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Date: Tue, 22 Jun 1999 09:15:43 -0400
From: t byfield <>
Subject: [ [RRE]Imagining Surveillance]

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Date: Tue, 22 Jun 1999 02:30:18 -0700 (PDT)
From: Phil Agre <>
To: "Red Rock Eater News Service" <>
Subject: [RRE]Imagining Surveillance

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  Imagining Surveillance:
  Notes on 1984 and Enemy of the State

  Philip E. Agre
  Department of Information Studies
  University of California, Los Angeles
  Los Angeles, California  90095-1520

  Paper presented at the 21st International Conference on Privacy and
  Personal Data Protection, Hong Kong, September 1999.

  This is a draft.  Please do not quote from it.
  Version of 21 June 1999.
  5300 words.
  Comments appreciated.


Privacy policies will only be legitimate if they are consistent with
cultural constructions of privacy.  These cultural constructions can
be approached through the depiction of privacy and privacy invasion in
popular films.  Two widely-seen films, Michael Radford's film version
of 1984 (itself released in 1984) and Tony Scott's Enemy of the
State (1998), are compared and contrasted.  Although these two films
share certain elements in common, Enemy of the State differs from
the earlier film in several ways.  Some of these can be attributed to
differences in political culture between Britain, whose history makes
Big Brothers regime intelligible as a perverted form of Catholic
and Anglican religious institutions, and the United States, whose
history has brought forth a powerful but marginalized tradition of
conspiracy theories.  Others pertain to differences in technology
between Orwell's imagined future and Scott's imagined present,
and specifically to the spatialized forms of activity in which the
different forms of surveillance technology participate.  Yet others
pertain to a historical shift, particularly in the United States,
of cultural conceptions of power and resistance, from the solidary
action of aggrieved communities to the solitary revenge of betrayed
warriors.  These observations suggest that privacy policy address
the connections between privacy and propaganda, and emerging ways in
which personal boundaries are negotiated.  They also raise concerns
about the consequences of privacy issues for cultural constructions
of democracy.


The success of privacy policy depends on its legitimacy.  Citizens
must perceive policy to be rationally related to privacy problems
as they exist in the world.  Full-time policy specialists have the
expertise and leisure to analyze specific privacy problems in the
esoteric language of technology, politics, and economics.  But a
privacy policy can only be legitimate in the eyes of the broad public
if its basic concepts are consistent with constructions of privacy in
the popular imagination in the culture.  These cultural constructions
can be sought in many ways, for example through ethnography, folklore,
and linguistics.  As a small contribution to this larger project, I
propose to investigate a specific question: how state surveillance
is depicted in two films: Michael Radford's film version of George
Orwell's 1949 novel 1984 (itself released in 1984) and Tony Scott's
Enemy of the State (1998).  Analyses of films, of course, do not
provide direct access to popular understandings.  Films, however,
do play a significant role in the shaping of culture; they are more
likely to succeed if they draw upon and give dramatic form to popular
understandings, and they provide input to the formation of culture
in turn.  Greenblatt (1988) explains the point in terms of the
role of drama in the circulation of "social energy"; anecdotes and
polls suggest that privacy issues are highly charged in the popular
imagination, and mass culture provides a channel through which that
energy can move.  This may be particularly true in the United States,
in which widespread popular concerns about privacy have not led to
coherent party platforms, much less successful legislation.

These two films, 1984 and Enemy of the State, would seem to make
promising objects of study because of their contrasts.  Orwell's novel
was influential in its day, and remains so.  The dystopian society
it describes, Oceania, has provided a pattern and metaphor for the
interpretation of innumerable issues in public spheres throughout
the industrial world, and particularly in English-speaking countries.
The focus of Oceanias cult of personality, Big Brother, has become
practically synonymous with the invasion of privacy, not least
through the INGSOC Party slogan, "Big Brother is Watching You". 
Enemy of the State, for its part, claims to identify a new development
in state surveillance: the "infection" of a vast range of electronic
communications and information processing technologies by the
surveillance apparatus of the US National Security Agency (NSA), and
by extension its counterparts in other countries.  The films were made
in different enough contexts that any contrasts between them should
be interpreted with caution.  Nonetheless, the comparison does promise
at least heuristic guidance on changing cultural constructions of

