Creativity in the Age of Surveillance

Image: Under Very Close Surveillance - Ben Goossens


Yesterday, the US Justice Department dropped its case to force tech giant Apple to unlock an iPhone used by one of the shooters in the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack.

Why? Because they managed to break into the phone themselves.


For those who don’t know, The DOJ were requesting that Apple produce a new piece of software that could hack the phone’s encryption. Apple, who have long positioned themselves as an alternative to the traditional establishment, knew that the long-term impact such software could have on the continued safeguarding of their customer’s privacy was not worth the risk. Not only because of the problems that would arise if it fell into the hands of an external party, but of the potential threat that government agents themselves represented. It wouldn’t be the first time members of the NSA or DEA had abused the system to violate the privileges of citizens.

I mention the case because it so happened that the news broke the same day as the Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly published a study detailing how knowledge of government surveillance kept test subjects from expressing ideas they regarded as contrarian.

The so-called spiral of silence has been studied in the past, but generally in the context of groups of peers, whether in the classroom or social media. Here, those peers are replaced by an all-seeing government. They are everywhere, judging everything and everyone.

You may be unconcerned. You may think you have nothing to hide. Well not only are you likely wrong – and, according to the research, almost definitely going to conceal your ideas anyway – but that has never been what this issue has been about.

And here’s my point:

The dissenting voice is what makes great ideas great.

I fear that one of the greatest victims of mass surveillance will be creativity and originality. As people become aware of the frightening extent to which the establishment has weaselled its way into our lives, they will become more conditioned to suppress themselves.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, this is already happening. Two studies over the last three years have proved that international writers have been habitually self-censoring since the 2013 Edward Snowden leaks.

“Vast majorities of writers around the world said they were “very” or “somewhat” worried about levels of government surveillance in their countries, including 75% in countries classified as “Free” by Freedom House, 84% in countries classified as “Partly Free”, and 80% in “Not Free” countries.,” stated a 2015 report by PEN.*

Ideas and views are being crushed under the heel of authority. These aren’t always controversial; they are simply dissonant. Different. And the powers that be have never liked different.

It’s a difficult time, but there is hope, and it comes down to the power of the individual.

In all things, we must not be afraid to stand up for what we believe in. It’s not easy when you’re being judged 24/7, but it’s important to ensure great ideas remain in circulation.

Find your strength now, and let nothing stand in your way.

*You can see Freedom House’s methodology for classifying countries here.

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