Creative Conscience, Writers on Surveillance, Society and Culture


2 April, 2014

On 5 March 2014, PEN International and PEN American Centre organised an event around the theme “Creative Conscience, Writers on Surveillance, Society and Culture” at RightsCon San Francisco.

Speaking at the event were Adam Hochschild (US), author of “King Leopold’s Ghost” and journalist; Suzanne Nossel (US), Executive Director of PEN American Centre; and Janne Teller (Denmark), organiser of the Writers Against Mass Surveillance appeal. Sarah Clarke, the International Policy and Advocacy Officer at PEN International, was present as a moderator.

‘Power begins with surveillance’ – Adam Hochschild

Adam Hochschild began by putting surveillance into a historical perspective, explaining that even though surveillance has been a common feature of political life, it differs from what we are witnessing today in two major ways: the scale of the surveillance undertaken, and our new-found knowledge of it thanks to Edward Snowden’s revelations. He argued that the surveillance paradigm has changed because the technologies that enable it have changed.

Noting the pernicious infiltration of surveillance into daily life, Hochschild questioned the security motive behind mass surveillance: as technologies have made it easier to infiltrate the daily lives of people, the impulse to collect information has grown stronger and begun to significantly stray from its original security purpose. Indeed, in a world where information can be monetised by corporations and governments, Hochschild believes it has become ‘very hard to tell where the good intentions of the philanthropist start, and where a company’s push to make money begins’.

Hochschield urges people to think carefully about the kind of information they share, and the extent to which they wish to make details of their private lives available to governments and corporations. He ended his talk by underlining the challenges we face today in our fight against mass surveillance, highlighting in particular the inadequateness of the institutions we have in place to deal with surveillance.

‘There are countless ways in which we need protection of privacy written into the laws, and I would start with the constitutional amendment on the subject because I think technology has simply progressed so much further than human society was at the time the Bill of Rights was written. We need to catch up legally speaking with where we are at technically speaking today.’

Suzanne Nossel then focused on the impact of mass surveillance on writers, as exemplified by the results of a survey done by PEN American Centre on 528 US based writers. Recalling the work of George Orwell and Franz Kafka, Nossel reflected on the profound relationship between literature and free expression, stating that ‘literature has always played the role of sounding the alarm bell and making vivid for us what really is at stake when we talk about the zone of privacy’. She argued that writers and journalists are always the first to be affected by restrictions or threats to free expression, reminding us that creativity can only thrive where there is both freedom of expression and privacy.

These comments are corroborated by PEN American Centre’s survey, which showed that whereas most Americans think surveillance is justifiable, 73% of the writers surveyed said they had never been as worried about privacy rights and freedom of the press as they were today, 66% of them disapproving of the government’s collection of telephone and internet data. The reaction of writers to Snowden’s revelations thus showed both a deeper awareness and a greater concern as to the effects of mass surveillance on the climate for freedom of expression than that of the general American public. Most writers, she said, are now assuming that their communications are being monitored and this has, in turn, made them hesitant and reluctant to speak about certain topics. The belief that they were being surveyed was grounds enough for certain writers to self-censor and refrain from using social media.

‘There is a direct impact of surveillance on core American values of free expression, and that if our writers are being harmed, we’re all losing out because we’re missing the pieces and subjects and topics and books that now, some writers are fearful of writing about. That’s a loss for all of us’

Finally, Janne Teller spoke of how mass surveillance has affected her and writers around her pushing them to launch the Writers Against Mass Surveillance appeal, which has been signed by 562 leading authors in 83 countries.  Insisting on the self-regulatory power of surveillance, Janne argued that the threat of surveillance ‘forces us to conform to an ideal we’re not even sure of’ – thus diminishing us as individuals and limiting the space for political activity and dissent.

‘This idea that somebody can read along with what you write, can keep an eye on everything you do; and how, as a human being, it inhibits you and makes you, in a way, want to instinctively conform to something that you think will not put you in danger’.

Citing the appeal, Janne questioned the effect of mass surveillance on us as individuals but also as a society: ‘A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy. To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as in real space’.

Click here to sign the Writers Against Mass Surveillance petition.