In an Age of Surveillance, Self-Censorship and Communicating with Metaphors


Technology demonstrates its power in its capacity to capture and share our experiences in forums of interminable reach. Our creations, whether it be photography or a book or a painting, can be broadcast far and wide to anyone with an Internet connection. We also live in a world of heightened security, one characterized by fear and mass surveillance. Could it be that this culture of capturing and examining our experiences hampers our creative freedoms? How might we try to protect ourselves, our expressions from being the subject of undue scrutiny?

Here are some highlights worth reading on the topic, specifically on the over-examination by the government of published work. From a piece titled “Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor” by PEN America:

“In the human rights and free expression communities, it is a widely shared assumption that the explosive growth and proliferating uses of surveillance technologies must be harmful—to intellectual freedom, to creativity, and to social discourse. But how exactly do we know, and how can we demonstrate, that pervasive surveillance is harming freedom of expression and creative freedom?
In October 2013, PEN partnered with independent researchers at the FDR Group to conduct a survey of over 520 American writers to better understand the specific ways in which awareness of far-reaching surveillance programs influences writers’ thinking, research, and writing. The results of this survey—the beginning of a broader investigation into the harms of surveillance—substantiate PEN’s concerns: writers are not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result.

PEN produced a full report on this, and perusing it, I, an advocate for better cross-cultural relations, strongly gravitated toward this quote:

“As a person interested in foreign languages (including at least one that’s politically sensitive), I’ve been quite disturbed by the extent of surveillance evident regarding anyone with such interests in the United States. A couple of friends with similar interests have also had troubling surveillance experiences (both here and abroad). This may well prove a great detriment to the study of foreign cultures, especially in this country, with a subsequent loss of international understanding.”

An article in The Millions recently explored the topic, and suggests that not only are writers self-censoring their work for fear of retribution, but usually avoid talking directly about surveillance details and instead resort to utilizing metaphors, or symbolic somethings, to communicate how they understand today’s mass surveillance. The online source pointed to a study by PEN, which analyzed 133 articles by over 100 journalists and bloggers. This is what it found:

“…journalists and bloggers have been extremely creative in attempting to describe government surveillance, for example, by using a variety of metaphors related to the act of collection: sweep, harvest, gather, scoop, glean, pluck, trap. These also include nautical metaphors, such as trawling, tentacles, harbor, net, and inundation. These metaphors seem to fit with data and information flows.”

Are writers employing metaphors as a protective measure, to avoid being tracked by surveillance programs? The article doesn’t state that directly, but that’s the implication.

For all the benefits conferred on us by mass surveillance, what do we sacrifice? Are limits on creative freedoms—refraining from writing or researching about taboo topics, for example—in exchange for a more secure world, worth it? These questions are worth contemplating as the gates of information sharing are wide open, and surveillance, in all its shades, is the prevailing approach to ensuring personal and societal security.

photo credit: ISphoto via photopin cc