Being Seen/Being Watched: Surveillance, Technology, and Madness

How is an article about surveillance by a woman who admits her madness to be taken seriously at all?

by Sedge Armon on May 18th, 2015

Long before I knew I was being watched, I thought I was being watched.

My suspicions began as a teenager. I was convinced my parents had installed cameras throughout our house, concealed in furniture and other benign objects. I considered the possibility that they schemed with administration to retrofit my entire high school with surveillance infrastructure programmed to target me. I toyed with the idea that enemy technology was implanted beneath my skin.

When I moved a thousand miles away for college, I supposed I had escaped the radius of my parents’ policing. Yet my fears took new forms: chronic social anxiety, episodes of debilitating paranoia and dysphoria. Every day as I walked through campus, I could feel people not just looking at me, but seeing into me, knowing who I was, taking notes to share with everyone else who was watching… which was everyone.

Multiple surveillance feeds displayed across many screens.

Photo CC-BY Frédéric BISSON, filtered.

For years, caught within the sense that nowhere was safe, I felt uncomfortable in my body or disconnected from it. Believing that my every move was monitored, and thus subject to judgement, placed me on the perpetual verge of guilt. I worried about disapproval and consequences. Without evidence for my conjectures, I questioned my brain altogether; it was not to be trusted. Of course, neither was the outside world.

Like most cluttered things — a desk, an attic — my mind had to get messier before it could make sense. Navigating this interior labyrinth, I simultaneously watched my external world take the form of my demons. Proliferating cloud technologies. Widespread government surveillance programs. Vast emerging data stores becoming more accessible by the day, and un-erasable.

Was I right all along? Or was surveillance occurring independently of what I previously envisaged? How do we distinguish between the real and the imagined when they look so similar?

In 1919, the same year as his death, Victor Tausk, once a student of Sigmund Freud, published his theory of the Influencing Machine, arguing that symptoms of psychosis are shaped by technologies in one’s environment. Tausk’s conclusions came from his work with patients who believed they were controlled by outside forces acting through intricate, mechanical duplicates of their bodies. Eventually, they became unable to differentiate between the thoughts and feelings that came from within, and those dictated by the machine.

As patients described the designs by which they reasoned these machines worked, Tausk noticed they mimicked capacities of new technologies such as wires, batteries, gears, x-ray, and moving picture projections. Contemporary apparatus embodied underlying psychological conditions otherwise unspecific to any one time or place.

Mental robot/android form imposed over the backdrop of a city.

Photo CC-BY Nico Paix, filtered.

The Influencing Machine refers to the blurring of realities — internal and external, fact and illusion, self and not self — from which we craft stories to make sense of it all; details of scenery, characters, and plot twists for when our boundaries feel threatened or lost. I have come to understand my own delusions as a form of science fiction: not baseless fantasies, but hyperbolized representations of what is. Defining science fiction in her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin wrote: “I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing. I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist’s way, which is by inventing elaborately circumstantial lies.”

Which truths, exactly, was my mental novel seeking to reveal? A damaged sense of self, the result of being raised by overbearing, emotionally abusive caregivers? The trauma of growing up a girl in a society that objectifies and scrutinizes female bodies? Unresolved attachment to failed relationships?

A velvet-voiced therapist and the trustworthy, feeling-lover friends I confided in would’ve liked me to think so. I was assured that my speculations, though commendably inventive, had no credence: “Don’t worry, it’s all in your head.”

Don’t worry, you’re just crazy.

Author and activist Jerry Mander, in his 1977 book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, classified TV as an institutionalized, ubiquitous influencing machine. “We see a stimulus, a light, and we cling to it,” he says. “It causes images in our brain. We call this experience, but we can’t tell if it is our experience or something else. It is in our heads, but we didn’t create it.”

Perhaps Mander would say there was nothing wrong with me, per se; I was simply under the influence of The Matrix and Minority Report, a youth in the decade of The X-Files. A little too enthusiastic about watching Lifetime movies while home alone.

I never did get confirmation about a secret chip installed in my arm, or about the hidden camera in my bedroom. I decided my parents weren’t nearly tech-savvy enough, nor so heartless as to record their daughter in her every moment.

But I also realized that my earliest LiveJournals, for which I forgot the passwords, were permanently public and searchable. That the NSA was collecting phone data. That smartphones with GPS were exploited by stalkers. These things were really happening. I wasn’t just crazy.

Rather than deepening my paranoia, such revelations have proved affirming, given me points of reference to redefine “reality.” I am not alone in this. An article in Scientific American notes the therapeutic possibilities of identifying a communalized surveillance experience: “the broad net of surveillance that is so troubling to the NSA’s critics might reduce feelings of persecution in an individual who previously believed the government was only after him.”

With each fragment of evidence, the focal point of the surveillance narrative I had constructed in my head shifted off of me and became a collective issue.

The tricky thing about surveillance is it leaves us ill-equipped to know whether it is even happening. This is fundamental to its goal of social control: even if there is no one behind the camera, even if all our data piles up into servers, untouched and forgotten about, simply knowing that we could be watched is all we need to self-censor and self-regulate. And then there’s the deliberate obfuscation of tracking efforts. Moreover, surveillance doesn’t always look like surveillance: privacy settings change, information is pulled from the grave, technologies come furnished with backdoors discernible only to those who can go through them.

“As crucial as visibility is to maintain power is also unverifiability,” says Hille Koskela.

To be watched is to be seen even when we are not seen. It is to be left wondering, doubting, and second-guessing. Thus, is it even possible to separate delusion from wild fact? By its own design, in obscuring and hoarding reality, surveillance undermines our logics and re-brands them as patho-logics. And once pathologized, we are delegitimized.

How is an article about surveillance by a woman who admits her madness to be taken seriously at all?

We are trapped between what we know and what we can’t know. Only once a claim has been substantiated by a “credible” source are we allowed to talk about it, or even think about it, lest it be dismissed as the irrational suspicions of mental instability or conspiracy theory.

How we name and categorize our sensations of surveillance depends on where we locate the source. Assigning language to our mental health can be profoundly intimate, powerful. But often, terms are imposed on us, and fail to do us justice. At times I have claimed the language of disorder, at other times resisted it. While a label may accord with diagnostic criteria, it can also be used to distract from the adversity, violence, and injustice we endure, eliciting backlash from the psyche.

Brain scans displayed on an illuminated screen.

Photo CC-BY Akira Ohgaki, filtered.

Writing our struggles off as body-gone-wrong, a hardware malfunction, suggests that they begin with our brokenness, end with our being fixed. What if, instead, we gave ourselves permission to regard these sensations, these mental spaces, as reasonable responses to the things that happen to us? Á la Ponyboy Violet, in their brilliant zine on anorexia recovery, ANAlog — what if we declare it possible that our insanity is a sane reaction to insane circumstance?

When we challenge these strict borders between “ill” and “healthy,” we counter the logic of a system that so entangles us. When we make room for the fluidity of multiple, coexistent realities, we reclaim our legitimacy and assert entitlement to the truth — if for nothing else, then for our own minds.