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The Common Gaze: Surveillance and the common good, by Eric Stoddart

10 September 2021

Mark Ireland considers a call for a ‘preferential optic for the poor’

TEST, track and trace.” In this timely and well-argued book, Eric Stoddart uses the public-health mantra as a way to think critically about the surveillance culture that has built up around the digital revolution. We are all used to being monitored and monitoring ourselves, whether wearing our Fitbit, or logging our run on Strava, or being watched by CCTV cameras.

We go along with soft surveillance because “smart” devices can be so convenient, and make us feel safer. Nevertheless, Stoddart points out that monetising the vast harvest of personal data requires individuals to be categorised and identified. The ways in which this is done are prone to bias and can damage the lives of the powerless and those perceived as “other”, and code them for marginalisation.

Stoddart argues that, instead of leaving surveillance in the hands of profit-hungry companies, Christians should be working to redeem it, developing what he calls a “common gaze”. “The common gaze is surveillance for the common good, inflected with a preferential optic for those who are (digitally) poor.”

A recurring observation of the book is that the distribution of surveillance is not equitable. Legitimate citizenship action may well result in more attention from the state’s gaze. The poor have less digital privacy than the rich.

The strength of this book is that it takes existing critiques of a surveillance society (such as those by Shoshana Zuboff) and places them in a theological perspective. The writer explores the theme of the common gaze in scripture, the prophetic bias to the poor, and the place of false prophets who utter fake news, proclaiming “peace, peace” when there is no peace.

One of the most chilling chapters in the book quotes a developer of artificial intelligence who writes, ‘‘The most important question in 21st-century economics may well be what to do with all the superfluous people. What will conscious humans do once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can do almost everything better?” The challenge for Christians is to affirm that persons are not just inadequate biological computers, but, rather, human beings, made to reflect the image of God and capable of love and compassion.

Stoddart faces head-on the difficulty of speaking of the common gaze as the divine gaze this side of the Holocaust. In a challenging piece of theodicy, he argues that the common gaze is not surveillance from above, but, rather, the wounded gaze that comes from the vantage point of the Cross.

The book is a bit jargony at times, and I would have valued some historical perspective, such as how surveillance was a recurring feature of society before the digital revolution — for example, the all-seeing elders of the African village, or the all-pervading influence of the Lancashire cotton-mill owners on their workers.

This, however, has been a very stimulating and thought-provoking read on a vital subject, on which there has been too little theological reflection, and I commend it heartily.

The Ven. Mark Ireland is the Archdeacon of Blackburn, in Lancashire.


The Common Gaze: Surveillance and the common good
Eric Stoddart
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £20

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