Pandemic Lessons: Total Surveillance and the Post-Trust Society

Mark Andrejevic, Zala Volcic


As the first global pandemic of the digitally networked era, COVID-19 helped unfold an emerging surveillant imaginary: one in which automated, real-time tracking might keep pace with the threat of viral infection. Even more than the previous globally resonant event that helped reconfigure this imaginary—the 9/11 attacks—the pandemic highlighted the ubiquity of risk and the multiplicity of potential threat vectors. The threat of contagion was figured as coextensive with the realm of the social: the entire sphere of human circulation. Monitoring and preventing or pre-empting viral spread, then, required the mobilization of a surveillance apparatus with a similar reach: one able to embrace the full range of human activity as comprehensively as possible. This imperative spawned a range of approaches to monitoring and tracking that are likely to outlive the pandemic. They promoted themselves in the name of convenience, security, and profit. The technologies that enable such forms of surveillance are, of necessity, automated, because they seek to capture information on a scale that would be impossible for unaided humans. In this respect they partake of what might be described as a post-panoptic logic—one that dispenses with the parsimony of the Panopticon and, at least in some respects, with the forms of subjectification it envisioned. This article draws on examples of environmental surveillance mobilized during the pandemic to explore the dimensions of the diagram of post-panopticism. It argues that the forms of monitoring that were developed during the pandemic are likely to outlast it.

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