Surveillance gets the graphic novel treatment

From the Bible to biometrics, a new graphic novel looks at the history of surveillance

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  • Visuals by Everett Patterson
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Surveillance has inspired creators of pop culture for decades. From the rotary phone spyware in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” (1974) to Phil Alden Robinson’s 1992 computer hacking caper “Sneakers,” filmmakers have shown how technology can be abused for the purposes of authoritarianism, control and greed. 

Musicians like Run the Jewels have also sought to make sense of the potential pitfalls of connectivity. In 2015, the electronic producer Holly Herndon released “Platform,” an experimental album that works through themes of surveillance by sampling everyday sounds, such as fingers tapping on a keyboard and a Skype session. 

The subject also lends itself easily to illustration and has already been mined by graphic novels like the acclaimed “Verax: The True History of Whistleblowers, Drone Warfare, and Mass Surveillance” by Pratap Chaterjee. In 2010, European Digital Rights, a Brussels based non-profit that campaigns on issues relating to privacy and freedom of expression, published “Under Surveillance,” which deals with the subjects of data protection, counter-terror measures and privacy.

The Machine Never Blinks,” a new graphic novel, takes a 360-degree view of the history of surveillance. Rolling through more existential subject areas, including the humanities, religion and philosophy, the ancient story of the Greek Trojan horse entering Troy is compared to the way governments now use malware to monitor populations. The Bible is also reexamined, showing the way that God’s watchful eyes – as well as those of the angels – are worthy of praise, while ordinary people should largely refrain from spying on others.

“Many people don’t really seem to recognize how much the stories in both Old Testament and the New Testament are centered around watching by a higher authority,” wrote author Ivan Greenberg in an email interview recently. “The point is to highlight that watching has been a part of human culture for a very long time.” 

“The Machine Never Blinks,”  illustrated by the Portland-based artist Everett Patterson, also examines how the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon and the surveillance systems that enabled slavery in the U.S. all later influenced the way organizations like the CIA and the National Security Agency operate. The book ends by drawing a correlation between the J. Edgar Hoover-era FBI and the present-day audit of populations via the harvesting of their social media postings and biometric information.

Underlining all of this are Greenberg’s concerns about the societal effects of continuous surveillance. The author, who has written several books on aspects of authoritarian control and protest, including a critical analysis of the FBI titled “Surveillance in America,” said that he wanted to return to the subject after Edward’s Snowden’s 2013 revelations about numerous global spying programs, many run by the U.S. and European governments.

“I have been writing books and articles about surveillance in the U.S. for about a decade,” wrote Greenberg. “I also am a visual artist, although not with the skill to draw a graphic novel. The combination of those two things led me to think about finding a new way to represent surveillance issues, especially post-Snowden.”

Greenberg said that public and private surveillance of urban populations in cities like New York and London is intensifying. “Surveillance in the workplace today is worse than it ever has been in the past,” he wrote. “If you use management’s computers or phones, they can listen in and check your activity because they own the machines. Drug testing – what gives them the right to invade our bodily privacy? GPS tracking also can be very invasive by tracking – really spying on – our physical movements.”

Greenberg added that ordinary citizens can do two things to limit how governments and local authorities use surveillance. “As I suggest in the book, the first-step is to spread more knowledge about surveillance practices. The second step is to demand that our elected leaders act to limit surveillance and spying to bring them under better control. It would not hurt if people rally and protest to make their voices heard.”

Nearly two weeks after our email interview, I contacted Greenberg again. As the number of worldwide coronavirus cases neared 400,000 and countries across the world introduced lockdown measures, a number of governments, including Italy and Germany announced the development of new tracking tools which would use smartphone data to pinpoint virus carriers and the people they might have infected.

I asked Greenberg if he was concerned that in the aftermath of a global pandemic, could these new tools lead to an even more pronounced role for authoritarian tech? “New tracking technology certainly can be used for the public interest – helping to fight the terrible outbreak of covid-19 around the world,” wrote Greenberg.

“However, I worry if these technologies later will become mainstreamed by intelligence agencies,” he added. “I mean, become another tool used for authoritarian control. History shows that once governments deploy new spying technologies, they rarely give them up unless forced by new laws or other forms of regulation. So, the people must remain vigilant and insist their governments act responsibly.”

“The Machine Never Blinks” is out now, published by Fantagraphics.

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Burhan Wazir

Burhan Wazir is the Managing Editor of Coda Story’s Authoritarian Tech and Disinformation channels. He’s an award winning journalist and editor, based in London, who previously worked at The Observer, The Times and Al Jazeera. He lived in the Middle East from 2008-2016.

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