These notes on 1984 and Enemy of the State are very much a provisional
exercise, and I should take care to delimit my ambitions.  I do not
propose to evaluate the technical plausibility of either film, or
the degree to which the depiction of the NSA in Enemy of the State
corresponds to the NSA's actual practices or capabilities.  I do
not propose to evaluate whether Orwell's predictions have come true
(cf. Howe 1983).  Nor will I take any care to distinguish between
Michael Radford's film and George Orwell's book.  In particular, I
will assume for the sake of simplicity that Radford has accurately
represented Orwell's intentions on film -- not only his political
intentions but the visual form that Orwell would have imagined for
his story as he wrote it in 1948.

I will proceed as follows.  Section 2 offers some preliminary
observations on the films, including a number of similarities between
them.  Section 3 contrasts the very different contexts in which the
two films place the theme of surveillance, outlines a hypothesis
concerning the differences in political culture between Britain and
the United States that may explain the contrast.  Section 4 concerns
the construction of space in each film, and particularly the very
different ways in which technology is embedded in patterns of embodied
activity.  Section 5 describes the different conceptions of power and
resistance in the two films.  Section 6 concludes by drawing lessons
and indicating directions for research on privacy policy.


In genre terms, 1984 and Enemy of the State could hardly be more
different.  Made in London with a British cast, 1984's leading
characters -- Winston, his girlfriend Julia, and the Ministry of
Love official O'Brien -- stand out only slightly from a drab and
emotionally flat environment.  Enemy of the State is a violent and
manipulative Hollywood action movie organized around a pair of male
buddies -- Dean himself and an ex-NSA agent living under the pseudonym
of Brill.  (Dean is played by comedian Will Smith; only his light
demeanor prevents the film from straying into the non-Hollywood
realm of "political films" along the lines of Constantin Costa-Gavras
despite its anxious sound track and relatively restrained melodrama.
Enemy of the State sometimes alludes to an earlier film about
surveillance technology, Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation
(1974), and Gene Hackman's role as the eccentric Brill seems to be a
lighter version of the character he played in that film, the tormented
Harry Caul.)

Each film follow an ordinary man as he struggles against the full
power of the state.  In 1984, Winston Smith is a functionary in
Oceania's Ministry of Truth, responsible for editing newspapers to
reflect the Party's current version of history.  This task places
him in the middle rung of a strict social hierarchy; above him are
the members of the Inner Party and below him are the proles.  He
is socially isolated, as is the norm for Outer Party members such
as himself, but he is haunted by the loss of his mother during the
war that gave rise to the dystopia, and because of this disturbance
he is unable to subordinate his mind to the dictates of the Party.
In Enemy of the State, Robert Dean is a labor lawyer in Washington
whose current case involves a mafia-controlled union's attempt to fix
a union election.  His wife Carla is an ACLU attorney who rants at
government invasions of privacy, but he refuses to take her objections
seriously until his life is destroyed by a rogue NSA official after
he accidentally comes into possession of evidence linking them to the
murder of a Congressman.

Both films are organized around a dichotomy between a real life --
defined principally in terms of intimate family relationships but
secondarily in terms of material prosperity and a subjective sense of
normalcy -- and a life that has subverted by the state.  Each man's
real life is symbolized by an object -- for Dean, a kitchen blender
that is part of his fulfilling daily routine; for Smith, an antique
coral paperweight that, he believes, dates to a time before the war.
The NSA villains destroy Dean's entire identity by conducting vast
research into his vulnerabilities, publicizing fabricated criminal
evidence, and leading his wife to believe that he has recommenced
an old affair.  They also appropriate his blender and prepare drinks
with it as they watch his life fall apart.  As the chase heats up, he
is literally stripped of all his possessions, including his clothes,
and reduced to climbing on hotel balconies and running through a sewer
in his underwear.  Smith begins the film with much of his life already
largely destroyed along with everyone else's, and though he tries to
build a real life for himself, he only knows about real life through
vague memories, rumors, and dreams.  Dean succeeds in getting his real
life back, and we assume that he will be able to recover his blender
from the wreckage of his antagonists' plans.  Smith does not succeed;
we see the Thought Police break his paperweight against a wall in
the rented room where he thought he was hiding from them, whereupon
they reduce him to an even more extreme degree of nonpersonhood than

