Metaphors of Surveillance

There’s a new study looking at the metaphors we use to describe surveillance.

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.

Over 9 percent of the articles in our study contained metaphors related to the act of collection; 8 percent to literature (more on that later); about 6 percent to nautical themes; and more than 3 percent to authoritarian regimes.

On the one hand, journalists and bloggers have been extremely creative in attempting to describe government surveillance, for example, by using a variety of metaphors related to the act of collection: sweep, harvest, gather, scoop, glean, pluck, trap. These also include nautical metaphors, such as trawling, tentacles, harbor, net, and inundation. These metaphors seem to fit with data and information flows.

The only literature metaphor used is the book 1984.

This is sad. I agree with Daniel Solove that Kafka’s The Trial is a much better literary metaphor. This article suggests some other literary metaphors, most notably Philip K. Dick. And this one suggests the Eye of Sauron.

Posted on April 18, 2014 at 2:21 PM32 Comments


conrad April 18, 2014 2:44 PM

I taped a printed Eye of Sauron over the camera lens on my laptop. Two reasons – it blocks video recording, and reminds me that someone is recording my other computer activities.

Another Metaphor April 18, 2014 2:49 PM

Here’s my metaphor: think of our telecommunications infrastructure as a body. Our intelligence agencies have, through law, or in some cases quite physically, are tapped into this telecommunications ‘body.’ They have ‘intimate knowledge’ of this ‘body’ and it was all done ‘without the consent’ of the people they are governing.

See where I’m going here? My metaphor is that what they have done in terms of surveillance is tantamount to rape.

Glenn Strycker April 18, 2014 4:29 PM

I’m not sure if this is technically a metaphor, but no one referenced the Panopticon?

The “all-seeing eye” of the Illuminati that is on the Great Seal of the USA and is on our dollar bill is also a great metaphor!

Secret Police April 18, 2014 6:54 PM

I agree with George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” (which is really just a good essay on any writing)

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Since evoking a metaphor is a visual aid, using an old one just confuses your readers.

Curious April 19, 2014 4:36 AM

Btw, some expressions are called “dead metahpors”.

“A dead metaphor is a metaphor which has lost the original imagery of its meaning owing to extensive, repetitive popular usage.” Wikipedia

Otter April 20, 2014 12:02 AM

I agree with you that ‘The Trial’ is a better reference. However, you and I are both weirdos. We have read (a translation of) the book. Not many have read it, or had the opportunity. Furthermore, I and probably you have actually scanned with our very own eyes every page… most of the people I know who have “read” it didn’t get very far.

It might be instructive to consider why people know ‘1984’ but not ‘The Trial’. Why they empathize with the former but not the latter. And how responses to the books differ among “Americans”, “Britons”, “Middle Europeans”.

Philip K Dick is doubly treacherous. How many have heard of him? And when we explain “who we really mean”, would they not transfer their imaginations to Harrison Ford? Is he the image we would wish?

AlanS April 21, 2014 8:11 PM


The PEN article does mention Jeremy Bentham’s notion of the panopticon.

Also PEN America’s video discussion: Life in the Panopticon: Thoughts on Freedom in an Era of Pervasive Surveillance.

The panopticon has become somewhat overdone in the same way as Orwellian has. Most references to the panopticon come to use via Foucault but for Foucault it was an ideal type that illustrated disciplinary practices. If you just pluck the 30 odd pages on panopticism out of Discipline and Punish you are missing an awful lot of what Foucault has to say about surveillance and power/knowledge. Even the start of that particular chapter begins by discussing how pantopticism derives from much earlier practices to control urban spaces and populations, especially plague and lepers. And how these practices, that exert control over bodies in spaces, combine and spread, not only into the prisons but also schools, barracks, factories, etc. And surveillance practices continue to develop and spread. There has been a lot of water under the bridge since Bentham. See my earlier post here.

rioki April 22, 2014 2:46 AM

The “1984” vs. “The Trial” situation is plain, all mentioned articles are English. As it turns out “1984” is English literature and “The Trial” is German literature, the former you would have read in high school, the later not. If you would have gone to a German school you would probably have read some Kafka, though not necessarily the “The Trial”.

Unfortunately German media are not very creative either, they copy large parts of the terminology used by their English counterparts. The sad situation is that they even copy terms in whole, for example the word “Shitstorm” made it into the Duden. (The Duden is the German Websters, if you will.)

Autolykos April 22, 2014 3:59 AM

Yep, I agree that part of 1984‘s popularity as a metaphor is owed to the fact that pretty much everyone has read it in school (I’m German, and we read it, too). Kafka, OTOH, is rarely read even in German schools, and if he is read, it’s usually short stories and not The Trial. And other great German authors (like Hermann Hesse) are ignored completely by schools.
Another metaphor I like way better than 1984 (which I already mentioned in another thread) would be Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. It does not describe an intentionally oppressive regime, but a bureaucracy that grows until it fills all available space and is just as oppressive, only with no one responsible or in control. Similar but better known would be the movie Brazil (Brazil is funnier, but the Memoirs are deeper and more philosophical).

