Undressing with the Lights On: Surveillance and The Naked Society in a Digital Era

Author: Doug Specht orcid logo (CAMRI, University of Westminster)

  • Undressing with the Lights On: Surveillance and The Naked Society in a Digital Era


    Undressing with the Lights On: Surveillance and The Naked Society in a Digital Era



After an accidental discovery of Vance Packard’s 1960s book, The Naked Society, at Abbey Saint-Benoît-du-Lac in Canada, this article reflects on the history of surveillance and privacy and questions what we might learn by examining past commentaries on the subject. It concludes that there is a danger of repetition and co-option in the academy, and calls for an increasingly reflexive approach to surveillance.

Keywords: the State, Digital, History, Privacy, Surveillance

How to Cite:

Specht, D., (2017) “Undressing with the Lights On: Surveillance and The Naked Society in a Digital Era”, Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture 12(3), 78-90. doi:




Published on
31 Oct 2017
Peer Reviewed

In a year in which the United States, under Trump, has scrapped their Internet Privacy Law (Lee, 2017), all the while decrying, in an ill-informed manor, wiretapping (MacAskill, 2017); the UK’s Home Secretary, Amber Rudd has called for an equally ill-informed backdoor to WhatsApp (Haynes, 2017); and German parents are told to destroy their children’s dolls amid spying fears (Oltermann, 2017), it perhaps seems strange to turn to a book first published in 1964 to help understand the world around us. While it is important to recognize that the world is somewhat different to the 1960’s, and that Snowden, in particular, shed a new light on the way in which the war on terror has driven securitization (Lyon, 2015). To really fully understand the modern surveillance state, it is imperative to examine the ongoing conditions of its birth (Jordan, 2015). Huxley, Orwell, and Foucault classically provide the foundation for much of the historical narratives in surveillance studies (Marx, 2016), but the 1960s provided a political climate that would ensure surveillance and privacy would become deeply embedded in our capitalist society and commercial social media platforms (Dwyer, 2016). Eisenhower had solidified the notion of the military-industrial complex in the minds of a nation through his farewell address in 1961; George Axelrod’s neo-noir Cold War thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, with its brainwashing, false memories and stark politics, hit cinemas a year later, bringing McCarthyism to the silver screen. Then, within a matter of months, the breaking of the Cambridge Five spy ring, and Kim Philby’s defection to the USSR provided a real life Cold War thriller the likes of which Hollywood could only dream. It was against this backdrop, and the extreme right wing politics of Barry Goldwater, which dominated the 1964 Presidential race, that Packard published The Naked Society. So, while the internet and concerns about Google and Facebook’s privacy agreements were a long way from Packard’s reality, the past was not an innocent place, and it is perhaps because of this that Packard’s 1965 book, The Naked Society, reads with more than an air of day-to-day familiarity.

The Naked Society was previously reviewed by both Harvard Law Review, and The Yale Law Journal upon its release, the latter concluding that is was an unpretentious and useful volume, if lacking a little nuance (Bishop, 1964). This re-review comes about because of an accidental discovery of the text coupled with the sense that 50 years later, the text is still useful, and in many ways precisely because of its lack of pretentiousness. The copy of the book from which this review is derived was published in 1965 and found tucked away in the library of the Saint Benedict Abbey in Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, Quebec, Canada. This quiet and serene location isolated from the world seems an unlikely place to begin a deconstruction of the term surveillance, yet at the same time the Abbey provides an interesting entry point to the examining of the modern surveillance state, and the book itself, evoking, as it does, perhaps the most famous surveillance based story of all time. The first book of the Christian Bible (and the Jewish Torah) shows how long the notion of surveillance has rested in human consciousness. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and in doing so disobey Dabar – the Word of God. The result, a realization they were being watched, and a new desire to cover their genitals. God, being omniscient, saw the whole thing but forced confessions from the pair and had Adam denounce Eve. They were expelled from Eden. Lucifer was similarity expelled from Heaven, and renamed the Prince of Darkness, thus solidifying the relationship between light and darkness. Anything that is done in darkness, or which is hidden from God is evil, a disobeying of Dabar. All the while, it is Yahweh’s will, through the actuating nature of Dabar that brings light to the world (Wiercinski, 2005). However, this desire and appeal for omniscience becomes self-defeating, rather it destroys the scared, the magical and the mythological, ‘if God’s eyes were not always upon us, might the facades and ignorance serve social and psychological functions?’ wondered Marx (2016: 311) in his most recent return to writing. ‘In God we trust’, so states the motto of the polygraphers, ‘All others we polygraph’, Packard reminds us, solidifying the feverously religious desire for omniscience of the surveillance state, which was also reflected in the US’s newly adopted motto simply ‘In God We Trust’, which first appeared in 1956 (See Packard, 1965; Marx, 2016).

