“The Shadow State Is Not Really a Shadow State”: How Surveillance Anxiety Is Shaping Pop Culture


Leslie and Ben visit Gryzzl on “Parks and Rec,” where they learn that the fictional tech company is openly spying on Pawnee citizens. (courtesy of NBC)

Someone is always watching.

For the longest time, that idea underpinned grim visions of a totalitarian future in books and movies, from Nineteen Eighty-Four to The Hunger Games — cautionary tales about the fate awaiting a citizenry that allows itself to be deceived by the people in power.

Then the future arrived, and it turned out those bleak fantasies of an all-seeing surveillance state weren’t so farfetched: in the post-9/11 world, someone really is watching, be it Facebook mapping your life’s history for the sake of advertising dollars, or the National Security Agency keeping tabs on your phone calls and text messages in the name of freedom.

Pop culture has noticed. Themes of privacy and surveillance are appearing more often outside the usual bounds of spy movies, political thrillers, and the fever dreams of conspiracy theorists. Privacy has been at the core of a storyline on the current (and final) season of NBC’s Parks and Recreation; has fueled a boomlet of darkly comic modern-day dystopia lit by authors including Dave Eggers (The Circle), Gary Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story), and David Shafer (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot); and informed music by artists including St Vincent and EMA.

“I have believed for a while that privacy, and specifically digital privacy, is the key issue facing this generation of Americans and people in the world,” Michael Schur, co-creator and an executive producer of Parks and Rec, tells Flavorwire.

The show raises the topic through Gryzzl, a giant Internet company in Pawnee that is a composite of Google, Facebook, and Amazon. (Gryzzl’s motto, “Wouldn’t it be tight if everyone was chill to each other?” is a play on Google’s “Don’t be evil.”) When Leslie Knope and the gang discover that Gryzzl is gathering information about local residents by listening to their phone calls and reading their texts and emails, the company offers to make amends by hosting a free concert featuring Beyoncé and U2, with seating based on “income and sexual history” information gleaned from Gryzzl’s data mining efforts.

Though the Gryzzl subplot was one of the season’s funniest, its punchline is rooted in something much more serious: our personal data has become an increasingly valuable commodity, though one that we don’t necessarily control. “The fact that people aren’t taking to the streets is kind of amazing,” Schur says. “This is not a partisan issue, it doesn’t matter what your politics are, no innocent person should be spied on in their house by anyone — a corporation or the government.”

The extent of the spying became much more clear in 2013 when NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked a vast trove of classified information disclosing a multitude of government surveillance programs, including details of how the government used secret court orders to force telecommunications companies to give the NSA access to phone records and email accounts. In a new revelation last week, it emerged that spy agencies in the US and Britain hacked into the computer system of the world’s largest manufacturer of SIM cards and stole encryption keys that have allowed them complete, untraceable access to a significant portion of voice and data communications across the globe.

“The Snowden thing was like, ‘Oh, here’s the proof,’” Schur says. “The scary thing is, now it’s coming at us from all sides. You kind of assume that profit-driven corporations are going to be using your data at all times to try to make money. That’s the deal with capitalism. That part of the bargain, I think, people were more aware of. What we were not fully aware of is the fact that the public sector is doing it as well.”

By the time the Snowden disclosures began, David Shafer was already writing Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, released to critical acclaim last summer. Set in the present day, the author’s debut novel imagines three characters who become inadvertent resistors to a cabal of businessmen and government agents conspiring to collect and privatize the personal information of everyone in the world. As Shafer worked, many seemingly implausible plot points about government surveillance and corporate data mining turned out to be true.

“I thought I was writing something just totally ridiculous, and then it would become reality,” Shafer tells Flavorwire.

What’s disturbing to Shafer and Schur is how readily, and passively, people part with their personal data online. In addition to forms that ask for it outright, web cookies track Internet-browsing habits, allowing companies to show targeted ads online, while smartphones relay information about location and app preferences that help companies build user profiles that are startlingly thorough — and accurate.

