The massive surveillance apparatus we live in is made for consumers, not for people

As the response to first the pandemic and then the protests against police brutality and its part in American anti-blackness have shown, resources are readily available for policing but not for public health. More than a few people have noted this disparity on social media: In America in 2020, police have high-tech riot gear and weapons at the ready, while ER nurses have had to resort to garbage bags in lieu of proper protective equipment. This holds true for surveillance as well: Funding and support for innovations in the service of policing have been ample, while the kind of monitoring that is fundamental for public health care is not just underdeveloped but actively resisted out of concern for privacy.

Yet as anyone with a phone and a social media account should know, the monitoring of individual location, behavior, and personal relationships is already active and ubiquitous. So why, when there is more accumulated data about our location and movements than we could possibly imagine, is the surveillance available to manage a communicable disease so incredibly feeble?

The principle that populations can be monitored and successfully managed is central not just to public health but to modernity and its persistent forms of racism

Several other countries have, with varying degrees of success, used surveillance to minimize the spread of Covid-19 — whether by contact tracing, taking body temperatures before admission to certain locations, or mandatory quarantines and immigration bans. In the public health field, “surveillance” is used as a term without political valence: The practice of monitoring is seen as standard and relatively uncontroversial, a necessary and even benevolent element for the study and management of a population’s health, whether it involves an individual’s biometric data or broader collection of demographic information for the control of disease.

But surveillance also has a well-deserved pejorative cast in most contemporary analyses, particularly with the historical inextricability of surveillance and racist policing in the U.S. that can be traced back to 18th century “slave patrols.” New technologies for monitoring and tracking have implications for policing, public health, and consumer capitalism, all of which begin to overlap, authorize, and contradict each other. One way to sketch this dysfunctional triangulation is by detailing the trajectory of what philosopher Michel Foucault called “panopticism” — the establishment of institutions of surveillance and categories of information that both establish societal norms and discipline individuals to conform to those norms. This principle — that populations can be monitored and thereby successfully managed — is central not just to public health but modernity more generally and its persistent forms of racism. Corporate capitalism’s dramatic expansion and routinization of commercial data collection has only made this already troubling principle worse.

The panopticon, in its simplest and most literal form, is a conceptual and architectural design for a prison, produced by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century, that shows the play between visibility and power: a central tower surrounded by cells, the prisoners constantly visible, while the presumed observer occupying the tower cannot be seen. It remains uncertain to the prisoners whether they are actually being watched, but the threat (if not the actuality) of constant surveillance is supposed to regulate their behavior. In theory, this principle allowed modern states to replace the horrific dungeons and public executions characteristic of power and punishment in the premodern era. In modernity, subjects internalize the threat of being watched and effectively watch themselves, disciplining their own activity.

Calling the panopticon a “laboratory of power,” Foucault argues that it can be seen as a model for how numerous institutions — medical, educational, occupational, and of course penal — came to function in the emerging industrialized world, structuring the social, economic, and personal lives of large populations. These institutions established categories of normalcy and deviation, as well as means and measures for evaluating them, and relied on an atmosphere of surveillance to prompt people to discipline themselves into conforming to those standards. The prison exists as a literal threat for the disciplined population as well as a metaphor for a “panoptic” society. As long as you remain “normal,” “law-abiding,” and “healthy” you would remain out of prison or hospitals; deviation would require institutionalization for closer monitoring.

These definitions of normalcy and “health” necessarily construct difference as problematic, whether in terms of race, gender, sexuality, capacity/ability, or other categories. The modern concepts of racial difference or sexual normativity are not just regulated by panoptic discipline and biopolitical categorization; they are themselves products of the basic principles of panopticism. In other words, the exercise of power is no longer anchored in grotesque spectacles of punishment but in the production of marginal populations. For the normative and dominant “whiteness” to have been established required not just the production of race as an identifying feature, but establishing racial difference as something to be actively and institutionally regulated by systems of classification that pervade social and medical sciences, economics, education, labor, law, and virtually every other form of societal order. Racism is thus definitionally institutionalized and systemic. As kihana miraya ross has argued, in the U.S., it is not just “racism” but the extreme violence of anti-blackness in particular that has been constitutive of whiteness.

