Flowers placed on the Berlin Wall in 2018.
Thirty years ago this Saturday, the Berlin Wall “fell” unexpectedly when East Germany’s communist government lost control over its citizens’ freedom to travel. Soon after the East Germans gained the liberty to leave and the opportunity to criticize their government without fear of reprisals, the government was pushed to hold free elections. All this presaged the unraveling of the German Democratic Republic and, within a few more years, of Soviet Communism itself.
Having acquired the freedom to protest openly, one of the first things the East Germans did was to descend upon the headquarters of the Ministry for State Security, universally known by its German acronym, the Stasi. The Stasi was the “sword and shield of the party,” as its motto had it, and was widely hated for its frightening control over people’s lives. Everyone knew, or at least thought, that the Stasi was spying on ordinary East Germans all the time, and that they had to constantly be on their guard about what they could say and where. To many people, the secret police were the essence of Communist rule.
When they stormed the Stasi’s headquarters in the Normannenstrasse (another nickname for the Stasi), they discovered miles of files on individuals who were the subjects of the Stasi’s attention. At first there was much destruction of files, but it then dawned on the outraged citizens that they would want to understand what the Stasi had done during the forty years of the GDR’s existence and that they would need the files in order to do so. This led to the creation of an agency charged with helping people sort through the files and hence to “come to terms with the past.” The Stasi agency was first headed by the charismatic pastor and dissident Joachim Gauck, who would later become President of the re-united Federal Republic of Germany.
People were astonished at how much information had been compiled, and how trivial so much of it seemed to be. The Stasi seemed to be drowning in information, a great deal of which was merely the product of the “informal collaborators’” (spies’) need to appear to be carrying out their duties and thus to avoid their own trouble with the Stasi. Moreover, given the old-fashioned methods being used, much of the information gathered could not be used to “connect the dots” where doing so would have made possible an understanding of possible “subversive” activity.
Fast-forward to the present. Surveillance Communism has vanished and been replaced by surveillance capitalism. (China might be regarded as an exception, but despite its insistence that its system is “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” it might best be characterized as a form of “authoritarian capitalism.”) Now, instead of “information,” we have “data.” Facial recognition technologies make possible automated identification of random individuals whose relationships to one another can be instantaneously investigated by electronic means. Lightning-fast computers have replaced handwritten or typed files with electronic record-keeping of a great variety of kinds. Governments have exponentially greater abilities to track people if they choose to do so, and whether they do so is one of the central debates of our time.
Yet the power of governments pales in comparison to that of private companies. These companies—above all Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, but a host of other firms as well—take our “data exhaust” and analyze, package, and sell it to advertisers and others who make it their business to know our preferences and desires. These private companies are in fact vastly more capable of manipulating and using “Big Data” than the US government. Some say Facebook is “too big to fight,” and has become more powerful than any state in its control over information.
Although this is often forgotten as these digital technologies have become more familiar and routine, every keystroke—and even such seeming ephemera as the amount of time we hover over an advertisement—is a source of valuable data for these companies. With this data at their disposal, they have become able to micro-target the precise moment when they believe an ad will be most effective. They are also increasingly able to anticipate our wants and desires. They can target advertising in accordance with their data-driven understanding of what we have purchased in the past and presumably will want in the future.
Part of the data we generate for the surveillance capitalist firms is a product of our necessary, work-related use of digital technologies, or our efforts to keep in touch with others. But part of it is generated by the optional activity of “self-surveillance.” This is sometimes referred to as “the quantified self” and has been much associated with the efforts of governments to off-load financial and other responsibilities onto the beneficiaries themselves. The spread of self-surveillance has been facilitated by such technologies as the Fitbit, a wearable device that tracks a person’s activities that are related to “fitness.” Increasingly, then, it’s not just states and companies that observe our every action; we also watch ourselves more and more, hoping that doing so will make us more fit, better rested, or perhaps more productive and wealthier. Then again, like all forms of spying, they may just make us more anxious.
Surveillance Communism could lead to real prisons but mostly instilled fears about stepping over a party-defined line. Surveillance capitalism, less overtly intrusive, makes our online activities a source of data that private firms harvest for their profit. Self-surveillance, finally, transforms our daily activities into a source of data that we train on ourselves. As we ponder the significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago, one wonders whether different forms of surveillance constitute the hidden logic of our society.