In Conversation with a New State of Mind
In Conversation with a New State of Mind
As a curator of conversationpiece, one session I organized called New State of Mind assembled my thoughts on recent security politics most clearly. The session combined reflections by myself, Prof. Didier Bigo, Prof. Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, and artist James Bridle with a discussion on the questions of how to escape the political logic of securitization and how to re-think security politics overall.
In this post I want to share how this conversation has continued for me, by bringing the thoughts I articulated in my introduction for our conversation in conversation with new insights and experiences that followed.
In April 2016, I was invited as a speaker and discussant at a workshop by the German Federal Office for Information Security on security in information society, which gave me the chance to continue the discussions from conversationpiece in a controversial setting. It also gave me a personal impression of the complex institutional setting in which German security politics take place.
The workshop was the first of its kind inviting civil society representatives from academia and public institutions to a dialogue about the needs and challenges for IT security in Germany. My talk there was one of three to spark a discussion. I spoke about the democratic dilemmas and deficits that we face today regarding security politics in Germany (and many other places).
In my talk there I articulated the thoughts that I already developed for New State of Mind, starting from the impression that there are at least three conflicting and competing meanings and contexts of security, that make the deconstruction of our “anxieties to secure” very hard to tackle. First, security can be seen as a question of survival; second, security becomes a question of politics; and third, security can be framed as a question of technology.
In the first meaning, security as survival describes an ontological condition of our being as creatures. Every living being wants to feel secure. We secure ourselves from the world to stay alive. We secure the people we hold dear as well as our possessions. Today, security in this regard is not merely a question of self-defence but a question of labour conditions, social bonds, and economic survival. The question of how to secure ourselves seems so essential to humankind that it is often thought to be the main reason for the development of the state, and in fact security is manifested in German and European law as a protective duty.
The modern idea of citizenship is imprinted by this logic, which has wide consequences today in a world where state measures to secure are omnipresent, though often kept secret from citizens. In contrast to these invisible security measures, we are made aware of an orchestra of security threats every day through global information networks.
As redemption from the mental overload of insecurities, we are presented with security measures in a logic of trade-offs and sacrifice. It says: if we want security, we have to sacrifice other things: we have to accept the invasion of our privacy, the limitation of our rights as citizens, a general political atmosphere of scepticism and suspicion, and we might maybe even have to sacrifice the condition of trust towards the unknown or the other. This trade-off in itself might not even be a problem; even in our practices to secure ourselves in social relationships we face compromises and trade-offs every day. The problem is the obscurity and the imbalance of this trade, since there is no evidence, political debate, or options for democratic participation concerning the return we are getting, and even worse, we seem to have no say in the transaction after all.
Nevertheless, my impression is, after some time living by such a logic, it’s not anymore the evident reality that provides security, but the logic itself. Security as a cover term moved center-stage in a political function in the late 1940s in the USA with the beginning of the Cold War. It is a cover term in a double sense. It was the new term on the cover of the political agenda, and it also was the term used to cover up the long-term mass-mobilization of soldiers in the USA, a country that traditionally refused to have a standing army. The term security was the more civilized-sounding version of war and defence—applicable to less clear-cut conflicts such as the Cold War or, since 9/11, the War on Terror.
The goal of accessing, predicting, and thereby supposedly controlling risks and dangers entered a new stage with the contemporary dependence on technology. This third notion of security, which frames it as a matter of technology, starts out from a threat model that assumes all kinds of worst case scenarios to detect possible weaknesses. How to secure then becomes a question of having the most advanced software and hardware and finally a question of how to perfect the algorithm. Today, the political dimension of security and the technological dimension of security work hand in hand. In some places their inherent logics and objectives merge. In consequence, we witness a shift: within this kind of security thinking, the migrants who are tracked and surveilled at European and other borders are treated as numbers rather than as humans, as a calculated threat rather than as a group of humans demanding shelter and rights.
The development of security politics can be seen as an acceleration that inhibits a critical problem. Most definitions of security focus on the objects of security, thereby forgetting a reflection on the dispositions and limitations to the agents and their analysis, who long for security, may it be a person, an organization, a government or an algorithm.
Definitions of security often imply that there is an objective way to determine that someone or something is free from threats, as well as an objective description of these threats. The idea that there could be an objective description, any certainty of security, is essentially flawed. A security state is formed not only due to actual threats but is very much imprinted by all kinds of dispositions, prejudices, blind spots, fears, and pathologies. Nevertheless, security politics depend on predictions, of who might be a threat, where and when. The drive towards establishing total security and the associated predictability is also completely dependent on the constant detection of (possible) future threats.
Security therefore incorporates both the construction and annihilation of threat. Security politics work as a form of governance that infects us with the disease to then present itself as the redemption. Politics of securitization, in which more and more dimensions of life are framed as potential threats, have a severe effect on us as individuals and as a society. And it seems to me that the more elaborated and technologically sophisticated these predictions become, the less they have to do with a commonly shared world.
The flawed idea behind these politics is the idea that collecting the most exact knowledge about the world would allow us to foresee the future, that vision would make us receptive to the truth. This idea leaves no space to accepting or (even worse) showing anxieties and fears—but nevertheless, they are inevitably enacted.
In practice, I think, security turns out to be rather a mental model longing for a version of the world that is free from the impression of threats. It seems we long for security so deeply that we prefer to accept the best illusion of security than the clear bits and pieces of the uncontrollable world that frightens us with its incoherence and unpredictability. Surveillance is a logical consequence of this flawed thinking. It creates an illusion of full vision, of full knowledge and transparency. And in the end it creates an illusion of control and security.
The politics of securitization still resonate in our society, because security as question of politics is appealing to our personal feelings of security as a mode of survival. Some therefore might accept the measures that are taken by our states. Others ask for even more and even harsher measures to secure. Some might feel anxious and helpless realizing the scale and brutality of these measures. Others take action and try to uncover and protest security politics. At the conversationpiece discussion I finished my remarks with a quote from Kenneth Walz: “States, like people, are insecure in proportion to the extent of their freedom. If freedom is wanted, insecurity must be accepted.”1 The question then is not: How do we secure? But if we choose freedom how do we learn to live together with our insecurities? What would politics that take into account our own insecurities look like?
One answer that found broad consensus at this workshop regarding IT security was (without any surprise) the assumption that civil society needs a higher degree of digital media literacy as well as feasible options for digital self-defense, for instance, by encryption. This claim is certainly valid, but it is also essentially an unpolitical one, as it delegates the care for security to the individual. State surveillance and surveillance capitalism can only be addressed by the opposite: the re-politicization of security politics. The fight to bring security politics back into the realm of public scrutiny will be one of the long-term challenges of today’s society, and will need to be fought on very different levels and with different sets of expertise—from technical to legal and political efforts.
One idea that recurred in the presentations and on-going work of my three conversation partners was the idea that there is a need for a new kind of citizenship, or at least a new understanding of this concept. In their book Being Digital Citizens, Egin Isin and Evelyn Ruppert argue that digital citizenship is constituted by performative acts of citizenships as rights claims. Using encryption and other practices that perform civil rights by digital acts certainly can be seen as a claim for a digital rights to information security and privacy, but they will not lead to a deeper transformation as long as they function on an individual level. The real challenge is now to claim rights to re-politicize security politics on a collective level.
New State of Mind, panel with Didier Bigo, James Bridle, and Geoffroy de Lasagnerie at transmediale/conversationpiece.
- 1. As quoted in Alan Collins, Contemporary Security Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) 407.