Baesler, John

“From Big Brother to Big Data: Consumer Citizens and the Changing Narrative of
Surveillance from the Cold War to Globalization”
A proposal by John Baesler for the International Conference on New Narratives of
the Cold War, July 16-17 2014, University of Lausanne
Recent works on the Cold War by historians such as Susan Carruthers or Ron Robin
argue that a core aspect of western narratives about the struggle between the “free
world” and the “slave world” was the image of the eastern bloc as a large
concentration camp, in which citizens were fenced in, brainwashed, and constantly
exposed to surveillance. Revelations by American whistleblowers such as Edward
Snowden, however, have led to an apparent role-reversal, in which many observers
now identify U.S. security agencies such as the NSA as the all-seeing electronic eye
from whose gaze there is no escape.
Does this role-reversal indicate the need for a new narrative of the Cold War,
dispensing with a dichotomy between western values of individualism vs. eastern
collectivism? Building on insights by historians of economics such as Philip
Mirowski and consumer culture such as Victoria de Grazia or Greg Castillo, this
paper argues that the Cold War should be re-framed as a struggle between for
hegemony between different conceptions of consumer society, all of which
depended on strategies of propagating, surveying, and predicting consumer
behavior. In specific, scholars of the Cold War need to analyze the cultural origins of
Big Data surveillance—that is, the tracking of metadata of consumer behavior and
the development of analytical models to harvest such data—in Cold War narratives
of freedom through mass consumption. Analyzing the rich literature on U.S.
economic propaganda, especially public exhibitions, in Western Europe since the
Marshall Plan, this paper will outline a research agenda that connects narratives of
mass consumption with the development of strategies of mass surveillance,
therefore bridging the crucial gap in our understanding of the simultaneous rise of
popular western notions of consumption as both a source of freedom and of
oppressive surveillance.