The Bible may have been the first story to use surveillance as it starting point, there have of course been numerous others, most notably by Mr. Huxley and Mr. Orwell, as Packard affectionately refers to them. Surveillance studies, like no other discipline, draws upon the novel as a reference point in understanding the position of surveillance in our psyche. Thus, it seems only reasonable to start by examining Packard’s literary references. He refers to Huxley’s Brave New World as being written ‘way back in the thirties’, and decries Orwell’s 1984 for having been written back in the 1940s. Both texts, Packard states, ‘would surely be more horrifying’ had they been written in the 1960’s due to ‘today there [being] cameras that can indeed see in the dark. There are banks of giant memory machines that conceivably could recall in a few seconds every pertinent action’ (25). These concerns rather echo the comments on these two seminal books by contemporary writers, and begin to give a little more insight as to why Packard’s book remains valuable. Of course, there are many more who have written novels on surveillance, further proving the depth to which the subject has entered everyday thought. Ordier suffers the infestation of Scintillia listening devices in The Watched (Preist, 1979); In To Room Nineteen the heroine abandons her work after her husband surveilles her (Lessing and Jarfe, 1978); and of course the pervasive media intrusions in Heinrich Böll’s (1994) short book, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. Packard’s text predates these, and so for him it is Orwell who sits most in keeping with his thinking, perhaps because of the proximity of their writings, but also because the whole of Packard’s book is predicated on the idea of the new electronic eyes and ears which though their constant visibility, and omniscience, diminish the freedoms of the worker and student (63). It is perhaps a shame that Packard was not aware of Bentham’s Panoptican, which would be made famous by Foucault (1977) as this would have surely helped to illustrate his points. Nor does he draw upon Kafka’s (1919) In the Penal Colony, where the tools of surveillance and control were described as a ‘remarkable piece of apparatus’. Perhaps Packard did not wish to view these tools with the semi-reverence of these texts, and could not see an ending in which the apparatus would destroy its maker. Instead, it is the painfully detailed spies, human and mechanical, the suspicion, the fear, the feelings of exposure, helplessness and the inhuman tyranny of Orwell (Bendich, 1966) that are most fitting in Packard’s mind. It is within this landscape that Packard puts forward his pitch to protect us from ‘the hidden campaign to deprive Americans [sic] of their rights to privacy’ (Cover). Technology, Packard lamented, was eroding our rights to freedom, privacy and expression. What then, would he make of a society in which the dark technologies of Orwell’s totalitarian Big Brother are now central to the quest for momentary celebrity? To echo Potts (2015).

It is perhaps at this stage important to discuss the background of Packard and his book, before venturing toward exploring where it might be of use in understanding the modern surveillance state. Packard was for a long time a journalist for the Associated Press, picking up his first role with them in 1940. His first big break in book writing came in 1957 with The Hidden Persuaders, a devastating expose of the underhand tactics used by the advertising industry to manipulate the population. He then continued to publish numerous books, including The Naked Society in 1965, until shortly before his death in 1996 at the age of 82. Packard was fascinated with the way in which people and technologies manipulate the human mind and actions. To this end, The Naked Society is perhaps one of his most complex texts, and unwittingly mirrors many of the ideas of Foucault, Deleuze and Lyon. The book itself comes in three very distinct parts, although four are listed, the first prose on how the surveillance state was born, the second, which here is combined with the third, some specific areas of what Packard called Attack. Finally, he presents some steps forwards, a manifesto of sorts, against the surveillance state, and a call to arms to protect privacy. This re-review will follow a similar pattern.

