The Reading Resolution (3): Surveillance

One of the “pillars” of dystopian genre, a book often used for comparisons and as a benchmark, is Orwell’s classic 1984. Surveillance in the book, characterised by the metaphor of “Big Brother” is so prevalent as a concept in society which even people who have not read the novel are familiar with the phrase and know what it represents. We even have a reality TV show named after it in several countries, after all.

Surveillance, then, is a theme which is reused and adapted in most if not all dystopian novels, and features strongly the novels I have been reading in the past few months. Surveillance is a form of control, 1984 teaches us. Importantly, the book also follows Benthamian logic, showing us through the actions of the characters that even when the control is not complete, self-monitoring and self-control insures cooperation and order. All of the novels, from Little Brother (the title itself an homage to 1984) to Matched explore surveillance and expose the weaknesses in the controlling organisations’ attempts at maintaining complete surveillance.

I was most impressed by the treatment of the subject in Little Brother. Skilfully, Cody Doctorow uses modern technology and existing features of life in San Francisco to highlight both the current level of and the ease of expanding surveillance on ordinary US citizens. Using travel passes, Credit Cards and ID cards the government is able to track the movements of Markus and his friends, as well every other citizen with a home and income. Because Marcus was placed under specific surveillance after he was considered suspicious he additionally has his computer ad phone tapped, his emails read and activities monitored.

As a result Markus’s resistance comes through establishing a secret network, one where the actors remain anonymous and which allows Markus to subvert the system. In addition, Markus and fellow x-net users begin to use tools to switch the information encoded in these different cards, confusing government officials and causing random people to be pulled over, stopped and questions as potential terrorists. In one of the most delightful passages Markus and his father have a confrontation in which the father loudly expresses his discontent at this switching of data, although he was the inspiration, and through this learns that the control of the state is a double-edged knife.

Markus’ x-net and his resistance actions are aimed at showing how technology can be used in two ways- both keep us safe, to support development and to control society. Interestingly, video cameras play practically no role in the surveillance of society in Little Brother. Cameras, so central to the idea of security in many of our public places today, also play a prominent part in Maze Runner and Divergent. Unlike in Little Brother, the identities of the watchers remain unknown throughout most of Maze Runner. Instead, the small, beetle-like cameras with red markings on their back scuttle in and out of the narrative, suggesting surveillance and adding to the suspense.

In Divergent, surveillance is doubled. Not only are the headquarters of each fraction filmed and monitored internally, all of the feeds are also passed along to the external scientists, watching the developments is a sort of sociological/political/genetic studies. For the characters in Divergent and Maze Runner the confrontation with the watchers is disturbing and upsetting, highlighting the moral problems associated with the “experiments”.  In both of the texts these meetings also expose the illegitimacy of the power dynamic- revealing that the watchers are also only human, with flaws and weaknesses.

The distance between the watched and the watchers means that this revelation is only possible in the final confrontation, causing a sudden power shift. In Little Brother and Matched the transition of power is far more fluid, as the teenage protagonists are able to identify the weak spots in the surveillance system designed by the adults. For both Markus and Cassia the realisation that they have the ability to resist the government comes along with the realisation that the government’s control and surveillance is not complete. The power that comes along with secrets and knowledge strengthens their will to resist the paths set out for them, and allows the characters to take the journeys they take.

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