On the surface, the two films imagine the technologies of surveillance
in different ways.  Whereas Enemy of the State enthusiastically
demonstrates a tremendous range of technologies that it implicitly
claims to be both possible and real today, 1984 is plainly yesterday's
tomorrow: every technology it depicts would have been readily
imaginable to Orwell as he was writing his novel in 1948.  Video
screens and microphones are central to the architecture of both film's
bureaucracies.  In Enemy of the State we see the inside of the NSA;
visually busy and crammed with people and machines, it is built with
glass walls around a cavernous central space that is dominated by a
matrix of video monitors whose endless displays of mayhem the film
never explains.  The NSA's computer screens are likewise busy, with
most of the data displayed graphically and dynamically atop several
translucent layers of other data.

In 1984, on the other hand, video screens are instruments of both
surveillance and propaganda, most particularly the large two-way
screen that dominates every dwelling.  In 1984 we never see the
inside of Big Brother's surveillance organization, but we do see
the routine drudgery of the Ministry of Truth, whose crude computer
monitors resemble television screens and whose data is transferred
both by image databases and by paperwork through pneumatic tubes.  The
paperwork functions symbolically as well: the Party holds historical
memory to reside not in digital media but in newsprint, and part of
Smith's job is precisely to burn the only copy of any news article
that has been superseded by the Party's ever-changing version of

Remarkably, both films present the use of information technology as a
social activity; both the flexibly organized NSA conspirators and the
regimented workers in the Ministry of Truth perform their work through
conversations.  Both films also invite the audience to share in the
state's surveillance by showing the view through the surveillance
cameras; 1984 does this just once in demonstrating the two-way screen
in Smith's flat, but Enemy of the State does it constantly, for
example as a device for switching perspectives between Smith's and
that of his pursuers.  The contrast between the visible NSA and the
opaque Thought Police is crucial for the films' plots: we see the NSA
conspirators ceaselessly improvising on the edge of failure, but the
Thought Police appear infallible.


For all these small points of similarity and contrast, the two films
differ in one fundamental way.  The world of 1984 is imagined totally,
and Oceania is depicted as a nearly complete totalitarian society.
The film portrays the reconstruction of language, personality, family,
sexuality, economics, food, and war.  Its views on surveillance are
not nearly as developed as its reputation might suggest; individuals
are monitored through their two-way video screens and are encouraged
to inform on one another.  INGSOC rules not principally through
surveillance but through thought control.  This begins with the
internalization of surveillance, to be sure, but INGSOC's practices
of surveillance cannot be dissociated from a much more pervasive
microphysics of power, one whose center is not surveillance but mind

Enemy of the State, by contrast, suggests almost nothing about
the state's real motives in building its apparatus of surveillance. 
The NSA conspirators are led by a bureaucrat named Thomas Reynolds
whose promotion to deputy director depends on his persuading Congress
to pass a vaguely defined bill that eliminates legal constraints
on domestic surveillance.  When a Republican Congressman from New
York stands in his way, Reynolds has him killed.  The murder is
fortuitously caught on videotape by a biologist, who manages to
pass the tape to Dean before he is killed himself.  To recover the
tape, Reynolds gathers a large team of NSA employees and calls upon a
larger network of contacts in the government, either openly or through
deception.  All of them work under the guise of a "standard training
op".  And when the NSA director becomes aware that something is going
on, he unknowingly precipitates the film's climax by threatening to
send whoever is responsible for the problem to prison.

Why this difference between the total vision of 1984 and the strictly
delimited picture in Enemy of the State?  No real evidence suggests
that Scott intends to protect the government's reputation, much less
that of the NSA's leadership.  The official justifications in terms
of terrorism and other threats to national security are invariably
treated as so much yakking.  The rogue-bureaucrat scenario does
serve dramatic purposes: it invokes the genre conventions of the
murder mystery, it motivates an exceptionally intensive use of
technology, and it ultimately creates qualitative symmetry between
the NSA conspirators and their prey.  But it also prevents the film
from falling into a trap.  The narrative of the totalitarian state
and its actions against the individual have different meanings in
American culture than elsewhere, and different meanings particularly
than in Britain.  Enemy of the State's road-not-taken is available
for comparison in Oliver Stone's JFK (1991), which presented as true
some of the most extreme explanations of the strange events around
the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  And the fate of Stone's film
is instructive: widely denounced as a conspiracy theory, it and
its director were both effectively discredited.  Enemy of the State
develops the technological imagination while leaving the substantive
politics to the imagination of the audience.

