaty wool and clacking leather. If you took the elevator, no one would actually say anything, but it would be noticed. Noticed and written down and taken into account. People would look at you, glance you up and down. like, what happened, sprain your ankle? Taking the stairs is no problem.

Please do read the whole thing if you have a couple of minutes.

It’s a brilliant overview of the reasons those in power will give as an excuse for more surveillance: austerity and efficiency; safety and mutual benefit (such as participation in the federal health insurance plan); and of course, naked patriotism.

The chapter does something else too, which is to convey the intangible harm that over-surveillance can do… to an individual and a community. ‘Y.T’s Mom’ is a computer programmer in a federal compound, and she has internalised all sorts of habits that oppress her body and soul. She feels guilty about taking the lift and she routinely works far more than her contracted hours, just to show she is not a slacker.

Generally you pick the unoccupied workstation that’s closest to the door. That way, whoever came in earliest sits closest, whoever came in latest is way in the back, for the rest of the day its obvious at a glance who is on the ball in this office and who is—as they whisper to each other in the bathrooms—having problems. … Not that it’s any big secret, who comes in first. When you sign on to a workstation in the morning it’s not like the central computer doesn’t notice that fact. … You’re only required to be at your workstation from eight to five, with a half-hour lunch break and two ten-minute coffee breaks, but if you stuck to that schedule it would definitely be noticed, which is why Y.T.’s mom is sliding into the first unoccupied workstation and signing on to her machine at quarter to seven.

As well as pressurising the individual, the surveillance does something else too, which is to squeeze the life out of the community. In Fedland, there is no worker solidarity. Even attempts to ‘pool’ toilet tissue are suppressed by the bureaucracy. Co-workers pass moralistic judgements on each other and obsess over when everyone arrives at work, and which parking space they use.

It’s this description of the depressing nature of surveillance that literature does so well. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four does similar work. Families spy on each other.

In both books, the surveillance devolves into interrogation. In Nineteen Eighty Four this is followed by torture. In Snowcrash’s Fedland they prefer truth serum. But either way, the body and the mind betray the soul completely.

That’s not what interests me, though. I have noted before that the extremities of a literary dystopia—the corruption, torture, and murders—are too extreme for the ordinary person to relate to. When the PRISM revelations happened, there was much talk of Orwell and films like Enemy of the State (I saw no mention of Snowcrash), but such panics are easy to dismiss. We are not living in Airstrip One.

What does interest me is the lower level societal malaise. The distrust between fellow citizens, the unspoken fears, the suspicion. These are things that we can and do experience in our everyday lives, not just in countries like China and Iran but in the UK and the USA too. We live in places where college deans think nothing of demanding Facebook username and password combinations from their students. Where HR departments at major institutions think nothing of requiring their employees to take drug tests.

And what’s most insidious is when, faced with the prospect of surveillance, some people simply say, “what’s the problem, what have you got to hide, why makes you so special?” There’s no robust response to that which doesn’t imply that maybe you do have something to hide. And so we are cowed, and we acquiesce to the intrusion, the path of least resistance.

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