Thursday, November 4, 2021

Welcome to Surveillance City

Can Venice survive the second 6-year term of its non-resident Mayor Luigi Brugnaro? (I'm not sure it survived the first)

I'm old enough to remember a time (not long ago, actually) when the thought of being constantly surveilled was the stuff of dystopian fiction. 1984, of course, is the most famous and celebrated example. In the nightmarish world of Winston Smith a citizen can never escape--even in what should be the privacy of his own home--a screen that surveils his every moment and forces upon him a steady stream of propaganda and disinformation. 

Orwell's novel makes it clear that to be in the continual presence of such a screen is nothing less than a form of dehumanizing torture.

But long before a writer could imagine the technology that would enable remote surveillance, the idea of having one's movements constantly monitored seemed a fate so oppressive that it was considered suitable only for a segment of a country's population whose transgressions against the social order were so serious as to be considered justifiable grounds to strip of them of what, during the so-called Age of Enlightenment, had been considered fundamental human rights (like the freedom of movement and association, as well as of privacy).

The form this surveillance took in those early days was Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon: a design for a cylindrical building whose earliest objects of surveillance would be prisoners. 

Though it was perhaps a disturbing sign of things to come, and of our own present day, that its potential applications were almost immediately expanded to institutional (schools and asylums and workhouses) and industrial purposes (factories).

The form this surveillance takes now, in what might be called the full flowering of Bentham's odious idea, is the smart phone. 

And it is a testimony to the diabolical genius of contemporary capitalism that it has been able to transform what George Orwell would have considered an instrument of torture (that is, of constant surveillance) into an alluring object of desire, status, and emotional dependence ("Americans check their smartphones an average of 96 times a day, which works out to once every 15 minutes. Two-thirds of Americans check their phones 160 times every day.")

What brings such thoughts to mind is a recent New York Times piece about Venice which, like most Times pieces on Venice, and many other things, for that matter, evinces little thought at all for a publication that once prided itself on being America's "paper of record":  Venice, Overwhelmed By Tourists, Tries Tracking Them.

I've already written more than I wanted, so I'll leave it to you to make what you wish of the article, noting only that the a-critical implication in this piece that mass surveillance has become something like an inevitable last resort to managing mass tourism in Venice is absurd in a city whose administration has been unwilling to implement the kind of fundamental first steps undertaken in other tourist-ridden places like Barcelona and Amsterdam (eg, a crack down on AirBnB rentals and the conversion of public and residential properties into tourist properties).

The writer of the piece also passes quickly over the money to be made from selling the data mined from Venetian tourists: it's mentioned generally in one sentence and then forgotten. But in a city run by Mayor Luigi Conflict-of-Interests Brugaro, a journalist worthy of the title might want to at least scratch the surface of this matter.

The assumption, of both the Mayor and the article, is that tourists will tolerate anything for the chance to visit the most beautiful city in the world. Will they? Should they?

"If we possess the why of life we can put up with almost any how," Nietszche wrote.

It is assumed that the why--that is, the stated aim--of "saving Venice" (in whatever that form of salvation takes) will justify any how.

I fantasize about a time when both journalists and people in general will devote a little more critical attention to the details of that how part.


  1. Sounds like a farce in the making. Not sure I want to spend one of my months reads on this NYT story, so thanks for the heads up.. for now.

    1. I suspect it's yet another money-grab in the making, Kent, and, yes, if you've read about any of the prior versions of such grabs, this one is just a new wrinkle on the same old thing--but with some violation of privacy thrown in for a bit more spice.