Orwell's story cannot be taken for a conspiracy theory.  Some of the
reasons for this are straightforward: it is set in the future, not the
present, and it can be interpreted in some detail as a representation
of the Soviet Union under Stalin.  The bombed-out London of the film
will be entirely familiar to the British, either from memory or from
narratives of the German attacks.  And the communist movement was
much stronger in the Britain of both 1948 and 1984 than it was in the
United States.  But these factors do not account fully for the ways
in which 1984 is intelligible.  Differences in political culture are
surely also at stake.  The shadowy machinations of the conspiracy
theorist's state is foreign to the European imagination, just as the
thoroughgoing intimacy of the individual's relation to the state in
1984 is foreign to the American imagination.  Although this contrast
should not be oversimplified, one element of it is surely religious.
The relationship between the individual and Big Brother in 1984 does
resemble in some detail the emotional economy of the Soviet Union
under Stalin.  But both of them also resemble a perverted version
of the Catholic Church with its monastic asceticism and rituals
of confession, as well as the historical memory of the Inquisition.
It is thus that O'Brien can be understood, through a monstrous
distortion, as lovingly helping Smith to overcome his pride and open
his heart to Big Brother.  Conservatives have contended that communism
is the logical consequence of man's attempt to play God, and Stalin's
position as both the beloved father figure and arbiter of the Party's
totalitarian definition of truth certainly stands as evidence that
they are right.

This point will be readily evident in a country whose political
culture took form in the presence of a Catholic -- or in the case of
Britain, an Anglican -- religious establishment.  But the narratives
will parse differently for those, for example in the United States,
whose political culture derives more from Protestant sources.  The
United States did not simply import Protestant religious doctrines
from Europe; it imported the concrete experience of rebellion against
centralized religion.  The story of 1984, like the Catholic Bible,
is allegory as well as representation, but the story of Enemy of the
State does not present itself allegorically at all.  It is a story
for a literal-minded culture, one whose narratives locate evil in
the conspiracies of corrupt institutions (Fuller 1995).  In 1984 the
apocalypse has already come and gone, but Enemy of the State warns
that it is soon to come.  The focus of 1984 is the destruction of the
soul in the guise of its salvation; the focus of Enemy of the State
is the revelation of evil in high places.  The prevailing sentiment
in 1984 is pessimism; in Enemy of the State it is urgency.


Michael Radford made a point of shooting 1984 in and around London in
the spring of 1984, the exact time and place that Orwell had in mind.
But their post-apocalyptic London lacks a great deal.  Trucks carry
enemy troops to public executions and trains carry those with permits
to the countryside.  Other vaguely military-looking trucks and armored
vehicles, pass in the streets in what is evidently a war zone, and
unmarked helicopters hover outside of windows, but no cars are ever
seen.  Few spatial relationships are developed; no character is ever
followed for more than ten meters' travel, and the only sightline
greater than a hundred meters is a single view of a hill in the
countryside; Winston and Julia first escape to this place, and it
eventually becomes the setting for Smith's hallucinations in the
Ministry of Truth.  Space is divided between home and work, between
city and country, and between the proletarian zone and the rest.
Communications are impoverished as well; no telephones or mailboxes
are seen in homes or on streets.  If space represents freedom of
movement and communication represents freedom of association, then the
world of 1984 atomizes its populace by representing neither.

In Enemy of the State, by contrast, space is fantastically elaborated.
Indeed, the whole film is essentially one long chase, and it is most
original in its use of technology to reinvent the weary conventions
of the Hollywood chase.  To be sure, those existing conventions are
all present: early in the film, the biologist who first uncovers the
Congressman's murder is chased across rooftops, runs through alleys
throwing obstacles in his pursuers' paths, dodges traffic, and so on.
But there is more to it: the NSA people have reserved a surveillance
satellite, and are receiving real-time video of his progress.  Along
the way they employ a range of databases to identify the businesses
that he enters, and to instruct one another as to his location.  He is
eventually chased to his death, but not before he slips a book-sized
playback unit containing a PCMCIA card carrying digitized video of the
murder into Dean's shopping bags.

