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Keeping Us Safe?, by Simon Cooper

The fetishisation of safety points to a larger transformation across Western democracies.

Appearing in prime time on ABC TV and on iView, Keeping Us Safe purports to give viewers an inside look at the role of Australian security forces. Its subjects range from air strikes in Syria to Border Force activities, counter-terrorism raids, outback police patrolling for drugs and inner-city police on the nightclub circuit. The series describes itself as ‘arguably the most ambitious observational documentary series ever undertaken in Australia’. It is certainly the most obvious example of a transformation in serious content at the ABC. Charitably, one might see the series as an elevated variation on ‘reality’ shows on commercial TV—like Cops, Border Security or Customs, but little more. While the show invites us to reflect on those who ‘keep us safe’, the embedded format means that there is little distance from which larger questions about the role of state security can be posed.

Focusing on real-time ‘observations’, the series accentuates the personal over the analytical, while the collapse of vastly different activities—overseas military strikes, border patrol, local cops on the beat—under the rubric of ‘safety’ effectively depoliticises our understanding of security. (For more on the ubiquity of ‘security’, see Alison Caddick’s editorial ‘All that Melts…’ in Arena Magazine No. 149.) Given the almost complete refusal by the government to provide details about the role of security forces overseas, and in light of its pervasive silence over Manus Island, the sudden granting of ‘privileged access’ to security forces seems hard to understand outside of propaganda.

At a time where the public sphere is facing multiple challenges—fragmentation, privatisation, the decline of sources of serious media—the ABC is being diminished in both form and content. The end of Lateline, and the reduction of PM and The World Today to half an hour hint at the scale of change at the national broadcaster. Previous cuts have been accompanied by compensatory shifts in presentation—promoting ‘celebrity’ radio/TV hosts, lighter content, using social media and text messages to occupy time—all of which reorient the broadcaster towards consumption rather than analysis. Michelle Guthrie’s planned restructure may see Radio National broken up and responsibility for its programs scattered around the corporation. Guthrie’s emphasis on podcasting and decentralised content delivery across a number of formats suggests narrowcasting rather than broadcasting, mirroring the fracturing of the public sphere rather than countering it.

In this sense, the values implicit in Keeping Us Safe and the transformation of the broadcaster that airs it signal a wider phenomenon: the narrowing of public debate and the shrinking of autonomy within the public sphere. In the past decade, the nature of public communication has itself changed—it is increasingly focused on the welfare/safety of the individual—and discourse is now judged for its potential to harm. The phenomenon of ending any news story involving ‘difficult’ content with links to Lifeline or Beyond Blue is merely one instance of how communicative acts are understood as much for their capacity to trigger effects as for their informational content. Such a move may be well intentioned, but it subtly alters how we engage with the world.

This focus upon ‘safety’ increasingly stands at the centre of political discourse. Lacking a larger narrative that might speak to citizens (with ‘innovation’ now shelved), the federal government has defaulted to security as a means of connecting with its constituency. The increase in biometric surveillance of Australian citizens through a national facial-recognition database is the latest in a series of measures that allow Australians to be surveilled virtually anywhere in public space. Here the rhetoric of safety acknowledges no limits. The prime minister defended the new measures, dismissing privacy concerns as trivial roadblocks that ‘prevent you from doing everything you can to keep Australians safe’, to the furious agreement of the Labor Party and state leaders.

If the scope of these new laws seems disproportionate to the threat of terror/crime, this does not necessarily indicate the conscious adoption of an authoritarian agenda. Rather the exaggeration of any need to create ‘safety’ arises from a more fundamental challenge to liberal democracy whereby mainstream politics loses the capacity to engage with its citizens. The failure of neoliberalism and a free-trade agenda, the decline of manufacturing and the automation of jobs, the stagnating economy and the impact of climate change represent multifaceted crises to which liberal democracies cannot effectively respond. Having abandoned any larger project of structural change, the government seeks to connect with its citizens though technocratic management. This reductionist framing of the public as data rather than active subjects is symptomatic of the absence of any transformative vision or alternative to the current situation.

Recently The Guardian confirmed that the government plans to sell access to its facial-recognition database to telecommunications and financial companies. Once this access has been granted there will be little to prevent corporations from creating their own databases and at that point it will be impossible to control how the data is used. In the United States private companies already use such data in a variety of situations—to determine whether a person entering a shop is a ‘good customer’ or potential troublemaker, for instance—and churches use software to track the movements of worshippers. Meanwhile, Facebook’s ‘tag-suggestions’ feature uses facial recognition to identify people appearing in the hundreds of millions of photos uploaded every day.

