Mapping Metaphors To Fight Surveillance

from PEN America

How do we use language to describe surveillance? As an organization that promotes literature and defends freedom of expression wherever it is threatened, PEN is especially concerned about the effect of mass surveillance on creative freedom. We fought U.S. government surveillance all the way to the Supreme Court in the case Amnesty v. Clapper, and our report Chilling Effects documented that U.S. government surveillance is causing one out of six writers to self-censor their research and writing. We may never know how many ideas are being lost every day because of these programs.

Judges and legislators are increasingly confronted with the need to understand new surveillance technologies, and often resort to metaphor to do so. The Oxford English Dictionary defines metaphor as “a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.” The use of metaphors can result in quite strange decisions, as Noam Cohen noted in a December 2013 New York Times article, when Supreme Court Justice Scalia tried to illustrate how preposterous it would be to liken a tracking device on the bottom of a car to a miniature policeman hitching a ride in the case U.S. v. Jones. The inappropriate use of metaphors can distract from the fact that real lives are affected by them. “Metaphors in law are to be narrowly watched,” once warned Justice Benjamin Cardozo, “for starting as devices to liberate thought, they often end by enslaving it.”

To better understand how metaphors are being used in coverage of surveillance, PEN embarked on a study of articles by journalists and bloggers. Over 62 days between December and February, we combed through 133 articles by 105 different authors and over 60 news outlets. We found that 91 percent of the articles contained metaphors about surveillance. There is rich thematic diversity in the types of metaphors that are used, but there is also a failure of imagination in using literature to describe surveillance.

More here.

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  1. Language is something that has evolved to meet our needs. We created the concept of numbers in order to barter practically. We created names for things using abstract sounds so that we could describe the world around us as it changed in order to survive. From then, as people moved around, new ways to describe things developed. Small communities made codes to follow during conversation and from there full languages developed. They moved around and changed over time, with groups creating brand new languages. The way we speak to each other is just us using abstract sounds in order to convey our thoughts in a way we know the other person will understand. Unlike thousands of years ago, the languages we speak today are built with a strict structure and process. With that being said, when new words enter our vocabulary, we struggle for a while to fit them in and figure out exactly what they mean. Throughout grade school, as children learn newer, bigger words, they are constantly taught when not to say it. However, some concepts are harder to learn, especially when those concepts pertain to the new digital age we find ourselves in today. This is the exact issue described in this article. Metaphors help us understand new words and ideas, however, as Justice Benjamin Cardozo states, these ideas can be enslaved by these metaphors. Especially when dealing with protecting citizens against their governments, we need a system that is blatantly clear about what these words mean. Even in the US government, where data legislation is slow, we need something that can tell us what exactly we are talking about. The cases we discussed in the second TID, Cullinane v. Uber and Meyer v. Uber, also have this problem. Both cases, while similar in terms of arguments about the arbitration clause, had opposite outcomes. These cases contradict each other because the respective judges had different ideas about what can be described as contractual assent in the digital age. There are digital contract terms like shrinkwrap, clickwrap, and browser wrap that most judges and legislatures aren’t really sure how to describe. And although browser wrap does not necessarily require assent, whether or not this type of contract is passible is still in question, if it even is a contract at all. This isn’t the only issue faced by the discussion in the article. We are constantly faced by new forms of technology every day. Only three states have made laws protecting consumer data even though the discussion about online data has been circling since the creation of the internet. The language we use is the only way we have to communicate issues and threats to each other. When that becomes muddied with words some people don’t understand, we run into problems. As technology begins to expand exponentially, we are forced to find new ways to describe it. Judges now aren’t versed in the technology of yesterday, and will probably learn about the technology today sometimes next year. At this point, our court and legislative systems are constantly playing a game of catch up. They learn about new technology and how to properly describe it once it becomes an issue. And, even then, whoever is posing the issue or case need to explain to them what they need to know and often end up using metaphors that still don’t properly click.

  2. The importance of metaphors is the subject of this article, and that idea alone has me thinking more deeply about many things. Metaphors are probably the most effective way to simplify and explain complicated topics. Metaphors can also be used to properly represent the gravity of a situation, rather than relying on a basic explanation of the topic to do the same.

    Surveillance seems to provide a reasonable example to demonstrate how this works — one course blog post I read before used a metaphor that really got me thinking: when websites practically spy on people to form more tailored ads, it is the same thing as a person stalking you while you wander around the mall. The stalker carefully notes what you buy, what you enjoy looking at, and what you don’t. All this, of course, so that they can present you with a product that you are more likely to buy.

    If you think about it that way, it certainly does come off as a lot more … creepy. But is this metaphor really accurate? I would argue that it is a bit of an exaggeration. Such alarmism may be effective in getting people to rethink these situations, but it could also serve to discredit the point one is trying to make.

    What is a proper metaphor for surveillance? Private ‘surveillance’ such as your internet footprint being tracked, should, in my opinion, be sharply distinguished with government surveillance. I say this because, as far as we know, private companies engage in these activities to increase their profits. That is not the noblest of intentions by any means, but it’s not as bad as something like surveillance that we read about in Orwell’s 1984.

    As the article points out, Orwell is a classic and the tactics which he describes are not outlandish or far-fetched. But, we should be willing to branch out and explore other (potentially more fitting) metaphors.

    If we are pulling from dystopian novels, I find that Huxley’s Brave New World is a better example. Whereas Orwell’s evil regime rules with fear, censorship, and thought control, Huxley envisions a future in which people are pacified to the point of submission. The driving force here is government control of technological institutions. Sounds a bit more accurate!

    That, I believe, is why these metaphors are important. We should be very careful not to blow things out of proportion and potentially turn people off to whatever point we wish to get across. At the same time, making simple connections may prove beneficial in simplifying these complicated yet important topics.

  3. Language is a concept that has always interested me. Not meaning the idea of there being thousands of languages in the world, but more in the sense of the many ways that people communicate. Putting aside the thousands of languages, English in particular has so many layers embedded within it- which allows people communicate to convey their thoughts. Whether that be the way that people utilize metaphors in surveillance, as discussed in this article, or just how people communicate in everyday conversation. The line “The fact that 91 percent of articles contain metaphors suggest that writers will continue to use metaphors to help us understand advances in technology” really resonated with me. This is because people use metaphors and euphemisms everyday to help others understand concepts in technology, as mentioned, or in every other category of life. People use this type of language to help others understand their ideas in addition to communicating more effectively.
    When discussing a topic such a surveillance or technology, which is ever changing and evolutionary, consumers can easily lose interest or lack understanding when words they do not understand are used. The use of metaphors aid readers and consumers in comprehending the overall meaning. Everyone’s brain works differently, but if you are able to help that person make a connection with something else and lead them to comprehension, then metaphors can be extremely useful.
    When I think of the basics of a metaphor, I think about comparing less tangible aspects of live to nature or weather. I think that is the root of why people use metaphors and why they are helpful in terms of comprehending new concepts. Nature is arguably the most concrete, comprehensible, relatable aspect of life which is why it is so easy to compare other things to it.. Transferring that concept of easy comprehension into a dense topic like technology or surveillance through metaphors helps the exchange of thoughts and ideas. Hence, metaphors are a big part of language and an effective communication process.

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