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Privacy and the Common Good: An Interview with Dr. Eric Stoddart

Dr. Eric Stoddart is a Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. Dr. Stoddart joined the School of Divinity in 2005. Previously, he held positions at the University of Aberdeen and the Scottish Churches Open College in Edinburgh. Prior to his academic career, Eric was in pastoral ministry in a Scottish Baptist church. He received his PhD in practical theology from the University of Aberdeen in 2001. He is a past editor of the journal Practical Theology, and was co-chair of the British & Irish Association for Practical Theology from 2006 to 2009.  Thanks to AI&F Founding Expert Shanen Boettcher, who is pursuing his Ph.D at St. Andrews for conducting this interview.

Q: Dr. Stoddart, you created the International Surveillance & Religion Network. Can you tell us why you created this network and describe its mission? 

A:  Religious communities are targets, as well as users, of surveillance. Balancing human rights to freedom of religion, of expression and of privacy is a complex activity that intersects with politics, culture and, significantly, religious beliefs and practices. These inter-related dimensions are the focus of this research network which aims to bring together scholars and faith practitioners. Religious traditions have significant contributions to make to contemporary discussions of the ethics of surveillance – whether in the realm of national security, human rights, trust, privacy and human flourishing in general.

Since we started in 2016 we’ve had research workshops on religion, surveillance and security; how religions are consuming surveillance; and then looking at religious ethics of surveillance. In April 2021 we have a fourth workshop specifically focusing on how the Bible can be read as a way of critiquing (positively and negatively) contemporary surveillance.

Q:  Your new book The Common Gaze: Surveillance and the Common Good (London: SCM, 2021), focuses on the theological implications of digital surveillance. In the book, you coin the term “Common Gaze”. Can you explain the “Common Gaze” and how you see it relative to the way that God sees?

A: The ‘Common Gaze’ is my way of bringing together two concepts: surveillance and the common good. The common good is, in a nutshell, a way of negotiating the various different notions of the ‘good’ that people of diverse religious and philosophical positions hold in a society. More importantly, the common good articulates our shared experience that we flourish by seeking the flourishing of other people. This a common good because it is a good that we can only have as we work for it together, in other words, in common.

So, I ask a question that often is neglected in talking about surveillance – who is it for?  It’s for people – and that we might flourish, and flourish by seeking the flourishing of others. That’s where I then bring in the liberation theology paradigm of God’s preferential option for those who are poor – and apply it to our thinking about surveillance. The common gaze is therefore a preferential optic for those who are poor. This, I argue, re-orders the sequence of concerns about the effects of surveillance. We must evaluate surveillance practices first by their effect on the flourishing of those who are poorest in a society. The others have a place in the queue of considering how surveillance affects our flourishing – but those who are poorer come first.

Q: You argue that we should challenge the surveillance practices and data gathering common in popular technology (social media, mobile phones, wearables, etc.) because it weakens our social fabric. At the same time, people see great value in the applications and services these technologies provide and willingly use them – happily trading personal information for perceived value. How do you see this cycle being broken? Bottom-up by individuals? Top-down by governments?

A: I think it’s both – because individuals (shaped by their community’s values) make consumer decisions about what technologies they’ll purchase. However, governments have a role too in regulating the surveillance industries. Because I believe that we acquire, critique, develop and live out our values as part of communities, there’s a significant role for those communities helping us articulate and shape our values. Yes, we’re individuals, but we inhabit communities of moral values – and these communities overlap sometimes for individuals. I can be shaped by my faith community’s values and by the values of the institution that employs me. The Common Gaze is, to a large extent, a contribution towards helping people to think critically about surveillance in their everyday lives. This book does that from a Christian perspective – and I hope that commentators from other faith traditions will undertake similar projects.

Q: You focus on the experiences of the poor under God’s gaze and the “Common Gaze”. How would you compare the two?

A: There are profound injustices that are reinforced by surveillance in, for example, welfare allocation systems. There are also injustices that are not directly related to material poverty, as is the experience of racially-inflected surveillance at many airports or in policing systems. Intersectionality becomes a crucial analytical device here because it is at the confluence of people’s various identities that some egregious injustices arise. God’s gaze does not make those injustices go away – but if we can talk about a preferential optic for those who are poor – as a reflection of the concern of God for those who are oppressed and marginalised – then it becomes incumbent upon all of us to practice justice in that light. The Common Gaze presses its argument about gazing in the manner of God (or God’s gaze) through the filter of the Holocaust, precisely to avoid simplistic, idealistic, ideas about God’s seeing. I ask what happens when the gaze of God (promised in covenant) fails. This leads me to conclude that a Christian notion of God seeing requires to be radically revised to shed itself of inadequate framings of a transcendent gaze. I find the Jewish feminist theology of Melissa Raphael to be particularly helpful because of her emphasis on relationships of compassion (against all the odds of attempts to de-humanize).  To talk about God watching is, therefore, to talk of us watching with and watching for one another. I’ve suggested that, rather than surveillance, we talk about comveillance (watching with rather than over) – but, as I mention in the book, I don’t think that’s a term with a lot of traction against the momentum of the term ‘surveillance’. Nevertheless, it captures where I’m going with my critique of surveillance – and of traditional Christian theological ideas about God watching – I argue that the Divine gaze is one in solidarity with those who are adversely and unjustly affected by surveillance.

Q: Surveillance and data gathering is the rocket fuel for Artificial Intelligence systems. Our group’s focus is on the ethics of Artificial Intelligence and the role that faith-oriented technical workers can play in shaping the direction of AI-based platforms and applications. What advice do you have for our members?

A: I’d suggest asking a basic question – that will likely need a complex answer: how is this particular device advancing and hindering the common good, particularly the flourishing of those who are already marginalised in society? I use the ‘and’ there deliberately because it seems to me that surveillance is most often both good and bad at the same time. Using a preferential optic for those who are poor means putting those who are disproportionately, and unjustly, affected by surveillance at the front of the queue in ethical reasoning over particular devices or technologies.  It’s another way of asking ‘who is this surveillance for’.

Thank you, Shanen and Prof. Stoddart!

Shanen Boettcher

is presently a PhD student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, following a 25 year career in technology, primarily as a General Manager of Product Management at Microsoft. His PhD research studies the role that artificial intelligence technology plays in the relationship between spiritual/religious information and spiritual/religious knowledge among people living in the Pacific Northwest. Shanen is a graduate of Carroll College in Economics and International Relations and earned a Master of Arts Degree in Religions and Education from the University of Warwick in England.

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