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The Decline of Human Intimacy in the Age of Mass Surveillance

by

Capitalism and surveillance, two powerful sociological processes in today’s world, are invading more and more space in our personal lives. Both processes are continuously assaulting possibilities for intimate connections and replacing them with symbiotic, ephemeral, and dehumanizing forms of relations.

A lot has been written about capitalism and the commodification of relationships under capitalism. Žižek has talked about love becoming a commodity that we want to get rather than a process that takes labor and care; Norman Fairclough has written about the self-promotion discourse and how it makes us constantly promote ourselves as if we were a commodity; Erich Fromm extensively studied the modern individual’s obsession with owning and having at the expense of being and flourishing. Today, capitalism is no longer the only macro process conditioning our interactions; surveillance has emerged as another ubiquitous force that is found everywhere and that is affecting all aspects of our lives. This article explicates the detrimental effect of surveillance on possibilities for intimate and spontaneous human connectedness.

Surveillance and the gradual demise of privacy and intimacy

In order to develop a sense of connectedness, we develop intimate relationships. Intimate relationships, whether they are platonic or romantic are the source of our empowerment when we feel vulnerable, they provide us with a sense of groundedness and an experience of the world as a friendly and trustworthy place. These relationships take time and effort to develop and one of the essential processes required to form intimate relationships is self-disclosure. Self-disclosure refers to the process whereby two parties disclose to one another facts about themselves that they have kept private. Sprecher’s (1987) research on the impact of self-disclosure on romantic relationships found that “the amount of overall disclosure in the relationship was predictive of whether couples remained together over four years.” Walker and Wright’s (1976) research on self-disclosure in friendships found that “ the general level of friendship increased as a function of intimate and nonintimate self-disclosure; however, intimate disclosure produced greater increases in friendship than nonintimate disclosure.”

The importance of self-disclosure in the development of relationships highlights the importance of privacy. When nothing about us is private, when everything is known to everyone around us, there will be nothing left to disclose and intimate self-disclosure will become impossible. The organic relationship between intimacy, self-disclosure, and privacy has led philosophers to define privacy as the ‘moral capital’ of relationships: “You can think of privacy as ‘moral capital’. People use this capital to build intimate relationships. Taking away people’s privacy means taking away their moral capital. Without moral capital, they have no means to develop close personal relationships” (Quinn, 2015). What creates intimacy is the disclosure of what we have kept private.

Given how indispensable privacy is in forming intimate bonds, defending our privacy becomes equivalent to defending our rights to form intimate and authentic human connections. In today’s age of surveillance our privacy is under attack and our moral capital for relationships is slowly vanishing. It is now clear that governmental and non-governmental surveillance systems are eliminating our right to privacy. We are constantly being watched. Data about us is being produced every day and saved on computers in the headquarters of security and business organizations. If you live in the UK, all your online browsing history is being saved and kept track of by your internet service provider; this is what the Investigatory Power Bill is requiring internet service providers to do. A large number of organizations will have access to your browsing data, to every link that you click and every web page that you visit; the organizations are listed here.

Mass surveillance has taken a new unprecedented scale and it will take us time to absorb and understand how much of our lives is being observed and recorded. Both our online and offline activities are being watched: internet logs, microphones, television cameras, hidden cameras, police drones and many other tools are being used to record our activities. According to an introductory textbook on ethics in the information age, “it has been estimated that the average Briton is caught on camera an average of 300 times per day” (Quinn, 2015).

The use and misuse of surveillance data

Surveillance is not a new phenomenon, law enforcement and security institutions have always resorted to gathering data in ways that were found to infringe privacy; and these practices were justified by the need for data in order to efficiently and effectively prevent criminal activity. Data about citizen’s locations and activities can be helpful for security organizations and there has been major success stories of using data to optimize security services. One success story comes from the state of Virginia in the US:

“Police in Richmond, Virginia, monitor Facebook and Twitter messages to determine where parties are happening. Data-mining software identifies the party locations mentioned most frequently. By deploying officers more strategically on big party nights, the department saves about 15000$ on overtime pay, and the community has seen a big drop in criminal activity” (Quinn, 2015).

When data about us is handled ethically, success stories could result; but not all institutions who have access to surveillance data are using it ethically.  For example, it was found that the FBI National Crime Information Centre (NCIC) which holds databases about citizens’ activities has been accessed by employees who used data to make financial profits: “Corrupt employees of law enforcement organizations with access to the NCIC have sold information to private investigators and altered or deleted records” (Quinn, 2015). Given that governmental and non-governmental institutions have histories of unethical uses of surveillance data and of using surveillance data, we need to be monitoring the institutions that are monitoring us; the surveillance agencies should be under surveillance.

From person to impersonator

Whether surveillance data is used ethically or unethically, surveillance will always be a problem and a source of harm. Human connectedness and self-disclosure require spontaneity; yet the more we are being watched and the more conscious we are of it, the more our interactions will lose their spontaneity. Humanistic psychologist Maslow has long ago warned that those who have lost the capacity for spontaneity can no longer be human, they become ‘human impersonators.’ The Truman Show movie has very well captured the type of society we would be living in when we are under surveillance: Truman was unaware that he was being watched, yet he was aware that there was something lacking in his world. He felt that everyone around him was an impersonator. No matter how hard they tried to connect with him, the actors in Truman’s world were incapable of developing intimate bonds with him, their awareness of being watched kept them from reaching the level of intimacy that Truman needed. Surveillance creates impersonators who are incapable of intimacy.

In order for our world not to become a world of impersonators we must protect our privacy.

References

Quinn, M. J. (2015). Ethics for the information age. Pearson.

Sprecher, S. (1987). The effects of self-disclosure given and received on affection for an intimate partner and stability of the relationship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 4(2), 115-127.

Walker, L. S., & Wright, P. H. (1976). Self-disclosure in friendship. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 42(3), 735-742.

 

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