Justin Smith Harper’s has an excellent article discussing how and why we are moving towards a surveillance state:
When I say regime, I don’t mean the French government or the US government or any particular government or agency. I mean the world order that has emerged over the past fifteen years, for which COVID-19 has served as a bigger breakthrough than the revolution. The new regime is as much a technological regime as it is an epidemic regime. It has as much to do with apps and trackers, and government and corporate interests in regulating them, as it does with viruses and aerosols and nasal swabs. Liquids and microbes combine with touchscreens and lithium batteries to create a giant control device that will almost certainly survive the end date of any epidemiological rationale for the state of exception starting in early 2020.
The last great regime change occurred after September 11, 2001, when the pretext of terrorism and its prevention began to reshape the contours of our public life. Of course, terrorism does happen, yet the complex system of removing shoes, carry-on liquid rules and all the other practices of 21st century air travel long ago took on its own reality, perpetuating itself. Its effectiveness in preventing attacks in the form of a massive employment program for TSA agents and a gold mine of new entrepreneurial opportunities for sellers of travel-size toothpaste and antacids. The new regime can rightly be imagined as an echo of the state of emergency that lasted after 9/11, but now extended to our entire social life instead of just airports and other targets of potential terrorist interest.
My wife recently told me a story about someone who lives in China. This woman had a toothache and went to the pharmacy to buy a painkiller. A few hours later he received a call from a government official asking about the purpose of his visit. He explains the purpose, and the caller seems satisfied. (Perhaps the official suspected that he was buying medicine for covid.)
To most Americans, this story sounds rather horrifying. But how far behind are we in China?
Even autocrats would be foolish to pass iron laws when a low-key change to the rules would lead to the same result. And there is no question that changes in norms in Western countries since the start of the pandemic have given rise to a form of life simply identical to the Chinese model. Again, it may take longer to get there, and when we do, we find that some subset of people are still enjoying themselves as an expression of freedom. But this is all spin, and what is happening in both, liberal-democratic and overtly authoritarian, is the same: a transition to digitally and algorithmically calculated social credit, and the end of most forms of community life outside the lens. State and its corporate subcontractors.
It’s a cliché to suggest people “read the whole thing,” but in this case it’s true. Indeed Justin Smith’s relatively long piece at Harper’s contains material that is even more interesting than the three paragraphs I have quoted. He is one of our most insightful intellectuals.