It’s something of a truism in physics that closed systems tend toward entropy. In other words, building walls around a process will make it degrade faster than it normally would. And this principle clearly applies beyond physics.
An academic named John B. Calhoun famously documented this effect in rat populations. He gave his animals everything they could possibly need but enclosed them in a limited space. Inside their closed system, some males became aggressive, others withdrew psychologically, mothers stopped caring for their young, and eventually their population plummeted, even though there was plenty of food.
Humans are not rats, of course; we are self-referential, thinking beings. Subjected to fully closed systems, we’d break down mentally long before we starved ourselves.
The Human Experiments
The human analog of the rat experiment wouldn’t be constrained physical space, but constrained mental space. And that’s precisely what we’re getting now with mass surveillance. In other words:
Surveillance locks our minds into a closed system.
We know we’re being watched. Every time we look around to see who might be listening, every time we avoid expressing ourselves freely (speaking, writing, whatever), every time we lower our voices so the punishers won’t hear, we are conscious of the fact that we’re living in a closed system. Fear of shame and punishment are the walls around that enclose us.
And we do have empirical evidence on the effects of such closed systems. In a paper entitled The Legacy of Surveillance, Marcus Jacob and Marcel Tyrell wrote this about East German surveillance:
Our empirical evidence suggests that a one standard deviation increase in Stasi (secret police) informer density is associated with… a 10% decrease in organizational involvement, and a 50% reduction in the number of organs donated across the districts in East Germany.
We furthermore find robust evidence that surveillance intensity has a strong negative effect… on current economic performance, and may explain approximately 7% of the East-West differential in income per capita and 26% of the unemployment gap.
So, the surveillance of East Germany produced serious, measurable, and strongly negative results.
Jacob and Tyrell conclude:
[W]e find that people’s experience of living in a regime in which state security informers had their tentacles in every aspect of people’s lives has resulted in a strong and lingering sense of mistrust of members of society outside the immediate family circle.… We furthermore find robust evidence that surveillance intensity has a strong negative effect… on current economic performance in these regions.
So, if we try to imagine that modern surveillance – in many ways much worse than it was in East Germany – will have no negative effects, we delude ourselves.
Closed mental systems – like the most intense surveillance that has ever existed on this planet – is a war on our minds, a war on will. It leaves people unable to make autonomous and ethical decisions. They become truly selfless; that is, they have no solid self that can exert choice, will, and effort… that can strive, risk, defend, and grow.
As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism:
The disturbing factor in the success of totalitarianism is the true selflessness of its adherents.
When the State Overtakes Society
One of the primary effects of mass surveillance is to suppress individual judgment. We dare not act on our own minds, because authority will see it and disapprove. And that, as I mentioned last week, makes us less conscious, less alive.
Large central structures, like surveillance states, remove initiative, adaptation, and self-reference from individual men and women, forcing them into a fixed structure.
The crucial thing is this:
When regulation is within the individual, complex and beneficial interactions thrive.
When regulation is outside the individual, personal virtues fail.
When people cannot rely on themselves, their patterns of thinking change. Rather than referring to their own perceptions, their own knowledge, and their own analysis, they defer to the judgment of an external voice. They lose themselves in the process.
The inevitable product of this is denuded individuals and non-adaptive structures.
Coming to a Closed System near You…
Having nowhere to run has always meant death to the finer elements of human nature, and it remains true now.
Over time, mass surveillance will cause motivation and production to fall and human happiness to decline. We are thinking creatures, and if we are prevented from acting according to our natures, we will fail to thrive. And once that point is reached, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men won’t put it back together. They couldn’t in East Germany and they haven’t in North Korea.
Mass surveillance is a war on the best within us. It is already bearing bad fruit, but the worst is yet to come.
Assert your will. Now.