This initial chase seen establishes a vocabulary that will be
exercised at length once the NSA conspirators manage to infer that
the biologist has slipped the recording (which they always refer to
as a "tape", not knowing its exact format) to Dean.  Central to this
vocabulary is a division of labor: beneath the NSA bureaucrat Reynolds
and his lieutenant are two types of employees, whom I shall call
geeks and goons.  Two of each are drawn most fully as characters,
but numerous others make appearances as necessary.  Both are familiar
Hollywood figures.  The geeks, as custom dictates, are neither
handsome nor athletic: one is fat and disheveled; the other is
markedly thin and wears crooked yellow-tinted glasses.  The goons are
enormous, blond ex-military guys, one of them slightly more maniacal
than the other.  The geeks talk on top of one another, as do the
goons.  Most crucially, the chases unfold through an intricately
organized real-time collaboration between the geeks, who sit at
computer terminals in NSA buildings or in equipment trucks on the
street, and the goons, who do the physical chasing while keeping in
continuous contact through discreet microphones and earpieces.  When
the geeks and goons are in the same room, the dialogue emphasizes
the different worlds they come from, but when the chase is under way,
everyone interacts perfectly well in the stilted language of military

The chase sequences take place on a new terrain: one that is not
just physical but informational, and whose physical and informational
aspects are tightly intertwined.  Every chase includes an element
of "where did he go?", but here that element is greatly amplified.
Having become concerned that Dean possesses the incriminating "tape",
the goons are directed to vandalize his house and install miniaturized
GPS tracking devices in his only remaining suit of clothes.  The
goons then break into his gym locker and replace his pen, cell phone,
and pager with matching items that also contain tracking devices.
They cannot arrest him because they are not legitimate police, and
they cannot kill him because they do not know whether he has passed
the information to anyone else, so they destroy his life and start
to follow him.  By tapping his cell phone, they learn that he
plans to contact his former girlfriend, who is also his contact
for Brill, at Mount Vernon Square.  In a scene that plainly recalls
The Conversation, the NSA conspirators deploy numerous spies with
microphones, all coordinated by the geeks, to take pictures of them
and record their conversations.  The film cuts rapidly back and forth
among the conversing pair, the geeks in the van, and the listeners on
the square, with the conversation continuously audible, either in the
clear or through the noise of the listening devices.  The listeners'
difficulties in maintaining line-of-sight for their microphone
introduce the improvised and contingent nature of the surveillance

It is then that Dean, seeking answers to his situation, makes contact
with Brill.  Dean fouls up the attempted contact, and Brill must
rescue him, taking him at gunpoint into a hotel elevator and onto the
roof.  On the way, Brill proves to be a master of the new terrain.  He
knocks Dean to the floor, empties a foil bag of Utz potato chips onto
him, removes a several tracking devices from his clothing, and places
them in the bag.  The geeks, meanwhile, watch their tracers go dead,
infer that Dean has gotten help, and sends in a helicopter.  Brill
now begins to instruct Dean in the practicalities of life in the
brave new world.  Later, when the NSA conspirators view the satellite
videos of the conversation on the roof, they note that Brill never
looks up despite the approaching helicopter, and they infer that,
whoever he is, he has internalized the technologies of surveillance.
This theme become crucial as the action unfolds: only someone who
understands the capabilities of the surveillance technologies and
thoroughly incorporates them into his embodied practices can navigate
intelligently on this new terrain.  When the goons track him down to
a particular hotel room, Dean finally understands about the tracking
devices; this is when he loses his clothes and the chase is joined in

