Leaving aside the principled and brave actions of Edward Snowden in recent weeks, the irony of his revelations is that, rather than liberating people from the effects of systemic surveillance and distrust, they'll produce even greater levels of public compliance and social control. In the first instance, it's unlikely we'll see a meaningful change in surveillance practices - if anything, these will become even more effective and discreet - and, in the second, the collective impact on public consciousness of this whole affair will be profound (in ways that are neither positive nor immediately obvious).
The question of whether, and to what extent, we're being monitored is clearly of great interest and has, not unnaturally, been the focus of much media attention. Each day passes with fresh revelations of backroom inter-governmental, intelligence community and corporate collusion - all of which has fuelled a growing sense of public disquiet, anxiety and cynicism. It's a telling sign that, even in the United States, there's greater sympathy for Snowden as a whistleblower - on both sides of the political divide - than there is an appetite to see him punished as a traitor. This is hardly a vote of confidence in the integrity and motivations of our political systems, leaders and intelligence communities.
Media coverage of this story has, however, produced a rather unfortunate and paradoxical consequence - namely that awareness of the extent of public surveillance has created a greater and more immediate fear of its existence. At the individual level, it's the fear of being watched that provides the effective means of social control and, in this regard, the horse has well and truly bolted. What's more, it's this fear that's being subtly peddled by our political leaders. When William Hague tells us that law abiding citizens have "nothing to fear" from the intelligence services, he isn't saying that we're not being monitored - in fact, he's suggesting quite the opposite. The fear of being watched and judged has always been the most powerful mechanism of social control and, with the development of communications technology, we've produced a new, omnipresent, God for the secular society.
It's not entirely surprising that we're so vulnerable to the suggestion of an all-seeing power - many of us are taught to believe in one from an early age - but our susceptibility to the idea of being watched might be more than just a function of conditioning, socialization or faith. Scientists, for instance, recently discovered that the feeling of being observed is "hardwired" into our brains - an instinctive evolutionary remnant of more primal times that, to this day, produces a distinct tendency to err on the side of caution where self-preservation is concerned. And awareness of this is nothing new.
Over two hundred years ago, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham devised a prison structure - the panopticon - based almost entirely on an understanding of the effects of being watched on human behavior. His design incorporated a central observatory column out of which guards would have complete and unobstructed visibility of all cells and prisoners. But the most ingenious aspect of the structure was that prisoners would be unable to see the guards. They knew that their behavior could be observed at any time and, given that they had no way of knowing when, would have no option but to assume they were being watched constantly. Faced with this reality, Bentham predicted that prisoners would, in effect, learn to police themselves.
In the 1970s, the philosopher Michel Foucault extended the principle of the panopticon as a metaphor for mechanisms of control, based on the idea of permanent visibility, in our modern societies. The beauty of the panopticon's power, he argued, was in its ability to create compliance without even being exercised. In recent years, academic researchers have highlighted how rapid technological developments are accelerating these processes and bringing about changes in our individual and collective behavior. As the number of cameras on our streets proliferates (the UK is believed to have more than any other country and is the most surveilled western industrialised society by a country mile), as our phone records and web surfing habits are systematically trawled and stored, as more and more of our personal data is bought and sold, it doesn't much matter whether anybody has us in their sights. What matters is that we believe they could have. And, not surprisingly, we're learning to smile for the camera.
Whether Snowden is viewed as a brave hero and guardian of democratic values, a naïve, irresponsible and misguided fool, or a calculating and vile traitor, is a matter of perspective but one thing has been made abundantly clear in recent weeks: the systemic subjugation and sidelining of citizens in modern "democracies" has, thus far, gone unchecked and largely unopposed. And while, for some, these leaks merely confirm long held suspicions about such things, for others they should be a profound wake up call. Sadly, it seems likely that rather than demand answers and accountability, our smiles will be broader than ever.