It is one of the exquisite contradictions of our society, that we tend to allow conditions to persist in one quarter which we would not tolerate in another.
The latest example of this curious tendency is found in a post in the ‚Schools‘ section of the Guardian’s online service. Conal Urquhart informs us very matter-of-factly about a program, used at 1,400 British schools, that monitors for ‚problematic online behaviour‘. At the heart of the software is a dictionary „[…] which deals with sexting, suicide, grooming, self-harm, adult content, eating disorders, bullying and trolling, racism and homophobia“. So basically we are dealing with a keyword searching surveillance system not unlike, albeit much simpler, the ones the NSA and GCHQ foisted on us all. And yet not a word of criticism, not an ounce of disapproval. Why not?
An obvious line of reasoning might be that schools have the responsibility to look after the children and have to take an active interest in their welfare. That is exactly the line, of course, the security services give us for the ubiquitous surveillance of every one of us. But let us allow for a moment that, since here we actually are dealing with minors, more is permissible here than in the world outside the school. That still raises the question, however, where to draw the line? Where does it cease to be reasonable protection and become meddling? What this question comes down to is simply this: Is the principle of proportionality violated? Obviously the system scans all online activity by all pupils. The software, we learn, then „generates reports for teachers“. Even if we are not told whether these reports are generated for all monitored individuals, we must assume that the software has the capacity to do just that (and so must the monitored). The privacy of all is invaded to protect a minority from a very unspecific threat. Arguably, this can be called disproportionate.
Yet where our children are concerned we are much more inclined to condone measures that we would otherwise consider disproportionate. Understandably so — to protect them is in our instincts. But we cannot lock them in a padded room to keep them away from the dangers of the world. And (with a few sad exceptions) we know this. Eventually, we want them to make their own way in this world – and for them to be able to do so we have to let go of them. We learn to let go of the toddlers hands to allow them to walk for themselves, we stop walking them to school and at some point let them move out and find their own place. But the urge to protect, not only our children, but ‚the weaker‘ members of our society, the vulnerable, is always there. That can be a good thing – compassion is one of the pillars of any society after all – but if it becomes an end in itself, tutelage lurks around the corner.
More dramatically even, there seems to be a desire in
all most of us to be on the receiving end of such ‚care‘. The image of Eden is still that of a paradise of ignorant bliss. But what defines us more than anything as human is our consciousness, our reason, our constant struggle with and for knowledge. And the free use of our reason – for good or evil: Only east of Eden did humanity become truly human. (Who said an atheist can’t use biblical imagery?). The task is arduous and thus from time to time we all like to shrink from it. Maybe not only from laziness and cowardice, as Kant would have us believe, but from the sheer exhaustion of struggling and a longing for the time of our innocency. At that point we are met by our self-appointed guardians, the serpents in reverse, who will convince us that we may lay our burden down. And they are for ever advertising their guardianship. Have you ever stopped to wonder how much the ubiquitous surveillance permeates our day to day experience, even in popular entertainment: We have become used to the police in our favourite crime drama using CCTV to catch the baddies, we see them do database searches, and order mass DNA swabs. It is all there, trying to convince us that it is normal and good. That all we have to do is submit to the immixtio manuum and swear fealty and all will be well.
But all will not be well.
Just to be clear about this: I am not saying there is a conspiracy out there. Some things tend to take a certain direction on their own. All the more reason to to stop and ask ourselves: Is this really the way I want things to go? To ask with every new measure that is introduced: Is it really proportionate? To take a deep breath and soldier on towards enlightenment.