A view on data ethics and surveillance for #lovedataweek
Today, we mark Love Data week 2019 on the theme of data ethics, with a thought-provoking contribution by Dr Eric Stoddart, associate director of the School of Divinity’s Centre for the Study of Religion & Politics (CSRP)* and expert on Practical Theology, Surveillance, and Digital Technologies.
1984 came and went. It was the year of the miners’ strike, the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, the Bhopal Union Carbide Factory toxic gas leak killing more than 3, 500 people, and widespread famine in Ethiopia. 1984 – the book – gave the year an extra edge thanks to Orwell’s novel about Big Brother (before BB was tv entertainment).
1984 gets more relevant each year but not quite in the way a casual reader might expect. Orwell’s book is not primarily about surveillance. Yes, Big Brother installed televiewer screens in people’s homes and seeking to escape his gaze carried frightening consequences. But, first and foremost, 1984 is a story about truth, specifically how truth is manipulated. Archivists have to amend public records and newspaper reports. Projected productivity targets have to be retrospectively edited to match the actual outcomes in the present. The Party is also gradually amending the language that is available to citizens of Oceania. This is not a task of inventing new words but destroying as many words as possible. Syme, one of the lexicographer’s explains to Winston:
“What justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word?…If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well….” (pp.54-5)
Thoughtcrimes threaten the Party’s attempt to monopolise ‘truth’ and, if the newspeak project comes to completion then the implication is that surveillance will be unnecessary. It is not so much that people will have been ground into submission or held in fear of the Party’s instruments of torture. Rather, dissent will not exist because the language by which dissent could be felt – let alone expressed – has been expunged.
Orwell’s work remains relevant precisely because the language around surveillance seems to dull many people’s critical take on being watched, sorted, analysed, and influenced. There is a task for academics to keep thickening the language available to the public about surveillance and particularly Big Data. Surveillance of mobile communications data is justified on grounds of ‘national security’ – a simple dog-whistle phrase to people fearful of strangers. Algorithmic sorting is domesticated on online retail platforms as ‘people who bought X also bought Y’. In the face of social problems it can seem that more data gathering is the go-to ‘something’ when ‘something needs to be done’.
My own work, studying surveillance from the perspective of Christian theology, is my contribution to keep thickening our language about surveillance. I try to draw imaginatively on metaphors and stories from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament in order to broaden or add more colour to how we talk about surveillance. My hope is that readers will resist language that domesticates surveillance and that makes data gathering too ordinary, non-controversial, or so commonplace that it becomes normalised.
Yes, Orwell was alerting us to Big Brother’s gaze but, even more significantly, Orwell knew the importance of us using rich, thick language to talk about surveillance.
School of Divinity
* A previous version of this post wrongly introduced Eric Stoddart as ‘associate director of the School of Divinity’. We apologise for any confusion caused by this mistake.