The Birth

Packard saw the impetus for the surveillance state as being held within the Cold War, the Space Race and the growing realization of how defence spending drives the economy of the US (16). While his emphasis is useful and necessary, it is perhaps worth travelling back a little further. As seen in the introduction, the omniscience of God and the goodness of light has long instilled a sense of surveillance in the masses, especially at the time of Packard’s writing. Furthermore, by invoking Huxley and Orwell, Packard is, in a way, admitting that surveillance discourse started before the Cold War, although he does not care to discuss this aside a brief mention of the now infamous words of Brandeis and Warren, ‘the right to be let alone’, published in 1890. We might even trace the notion back to the Ancient Egyptian or Babylonian nations whose very bureaucracy was itself a form of surveillance (Ericson and Haggerty, 1997). Or perhaps, to keep the context of Packard’s work, to the Committees of Surveillance established in 1793 to round up dissenters to be sent to the Revolutionary Tribunals. Or perhaps to the ‘slave passes’, which recorded in ever more detail, and with a dangerous sense of infallibility, the features of slaves from Barbados to quell insurrection. Industrialization too had brought its own resistance, and subsequent crackdowns by government and industrialists, with police forces pooling data about radicals across Europe. By the end of the 19th Century exchanges of information about dissidents was common place across the continent. It was, however, the advent of electrical surveillance tools though that sped things along their way, and which provided the impetus for Packard’s writing. The first CCTV was used in 1942 to observe the launch of V2 missiles, and became commercially available in 1949. Packard, in 1965, was already lamenting their installation in elevators (129), and how ‘at least two of New York’s most celebrated [chefs] have installed concealed TV cameras about their premises’ (73). Almost as soon as the telegraph was invented, so too was wiretapping (Marx, 2016). Masses of data were already now being collected in Packard’s time, and from 1967 to 1973 the NSA intercepted the calls and cables of 1,680 US citizens and 5,925 foreigners. These activates all contributed to what we now refer to as the datafication of people, and what Packard called a precursor to a totalitarian state (267). This process was first carried out on a mass scale by Herman Hollerith in 1890, though reducing people to punch cards with sections of each card representing characteristics. He went on to form the Computer Tabulating Recording Company, later becoming IBM (Franklin, 2015).

The WikiLeaks and Snowden NSA revelations however changed things drastically. While it was long known that law enforcement and national security agencies have been able to access communications and data, the extent of these revelations was breath-taking (Dwyer, 2016; Lyon, 2010). Personal information was now realized to be multidimensional, contextual and yet transient and malleable (Marx, 2016). Lyon (2010), wrote in his book on Surveillance After Snowden, that ‘surveillance now touched life in general, not just specific moments’ (327), but 46 years earlier, Packard had said the same; referring to the grotesque multimillion dollar trade in personal data (149). Surveillance has echoed through our psyche down the ages, through dystopian novels and films that pervade society. These echoes are why Packard’s book, despite its age, remains necessary in order to understand where we are now, else we run the risk of merely repeating ourselves and creating a future in which there is never anything new, and in which each moment is a repetition of the past (Feenberg, 1991). As Packard before, a few points of Attack will now be explored.


The first area which Packard tackled, and to which much of his book was dedicated is that of work. He tackles two key areas; the stepping up of surveillance against people who are in work, and also the methods used to select workers to begin with. Here we will address the first of those, as the second becomes more entangled in the state, as will be discussed later. Packard bemoans the use of CCTV in the workplace, suggesting that the justification for its instillation of reduced pilferage is hardly a justification at all (61). Nor is the justification of reducing the time spent not working or chatting, a claim advertised by the, now dissolved, British firm ACLCamCom. While there has been much debate in all sectors around the use of CCTV, and the networks of cameras are ever increasing (Dwyer, 2016), the lack of control over this element of our digital footprint and the difficulty in avoiding the gaze of the camera as we move around the cities and workplace (ibid.) renders them almost pathological in Packard’s mind (61). These pathological tendencies also saw a stark increase in the use of polygraph tests, random drug tests and the collection of extensive personal information. Indeed, Packard recalls one management consultant telling him of their techniques to ‘strip people psychologically naked’ and of a workplace where individuals are stripped of every shed of privacy (39). Not only this, but the records developed through these intrusions could stick to people, ‘travelling across state lines’ as Packard writes (137). While the notion of data crossing state lines, and the use of a polygraph seem quaint with historical eyes, Packard was really foreseeing the beginnings of what Forbes would cheer in 2004 as the Security Industrial Complex (Mills, 2004), the application of finance-industry risk rankings being used to seek outliers in the name of security. Marx (2016) writes in unwittingly similar prose of the sense of discomfort in the face of ‘indiscriminate drug testing, hidden video cameras, electronic work monitoring … and the collection of personal information’ (277). Marx (2016) though suggests that context and perspective are needed to navigate the rights of workers and alongside enhancing efficiency, but in doing so he forgets the lessons of history found in the pages of Packard. The fundamental issue for Packard is that there are no competent examiners (55), anyone can set themselves up to surveille others, or now write algorithms, or store data, the regulations have not kept pace with the technology. Thus, much as in Dave Eggers’ The Circle (2013), the context is always the same, the work place, is no longer a place, instead its boundaries are disrupted as public and private become intertwined (Adams and Jansson, 2012).


