PEN’s Freedom to Write director Larry Siems introducing the panel Life in the Panopticon: Thoughts on Freedom in an Era of Pervasive Surveillance. From left, Julian Sanchez (Research Fellow at the Cato Institute), Catherine Crump (ACLU attorney), Laura Wolfson (interpreter), Ludmila Ulitskaya (Russian novelist), Ken Macleod (UK science fiction author), Gabriela Adamesteanu (Romanian novelist), and Corina Suteu (translator and director of the Romanian Cultural Institute).
Deftly moderated by Julian Sanchez, who offered poignant introductory remarks on the interplay between fiction and surveillance, the panel covered wide ground, exploring the role of surveillance in the Soviet Union as well as imagined futures in the far-flung realm of science fiction. Catherine Crump identified the unexpected interplay between surveillance technologies and over-reach by the state into our lives. It became clear that the ACLU battles in the courts—in which PEN American Center is participating—lay at a critical juncture where well intentioned surveillance, such as tracking drug lords, can quickly slide towards the dystopian. As Sanchez observed, citing scholar Dan Solov, we tend to examine surveillance by reference to George Orwell and Big Brother, but it may be more appropriate to consider privacy issues with respect to Kafka—with headless bureaucracies that order our lives at whim. The government does not always peek into our lives in a coordinated fashion. And we are simultaneously inviting in social media networks and advertisers by the choices we make while walking under CCTV cameras or while surfing the net.
Becoming philosophical, Russian author and thinker Ludmila Ulitskaya stressed the role of the self in surveillance states. Whether or not surveillance increasingly pervades our lives, we can control our acceptance of it, and we must master our own paranoia. The implication is that the intrusion or lack of intrusion by a surveillance state does not remove our individual need to become at peace with ourselves.
There was, of course, a lot more discussed during this fascinating panel and I am paraphrasing irresponsibly. We hope to have Julian Sanchez’s introductory remarks available and there will be a video recording of this landmark discussion as well.