These examples reveal the short distance from ‘keeping us safe’ to ‘surveillance capitalism’. Silicon Valley is moving beyond the harvesting of data from virtual spaces (Facebook etc.) to the colonisation of physical spaces via the utopian concept of the ‘smart city’. Indicative of this is the Google Urbanism project, which reconceptualises cities as sites for ‘data extractivism’, moving towards a technocratic, rather than institutional, management of cities. Google already provides maps, wi-fi, traffic data and self-driving vehicles but hopes to integrate these services in an experimental project in Toronto that would serve as a model for future cities. Here, surveillance works to create an adaptive environment where air quality, traffic flow, parking and building conditions are monitored, where delivery robots, automated garbage collection and self-driving cars inhabit a landscape shaped to the needs of its citizens. Even more, Google says, in this city a ‘building has no static use’. Instead, it ‘will remain flexible over the course of its lifecycle, accommodating a radical mix of uses (such as residential, retail, making, office, hospitality and parking) that can respond quickly to market demand’. Google’s future city is one that hollows out history and place, seeing the urban landscape as a shell that adapts to the demands of data-driven capital. In this sense it parallels the thinking of Guthrie at the ABC, whose vision for the broadcaster collapses institutional cultures and structures for horizontal flows of information.

What might this mean for how we understand public space? Like Uber, Google Urbanism seeks to disrupt a world governed by planning and regulation, replacing it with flexibility informed by big data. Google declares that while ‘prescriptive measures were [once] necessary to protect human health, ensure safe buildings, and manage negative externalities…cities can achieve those same goals without the inefficiency that comes with inflexible zoning and static building codes’. One might question whether in handing over to Google the power previously invested in public officials and processes—a trend already entrenched in neoliberal reforms in many administrative fields—authorities will also hand Google a monopoly over data and services. But equally important is the politics, or lack of it, that underpins this vision of the future city. As Eugeny Morozov writes, Google Urbanism ‘means the end of politics, as it assumes the impossibility of wider systemic transformations… Instead, it wants to mobilise the power of technology to help residents “adjust”’—that is, to manage conditions rather than meaningfully alter them.

The fetishisation of safety, the corrosion of the public sphere, the growth of surveillance capitalism and privatised cities run by Google are symptoms of a still larger transformation across Western democracies. If neoliberalism marks the intrusion of market values into every sphere of life, eroding public institutions and structures, it has been underpinned by revolutions in technology and media. The world of ubiquitous media we inhabit is governed by the rise of social and cultural ‘bubbles’ where we customise our encounters with the world. In this realm, surveillance is normalised—when you have to look into your phone to unlock it, what does it matter if the government collects a few more pictures for its database? These bespoke mediated environments we now occupy amplify the need to ‘keep us safe’—when social life works via filtering, any encounter with otherness will grow in magnitude, which is perhaps why the talk of security and safety has gained traction beyond any objective need. How else could virtual speech have the quality of a material act—which it now does—although the extent to which we grant it this status is itself a political question.

Such a question also needs to be addressed to elements of progressive politics, many of which, however, are committed to a sensibility not altogether different from the current preoccupation with ‘safety’. Thus, while those who consider themselves on the ‘left-liberal’ spectrum would oppose many of the actions of Turnbull, Guthrie and corporate executives at Google and Facebook, most remain uncritical of the larger patterns from which these examples are drawn. And this is meant not simply in terms of an unreflective commitment to a world of free-floating media consumption but in the way politics is conducted in this world. The fragility of identity politics, and perhaps actual identities, means that the public sphere is regarded as a place of potential harm rather than of debate and challenge. The rise of ‘no platforming’, ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ at university campuses ought not be dismissed merely as the vulnerability of the ‘snowflake generation’; they are part of a more complex phenomenon and arise largely from the insecurity generated by neoliberalism—student debt, disposable jobs—and profound techno-transformation. All the same, ultimately such strategies hollow out the public sphere as much as anything Turnbull or Guthrie might do. One only needs to look at how identity politics has so easily accommodated wielding material power: from The Guardian refusing to print any position questioning same-sex marriage to those wishing to expand the capacity of the 18C legislation to cover all kinds of ‘emotional harm’.

This kind of ‘friction-free politics’ unwittingly threatens the autonomy of the public sphere. Progressive politics—once defined by its distance from state power—now actively encourages it. However, moves to increase the management of discourse by the state cut both ways. In the United States it is now argued that publicly criticising Israel on campuses creates an unsafe climate for Jewish students, and recent attempts to protect the sensibilities of religious and conservative groups in Australia reveal how control of public discourse in the interests of ‘protection’ works to shut down political change. Given the scale of the challenges ahead of us, ‘keeping us safe’ may end up doing the opposite.

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