While it might be just about possible to swallow Marx’s (2016) trade-off between the needs of industry and the rights to privacy in the workplace, it is perhaps harder to do so in the school or classroom, a point about which Packard becomes passionate and angry. ‘In the last few years’ states Packard (1965) ‘the surveillance of students and the invasion of the privacy of their thoughts, anxieties, opinions, and home life have in some areas reached disturbing proportions’ (105). This, at the time of Packard’s writing extended from the instillation of one-way viewing mirrors in toilets to combat smoking (105), through to the elimination of controversial opinions due to potential reprisals (95). Both he saw as a slip into the same surveillance patterns as business and governments in an attempt to manage increasing numbers of students, with reduced resources (106). The promise of efficiency, he stated, appeals greatly to administrators and thus they are lured toward modern surveillance techniques for what they believe to be ‘worthy educational purposes’ (106). Again, it seems that Packard has once again predicted and already understood the problems of the future. As funding for education at all levels is cut and as systems such as ‘S.E.A.’ or ‘Swipe. Engage. Achieve’ are installed across university campuses in the UK (See for example: Westminster, 2016; Canterbury, 2017), under the guise of being used to help support student attendance, while also supplying information on overseas students to the Home Office. And as the Prevent legislation turns students into suspects (Bouattia, 2015) it is easy to see how modern universities have been lured into the Security Industrial Complex and furthermore have begun their complicity as an apparatus of the surveillance state. This is something about which much more must be said, but not before examining three further points of attack.


It is little wonder, given Packard’s background, and the topic of his first big book, The Hidden Persuaders, that a great deal of detail is given over to marketing and surveillance in The Naked Society. He referees to the ‘grotesque’ proportion to which the selling, swapping and exchange of information has reached in the US (149). Pointing to how privacy is diminished by ‘telephone hawkers and feet jammed in the door’ by survey makers (19), and the multi-million dollar industry this has become (149). Drawing upon one of the most infamous examples of privacy invasion, that of Abigail Roberson, who found her photo unknowingly placed on bags of flour, Packard calls for a protection against commercial exploitation (176). This cry clearly went unheeded, for sixty years later the same calls can still be heard. Demographic targeting has always played a major role in the production and marketing of commodities, what distinguishes the modern mode from its predecessors is the intensity of contemporary modeling systems (Franklin, 2015). While Dwyer (2016) talks of the datafication of people through big data analytics and the large scale abuses of personal data, he might have done well to take a more historical narrative. The way enumerated personal data are used, everyone is routinely targeted and sorted by numerous organizations on a daily basis, and the body is reduced to data (Lyon, 2010). Many people did begin to reflect on their how their personal information was automatically ingested with such apparent ease in light of Snowden’s revelations (Dwyer, 2016). Supermarkets, are a real case in point, they too have become harvesters of data and paragons of efficiency. The accuracy of this data is such that local councils in Britain have turned to the nations largest retail chain Tesco for help in compiling population figures (Cavanagh, 2012). Packard sees all of this as a direct assault upon liberty and the right to freedom, he despises the datafication, to update his terminology, of people for the financial gains of the corporate, and shuns its benefits. One can only wonder what Packard would then make of juggernauts such as Amazon.

