Always Under Surveillance

The End of Mental Privacy

During the Trump era, it was often said that political satire was becoming impossible.

Big Brother is scanning you. Corporate Trump satire, Berlin.

Much as the president was disconnected from reality, the one truth he held onto was that repeating ridiculous statements takes the sting out of ridicule. 

A similar dynamic can be seen in the relationship between science and dystopian literature. 

There was a time when science had some connection to progress. But it is impossible to avoid the fact that it’s more about catastrophe than ever before.

This year’s meeting at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos is a case in point. 

The pick of the litter was a presentation by Nita Farahany, a bioethicist and professor at Duke University.

Farahany is at the forefront of thinking about the implications of technologies that will allow people to decode our thoughts. 

Lest this seems like the stuff of dystopian science fiction, Farahany claims these technologies are already used by firms making sure they’re getting maximum labour time from their employees.

It’s hard to know to what extent this is happening at the moment or how accurate the current technology is. 

Farahany has a book due out next month that will probably provide more background on the topic.

Irrespective of how things stand, brain transparency is a nightmare technology, the emergence of which is likely to be unstoppable given the parameters of the current system. 

Farahany makes some excellent points about the need to defend privacy in this last bastion. But it’s hard to imagine how that can be done with the situation labour finds itself in today.

To the extent this technology already exists, it is being employed as a safety measure (examples cited included train drivers and miners) to make sure workers’ minds don’t wander while doing something dangerous. 

It doesn’t take much effort to see how this technology could constitute the final frontier in terms of the harvesting of behavioural surplus to discipline workers.

This is Shoshana Zuboff’s surveillance capitalism on the psychological shop floor.

For the last year or more, there has been much talk in the news about a shift in the balance of power between workers and their employers. 

Unemployment is low, unionization is experiencing something of an uptick, and there seems to be an increasing awareness of the meaninglessness of jobs people are compelled to do.

This is the era of quiet quitting. Hardly a week goes by, it seems, without some titan of industry complaining that “people don’t want to work anymore”.

The question of whether these people actually believe in a golden age where we wanted to work or whether their statements are as cynical as they appear to be is interesting but tangential.

The point remains that capitalism only generates profit if a large proportion of the population is compelled to sell their labour power. 

The precise mechanics of how this works in post-industrial economies are complex. But the underlying compulsion to work for a living is necessary.

Likewise, the impulse for employers to obtain as much labour for as little as possible is baked into the system. This is why brain transparency constitutes a civilizational threat. 

Being able to monitor and decode workers’ thoughts may be about ensuring productivity, but it also intensifies labour exploitation to an unparalleled degree.

And it overlaps with the increased commodification of private time, wherein any minute not spent working is devoted to other economic activities, like eating out or watching a movie.

Hence, the need and the desire for mental privacy, to not have to surrender our thoughts to something external to ourselves, to help ensure someone else’s bottom line.

The rise of artificial intelligence is not inherently bad. AI could, theoretically, liberate human beings from having to perform dehumanising tasks and allow us to take more rewarding jobs.

But this liberating potential disintegrates in the face of the exploitative societies in which we live. Labour is not simply about production. It’s about control. 

People who spend the bulk of their time at work, in transit, or trying to recoup enough physical and mental strength to bear another day are less likely to have the energy to fight back.

The capacity of our minds to wander is a defence mechanism. The prospect of becoming an adjunct to a machine or AI, and having that mechanism stripped away, is horrifying. 

So is the prospect of being compelled to think like a machine. What is at stake is the extinguishing of what has, up until this point, made us human. We are not widgets.

The French philosopher Bernard Stiegler once argued that we have lost our savoir vivre, that late capitalist society has robbed us of our knowledge of how to live. 

Perhaps, if one digs down, that’s the problem. To the extent that our interior life ceases to be our own, we lose the ability to regenerate that knowledge. 

Harnessing the brain to labour processes, and subjecting it to scrutiny and discipline, represents a totalitarian order that despots of the past, from the pharaohs to the Führer, could only dream of.

And yet this is the world that we live in today. It may guarantee that the trains run on time and avoid collisions. But the tradeoffs, in terms of human freedom, are not the least bit worth it.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.