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Surveillance as ‘Solution’

November 1, 2013

In his book, To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov called the predominant contemporary technocentric politics, ‘solutionism’. Surveillance may be one of the best contemporary examples of this trend, at least many surveillance technologies are promoted as a technological solution to some problem whose roots are in way ‘technological’ but social and economic, and therefore whose resolution, equally, must be social and economic.

What got me thinking about this (again) was a little puff-piece in the Ottawa Citizen today, which presented panoramic thermal imaging as the ‘solution’ to the monitoring of the US-Canada border. Now, in recent history the formerly largely unguarded US-Canada has not really presented much of a problem to anyone. However, post-9/11 paranoia has recast the border as a source of threat, not least because of the widely believed myth that some of the hijackers entered the US through Canada. Whether propagated deliberately or through sheer ignorance, this myth has served to harden the US-Canadian border for ordinary people, and especially people of colour, at the same time as the economic liberalization of North America proceeds ‘beyond the border’ (to use the name of the Obama-Harper initiative).

However, the piece in the Citizen isn’t about security as such, but about drugs, and largely marijuana trafficking. This, let us not forget, is at a time when the failures of prohibition are increasingly recognised, when the Organization of American States has published a major report arguing for the decriminalization of the illicit drugs trade in order to better regulate it, and when Canadian police themselves don’t really bother with enforcing existing laws when it comes to marijuana, and Uruguay and several US states have actually voted to legalize it. Surveillance on this context is a ‘solution’ not only to a ‘problem’ that is essentially a legal artifact but one that is a counter-productive and pointless waste of resources which leads to the unnecessary prosecution and demonification of many people.

Where this comes back to 9/11 is that the war on terror has served to ‘securitize’ a lot of these social problems. It does matter that a particular law is ineffective and on the way out, the trade in illegal drugs is bundled together with terrorism and other threats under the rubric of security, and therefore the border is ‘insecure’*. In this context, the manufacturers are able to step forward with technological ‘solutions’ and rather than being laughed out of town, or condemned for overreacting, they are taken seriously by the media and policymakers.

*it should be noted that this process didn’t start with 9/11: ‘narcoterrorism’ was a catchword in US policy in South America for some time before. As Armand Mattelart has argued, in these counter-insurgency operations carried out under the banner of the war on drugs, we see the beginnings of many of the tactics that have become more widespread since 9/11.

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