Digital technologies

An area about which Packard did not, and simply was not able to, write about, was that of digital technologies. Packard’s world was still coming to terms with the telephone and the first computers, and was not yet connected digitally as today, and it was not until the 1990s that digitization of phone networks was really undertaken across the US. Yet, here again, Packard offers some valuable advice, concerns, and solutions to the conditions of the modern world. His suggestion that many people just assume the new electronic eyes of the surveillance state are merely a substitute for human eyes, bears out a truth now, with contemporary commentators such as Dwyer (2016) pointing to a similar morphing of privacy norms. What is even more remarkable though is Packard’s almost sage like prediction of the digital media age. He refers to the selling of pocket tape recorders, and microphone transmitters that can be used to make yourself the ‘life and soul’ of the party by playing back conversations that people did not know had been recorded (173). Packard calls this a minor annoyance, but it has developed into fully fledged concerns over technologies such as Google Glass (Dwyer, 2016) and our interactions with social media (Turkle, 2012; Marwick and boyd, 2014; Potts, 2015). For Packard, as for many scholars, the population, through its party tricks, was now becoming complicit in the surveillance apparatus, the idea of surveillance was already becoming normalized though play. The advent of platforms such as Facebook have completely solidified this contract, the public and the private are no longer separable (Dwyer, 2012) and the Security Industrial Complex has developed an extra dimension of civilian-military symbiosis, as the surveillance apparatus now becomes the tool for seeking notoriety (Marx, 2016). Despite many Facebook users being aware of their decreased privacy, they continue to use it as they derive pleasure from the platform (Dwyer, 2016), it is after all an opportunity for self-creation (Kidd, 2016), for everyone to be the ‘life and soul of the party’ (173).

Packard was also concerned with what was happening with the data collected, be that though fun games or more serious spying efforts. He talks of giant memory machines, which each month hold more and more information about individual citizens, and which facilitate surveillance and control (34). Packard was already aware that these machines were only as good as the people who developed them, and that these people are often over worked, underpaid, and underqualified. We might ponder to what extend Packard would be agreeable to Google’s defence of customization for their mass data collection (Dwyer, 2016). Deleuze and Guattari (1998) suggested that digital technologies could not be seen as determining social conditions, the machine doesn’t explain everything (Franklin, 2015), yet it is the machine, the technology, that is pushing us towards an increasingly stratified society, based on unequal access to information and databases of selection, separation and exclusion (Lyon, 2015; Marx, 2016). The landscape has become a moveable feast (Dwyer, 2016), filled with encryption, counter-decryption, complicity, angst, fear, showmanship and delight (Lyon, 2015), but Packard warned us, as Foucault would too, that ‘the person who finds themselves watched, electronically or otherwise, tends unwittingly to become careful in what he [sic.] does and says’ (10). And worse, while Packard called upon the idea of the Big Brother of Orwell’s imagining, nothing is so well planned, the constantly shifting landscape means rather that the world is under the control of Big Bungler, to borrow from Brodeur and Leman-Langlois (Cited in Ericson and Haggerty, 2016). A Bungler, who dazed by potentials, assumes that if a technology can do something, then it should (Marx, 2016).

The State

Each of these first points of attack are either facilitated by, or sanctioned by the state, and thus it is important to also note the way in which the state is itself a point of attack. In 1965, Packard lamented the ‘puny’ body of laws that protected people’s privacy, and of course, like most texts on the subject he chose the starting point for any such law as Warren and Brandesis’ now classic article The Right to Privacy (175). Bendich, writing a year later, suggested that privacy is the protection of the person against authority (1966), it is the guarantee that the individual, and not the state, that shall remain primary. Bendich and Packard echo each other in their assessment that ‘the government agent or private person who taps wires, who plants bugs, who snoops upon the intimacy of others cannot have any respect for his own privacy, for as a matter of principle he could have no objection to others doing to him what he himself practices. He thereby demonstrates disrespect for the rights of others as well as himself’ (441). Packard also borrows from Justice Douglas, who stated that wiretapping is far worse than ransacking one’s desk (248), and goes on to complain that the same society that breeds criminals by the millions, demands its police catch the criminals even if they must trample on constitutional rights to do so (251).

