Monday, July 4, 2011

Mental health, surveillance, controls and us.

Amended September 21, 2018.
This is another post from some years ago that is, I feel, particularly relevant today with the news that China is using millions of CCTV cameras (with face recognition software) to keep tabs of all citizens. Those who are seen to follow the "Party Line" earn "Social Credits" and are allowed to travel both within and outside China, for example. There are many more social activities that you or I would consider normal that are denied those with a low "Social Credit" score.

Today, when we are deluged with advertising exhorting us to buy this or that product, to follow this or that cause, to do this or that because “you deserve it”, how many of us actually know what we like or even who we are? Certainly advertising is useful – in its place. But when we reach a stage of believing everything we are told – by someone who certainly does not have our best interests in mind – I think we are in trouble. How can anyone know what I need, or want, or should do? They (whoever “they” may be) may generalise and say that statistically most people do this or that or the other thing. But when “they” try to apply their generalisations to me (or you) it becomes an opinion, because they don’t know my (or your) specific attributes and needs.

The thing is that it is so easy to follow what others do. There is comfort in knowing that we conform to what the group or society is doing (whether this is right or wrong). I suppose it is that same sort of comfort afforded to a herd of gazelles about to be attacked by a lion. There is comfort in numbers – an individual gazelle’s chance of being eaten by the lion is in inverse proportion to the size of the herd – a relatively small chance. Many of us may unconsciously try to comply with the same herd instinct. I am not sure that this is, generally, in our best interests. To revert to the example of the gazelles, each gazelle conforms to the characteristics of their kind – all are of a similar colour and size. Human beings, on the other hand, are not all of one colour or one size, and what are are the characteristics of our kind? We have attributes and characteristics derived from ALL animals – we live, survive and seem to thrive in every climatic and environmental condition.

So where does this leave us human beings? We have a propensity to conform – it is so easy to do so. There is no need for us to think for ourselves. Someone (who we presume must know better than us) tells us what to do because it is deemed to be best for us (as individuals). On the other hand it is a human requirement that we each grow and develop in our own individual way for our own individual purposes. We each learn from and react to experiences and circumstances in our own unique way. We are not clones. We each, in our own way on our journey through life, add to the sum of human knowledge. This is as it should be because in this way humanity benefits. There will certainly be ups and downs, positives and negatives in this journey and with the knowledge we gain in this process. But again this is as it should be. How else can we learn?

This gets me back to where I started from – other people telling me (or us) what to do. Rather than being told what to do, there is I believe a (possibly unconscious) covert move to influence us in other ways. Why are there so many surveillance cameras in most major cities? I believe it is because the authorities (whoever they are) want us to believe that we are under constant surveillance by some unseen authority. In this way it is hoped that we “internalise” this sense of being observed and alter our behaviour. This is a form of power whereby physical control is switched from the old concept of chains, to self control through the fear of not knowing for certain whether or not we are being observed. This uncertainty will change the way we think of ourselves as citizens by introducing the element of fear which leads us to “conform” to some vague, undefined, pattern of behaviour.

Ostensibly the surveillance is to identify criminals, and one has to admit it is useful in this regard. However are we to submit to some Government ill defined “greater good”, which limits individual freedoms? By freedoms I do not in any way suggest that we can or should do what we like. Not at all. Paradoxically, because we, as individuals, always hold to the core belief that we are good, any attempt to expose activity to the contrary (i.e. by surveillance cameras) is met with an element of anxiety – no one wants to be shown up to be less than their own idea of who they are. This aside, any constraint on our ability as individuals to express ourselves as we see fit has, I am sure, unforeseen consequences. The fundamental law of life – the law of cause and effect, may be forgotten but can never be avoided. Ethics, morality and values (both personal and cultural) must be adhered to.

Stress and anxiety are known to be precursors of a variety of mental problems as defined by the Psychologists “Bible” – the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual  – DSM5. It is possible, even probable, that the elements of stress and anxiety brought about by this background of constant surveillance is instrumental in the, verified, higher incidence of schizophrenia in cities as compared to rural areas.

In high density urban environments we are constantly pulled and pushed by conflicting demands – we need to maintain certain standards of behaviour (on the surface at least) to keep peace with neighbours; we have a desire to maintain living standards and to have certain material goods to satisfy our children and to “keep up with the Jones’”; we are aware that we are constantly being observed by our neighbours for any transgressions. Thus we are forced to conform to standards that are not of our making and which may conflict with our individual values and moral standards. To have added to this the knowledge that we are under constant CCTV surveillance is an additional level of stress.

This does bode well for our peace of mind.

Maybe the Chinese Authorities should recall that some twenty-seven centuries ago the Chinese philosopher Confucius stated that:

"If you govern people by laws, and keep them in order by penalties, they will avoid the penalties yet lose their sense of shame. But if you govern them by your moral excellence, and keep them in order by your dutiful conduct, they will retain their sense of shame, and also live up to this standard."

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