To understand Project Pegasus, return to Michel Foucault
Why are modern societies under constant surveillance? Is the world akin to a very large prison where individuals are watched? Are these somehow means to a desirable end? Or are we foredoomed, as George Orwell predicted?
The revelations from the Pegasus Project are sensational. They claim a military-grade spyware purportedly sold only to State-run entities had been used or were possibly deployed against journalists, dissidents, Opposition politicians, and individuals of interest in various countries.
Yet, beyond the public’s immediate interest on questions such as who targeted whom, or the pique of those surveilled by Pegasus, lie some larger questions.
Why are modern societies under constant surveillance? Is the world akin to a very large prison where individuals are watched? Are these somehow means to a desirable end? Or are we foredoomed, as George Orwell predicted? These questions are beyond the scope of the Pegasus Project for they belong in the distinct realm of political or economic philosophy. Suddenly, philosophy appears less abstract and inaccessible, as it helps us to problematise issues that matter in our daily lives.
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If one wants to understand surveillance as a political concept, one cannot escape Frenchman Michel Foucault, one of the world’s most famous thinkers of the late 20th century. His works crisscrossed the sprawling boundaries of history, science, sexuality, philosophy, and economics. Foucault was primarily interested in analysing power, knowledge, and discipline.
Keeping with the theme of this piece, which is to primarily answer the question of why modern society is constantly monitored, we have to first begin with Foucault’s explanation of power. For Foucault, knowledge is an inseparable twin of power, so much so that one doesn’t exist without the other.
If power were a multi-storey building, then knowledge is its very foundation. If anybody or any institution wants to exercise power over you, then that entity first must have some basic knowledge about you. The deeper the knowledge, the more effective is the power that is applied.
For instance, if the authorities want to apply their power to fine errant motorists on a busy street, they have to first have the knowledge of such drivers. That knowledge comes from CCTV cameras.
What makes Foucault a celebrity scholar is that he studied the evolution of knowledge and parsed its consequences on our lives. One place to start understanding all this is, of course, his 1975 classic, Discipline and Punish.
Everyone experiences power all the time — a student tied to his school desk; the security man guarding the door; the worker on his factory floor; the capitalist facing market power; and citizens subjected to the larger, hegemonic sovereign power of the State. The school is a specific site where power and discipline are exercised. All manifestations of power lead to social change.
With the advent of democracy, at least in France, Foucault argued that modern society turned more humane. We no longer lash offenders in public squares. But whatever the form of government, the exercise of power is still at the core of its functions.
The idea behind the exercise of sovereign power is to control people’s “bodies” and “minds” so that their behaviour could be changed to what is considered the norm or “normal” and even lawful. That’s why insane people were once consigned to mental asylums.
Homosexuality was and is still (in some quarters) considered a break from “normal practice”, something to be “cured”.
Power helps make citizens comply with what is deemed correct. The repeated exercise of power aims to create self-correcting obedient citizens. In some cases, this is necessary. You will, for instance, automatically stop at traffic red lights.
However, the exercise of power can be unequal, unjust, and even work to benefit some, disadvantaging others. So, “where there is power, there is resistance…” Foucault writes. Gay people now resist their discrimination, and rightly so. Some deem the biometric Aadhaar a surveillance tool. Others see State power itself as intrusive.
It is by a more grounded understanding of how, where, and why power is exercised that we can take the next rational steps to distinguish bad power from good.
The views expressed are personal