Theological Perspectives on a Surveillance Society: Watching and Being Watched

Written by Eric Stoddart Reviewed By Brian Brock

Advancing an important discussion still very much in its infancy, in this book Eric Stoddart treats readers to a close and useful look at the modern surveillance society. This is the first full-length treatment of the topic, though Stoddart responds to Rachel Muers's reflections on the theme in her 2004 book Keeping God's Silence.

Stoddart's basic assumption is that the techniques of surveillance are here to stay because they are part of the human activity of caring for others. Just as it is an aspect of parental responsibility to utilize a baby monitor to listen from afar to a sleeping baby, it is a good thing to be able to track a disoriented Alzheimer's patient, to improve public health through widespread screening programs (for cancers, for example) or the tracking of immunizations, not to mention the cost savings that drive much interest in surveillance. In his view the problem is that contemporary surveillance patterns at the same time often systematically disadvantage the more vulnerable people in modern societies.

For instance, though nobody escapes the trawling tentacles of cameras and computers seeking information, culturally determined prejudices mean this surveillance falls disproportionately on some individuals and groups. Those, for instance, who “look Muslim” are made especially visible in the processes of contemporary security screening, and the less well-off in developed societies are watched more closely both in their domestic settings and in the public places where economic transactions are assumed to be threatened by the activities of their socioecomic group.

Several criticisms are levied at contemporary responses to the moral problems presented by surveillance societies. Stoddart finds the “privacy paradigm” seriously wanting in its assumption that better data protection and the reinscription of a zone of absolute privacy will effectively stop abuses. Such a response is insufficient, first, because it ends up able to make nothing more than procedural claims—gathered data must be kept safe by certain rules and procedures, for instance—while substantive questions are evaded about who is being watched, why, and by whom. His second criticism is constructive: if we ask these more substantive questions about the purpose of surveillance, the privacy paradigm is revealed to be far too reactive, unable to articulate any positive value of surveillance. Privacy can be only a limit concept, one that is essentially useless in defining the appropriate telos of surveillance.

A feminist ethics of care supplies Stoddart's preferred methodology for defining that telos in that a feminist ethic eschews universal moral principles for a more direct and contextual focus on problems of care in highly specified relational contexts. Such a discursive ethic is taken to complement and stand in salutary tension with more traditional rights-based approaches to these questions. Criticism is firmly in the driver's seat of Stoddart's theological proposal. Engagement with feminist ethics (as with critical engagement with our own cultures) is a “theological endeavour, even carrying sacramental potential of God being made known to us in our reflexivity” (p. 54). What we need is “critical traction both towards our own tradition/context and towards our formulation of a critical ethics of care” (p. 58).

Another constructive criticism Stoddart advances against the culture of surveillance societies on the basis of this critical ethic of care is that they become trapped in the problematic of risk. Surveillance is deployed to counter risks, but makes a small number of negative outcomes even more visible while creating whole new classes of real risk of which we are totally unaware. Risk is thus the premise of surveillance society and its most corrosive feature in the form of the so-called “culture of fear.” Theologically naming perverse risk aversion as a form of despair, Stoddart suggests Christian hope ought to foster a healthy disregard for its dictates. In the book's most concrete recommendations, Stoddart hints that parents ought not be cowed by people's worst-case-scenario fears and go ahead and let their children walk alone to school or shovel the snow from a neighbor's walk, even if the visibility and fear equation in which these are currently embedded make them appear to be risky behaviors.

In sum, evading surveillance or being seen by it is ultimately a tactical question, morally “ambiguous and equivocal.” This realization highlights the relevant theological question as an ethical one: in whose interests do we embrace or subvert visibility regimes? As Christian citizens or public (including ecclesial) figureheads, we face many choices about what we will reveal about ourselves, what we will let be known, what information we will trade for financial benefit, and how we will court visibility. Stoddart's main aim is to insist that this negotiation of visibility and invisibility should not be self-serving (as embodied in the private security industry) but a conscious Christian engagement for the good of others in the social order in which we live. The hiding of Moses by his mother and his subsequent being made a public figure by the Egyptian princess, Jesus'”messianic secret,” and Paul's concern that the eating of meat offered to idols be understood not as problematic in itself but because of its visibility—all are examples of why hiding and making one's self visible must be a crucial aspect of care for others.

While Stoddart does not take these “biblical images” as directly normative, nor as demanding doctrinal explication, he does understand them to influence the style of critical Christian interaction with their own local contexts, characterized as they are in modern Western societies by many layers of corporate, state, and private surveillance. Drawing heavily on the theology of Jürgen Moltmann throughout, he insists that God's oversight of all creation is not degrading only because he was also the one lifted up into visibility and degraded on our behalf. Thus, the basic Christian response to the surveillance society is a “dimension of our self-transcendence and . . . a practice of a critical ethics of care, not . . . the application of universal principles, but . . . a mode of responsiveness—to ourselves, to others, and to God” (p. 170).

Anyone interested in the theological questions raised by surveillance societies needs to engage with this book, especially its criticisms of privacy-responses, the relation of risk to surveillance, and its invitation to a more engagement-driven response to the problematics of the surveillance society from largely reactive and self-protective churches. There remains theological work to be done, however. Stoddart occasionally undermines the strong points of the analysis by suggesting that a Christian approach to surveillance is essentially a tactical response to extant visibility regimes, which leads to the suggestion that Mother Theresa's choosing poverty was part of a larger design to have some control over her symbolic capital (p. 151) or that God made Israel “hyper visible in order to be of unsurpassed benefit to humankind” (p. 160). I suspect more work needs to be done here to untangle causes and effects. As a pointer in that direction, it is worth meditating on the good works that the NT both enjoins as being necessarily visible, like a “light on a hill,” but that are not to be publicized by their doers (the Pharisaical mistake). Perhaps too a few more concrete cases would have helped to flesh out the argument. What, for instance, would Stoddart make of inner city churches prominently placing the monitor for their surveillance cameras at the church entrance? The high level of generality of the treatment makes it hard to guess. These criticisms aside, this is a thorough treatment of a question of great social import which deserves a wide readership.


Brian Brock

Brian Brock
University of Aberdeen
Aberdeen, Scotland, UK

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