Screening Surveillance

Curator's Note

“Screening Surveillance” offers an interpretive chronology of surveillance in Hollywood from Charlie Chaplin to Edward Snowden. Composed entirely of clips from American film and television, Screening Surveillance maps the evolution of cultural discourses surrounding government surveillance, taking note of shifts from optical to computational surveillance and analyzing the ways this discourse has - and has not - changed since the revelations about NSA surveillance by government contractor Edward Snowden in June 2013.
Film and television have historically associated surveillance with voyeurism in order to warn of the threat it poses to individual privacy and freedom. But the nature and significance of government surveillance has changed dramatically since the beginning of the computer age. In the realm of computational surveillance - specifically, the large-scale collection and mining of metadata - the power of looking is trumped by the power of knowing. Yet, when the cameras of Hollywood envision data surveillance, they often remain rooted in the visual realm, ignoring the very real threats to freedom and privacy that attend today’s large scale data mining. Hollywood’s preference for visual spectacle is certainly understandable, but the industry’s broader inability to represent technological complexity disserves its ability to engage important social issues, simply because they are not readily visualized.
In light of government contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations in June 2013 about the NSA’s metadata collection program known as Prism, the stakes of representing surveillance on film and TV are higher than ever. Yet, the vision of government surveillance described by Snowden bears little resemblance to the images that continue to be created in Hollywood. Given the richness of Hollywood’s history in imagining and critiquing systems of surveillance, I believe there is unrealized potential for narrative film and television to promote more complex understandings of technology in general - and surveillance in particular - if we are to preserve our privacy and maximize our capacity to function as citizens in a 21st century democracy. 

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