How Should We Imagine Perfect Surveillance?

With governmental surveillance becoming ever more ubiquitous, detailed, and automated, it’s become possible to imagine a regime of perfect surveillance, or an essentially boundless ability to detect crimes. Of course, perfect surveillance is now and may always remain hypothetical. But the prospect of digital panopticism is salient enough to appear in debates about real-life problems, and thinking about the extreme case of surveillance perfection might be a useful way of illuminating features of our more mundane reality. So the question arises: How might perfect surveillance alter our world?

I recently wrote a partially fictional essay that tries to answer that question. Here’s the abstract:

How would society react to “the Watcher,” a technology capable of efficiently, unerringly, and immediately reporting the perpetrator of virtually every crime? This Essay treats that speculative question as an opportunity to explore the relationship between governmental surveillance and criminal justice. The resulting argument is unabashedly fictional but draws attention to pressures that may influence the real world. For instance, the Watcher casts doubt on perfect surveillance’s ability to improve the law, supports judicial attentiveness to substantive law when reviewing rules of investigation, and suggests that legislative control might displace prosecutorial discretion. The Watcher also draws attention to the relationship between surveillance and regulatory intricacy, as well as to ways of preserving human mercy within automated criminal justice.

Some readers might wonder whether fiction is a useful way to grapple with these kinds of issues. In other words, is it really worthwhile to imagine perfect surveillance at all? I tried to address that very reasonable question:

There are many possible ways to approach the daunting task [of predicting the future,] and one is to engage in the imaginative exercise of fiction. Instead of starting with the present and trying to build forward year by year, we could jump ahead to a time when existing trends in digital surveillance have been actualized to an extreme degree.  And instead of limiting ourselves to abstractions or exploring innumerable possibility branches on an elaborate decision tree, we could pursue just one possible sequence of consequences in a rich and detailed way. The specific results would be, well, fictional.  But they may also be instructive.  The outcomes that are predicted in speculative fiction often have a way of revealing the pressures that actually influence the real world.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably interested enough in these speculative questions to have some guesses about how best to answer them. So — how would you imagine a world of perfect surveillance?

PS — I wrote this paper for a symposium held by UCLA’s Program on Understanding Law Science and Evidence, or PULSE. I’ll have more to blog about PULSE soon, as the full slate of fascinating symposium pieces is nearing completion.

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