Surveillance, as noted in the opening sections of this paper, has long been a tool of control for state, and it remains so. Packard was writing at the start of the deep intersection of state and electronic surveillance and his words still ring very true today. The systems of control and spying that bothered Packard have greatly increased in the last century, and while the social complexity may have increased (Marx, 2016), the basic premise remains the same; properly ethical practices are in short supply (Lyon, 2015). Governments around the world are increasingly caught up in serious and mostly irresolvable conflicts when it comes to privacy and data governance (Dwyer, 2016: 118). Be they totalitarian or democratic states, both claim to protect citizens through surveillance. Though we might note the failure of massive international searches to locate Edward Snowden and the missing Malaysian flight 370, or the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden (Marx, 2016). Despite these failures, the notion of ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ has proved very effective in the push for ever more ‘security’ and the UK authorities now operate a surveillance system where ‘anything goes’, with their interceptions becoming ever more intrusive to people’s privacy (Cadwalladr, 2014). The notion has also been used to allow the state to take special powers, to handle existential threats, thus claiming a right to use whatever means are necessary to block a threatening development (Buzan et al, 1998: 21 cited in Jordan, 2015: 101).

Lyon (2010) writes on the idea of “function creep” as new surveillance tasks, not originally thought of or authorized, were added to systems (330). Of course the monitoring of populations has always been within the remit of many government departments and agencies (Dwyer, 2016). It is the trade in data that goes beyond fulfilling the legislative functions of the government. There was, and increasingly is, a ‘great amount of swapping between private parties with access to confidential information about us’ (Packard, 1965: 149), and this is without doubt function creep, the government becomes increasingly wrapped up in the commercial aspects of data retention. This creeping has helped to both solidify the state, and erode democracy, which brings us to the final of the concerns of Packard.


We have examined, following the text of Packard four areas of Attack against privacy by the surveillance state, what each of these boils down to though, in Packard’s as well as many contemporary writings, is really an erosion of democracy. Katherine Hayles (2009), notes that the rights to data protection and privacy are essential conditions in a democratic society, without privacy the coercive force of hegemonic power to control not only behavior, but also the innermost thoughts of citizens become absolute. This echoes the work of Hannah Arendt, who in the Origins of Totalitarism (1973) turned her attention to the relationship between human rights and the state, suggesting that privacy was a fundamental right for citizens. Charlotte Epstein (2016) has written extensively on the way in which privacy is wrapped up with our ability to resist anti-democratic movements, and Murdock and Golding (1989) take this even further, stating that privacy allows us to be true citizens, beyond the political process, but rather full members of society. Privacy rights are ‘interwoven with people’s ability to self-actualize as citizen; to fully inform themselves through unrestricted access to informational resources, and to have meaningful and robust conversations’ (Dwyer, 2016: 161). Yet, this appears rather a lofty dream when noted alongside public opinion polls which consistently show very large proportions of Americans – and citizens elsewhere – are concerned about surveillance (Marx, 2016). Of course they are concerned, Snowden, and now the wider journalistic community have cast a bright light on the surveillance state; the wide retention of personal data by search engines that subsequently falls into the hands of government (Dwyer, 2016); the use of spying against activist groups in Colombia (Scrollini, 2017); new telecommunication laws in Mexico that allow for the collection of personal data by security agencies without a warrant (ibid.); The new biometric systems in Argentina (ibid.); the tracking by the FBI of subscribers to subversive publications. The question then becomes in the light of all this, where does democracy fit? For Packard, this is all more than just a political/democratic question, although that certainly lies at the heart of his concerns, but is also one of ethics. To submit a citizen to such a degrading experience, to strip them bear, to treat them with such indignity, he says, deserves the worst in terms of loyalty, commitment and honesty; and thus the apparatus destroys the democracy it claims to uphold. The citizen beaten down into submission and impotence. Packard, towards the end of his text cites Judge Learned Hand, in calling for the defence of liberty by the hearts of men and women (267). This sentiment is perhaps best reflected in the work of Bendich (1966), writing around the same time as Packard, ‘the rhetorical formulas of political freedom must rest upon the substantive ground of individual dignity, nurtured and protected by individual rights’ (412). Many scholars have suggested that sousveillance, or watching from below, would be the tactical move to preserve these rights, a counter to the abuses of the surveillance state, by watching the watchers (Dwyer, 2016). Rather like the shy Qataari people of Priest’s (1979) The Watched, who would cease activity when observed, the desire for privacy means it would clearly be in their interests to be able to watch others. Yet this is a dangerous direction in which to move, in a networked world saturated by the media, there is no longer a duality, no longer a watcher and the watched, no longer counter watching. Rather, the reality is that many people want to be seen, even as we also want to look the other way and be ‘let alone’ (Marx, 2016; Warren and Brandeis, 1890). Furthermore, by embodying the tools of the security services as a tool of resistance, there is a danger of further developing the Security Industrial Complex and reinforcing civilian-military symbiosis. The surveillance industry is indeed an industry, it works on the same capitalist bases as any other, and thus creates its own markets for blocking, distorting, and deceiving the very same tools of surveillance it is creating (Marx, 2016). Packard notes the fine line walked by companies and resistance, the ease with which it might be possible to slip across the two, where the hiring and surveillance policies of a company become intertwined as the company seeks to prove its security credentials to the state (17). Could the same not be said of the counter movement as they seek to prove the loyalty of their resistance? Purges we have seen before. A corporate director [or activist leader] may simply turn to being a private eye (Packard, 1965).

