Surveillant Assemblage

Source: “Tell Us What’s Going to Happen: Information Feeds to the War on Terror” by Samuel Nunn   09/12/2006

Building on a theoretical foundation of panopticism and social control, Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson coined an appropriate concept for the variety of technological systems used by state and non-state entities to monitor citizens: the surveillant assemblage.[4] The assemblage is composed of many discrete technological forms used to observe and infer patterns of behavior in the interests of control, investigation, and crime prevention. This includes closed circuit TV, governmental and corporate data bases, data mining and synthesis software, electronic surveillance systems, data-based profiling techniques, scenario analysis, the integration of criminal justice data bases, biometric identifiers, and so on. Information feeds to the war on terror can be conceived as representative components of a surveillant assemblage — a combination of surveillance tools used for various forms of social control, in particular those devoted to uncovering terrorist and criminal conspiracies and preventing violent crime. It is the set of surveillance components pulled together to provide information used to detect or stop crimes of violence.

Surveillant assemblages have been depicted in various ways by films and TV, and it’s possible that a few movies and television shows can be read as information feeds to the war on terror. Sometimes we use technologies to prognosticate and prevent violence, the theme of The Conversation,Minority Report, and The End of Violence. The preventive scheme ofMinority Report is the most direct: you’re under arrest for the crime youalmost committed. But at other times, in the event violent actors strike before we can stop them, there are policies, plans, and contingencies — ways to make us safe again, tactical technologies. That’s the hard-edged, reactive theme of The Siege. And for those situations where a crime is committed, at least one TV program presents an argument that our technologies will uncover truths that no one but the perpetrator could know. That’s the theme of CSI.

These films show how humans generate and process surveillance information into fuel against crime and terror (as they perceive it), and offer cultural representations of the surveillant assemblage. The examples examined in these films and TV suggest a complex relationship between the social and political realities of wars on crime or terror or drugs and their representation in film and media. The relationship is based less on whether one or the other is a better reflection of ‘reality’ than the idea that both filmed renditions and police policies are drawn from dominant cultural beliefs about criminal and terrorist behaviors. Shortly after 9/11, a brigadier general chaired several meetings of selected Hollywood writers, producers, and directors to develop terrorism scenarios that had not been considered before, as potential fuel for the development of preventive strategies.[5]Hollywood imagination would supply the fuel for actual anti-terrorism tactics. The meetings were held in Los Angeles at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, whose operating revenues come in large part from military contracts. James Castonguay called meetings like this the “cultural production of the war on terror.”[6] Numerous Hollywood productions and planned television shows were altered or postponed after 9/11 because of government concerns they would spark creative criminal imitation and intensify public fears of future attacks. Causality is always a bit mixed up in the blend of make-believe and reality.

The surveillant assemblages depicted in film and TV create another source of fear in society — the fear of all-encompassing 24/7 observation by unspecified others, usually the ‘state’, and the subliminal belief that there must be some reason for all this surveillance, some kind of danger out there against which we must be protected. This fear feeds social acceptance of the very technological systems we ostensibly fear — as well as the perceived likelihood of criminal attacks against which they are arrayed. Because films and TV offer popular culture’s perceptions of crime and terror, their visual and narrative messages — and their strength — are especially complex feeds to the war on terror.[7]