You walk the dog, and someone takes your picture, because they can. They care, they might tell you, should you have an unfortunate run-in with them. They might tell you they care about you, about what you are doing. They also care about the greater good, which they say they are defending, possibly from the likes of you who don’t quite care as much, or possibly even not at all.
For example, large cities such as New York or London are now being covered with CCTV cameras, whose data converge in large centers designed, so we are told, to combat terrorism. Judging from the success of CCTV cameras it would seem they’re really only good at catching people after the fact. But they can do more, we are led to believe, and they would love to tell us about it, but, alas!, this is all classified! You see, even in a democratic society that prides itself on openness and transparency said openness and transparency only go so far.
For our protection and safety we must be kept in the dark. We must trust the spooks, even if sometimes things go astray. As it turns out, once you’re “in the system” you’ll forever be a suspect just because you’re in the system – even if only by mistake (how this works let William Vollmann tell you).
After the fall of the Berlin wall and the rapid demise of the political system that had ruled the country called “German Democratic Republic” (GDR), people gained access to the archives of its Ministry of State Security (usually known by its German acronym, Stasi). It’s tempting to see the Stasi as something uniquely German given everything was done properly, with files and files, and regulations, however absurd, were being followed. But whenever there are glimpses to be had into other such agencies, the same patterns emerge. I don’t think the Stasi mindset is particularly German at all.
But one needs to be careful with comparisons, because most comparisons will contain a part that matches and a part that won’t. What’s crucial here, though, is not to think that the parts that don’t match invalidate the whole comparison. If you wanted to go about things that way, we’d be stuck in a Universe where no two things or people are remotely alike, other than mass-produced products or maybe identical twins. That said, the parts that match also don’t mean that one is like the other. In other words, simple solutions won’t work.
With this in mind, let’s ask the obvious then: in light of the revelations around the NSA (and its sister organizations such as the UK’s GCHQ) and given we just learned that we completely lost not only our privacy but also our right to privacy, what can we learn from the Stasi archives?
I believe Jens Klein‘s Walking the Dog can offer some clues (some quick notes: if you can read German look at the German version, the English translation at times is a bit hard to follow. Also, I took the liberty to translate the German title Hundewege a little less literally than Klein who uses Dog Paths.)
As is obvious from the pictures, they were taken by human beings (as opposed to automatic, electronic cameras). And they show people going about their business, in the case above walking their dogs (most of the dogs cannot be seen, but the subjects appear to be holding leashes). It would be tempting to wonder why someone walking their dog could be of interest to the Stasi. Isn’t this absurd?
Well, if you walk your dog in Manhattan or London, you’ll be the subject of CCTV surveillance, so that’s not any different. The key to surveillance is to spot people when they are engaged in something illegal. But given we don’t have access to precogs (which are all over Philip K Dick’s novels, for example), the next best thing is to photograph people as often as you can to then infer something about them from the pictures.
What is more, the images have the distinctive look of a long lens plus black-and-white film, so they’re grainy, occasionally blurry. But just like the dog walking, it’s too tempting to focus on their aesthetic. Contemporary CCTV images usually suffer from all kinds of problems such as relatively low resolution, compression artifacts, strangely distorted colours etc. The look is another red herring.
What then do these images tell us about our own lives? What do they tell us, given that very similar images exist for each one of us, contained in a variety of databases that for the most part are inaccessible to us, regardless of whether it’s corporations or the government who don’t want to reveal what they got (“for your comfort and safety…”)?
Can we discover traces of the Stasi mindset at work in all those mechanisms set up by countries that have very little, if anything, in common with the GDR? If yes, is that something we’re happy to live with?
This is where Klein‘s Walking the Dog is utterly relevant today: by making us look at what happened in a very different country, at a very different time it reminds us that there are things to look at, to look into right here, right now.