Prism: the psychopathology of internet surveillance

by Sam Kriss

The gaze of the other is a scotoma, a blind spot or plough cutting into the field of vision; the gaze looks, but does not see us.
Allan Pero, The Chiasm of Revolution

The NSA’s PowerPoint slides were apparently designed by Timmy, aged seven

The truth is out, in the form of an almost preternaturally tacky slideshow, but the truth has only ever been a pathological construct, the ultimate fetish-object in a world of images without referents. Here’s the truth: you are being watched – but the really important question isn’t what the truth is, but what the truth does, and that all depends. Maybe you don’t mind being watched, maybe you get off on it. What do you do when you’re alone with the Internet? Perhaps you sit in a darkened room, silent except for the syncopated rasp of your breath and the oily rustling of a half-empty bag of Chilli Heatwave Doritos, hunched over as you scroll endlessly through pictures of people you knew three years ago, each pulling the same identical pouty face as they pose at the club, pose at the beach, pose in front of scenes of outstanding natural beauty, pose in front of memorials to the victims of the genocide. Perhaps you watch only the tamest and most inoffensive of pornography, stuff given a stamp of approval by the National Organisation for Women and six prominent feminist bloggers – but that’s all you do, seven hours a day, seven days a week. Perhaps you like to hang out with your friends on Twitter to have fun sharing bomb-making tips and complaining about the slow progress of global Jihad. Perhaps you make rage comics, you sick freak.

What’s going on? Four hypotheses: the neurotic, the psychotic, the schizophrenic, the melancholic. Choose your sickness; it’s the only choice you’ll ever make.

Neurosis. Top-secret documents released recently by the Guardian and the Washington Post reveal the existence of a far-reaching surveillance programme operated by the National Security Agency (a part of the US military), codenamed PRISM. Under the programme, personal communications from nine Internet services – including Facebook, Skype, and Google, but with the notable exception of Twitter – can be accessed at any time by government security agents. Not just public postings but also private emails and video calls; in a separate scandal it was revealed that the NSA has been collecting the phone records of US citizens. What’s more shocking is that these companies voluntarily signed up to the programme; they abused the trust of their users in handing over private data to government spies. What we’re seeing is the development of a surveillance society far more insidious than any historical totalitarian regime. You can still think and say whatever you want, but you’re always being watched; your right to privacy has disappeared without you even noticing it. In some sinister concrete server complex there’s a digital file on you, containing everything you’ve said and done. Government agencies listen in on your telephone calls, software built in to your iPhone records your exact location, web cookies track your browsing habits. This is what radical openness means; it’s a laceration. The government-corporation complex is with you at every moment, and should it decide that it doesn’t like what you’re thinking and saying, it has the power to murder you on a whim.

Psychosis. There’s something grimly humorous about the whole situation. One of the nine services that forms part of the Prism system is YouTube; the unbidden image arises of a young, driven NSA staffer going in to work – his tie fastidiously knotted, his shoes gleaming like an oil slick – to watch hundreds of videos of cats falling over in the defence of American security interests. With every new maladroit kitten the aquiline focus of his eyes sharpens; the furrows on his forehead grow glacial in their cragginess. Ashley’s going for cocktails with the girls, Matt’s watching the football, Tariq’s eaten too much Ardennes pâté, and the government has to take note of it all in a desperate and doomed attempt to regulate our world. Except what if that’s the entire point? The programme isn’t political, it’s sexual. It’s not surveillance, it’s scopophilia. You think the NSA is trudging through millions of hours of Skype conversations just so they can catch out a couple of would-be terrorists? What do those initials really stand for, anyway? Nudes Seekin’ Agency? Nasty Sex Appraisers? Our agent isn’t watching out for coded communications, he’s got something entirely different in mind. A couple are talking into their webcams. She’s gone off to university, he stayed at home; they’re still together but in her absence he’s been feeling kinda down. He wants to touch her, he wants to hold her, he wants to feel flesh against flesh, but he can’t. As he talks a smile slithers across her face. “Oh, don’t,” she says. “Not now.” “Come on,” he says. “Please. I’m going crazy out here.” They think they’re alone. “OK,” she says. She takes off her shirt. As her tits flop out our agent bellows in exultation. There are hundreds of workstations in the big tile-carpeted room in Fort Meade, Maryland, and they all spout arcing parabolas of cum…

