So, with the breaking news that the U.S. has been extensively logging an unimaginable gamut of personal information from Internet users around the globe with their PRISM program, I’m sure I’m not the only person to immediately think back on Dark Knight‘s cell phone surveillance system.

In Christopher Nolan’s film, Batman resorts to such an extreme form of surveillance to combat the Joker, a relentless psychopath. The device is designed to monitor the citizens of Gotham by constructing composite images based on snatched cell phone signals. Lucious Fox finds this tool inherently abhorrent, and Batman partially acknowledges this by allowing Fox to destroy the device once it has served its singular purpose. Unlike in the real world, Batman’s cell phone surveillance is kept a secret from the population; only Batman, Fox, and the privileged audience are aware of its existence and use. Of course, all of this is very Orwellian, reeking of Big Brother all over, but engaging that would be another essay, so I’ll stick to Dark Knight for now.

Audiences should see this trope in Dark Knight as an allegory for authorities dealing with terrorism. The film reflects the dichotomy of security and civil liberty, a theme that has become more common in post-9/11 North American popular culture.

The Dark Knight's Big Brother?

In light of the news that governments have been actively conducting widespread surveillance of Internet and cell phone communications, it is most crucial that we understand why people are enraged by this invasion of privacy. So, let’s consider how fiction may contrast with reality.

When you think of President Obama do you instantly think “He’s just like Batman?” Perhaps, but I think that may be a bit of a stretch.

How about Prime Minister Harper? Does he inspire associations with Batman? Doubtful.

I make this silly contrast for a reason. Just follow me for a moment along this train of thought. As fans of Batman, audiences tend to think of him as the ultimate zenith of human intelligence and performance. That’s fine. Fans also tend to have a tremendous amount of blind faith in Batman’s judgement. So, when we watch Dark Knight and see that Batman must resort to this type of widespread surveillance to catch the Joker, we feel this is an acceptable measure because HE’S BATMAN. There is no other reassurance made. He’s Batman. Trust him. That’s it. And, many of us will likely accept that reasoning and simply enjoy the story.

It must be OK; he's Batman.

However, events in the real world are strikingly different. Consider the following points:

Firstly, PRISM has been around for years now, trawling the Internet for personal information on everyone who is online. That may be an exaggeration, but I feel entitled to it. When Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Apple, and others are allegedly cooperating in full with the PRSIM program, then I feel safe saying everyone online is being monitored. In contrast to Dark Knight, the real application of such surveillance is conducted on a much larger scale. Instead of monitoring a few million fictional citizens in Gotham, PRSIM monitors the communications and activities of billions of real, regular people around the world.

Secondly, Batman wanted to stop the Joker. That is a specific task with a definite endpoint. The so-called War On Terror is not like that at all. The War On Terror is ill-defined, vague, and without any foreseeable endpoint. Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric; war is terror. With a perpetual state of war, there is no indication that governments would ever cease to avail of such a rich source of intel. So, unlike the faith we hold that Batman will use his device only to apprehend the Joker, it strikes me as entirely unlikely that any military or enforcement agency would relinquish their power in the same way.

Thirdly, neither Obama nor Harper are like Batman. As an idealized fictional superhero with a canon ranging from dark and gritty to bright and farcical, Batman sets an impossible standard to meet. That is a given. He is like a mythical hero, idolized by many. Leaders of state do not often achieve such unconditional approval ratings. Political scandals prevent the population from having a similar sense of faith in our leaders. Just look at the IRS’s alleged bias in targeting Republicans for financial scrutiny. Just look at the slew of scandals in Canada that mar Harper’s reign, especially the election fraud (a.k.a. the robocalls) and the Wright-Duffy expense scandal. The Harper Government already equates environmental activism with extremism, regarding it as a threat to national interests (read as “oil interests”). With such a wealth of personal data at their fingertips, we are supposed to believe that they won’t use it to gain political advantages? It seems fair to me to suspect such powerful figures would misuse the collected data. Since past behaviour is the best indicator of future behaviour, one can reasonably assume that our governments aren’t as trustworthy as Batman.

Following this rationale, concern about how governments will use this information is not merely some paranoid conspiracy theory; on the contrary, it seems a rather prudent line of thought. If world leaders were all as noble as Batman and terrorists were all as psychotic as the Joker, then this would be a simpler issue. But, it is not like that. The reality is far more complex. Leaders are often not saints, and “terrorists” are often seen as freedom fighters (you have seen Star Wars, right?). The real world is not as black and white as Gotham (nor Star Wars).

Now, discussing this very real issue in terms of how it relates to a Batman movie may be seen as diminishing the real importance of the issue. That is not what I intend to accomplish here. Instead, I hope to inspire audiences to consider real world events as they relate to the stories that are told. Not every tale is purely for entertainment; many storytellers communicate valuable lessons through metaphor, symbolism, and allegory.

For further material on why online spying conducted by governments should be a concern to everyday law-abiding folks please read Ian Brown’s piece in The Guardian or view this segment on DemocracyNow.org.

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Comments
  1. Brilliant post. I love the synthesizing of popular culture with … well, unpopular culture, in this case.

    If you’re ever near Oregon, come talk with us some 2nd or 4th Thursday.

    Details here:
    http://bendsocratescafe.weebly.com/

    -Philosopheriturist, (a superhero persona, obviously)

  2. 007 says:

    We’re watching you.

    -NSA

  3. […] dismiss it would be a crucial oversight. However, the film does not go so far as to point out the troubling normalization of mass surveillance in Christopher Nolan‘s film Dark […]

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