Autolykos April 22, 2014 4:21 AM

EDIT: Lem also has a few short stories that touch on the theme; the first that come to mind are the 11th Voyage (IIRC) from The Star Diaries and Trurl’s Consultation and How Trurl and Klapaucius Created a Demon of the Second Kind to Defeat the Pirate Pugg from the Cyberiad. But those are really just touching some parts of the issue, while the Memoirs are spot on.

anonymous April 22, 2014 6:46 AM

I’m German, and we read The Trial in school. Unfortunately I didn’t understand it completely at that age (pre-internet times).

AlanS April 22, 2014 7:56 AM

Orwell’s 1984 is indebted, as Orwell acknowledges, to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We”. The latter was written in the early 1920s. We was the first book banned after the Russian Revolution (although the book’s target was bigger than the Soviets). Orwell read and reviewed it the year before he disappeared to Jura to write 1984. He also claims that Brave New World is indebted to We. Other well-known authors, such as Vonnegut, were also influenced by Zamyatin.

name.withheld.for.obvious.reasons April 22, 2014 8:00 AM

For me the surveillance state is best characterized by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The death of civility, by virtue of conformity, is also enjoined by the distaste for the truth. The metaphor of the fire department as an enforcement arm of the all seeing TV and the symbolism of fire as a cleanser is interesting. I just believe that the dystopian world of Bradbury if generalized, is a more accurate metaphor for the effects and loss that comes from the surveillance state–some of the interplay about society’s attitude towards outliers is compelling in it sociological parallels.

Autolykos April 22, 2014 8:05 AM

Yep, I’m not saying The Trial is never read. But for most people who finish school (at least the Abitur, which is approximately your High School) you can assume that they have read 1984, but not The Trial.
Still, there is an adjective “kafkaesk” which is occasionally used in German for this kind of thing, but I’ve never seen an equivalent of “Orwellian” in a newspaper (1984 is usually referred to directly).

KnottWhittingley April 22, 2014 9:26 AM

Thanks, AlanS.

I found Zamiatin/Zamyatin’s We, original English version from Dutton, for free as a .pdf scan:

Here’s the Wikipedia article:

I personally like the metaphor of everyone living/working in glass buildings. If you live and work in the light, you’re exposed, and observers working in the dark are invisible. (Especially with modern buildings with smoked or semisilvered glass—sort of an International Style distributed panopticon.) One-way glass houses, the wrong way.

Unfortunately, “glass houses” refers to something else in English and this is not a metaphor most people will immediately get.

enkiv2 April 22, 2014 11:44 AM

PKD metaphors are more accurate in the same way that a comparison to Brazil is more accurate than a comparison to 1984: both PKD’s works (with the exception of the later, religiously centered stuff) and Brazil have an omnipresent background buzz of the human fallability (and structural fallability) of surveillance technologies (including social technologies like the double-cross system or the bureaucratic mentality). I’m not sure that this subverts the sense of danger: after all, the greatest dangers to the main characters in Brazil were related to the common failure modes of the panopticon bureaucracy (the plot is set in motion by a malfunctioning typewriter causing a paper to become misfiled); a whole chapter in PKD’s Ubik is dedicated to an argument between the main character and his ‘smart’ house (which refuses to open the door unless it gets paid, and threatens to sue if the mechanism is disabled).

1984 succumbs to the worst flaw in dystopian literature: the elevation of the surveillance state to the level of an omnipotent, omniscient, malevolent father-god. This is not merely unrealistic; in a sense, for those who prefer a strict and malevolent order to a neutral chaos, it makes attempts at total control seem more desirable. The problem is that every attempt at strict governance eventually decays into a clusterfuck — and the more power that’s given, the more power will be abused not in some monolithic government-vs-people way but primarily in the form of internal corruption.

AlanS April 22, 2014 7:45 PM

The Orwellian vision of Big Brother is a metaphor for obvious and oppressive surveillance.

A lot of surveillance isn’t experienced this way. Wikipedia defines surveillance (David Lyons is credited) as “the monitoring of the behavior, activities, or other changing information, usually of people for the purpose of influencing, managing, directing, or protecting them”. A lot of what is actually surveillance has become normal. It is like water to a fish. You are surrounded by it so completely and you have no recollection of it ever not being there so you don’t really experience it at all. To be human now is to have become an endless series of increasingly interconnected records, files, codes and numbers. Surveillance is what constitutes ones being in the modern world. If you were a time traveler from times past this would probably be very strange, as odd as witchcraft seems to us now.

