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In clamour for accountability, discipline displaces trust

biometric2COMMENT: Our society is gripped by two overlapping tendencies. On the one hand, there is a pervasive culture of mistrust.

On the other hand, this mistrust is ideologically deployed for all kinds of surveillance, from biometric attendance to GPS tracking of politicians.

The clamour for accountability is manifesting itself in the form of a desire for greater discipline, but the line between reasonable discipline and a disciplinary society that colonises our self is a very thin one.

Are we sleepwalking into forms of discipline that will diminish rather than elevate us?

The question of surveillance is a tricky one. But, broadly, a distinction must be made between forms of surveillance that are designed to protect us from genuine risks and forms that are mainly disciplinary in their effects.

This is not a sharp distinction but it is heuristically useful. Modern societies, like all societies, face complex risks.

But the self-image of modern society is that these risks can be mitigated by the application of surveillance and technology.

No modern government can be seen not to be doing things to mitigate these risks, even if the net effect is not always to make us safer.

After every crime, government has to answer what it could have done to prevent it. And often, the easy answer is surveillance.

What risks we should mitigate, when does the invocation of risk merely become a pretext for more surveillance — these questions require careful empirical argument.

But in India, the application of surveillance seems to have more to do with discipline than with mitigating risk. In a country with great contempt for government officials (but great clamour for government), it is heretical to even suggest that biometric tracking of the daily attendance and routine of government officials might actually be counterproductive in the long run.

Universities are clamouring for biometric tracking of teacher and student presence on campus, subtly transforming the character of these spaces.

The idea that party leaderships can track their subordinates in a kind of surveillance enterprise is bound to have effects on the very idea of a political party. And then there is, of course, the massive recorded and unrecorded surveillance that the Indian state carries out. To what effect, one does not know.

Many of these forms of surveillance satiate our demand for discipline. But their long-term effects are likely to be very corrosive.

They are often justified on debatable assumptions.

Often, the first assumption is that a society that can produce these forms of disciplining can dispense with trust; it can rely on this artificially induced trust, as it were.

Since we know we are monitoring them, we can now have more confidence in government officials.

Discipline displaces trust

This assumption is debatable. It is often said that if you cannot measure or track, you cannot hold someone accountable. There may be some truth to this.

But it is equally true that a society that is structured largely around tracking and measuring will probably produce more gaming of the system than genuine performance.

It is a mistake to think that discipline can replace the need for trust. At most, it displaces trust.

But the harm that it produces is to create a culture of suspicion, where distrust becomes the norm.

Do these artificial practices of disciplining institutionalise distrust? And is institutionalised distrust more harmful in the long run?

Second, a disciplinary society is always a more hierarchical one. Leaders use our clamour for discipline to increase their own power over subordinates.

It is no accident that party leaderships or governments often exult at the prospect of instituting more disciplinary measures.

In fact, a disciplinary society produces a need to trust fewer people, with more concentration of power.

Third, the debate over mistrust and discipline is often presented as a debate over two views of human nature.

On one side, there is Confucius, who famously said that a ruler needs three things: food, weapons and trust.

The ruler who cannot have all three should give up weapons first, then food, but he should never give up trust.

“Without trust we cannot stand.” On the other side is the Machiavellian idea that we are wretched creatures and fear can only be sustained by the dread of punishment: surveillance is the foundation of danda.

But this debate is misconceived in two respects. First, it depends on how high your aspirations are. It is arguable that fear can induce a certain kind of performance in government.

But if you want a government or a set of professionals to be genuinely creative, they have to, in a sense, identify with their vocation, make it their identity and take ownership. But this is exactly what a discipline-induced identity militates against.

Wider culture of distrust

gpsYou can be pretty sure that a government founded on fear, or an institution like a university run through surveillance, is setting the bar very low: it is using external inducement to produce a simulacrum of performance.

The biggest reason for our institutional failures is not that we are wretched.

It is that these institutions are designed in such a way that those who inhabit them have no ownership of what goes on. And the wider culture of distrust has now reinforced the idea that since you will be condemned anyway, you might as well not perform.

Second, as Foucault presciently noted, the effect of modern forms of surveillance is not to compensate for a pre-identified wretchedness in our natures.

Rather, it is to transform us in ways we have no control over. The surveillance gaze transforms us, making us largely effects of the disciplinary techniques that shape us. This is not a world that prizes freedom or individuality.

Nor is it a view that understands that the world is less alienating when we can acquire social relationships and professional identities without a presumption of hostility.

Short-term discipline is being secured at the price of entrenching a long-term culture of suspicion. No society can flourish on such a foundation.

If a government is only as good as its system of biometric attendance, if the credibility of a teacher depends largely on the effectiveness of a third party tracking what she does and if a political party and the distribution of power in it are largely a function of its GPS systems, we will be in great trouble as a society.

Somewhere, this fascination with surveillance-based discipline has nothing to do with performance: it has to do with a possibly reactionary culture of control.

There is a deep disconnect between Modi’s faith in the dispositions and abilities of people and the message that the only way we can induce performance is through maximum government control over them. – Comment by Pratab Banu mehta for The Indian Express

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