Meanwhile, the geeks and goons must both escape detection themselves;
after all, their activities are illicit even by the standards of the
highly secret agency they work for.  Some of their disguises, such
astheir equipment trucks and falsified police identification, are
familiar from a generation of such films.  But they also frequently
use pretexts to obtain information, for example from the security
guard in the tunnel complex to which Dean flees from the hotel, thus
illustrating both the prevailing looseness of information security
practices and the wide array of information sources that the geeks
are accustomed to drawing on.  Many film characters have obtained
information under pretexts, but the NSA geeks manage to track Dean
bythis means in real time, and to use the resulting information in
real time to direct the geeks toward him.  Although the NSA villains
successfully maintaining their disguises, their need to remain
disguised can be used against them, as when Dean deliberately starts
a fire in a locked supply closet in order to call attention to himself
and thereby escape his pursuers in an ambulance.  On another occasion
soon afterward, he calls the police on a pay phone, pretends to
be a local resident's son, and asks them to investigate whether the
occupants of the villains' equipment van are involved in drugs.  The
villains naturally overhear this conversation, but this causes them to
move along.

The terrain upon which the villains chase Dean, then, is "new", but in
a complicated way.  The point is decidedly not that the surveillance
apparatus is "everywhere".  The apparatus has costs and limits,
consequences and practicalities.  Proximity is measured not just in
geographic terms, but in terms of the capabilities of the technology
and in terms of inference: what can be deduced from what by either
party, given the full range of information sources available.  In
retrospect, of course, this has always been true: what technology has
changed are the costs of acquiring information and making inferences.
And as those costs change, so does a vast ecology of spatialized and
embodied practice.


Enemy of the State thus represents, at least one respect, an advance
over the analysis of surveillance in 1984; it succeeds in making
the practices visible and fracturing the sense of seamless totality
in the earlier dystopian narratives.  And, as de Certeau (1984)
among many others have noted, these interstices are potential sites
of resistance.  In 1984, "the resistance" is an organized movement,
probably mythical, having been wiped out by the omnipotence of the
state; audiences in 1949 will have heard references to partisan
resistance movements in World War II.

Having been pointed informed of his cluelessness in these matters by
Brill, Dean begins to figure them out for himself.  When he discovers
his former girlfriend dead, he once again tracks down Brill, who
reluctantly agrees to take him along and decode the still-mysterious
PCMCIA card.  Arriving at Brill's laboratory in an industrial
wasteland in south Baltimore, Dean and the audience learn who Brill
really is: a former NSA employee who, working alone, applies the
NSA's surveillance technology to his own ends.  They view the murder
video.  And tapping into the NSA's database, learn that Reynolds is
responsible for it.  As the geeks track them down and the goons catch
up with them, Brill is forced to blow up his building and the chase
begins again.

Brill is a logical development in a sequence that begins with John
Rambo in Ted Kotcheff's First Blood (1982) and (especially) George
P. Cosmatos's Rambo: First Blood, Part II (1985).  James Gibson (1994,
no relation to William) argues that Rambo represents a new archetype
in American culture in the wake of the country's defeat in Vietnam:
the wounded hero who feels betrayed by decadent institutions.  At
the same time, and closely related, there emerges the guerrilla
computer hacker Case in William Gibson's novel Neuromancer (1984).
Before these characters emerged, American culture tended to identify
information technology with bureaucratic rationality, and technology
workers with rational institutions for which they worked.  Over the
space of a few years, however, that association between technology
and rationality collapsed.  One contributor to the shift was the
thoroughgoing failure of techno-war in Vietnam (Gibson 1986); another
was the subsequent role of the virtual reality craze in shaping
cultural constructions of the Internet (cf Agre 1997).

Brill is located outside the institutions of power, but he
appropriates the institutions' technologies for his own purposes.  The
tone of the film abruptly changes as Brill and Dean, having once again
lost their pursuers, decide to go to war against them.  Recovering the
captured tracking devices from the Utz bag, they visit an electronics
store and then fulfill a widespread fantasy (e.g., Brin 1998) by
turning the technologies of watching against the watchers, in this
case a prominent Congressional supporter of the NSA.  They blackmail
the Congressman, and by allowing one of their devices to be discovered
they compel Reynolds to meet with them.  This plan fails, but they
are saved in the end by a deus ex machina involving comic-stereotype
mafiosi that has been prepared at the beginning of the film.