The Washington Post recently changed their slogan, the much-discussed phrase ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’ which firstly unwittingly invokes the light is good, dark is bad, duality and the religious undertones of surveillance discussions which as noted is debilitating in a multi-dimensional world. It also subscribes to the notion that as people ‘accumulate illuminating [my emphasis] personal experiences of unforeseen effects of surveillance on their lives’ they will see it not as abstract, but as something that must be reckoned with (Maria Los cited in Lyon, 2006). The idea that placing everything in the light and allowing for citizens to make their own choices seems a smart way forwards, it has an appeal of the openness and horizontal democracies that have come to dominate the thoughts of the left in the networked society. Packard also leans towards this notion of openness, evoking the words of Woodrow Wilson to support his idea, ‘the wisest thing to do with a fool is to encourage him to hire a hall and discourse to his fellow citizens. Nothing chills nonsense like exposure to the air’ (276). Here we expose the fallacy that is some information is good, more is better (Marx, 2016). No amount of exposure to the air would chill Trump and his campaign, rather it emboldened him and his grotesque policies. Again, we are left without a way out. The idea of a blanket exposure of the surveillance state, through Snowden style revelations or sousveillance activities does not automatically create democratic conditions, and by contrast may lead to impotent citizens bound up in the Security Industrial Complex. This dead-end leads to the final, and perhaps most important discussion of this paper, how to talk about surveillance, both in the Academy and the world at large; once again Packard will prove to be insightful.

How to talk about surveillance

Orwell was useful to Packard, he conjured up the perfect image of the duality between the watched and the watcher, but in a liquid surveillance world (Lyon, 2010) another of his texts becomes more useful; Politics and the English Language. Here Orwell (1945) writes, ‘that if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should know better’ (16). We could take this further, evoking Heidegger, it is the assertions about entities in the world that makes the relationship between them (Koskela, 2012); the appearance of a thing, and the thing itself are interconnected, they are one and the same (ibid.). Yet, in writings on surveillance and privacy, it is often noted, even by the authors themselves (See Dwyer, 2016; Marx, 2016; Lyon 2015, Specht, 2017), that the writing itself may well be creating the same fears and impotence that is ruinous to democracy. The scholar is not objectively looking in on the surveillance state, but instead feeds the fear and panic, becoming a vanguard of the panoptican (Specht, 2017). Surveillance does not only creep and seep, but rather flows into every aspect of our being, locally and globally (Lyon, 2010). If an agency publicizes a surveillance system that has the goal of making citizens feel more secure, it may in addition have the opposite effect because it sends the message that dangers are so great as to warrant the need for such a system (Marx, 2016: 302). Is this not what the Academy is also in danger of creating? Christian Fuchs (2008) would perhaps believe so, noting how too rigid a focus on surveillance determinism can lead to hopelessness. Lyon (2010) also goes someway to calling for a change of language in his text on liquid surveillance, he writes of the need for a sociology of surveillance; ‘one that does not ignore or downplay the ways that surveillance has become indispensable for everyday life and organizational efficiency but which simultaneously acknowledges that the same surveillance may have fundamental consequences for ordinary people and for a just society that are at least undesirable if not downright damaging’ (336). Why then is it so hard to write about, why rather than deeply question the way in which our own texts feed the apparatus do we revel in the oppressive qualities of the state, glorifying that which we seek to question or undermine? It is worth repeating, that making surveillance more visible and understandable, hardly guarantees a just an accountable society (Marx, 2016). This is not to suggest that ignorance is bliss, it would not do for us to seek a life such as Antonine in Martin Page’s cult novel How I Became Stupid (Page, 2004), but there is something to be said about distancing ourselves from the fear machine, removing our writing from the Security Industrial Complex. Here is where the work of Packard becomes vital. In some ways, while having a deep knowledge, his ignorance of the pervasiveness of the surveillance state allowed him to write openly and with an optimism often missing from contemporary, semi-dystopian, academic texts. He accepts that liberties have been smashed, smashed to balance liberties with security (244), but he rejects that we are impotent to do anything about this. He doesn’t call for everything to be placed in the light, for all to be illuminated, but he does call for vigilance. This carefully chosen word is further quantified when he states that ‘hysteria does not contribute to vigilance, and nor does chronic suspiciousness’ (189). He does not disappear into a dead-end with no way out, he is instead able to view the landscape without becoming trapped within it as other authors have (Gibson-Graham, 2006). Throughout his book, Packard gives us a way out of this affective entrapment, but his chapters on education really show the way forward. It is of the utmost importance that the Academy does not become a tool of the state surveillance apparatus by spreading the kind of fear that Packard, like many others, knows will diminish the ability to take a democratic stance and to challenge the status quo. Whitney Griswold stated that ‘a nation that cannot trust its intellectuals cannot trust itself’ (112), and thus in a climate of anti-intellectualism it is all the more important to ensure the academy is not manipulated into a state apparatus.


