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Will Increasing Surveillance Change Fiction?

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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November 8, 2012

The end of the Cold War created a problem for espionage thriller writers and moviemakers. They faced loss of a built-in backstory needing no explanation, a whole set of strong but realistic motivations for extreme behavior, a pre-fab cast of bad guys, and weighty, global stakes underlying all the action. Perestroika left a generation of writers searching for new conflicts and settings and plot devices.

Today I think the growth of surveillance technology will increasingly create a similar problem for fiction writers. It’s a staple of thrillers and science fiction to have the hero on the run—hounded by the government, evading the police—either because the hero is mistaken as someone bad or because the government is evil. And the government baddies use every technology at their disposal to locate and track their target, while the hero uses tricks and hacks to escape detection.

But the whole cat and mouse game is starting to look kind of problematic, because it’s getting harder to sustain a plausible “man on the run” scenario in the face of surveillance technology. I like a good airport thriller or science fiction read, and for several years I’ve noticed this problem cropping up: it’s the near future (or later), the hero or heroine is on the run, and I find myself thinking, oh please, if they really had all the advanced technologies featured in this story, they’d certainly have more impressive surveillance capability! We may have more than that ourselves in couple years the way things are going.

In countless books and movies, on-the-lam heroes escape onto the subway, place anonymous phone calls, enter libraries and other public places, or otherwise use urban anonymity to hide from their pursuers. Today and in the near future, surveillance technology—pervasive satellites, CCTV, face recognition, drones, license plate readers, biometric and RFID readers, GPS, data mining, dragnet financial and communications surveillance systems, and who-knows-what-else—will render it harder and harder to believe that a person facing a malevolent government will long be able to escape its eye, especially while circulating through society enough to do anything interesting.

One recent example was in the novel Cloud Atlas (I haven’t seen the movie). In one part of the story, a protagonist is on the run in a dystopian “Corpocratic” society that has futuristic technologies of various kinds. The heroes have to take certain steps to evade surveillance, such as cutting implantable microchips out of their fingers, but overall the surveillance infrastructure seemed to me to be surprisingly spotty and incomplete considering the nature of the government in the story and the technology available to it.

True, some storytellers will have fun exploring these new technologies and showing how their protagonists deal with them. In the film Minority Report, Tom Cruise has to get eyeball transplants in order to escape pervasive retinal scanners, and has to fight his way out of his centrally monitored and controlled car. At the same time, he also has certain advantages due to the fact that he’s a police officer himself. Likewise the story in Cloud Atlas actually contains elements that could be used to explain the non-total surveillance regime.

There will always be ways to explain away evasions of surveillance. But my point is that such explanations will have to become increasingly dominant and central and sometimes belabored parts of fugitive narratives. Either the tricks and hacks will consume the narrative, or Grand Explanations will be required to write them away, and such explanations will quickly get old. As surveillance gets more centralized, for example, I expect it will become a popular move for authors to posit some hack to the centralized system that neutralizes the surveillance applied to the hero and creates space for other drama.

Because technology is so central when a hero is trying to evade capture, manhunts are probably one of the most historically sensitive elements of any work of fiction. In World War II movies and books, much of the tension came from disguise and suspense over whether suspicious Nazi guards would find counterfeit papers to be “in order.” In the 1950s, evading pursuers was still largely a matter of not being recognized—think Cary Grant in North by Northwest. In 1975’s Three Days of the Condor (in which Robert Redford played a bookish CIA analyst who goes to ground after returning from lunch to find his whole office shot dead), the tracking available to the authorities isn’t much more advanced, though now we start to see technological hacks become part of the story, as Redford’s character manipulates the telephone system to mask his location. By the 1970s and ‘80s, data trails were getting thicker thanks to credit cards and other new technologies. Today, tracking technology is advancing so fast that it’s very easy for a storyteller to seem behind the times, or for a futuristic scenario to seen anachronistic.

Of course present-day fiction and futuristic or science fiction are different cases. In contemporary settings, there clearly remains wide latitude to escape surveillance, though the actual amount of routine surveillance in operation in our society may make many former escape behaviors implausible, and increasingly force authors to write around them. In more futuristic tales, the problem is worse; the technology that readers will imagine being available to hypothetical governments (even if not used by our own) will create a need for explanation where such technology is absent or ineffective. It’s all-too-easy to imagine a total surveillance society built using technology we already possess.

So savor the good old-fashioned man-on-the-run yarn. Of course the classic story of the individual going up against corrupt authority, which reached such full flower after Watergate, will no doubt live on, as human ingenuity finds new ways to tell versions of that story. The disturbing thing is the prospect that the increased difficulty in telling such stories may prove to be a reflection of increased real-life difficulty in actually going up against corrupt authority.

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