Offering a more impressive public health intervention would require that Apple and Google reveal more of what they already know about our individual behaviors

Panoptic institutions and biopolitical categorization are still firmly entrenched. But the panoptic principle cannot fully account for contemporary subjectivity, especially as it functions within and through current digital surveillance models. Private companies now accumulate vast amounts of information about individuals and demographics and produce algorithms to find ways to use it. This is still a laboratory of power, but it is in large part driven by corporate interests and machine learning: It is not so much about disciplining behavior but the interpretation, creation, and prediction of desire in the consumer. Even as disciplinary institutions are still the most visible representations of America’s anti-blackness, the vast majority of today’s surveillance innovation and the gigantic caches of our personal data are the property of corporate empires. The surveillance culture built by tech giants Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, while still saturated by racism, is oriented toward consumer capitalism more than institutional normativity. The pervasiveness and power of the corporate surveillance regime, especially when contextualized by the revolts against police brutality and the inept containment of the Covid-19 virus, shows consumer capitalism to be yet another formation that has little to offer beyond the production and maintenance of systematic inequities.

Foucault introduces his discussion of panoptic discipline with documentation of how the plague was managed in the late 1600s, an account that makes it abundantly clear how far we have not come since then:

The following, according to an order published at the end of the 17th century, were the measures to be taken when the plague appeared in a town.

First, a strict spatial partitioning: the closing of the town and its outlying districts, a prohibition to leave the town on pain of death, the killing of all stray animals; the division of the town into distinct quarters, each governed by an intendant. Each street is placed under the authority of a syndic, who keeps it under surveillance; if he leaves the street, he will be condemned to death. On the appointed day, everyone is ordered to stay indoors: it is forbidden to leave on pain of death. The syndic himself comes to lock the door of each house from the outside; he takes the key with him and hands it over to the intendant of the quarter; the intendant keeps it until the end of the quarantine. Each family will have made its own provisions; but, for bread and wine, small wooden canals are set up between the street and the interior of the houses, thus allowing each person to receive his ration without communicating with the suppliers and other residents; meat, fish and herbs will be hoisted up into the houses with pulleys and baskets. If it is absolutely necessary to leave the house, it will be done in turn, avoiding any meeting. Only the intendants, syndics and guards will move about the streets and also, between the infected houses, from one corpse to another, the “crows”, who can be left to die: these are “people of little substance who carry the sick, bury the dead, clean and do many vile and abject offices.” It is a segmented, immobile, frozen space. Each individual is fixed in his place. And, if he moves, he does so at the risk of his life, contagion or punishment.

Besides the fact that the “on pain of death” parts are now largely replaced by fear and misinformation (at least for white Americans), this should all seem remarkably familiar.

For those of us whose lives are not already so precarious as to need a reminder, the threat of disease brings home that we too are bodies: fragile, vulnerable, crammed together in tight spaces, oozing with snot, and spit, and sweat, and blood. Surely there must be something to help us in the face of a pandemic, given the vast advancements in medical, social, and information sciences of the modern age?

Yet despite the trillions of terrabytes of information to which billions of people are tied and subjected and entertained by and reliant on — a global, multitiered and decentralized surveillance apparatus so vast that Shoshanna Zuboff refers to it not as an information culture or society or economy but an information civilization — the care of our physical bodies under threat of a world-altering pandemic has not moved beyond the 17th century directive to “stay home.”

