The surveillance state
Justin Smith has an excellent article in Harpers, discussing how and why we are moving toward a surveillance state:
When I say the regime, I do not mean the French government or the U.S. government or any particular government or organization. I mean the global order that has emerged over the past, say, fifteen years, for which COVID-19 served more as the great leap forward than as the revolution itself. The new regime is as much a technological regime as it is a pandemic regime. It has as much to do with apps and trackers, and governmental and corporate interests in controlling them, as it does with viruses and aerosols and nasal swabs. Fluids and microbes combined with touchscreens and lithium batteries to form a vast apparatus of control, which will almost certainly survive beyond the end date of any epidemiological rationale for the state of exception that began in early 2020.
The last great regime change happened after September 11, 2001, when terrorism and the pretext of its prevention began to reshape the contours of our public life. Of course, terrorism really does happen, yet the complex system of shoe removal, carry-on liquid rules, and all the other practices of twenty-first-century air travel long ago took on a reality of its own, sustaining itself quite apart from its efficacy in deterring attacks in the form of a massive jobs program for TSA agents and a gold mine of new entrepreneurial opportunities for vendors of travel-size toothpaste and antacids. The new regime might appropriately be imagined as an echo of the state of emergency that became permanent after 9/11, but now extended to the entirety of our social lives, rather than simply airports and other targets of potential terrorist interest.
My wife recently told me a story about someone she knows who lives in China. This woman had a toothache and went to the pharmacy to buy a painkiller. A few hours later she got a call from a government official asking for the purpose of her visit. She explained the purpose, and the caller seemed satisfied. (Presumably the official was suspicious that she might be buying medication for Covid.)
To most Americans, this story sounds rather creepy. But how far behind China are we?
Even tyrants would be foolish to pass down an iron law when a low-key change of norms would lead to the same results. And there is no question that changes of norms in Western countries since the beginning of the pandemic have given rise to a form of life plainly convergent with the Chinese model. Again, it might take more time to get there, and when we arrive, we might find that a subset of people are still enjoying themselves in a way they take to be an expression of freedom. But all this is spin, and what is occurring in both cases, the liberal-democratic and the overtly authoritarian alike, is the same: a transition to digitally and algorithmically calculated social credit, and the demise of most forms of community life outside the lens of the state and its corporate subcontractors.
It’s a cliché to suggest that people “read the whole thing”, but in this case it’s true. Indeed Justin Smith’s relatively long piece in Harpers contains material that is even more interesting than the three paragraphs I cited. He is one of our most insightful intellectuals.