Mellon Sawyer Seminar: Surveillance Democracies?

Journalists report that police and the FBI are spying on citizens engaged in protest from the Keystone Pipeline to Black Lives Matter, and the National Security Administration is under scrutiny for unwarranted collection of personal data. What does democracy look like in an era of surveillance? What does privacy look like under the Patriot Act and PRISM? And what is the “trade-off” between security and democracy?

Beginning with a launch event on September 29, 2015 at UC Berkeley, the Mellon Sawyer Seminar in Surveillance Democracies aims to address these questions through a year-long, multidisciplinary engagement with scholars from UC Davis, UC Berkeley, and visiting guests across the world. The Mellon Sawyer Seminar award supports comparative, intensive study on a subject proposed by participants, effectively creating a temporary research center on the topic. The seminar now has a new website, curated by graduate fellows from Surveillance Democracies, which provides more information.

UC Davis was one of only 10 universities to receive the award in 2014. Led by Kriss Ravetto, (associate professor and co-director of Cinema and Technocultural Studies at UC Davis), Anupam Chander (Professor of Law, Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall Research Scholar and Director of the California International Law Center at UC Davis), and Ken Goldberg (professional artist, Professor of Engineering and Art at UC Berkeley, and Faculty Director of Data and Democracy at CITRIS), Surveillance Democracies draws from faculty expertise in politics and society, law, and engineering to “question the zero-sum game logic that contrasts concerns with democracy, privacy and free speech with those for security and control.”

“Instead of rushing to accept the need to compromise one’s freedom from one’s security,” Ravetto, Chander, and Goldberg write, “we confront the assumptions behind that seemingly unavoidable quid pro quo and its empirical applicability to contemporary scenarios.”

The Sawyer Seminar questions whether the “trade-off between democracy and security” is the right framework for understanding new and complicated technologies, forms, mobilities, and subjectivities emerging at the intersections of surveillance and democracy in the 21st century.

Surveillance Democracies will include workshops, speaker events, and graduate-level courses that consider how different applications of surveillance technologies affect international democratic movements, international law, ethical and philosophical questions regarding individual privacy, anonymity, and modes of resistance.

A sampling of 2015-2016 events include visits from:

  • Vito Acconci, architect and performance artist, to present a talk entitled “Everything I know Will Be Yours: Surveillance in Plein Air” at the Surveillance Democracies opening event at UC Berkeley on September 29
  • Cyrus Farivar, author and senior business editor at Ars Technica, to deliver a talk entitled “We’re All Being Watched: Local Surveillance.”
  • Peter Galison, Joseph Pellegrino University Professor in History of Science and Physics at Harvard University, to speak on the topic “Cultures of Collection and the State of Secrecy.”
  • Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attornery for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, will talk about her work in a talk entitled “Preserving Democracy in a 24/7 Surveillance Democracy.”
  • Julian Olivers, Artist and Engineer at the Critical Engineering Working Group in Germany, to lead a workshop entitled “Working the Stack: Exploits, Topologies, Ontologies”
  • Guobin Yang, associate professor of Communication and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, to share his expertise on media and politics in China in a talk entitled “Regulating Internet Sentiments in China: Civility, Morality, and Censorship.”

Ravetto explained that, in addition to traditional talks and presentations, the Sawyer Seminar will feature a series of workshops that engage participants in topics related to rights to privacy, data democracy, encryption, robotics, and wearable technology. For example, cutting-edge research presentations on drones from Eyal Weizman (Goldsmiths University of London), Caren Kaplan (UC Davis) and Lisa Parks (UC Santa Barbara), and Derek Gregory (University of British Columbia) will culminate in a build-your-own drone workshop led by Joseph DeLappe (University of Nevada).

For interested graduate students, the Sawyer Seminar will offer team taught courses in fall and winter quarters run through both the Science and Technology Studies Program and the School of Law at UC Davis. The seminars expand on political conversations about surveillance and espionage by “adding scholarly dimensions and comparative perspectives to a process that is likely to reshape what we mean by democracy.”

In these courses, students cover the history and legal theory of the right to privacy, the establishment of the surveillance state, and the various types of activism and political resistance to surveillance and examine surveillance and the social contract, and question the effects of surveillance technologies on existing democracies and their legal foundations.

Please see the UC Davis Humanities Institute event calendar for events from the Sawyer Seminar, as well as the Sawyer Seminar’s own website, which provides a full schedule for the seminar, in addition to information about speakers and workshops.

– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies