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More Education, Less Narrative

From TV documentaries to the writing of history: narratives of surveillance are effective in many areas – also in areas you would not expect them to be. The key findings and insights of the lecture series in a nutshell, including video statements.

Narratives are accounts that create meaning, convey values and emotions, usually in relation to a specific cultural field. They perform a crucial role: they reduce complexity. ‘And in many cases, that's really important,’ says Dr. Martin Hennig who organised the Narrative of Surveillance lecture series of the DFG Research Training Group Privacy and Digitisation. He reckons that this is what makes social communication about a specific topic possible in the first place.

However, sometimes, the narrative obscures our view of things as they really are. This becomes a problem in digitisation, for example. In the video (only in German), he insists that society needs to re-learn how to cope with more complexity:

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The lectures at a glance:

A sense of doom on 'educational TV' – Surveillance in the German documentary (Miriam Piegsa, Passau)

In her research, literature and media expert Miriam Piegsa found that the different portrayals of surveillance since Edward Snowden's revelations bear ‘striking’ similarities in the various educational TV formats. She points out that people are often presented as data subjects in an environment where everything is networked – ‘from toothbrush to TV’. There are no positive examples to counter this depiction; the documentaries leave viewers feeling a certain sense of powerlessness.

Dimensions of privacy and personality in Leipzig's socialist space of the 1980s (Lukas Edeler, Passau)

Contemporary historian Lukas Edeler studies narratives in recorded history: one such narrative is the surveillance narrative, which left its mark on the historical understanding of the GDR's state-socialist dictatorship. In his research, he found that citizens of the former GDR retained strategies to create private spaces for themselves. He describes an example in the video above. In the journal of the DFG Research Training Group, he shares some insight into his research.

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The Edward Snowden case – Political surveillance narratives under scrutiny (Christian Flisek, SPD, Passau)

Politicians are increasingly reverting to framing as a strategy to shape the discourse for their purposes, explains Christian Flisek, SPD politician and former chairman of the German Parliamentary Committee investigating the NSA spying scandal. Framing means slotting events into specific interpretations or pigeonholes, which, in turn, trigger associations and emotions. He maintains that the most familiar frame in respect of framing is that of the surveillance state. During his work in the NSA Parliamentary Committee, he had observed how the information obtained by the Committee played no role in the discussion. Instead, all sides had tried to dominate the discourse using their respective frames. Flisek is convinced: ‘In the long run, facts will not be able to achieve political majorities, because the political mind can only be won over with difficulty using rational arguments.’ Here is a video (in German) of his presentation.

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Control as motif and principle of computer games (Dr. Marcel Schellong, Munich)

Computer games provide an entirely different experience of surveillance narratives: the players are obliged to slip into the role of the surveillers who themselves are under surveillance at the same time. Dr. Marcel Schellong, literary scholar at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, explained that some games put players in a moral dilemma. Find out more by watching the video (only in German).

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Surveillance as motif in advertising (Dr. Dietmar Kammerer, Marburg)

This motif worked so well with Apple that it made the virtually unknown company famous overnight in 1984: Dr. Dietmar Kammerer, media researcher at the University of Marburg, presented the ads from back then to today's audience, many of whom had taken along the devices made by this now world-famous company. He has more to say about his presentation in the video (only in German).

Predictive policing, computational propaganda, counter surveillance – Practices and projects of the digital control society (Dr. Thomas Christian Bächle, Bonn)

In his presentation, media researcher Thomas Christian Bächle from the University of Bonn analysed various surveillance narratives, including the notion that digital surveillance is all-knowing because it is based on objective data. In fact, value judgements and prejudices towards certain groups, which extend all the way to racist sentiments, come into play early on during data collection. To illustrate the impact this can have, he provided an example from the US where the police employ software for predictive policing, which involves using purportedly unbiased calculations to identify potential criminals. The following quote from his presentation succinctly captures this idea:

The power of Big Data and digital surveillance does not come from knowing it all. The power of this data comes from it being used to ensure that standards and hermeneutic patterns are accepted as the Truth.

Adolescence between algorithms and Big Data in today's young adult literature (Professor Maren Conrad, Erlangen-Nürnberg)

In his lecture, literary scholar Professor Maren Conrad highlighted how surveillance frequently features in today's young adult literature as a motif in the context of growing up. In the narratives, the young main characters need to emancipate themselves from externally imposed surveillance, although they have frequently already internalised the principles of controlling society.

Control technologies in cinematic dystopias after 1984 (Dr. Dominik Orth, Wuppertal)

Literature and media scholar Dominik Orth emphasised that surveillance is a motif in a wide gamut of cinematic narratives. He went on to speak on a number of themes, from staging a reality using computer simulation, the control of feelings and health all the way to social media dystopias, observing striking parallels in film, for example, where technology is also usually portrayed in a negative light.

‘Big Brother is always watching’ – Orwell's original manuscript and other utopias (Dr. Kai Fischer, Bochum)

Whether a utopia is utopia – or rather dystopia, is for the reader to interpret, says Dr. Kai Fischer, literary scholar at the University of Bochum. He took the audience of the lecture series through George Orwell's original text and let them in on why utopias are sometimes rather tough to read: they begin by describing an ideal world – and, usually, there is not much happening in such a world. In utopias, too, surveillance serves to perpetuate the state of this ideal world.

Typology, categories, development of surveillance narratives: An introduction (Professor Hans Krah, Dr. Martin Hennig, Passau)

Surveillance narratives are no new phenomenon and may also be positive: Dr. Hans Krah, who holds the Chair for German Literature at the University of Passau and came up with the idea for the DFG-funded Research Training Group 1681/2 Privacy and Digitisation, pointed out where surveillance narratives can be found in art history – in the motif of God's Eye, for example, which appears in many religious representations, or also in the motif of the guardian angel. Dr. Martin Hennig who organised the lecture series provided insight into the narratives found in films, including classics like the film adaptation of George Orwell's 1984, and more recent works such as the film adaptation of Dave Egger's The Circle where the author envisions a dystopia based on a worldwide internet company.

In video (only in German): Dr. Martin Hennig and Miriam Piegsa

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