Dean's purpose in all of this, of course, is simply to get his
life back.  Brill, however, is more complex.  Having been cast off
by the NSA after its operations in Iran collapsed with the Islamic
fundamentalist revolution in 1979, he surprises Dean by presenting
Reynolds (whose own tenuous relation to the NSA is not clear to him)
with a list of demands for back pay and a cleaned employee record.
His whole life revolves around his love for the agency, and he has
gone underground to prevent his past from affecting his family.  The
symmetry with 1984 is striking: whereas the Party members of Oceania
are brainwashed and tortured into acquiring a love for Big Brother,
Brill already loves the NSA; furthermore, both Brill and Reynolds are
motivated principally be their attempts to compel the NSA to approve
of them in turn.

In the end, nobody is at war with either Big Brother or the NSA.
Winston and Julia are broken by the Ministry of Love, issue their
falsified confessions, affirm their love for Big Brother, and
gratefully wait to be shot to death.  Brill, shorn of his laboratory
and no further ahead in his attempt to gain restitution from the
NSA, invades Dean's television set with a video greeting card from
a tropical island.  And Dean resumes his real life.  Whereas Winston
Smith's partner in sexcrime and thoughtcrime was the cynical
system-worker Julia, Dean was exposed to his wife's ACLU work and what
first appears to be an apprenticeship in guerrilla warfare with Brill.
Yet the film does not portray Dean as having become a guerrilla
warrior in his own right.  Nor has Brill been noticeably changed
by the experience beyond his joy at Reynolds' fall.  His blackmail
against the Congressman has momentarily stalled the surveillance
bill, however, and Larry King of CNN is given the last word, blandly
asserting the need to balance national security against individual
liberty and insisting on the sanctity of the home.  The seemingly
political film comes full-circle to an apolitical resolution.  The
display of technology without an embracing story about institutions
and their motives leads to nothing but a generalized concern.


Whatever their relationship to the opinions of any real person, these
films are surely right in one central proposition: that surveillance
and privacy are part of a bigger picture.  They are embedded in the
construction of identity, political culture, the practices of everyday
life, and in forms of power and resistance.  It is dangerous both
intellectually and politically to abstract them from the totality
of concrete experience.  Yet, perhaps inevitably, this has been the
dominant approach in the legal and philosophical literature.  It is
surely valuable to make theories of privacy (e.g., Schoeman 1984), but
after a certain point these theories can become misleading unless they
incorporate a substantive analysis of historically specific formations
of institutionally organized embodied activity.  For example,
how are the practices of surveillance integrated with the equally
highly-developed practices of propaganda, and of the making and
destroying of reputations?

At the same time, these films also inadvertently identify a tremendous
gap in prevailing understandings of privacy: any worked-out conception
of the strategies and motives of the surveillance state.  The matter
is relatively clear in the case of an openly authoritarian society,
but neither popular nor scholarly imagination provides any particular
guidance about the nature of the abuses that can be expected from the
NSA's Echelon communications monitoring network (Campbell 1988).

Finally, full stock should be taken of the cultural change that has
brought us figures such as Brill.  Contemporary American culture finds
a character like Brill appealing, but his autonomy and freedom are
bought at the price of a social isolation no less profound than that
of Winston Smith.  Brill offers no useful advice to citizens in a
democracy, and the post-Vietnam culture that invests its hopes in him
would seem to have lost hope in democratic institutions.  This may
well be the natural result of a national security state that operates
largely outside of democratic procedures itself.  But it clearly draws
on deeper roots as well.  To the extent that information technology
is culturally bound to this abandonment of democracy, the new ways of
life that it promises will be hard for free people to embrace.


Phil Agre, The next Internet hero, Technology Review 100(8), 1997,
page 61.

David Brin, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to
Choose between Privacy and Freedom?, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley,

Duncan Campbell, Somebody's listening, New Statesman, 12 August 1988,
cover and pages 10-12.

Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, translated by Steven
Rendall, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Robert C. Fuller, Naming the Antichrist: The History of an American
Obsession, Oxford University Press, 1995.

James William Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam, Boston:
Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986.

James William Gibson, Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in
Post-Vietnam America, New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.

Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation
of Social Energy in Renaissance England, Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1988.

Irving Howe, ed, 1984 Revisited: Totalitarianism in Our Century,
New York: Harper and Row, 1983.

Ferdinand David Schoeman, ed, Philosophical Dimensions of Privacy:
An Anthology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.


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