“‘Addicted’ sounds so facile, but it really is the correct word for what we are with our devices now, and I don’t know how we’re going to untangle from that,” Shafer says. “Maybe the answer will be technological, maybe Silicon Valley will ride to the rescue and give us back power over our data, but that seems unlikely.”

It’s a tradeoff many are willing to make without realizing the potential costs, says Erika M. Anderson, the singer and songwriter who records as EMA. She explores notions of privacy in the digital age on her 2014 album The Future’s Void, a collection of dark, gleaming songs inspired by Anderson’s interest in the surveillance mechanisms employed by former Soviet satellite states, such as the Stasi secret police in East Germany, along with her own discomfort with a growing public profile. “Feel like I blew my soul out across the interwebs and streams/ It was a million pieces of silver and I watched them gleam/ It left a hole so big inside of me/ And I get terrified that I will never get it back to me,” she sings on the brooding, atmospheric track “3Jane.”

“A lot of people have this idea that the only people who are affected by this are the people who in some ways ask for this, or deserve it, and I don’t think that’s always the case,” Anderson tells Flavorwire.

In other words, it’s easy to assume the government only monitors the communications of people it has reason to suspect of wrongdoing, when the truth is that they’re sweeping up information about everyone’s associations in what amounts to a metadata dragnet. By the same token, revenge-porn websites mean celebrities aren’t the only ones at risk of having nude photos leaked all over the Internet. In the digital age, invasion of privacy is an equal opportunity pursuit, with deleterious effects.

“What we’re realizing is that, to a certain degree, observation decreases quality of life, and you can see it really extremely in celebrities,” Anderson says. “But I think in general, having people constantly observe you, it decreases your sense of safety and solitude and free-thinking. It makes you self-conscious, shy. It’s not a pleasant experience.”

It’s also not a subject where treatments in popular entertainment are likely to spark some radical cultural shift, though Anderson is hopeful that they will at least prompt a conversation. “I think some very thoughtful and strong pieces of art in popular culture are a good way to start, because that has the potential to show you to a point of view you might not ordinarily have,” she says.

Then again, the idea that the authorities are watching has been an aspirational status symbol for decades in hip-hop, while artists including Nine Inch Nails and Bruce Springsteen have dug into the topic of mass surveillance in the post-9/11 world, on 2007’s Year Zero and Magic, respectively. So far, little has changed.

That’s partly because of the nature of government bureaucracy, which operates mostly without agenda or ideology. “The shadow state is not really a shadow state, it’s the machinery of government that sort of cranks on without our civic input,” Shafer says.

Also, there has been no sustained popular outcry demanding that government or corporations change. “It takes a lot to get people angry, and it takes even more than that — like a heretofore unknown amount of malfeasance — to get people to the point where they actually take on mass action,” Schur says.

In fact, Schur says, the Snowden revelations seemed less troubling to many people than U2 collaborating with Apple last year to drop the band’s new album, unbidden, into the music library of every iTunes store customer in the world.

“The public outcry to that was very heartening to that, to me,” Schur says. “It made me feel like there was still a way for people to draw a line in the sand in terms of what they wanted from their technology companies.”

All the same, public anger soon dissipated, as is always does. Even on Parks and Rec, Pawnee residents’ distrust of Gryzzl quickly faded from view as the final season of the show progressed.

“What happens with these things is, even when there’s an issue that the public is upset about, life goes back to normal very quickly,” Schur says. “When we get upset about the U2 album, we don’t all smash our iPhones and burn them in the streets, and it doesn’t bring Apple to its knees. Everybody gets angry, it lasts for about a week and goes away.”

Taking action requires acknowledging the privacy-related freedoms willingly sacrificed in return for technology; some would rather remain ignorant or quickly forget instead of altering their digital ways. By incorporating this skepticism into pop culture, however, perhaps over time people won’t be able to sweep these unsettling truths about privacy and surveillance under the rug. They’ll linger, like the feeling of being watched should.