Schizophrenia. Internet surveillance is different from ordinary surveillance. The NSA isn’t putting bugs in your home or following you down the street; you’re giving them everything they want. You’re putting all this information out there of your own free will, and you can stop any time you want. We all know that everything we post online is monitored, that every ‘like’ on Facebook is worth £114 to advertisers and retailers, that Google knows far more about our shameful desires than our sexual partners or our psychotherapists, that intelligence agencies routinely prowl through our communications. And yet we still do it. Some people can’t eat their lunch without slapping an Instagram filter on it, others feel the need to tweet the precise consistency of their morning shit. Planet Earth produces 25 petabytes of data every day, a quantity of information several orders of magnitude larger than that contained in every book ever published – and most of it is banality or gibberish. A web developer named Mike DiGiovanni commented of Google Glass: “I’ve taken more pictures today than I have the past 5 days thanks to this. Sure, they are mostly silly, but my timeline has now truly become a timeline of where I’ve been.” As if this perverse behaviour is somehow to be encouraged. Why do we do this? Why can we no longer handle unmediated reality? Why does it always have to be accompanied by a digital representation? The fear of death must play into it. We mustn’t lose a moment to the decay of time, it has to be electronically immortalised. But surely that can’t be all. Perhaps this is precisely what we were designed to do. It’s engineered into the fabric of our being, it’s what we’re for. Our world is a distraction, it’s light entertainment. The NSA existed long before our society. It existed before the first human being gazed at the stars and rearranged them into shapes it could comprehend,  it existed before the first gasping half-fish hauled itself out of the slime to feel the sun on its back. The NSA is our demiurge, and we are its creatures. And as for what its agents look like when they take their masks off, perhaps it’s better for us to never know.

Melancholia. There’s something odd about all these interpretations: they’re grotesque, but at the same time they tickle our narcissism – a narcissism which is, after all, founded on the gaze. In a strange way it’s nice to think that you’re being watched, it’s nice to think that whatever drivel you produce somehow merits the attention of big important government agencies. It’s far more horrifying to think that nobody is watching you, because nobody cares. The problem is that that’s the truth – that, as Lacan insisted, the Big Other doesn’t exist. You’re being watched, but only by machines. Your data is thoroughly chewed up in the inhuman mandibles of some great complex algorithm, and by the time it’s regurgitated for advertisers or spies you’re pretty much unrecognisable. You’re not a person, you’re input and output; a blip with a few pathetic delusions of sentience. And the narcissism of the surveilled is the most telling of those delusions. This is the complaint of the privacy campaigners: the flying robots of death were bad, but this is really the last straw. As if someone snooping on your emails was the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone. We don’t live in a society of surveillance; that’s ultimately ephemeral. We do live in a society of incarceration. It’s the fundamental fact of our world, and hardly anyone is talking about it. The United States Government is carrying out the largest mass imprisonment in human history, on a scale that dwarfs the Stalinist Gulags. One in every three black American men in their twenties is under some form of criminal supervision; more black people are imprisoned now than worked as slaves in the antebellum South. Prison labour produces $2.4bn every year, and in the Louisiana State Penitentiary – a former plantation – inmates are put to work picking cotton. Not that any of this matters. It’s fine for them, it’s just what happens. The contemporary Western political subject is too busy innovatively creating hot new apps to worry about that sort of thing. But give him a little taste of this oppression and indignity – search through his emails, for instance – and he knows what’s up. His civil liberties are under an unprecedented assault.