Surveillance, wrote Lyon (2015), will not be read the same way after Snowden, but really what Snowden revealed was that the War on Terror just drove the surveillance state faster and harder, the path had been travelled for some time (Jordan, 2015). Books such as Packard’s help us to see this longer trajectory, they help us to make sense of a world that has become increasingly complex, one in which affected entrapment (Gibson-Graham, 2006) can diminish our work. Instead Packard brings a new, albeit a historical, angle that lets us see things afresh. This paper has taken a complex trajectory, but there is one common theme that holds this together, the argument of light verses darkness, a duality of the human condition laid down in the bible and embodied by stories and novels through the ages. The surveillance apparatus tells us all must be illuminated, that all data must be collected, everything must be cast into the light for our safety, protection and liberty (Franklin, 2015). The counter argument says that democracy dies in the darkness, that everything must too be cast into the light for our safety, protection and liberty, hardly a counter argument at all. ‘Let there be light, and there was light’ were the actualising words of God (Genesis 1:3). So, what for a world abandoned by God, a world in which God is Dead? (Heidegger, cited in Wiercinski, 2005; Nietzsche, 1978). ‘Only a [new] God can save us now’ (Heidegger cited in Schendler, trans, 1977). We have developed a new God, a new omniscient being. Google is God. Everything must be illuminated to these new digital Gods, who will urge the citizen to share ever more of themselves and their being, and to denounce themselves and each other like Adam to Eve. To convince them their sharing will protect them on one hand, and giving them their 15 minutes of fame on the other; applying the fig leaf and calling it liberty. Packard reminds us, through the words of Goethe, Es bildet ein talen sich in der stille; that talent develops in unseen solitude. So too, he states, does independent thinking. ‘If anyone can be torn from this environment at any moment and forced to explain any of his thoughts before a panel of grim faced strangers, then bold and unorthodox thoughts will dry up’ (186). ‘If we determine to resist the blind forces inevitably it will be sensed by those who have a measure of control over the forces. They are decent citizens, who like most of us are influenced by the mood of their times. During the past decade, the forces producing massive invasions of privacy have at times become rampant because they were reflecting the times and advancing technology – and because citizens were preoccupied with other problems’ (267). Packard, like many (See Marx, 2016), had some trouble in articulating what seems wrong about surveillance, in many ways his book concludes that it just doesn’t feel right. What Packard did do though was to navigate the field without becoming complicit in it. He shed a light on the subject, while allowing enough dark corners, enough routes of escape and enough passion for nuanced liberty as to enable his book to be a call for arms; a manifesto for respect, and a truer challenge to the surveillance state than many modern texts.


  1. Packard’s book was republished in 2016 by IG Publishing with a foreword by Rick Perlstein.

Competing Interests

The author has no competing interests to declare.


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