Note that this is a different issue again than the one Solove is suggesting. Solove writes that Kafka’s “The Trial”, which deals with the experience of a “bureaucracy with inscrutable purposes”, is a better metaphor to illustrate “problems of information processing”. Inscrutable and problematic or not, that we have increasingly become information to be processed is deeply weird.

Philip K. Dick’s novels are much more provocative/evocative on this issue. Yes, he deals with surveillance and oppressive regimes etc. but his themes are so much bigger and more disturbing. What is real? What you think is real may not be. Who you think you are, may not be who you are.

AlanS April 22, 2014 8:26 PM

It is amusing to watch Apple’s famous 1984 advert 30 years later.

It starts with classic images of an Orwellian society. Then a young woman appears and smashes the all-watching TV. It is announced that: You’ll see why 1984 won’t be like “1984”. No kidding. It’s fabulous Adspeak. And what did we get eventually? Gorgeous and much-loved portable devices, coupled to online accounts, that track everyone’s every movement and activity. If it was a revolution, it was a revolution in the sense Animal Farm was about a revolution.

Wesley Parish April 23, 2014 3:21 AM

I’m surprised that no one has brought up Chapter XIII of George MacDonald’s novel Phantastes as an metaphor of surveillance.

It contains a young princess, Princess von Hohenweiss, trapped in a mirror, who can only be freed if the mirror is broken. And of course, where there is a young woman, there is correspondingly a young man, Cosmo von Wehrstahl, who in the end frees her by breaking the mirror, at the cost of his life.

I’ve sometimes thought someone should make that particular story into an opera or movie or some such thing. At times I’ve even considered writing some such opera or movie, but the problem would be in instantiating it in performance, considering it’s not only a tearjerker, it also kills off the hero, and Hollywood is terminally allergic to anything less than a chronically happy ending. I think I’d trust the Russian film industry to make it and make it work. And I’ll bet the Czechs would love to put their spin on the story, considering it happens in Prague!

Figureitout April 23, 2014 9:15 PM

–I liked Fahrenheit 451 too. Got Animal Farm waiting on a desk but other technical reading took its place. The gov’t already burned books BTW, literally. I’m sure it was all actual sensitive info and not just covering up crimes/leaving the populace ignorant.

Nick P April 23, 2014 11:24 PM

@ Figureitout

Look up Wilhelm Reich. His ideas pissed of a lot of people. End result was FDA ordered his books to be burned. I remember feeling uneasy reading one commentary saying something like “it wasn’t the first time Reich had seen a book burning.” It was a reference to Reich’s time in Germany. So, his books got burned and equipment destroyed destroyed because he said things that weren’t acceptable to the government. The US government. Oh life’s ironies.

Figureitout April 24, 2014 1:11 AM

Nick P
–Pretty interesting life. Seemed obsessed w/ finding a new form of energy dealing w/ sex (and seemed to enjoy it a bit much lol). My experiments there were “physical” “when I get the chance to run tests” and I’m done after my hilarious theory. Too silly and OT to get into, but I could predict timing for orgasms and some other well documented “trigger points”. He was just delving deep into psychology, I always thought it was odd the shape of the hypothalamus from a cross section of the brain, it looked oddly familiar to a female anatomy part…Interesting for a while but then it’s a lot of patterns.

My “slight” obsession is w/ waves and rotations. Entire galaxies rotate, obviously our planet and solar system. What if the universe rotates, where does it end?! Feels like we’re always spinning… If the universe is actually expanding, then from the right perspective, all movements are 2D waves. Even standing still, your mass is rotating on the earth, around the sun, around the galaxy; w/ some weird wave.

And an even worse obsession has taken hold of my mind…digital security. And w/ a police state gov’t attacking its own citizens and their own economy by breaking into homes and backdooring all products and protocols; looks like at least I will be challenged for life.

Nick P April 24, 2014 8:18 AM

@ Figureitout

“Pretty interesting life. Seemed obsessed w/ finding a new form of energy dealing w/ sex (and seemed to enjoy it a bit much lol).”

Well put. Pseudoscience or not, it’s hard to say a lifetime of sex & attempting to turn it into world-changing power was a life wasted. Made for a good story to me, albeit with a bad ending.

Figureitout April 25, 2014 1:47 AM

Nick P
–Meh my observation is based on a biographer and perhaps all falsified info on an insecure internet…and sounds pretty worthless to me; he even apparently had some incest fantasies when I re-read the entire wiki page. Then starting sexual relations w/ emotionally vulnerable “patients”; it’s not right preying on people like that when they just need someone to talk to.

He just made some pretty powerful psychological connections that give you power but don’t really invent a new useful technology. I hope to not suffer a similar fate and actually leave something useful; probably run out of time though.

ianf August 3, 2016 5:32 AM


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Meanwhile :: the latest trio of SPAM

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