When Google and Apple unveiled their “unprecedented” collaboration in jointly developing an app for pandemic contact tracing, it seemed momentarily to suggest that these tech giants might be willing to use their massive powers of surveillance and incalculable wealth to help the global population. But upon even the briefest of second thoughts, their proposed technological rescue looks offensively meager: These companies have been scraping us for data for years, amassing billions, but rather than deploy those resources, they provide yet another app that health officials say is basically useless.

Of course, offering a more impressive intervention would require that Apple and Google reveal more of what they already know about our individual behaviors, locations, biometrics, etc., and what their algorithms can do with that information. This would threaten the information asymmetry that has come to define the digital economy, in which companies sell what they know about you to advertisers and create online environments that prove effective at manipulating users, while at the same time insisting that they are serving you.

The surveillance of digital communications technology has either no interest or no capacity to treat people as anything other than consumers

If Google and Apple actually shared their resources with public health officials, they would be announcing to the world that they all but own us; instead they choose to offer us yet another way to provide them with data about ourselves. At the same time, many users seem to support these corporations’ resistance to sharing information with health officials, accepting the strange logic that the companies who most invade users’ privacy also want to protect it. As polling has shown, most people know their information is being collected for marketing purposes, to which their response appears to be a giant “meh.” But once surveillance is explicitly used to treat users as medically vulnerable citizens rather than consumers, Americans appear to balk at it.

Alongside the realms of state surveillance and institutional management of health — which have produced a large part of the conditions in which nonwhite people are suffering more severe outcomes with Covid-19 — we have the realities of contemporary surveillance, in which individuals are carefully tracked but this comprehensive monitoring offers little help in confronting the pandemic crisis. In a sense, this is indicative of how privacy has won over surveillance, but it is corporate privacy that has come out on top, evading both governmental regulation, civic responsibility, and, at this point, common decency.

How did we reach a place where technologies of mass surveillance in the service of consumer exploitation, informational and economic inequities, and the centralization of data and power in fewer and fewer corporate hands do not register as a problem, but some people express such alarm at relatively basic surveillance being used for the health of humanity?

Panoptic power was predicated on the threat of past (or future) plagues. When the plague becomes neither a haunting nor a warning but a present reality, alive in our own bodies, it turns out we have next to nothing in place to manage it. Meanwhile the surveillance of digital communications technology has either no interest or no capacity to treat people as anything other than consumers.

Today’s panopticism and consumer capitalism alike are woefully, brutally inadequate to manage a pandemic, although they have been quite effective in building enduring structural racism and ever more extreme income inequality. That’s not to say that I would advocate for any scenario in which either corporate capitalism or government authorities have broader surveillance and power over the citizenry. Rather I am speaking from within an already existing network of massive physical and informational tracking to note how surveillance and machine learning is and is not being used. While it is true that the U.S. government is generally dysfunctional and is currently headed by a particularly destructive demagogue, we should also take care to note that advancements in the surveillance and management of individuals have ultimately served little other than corporate power and consumer capitalism, itself operating alongside an ongoing agenda of institutionalized white supremacy.

As Covid-19 sweeps through prisons and hospitals — institutions that within Foucault’s analysis of the panoptic schema theoretically should have been the most able to “manage” their populations — and the police continue to murder black Americans and assault protesters, it becomes even clearer that surveillance and security have become increasingly antithetical to concerns for health and safety. Never has it been so obvious that the economy and governing of global capitalism, particularly that of the U.S., is operating outside the logic of social infrastructure and has instead fully invested in pure exercises of power. Covid-19 is not the disease — it is, sadly, only the symptom.

The prevailing surveillance models of today, and those that profit from them, do not care about our health, and their resources will not be used to help. The information empires are not coming to our rescue. The government is not coming to our rescue. What we are left with is market segmentation and racial segregation, not plague-preventing partitions. Panopticism, it turns out, was actually pretty optimistic.

Catherine Zimmer is Chair of the Film and Screen Studies Department at Pace University, and the author of Surveillance Cinema. Her work on media, culture, and politics has appeared in a range of scholarly journals as well as popular online publications.