Surveillance Tech and the Crime Novel

Thomas Mullen's highly anticipated new thriller Blind Spots launches this week. Today he's on the site talking about the impact of new surveillance technologies on crime fiction and, importantly, society as a whole. Check out the full essay here!

We love detectives in fiction for the same reason we’d hate them in real life: They’re always watching.

Standing out in the dark and peering through the window to spy an adulterous couple. Keeping tabs on the powerful to report their corrupt acts. Trailing the murder suspect to watch him return to the scene of the crime and retrieve his stashed weapon.

But if they’re watching us in our homes or neighborhoods, double-checking our work at the office or on our computers and phones, or keeping track of our movements in our city, it’s an altogether different story. And new technology makes all of this easier than ever, not just for detectives but for tech companies, police, the government—three players that often don’t get along but can still do a lot of damage, either alone or in concert.

I explore the cost of surveillance and technology in my new novel, Blind Spots. It’s a detective story set in a world where all of mankind went blind and needs to rely on devices to see. The book takes place seven years after The Blinding, when the world has mostly returned to normal because people can now see like they used to, sort of: The “vidders” implanted in everyone’s temple download visual data directly to the cerebral cortex, so it’s just like vision. Even better, they can see in the dark, and they get handy pop-up windows about the weather, the time, great deals from local stores.

Sound creepy? It gets worse: Someone has figured out how to hack it. He or she kills while completely blacked out of others’ vision, like a human censor bar moving through the world. A living redaction that takes lives with it. Our hero needs to figure out who the killer is and how they’re doing it, before things get worse.

I wrote Blind Spots partly as a way to comment on how our tech addictions are already altering the way we see the world and each other. We know what our phones have done to our attention spans (and our ability to read an entire novel, sadly) yet we can’t stop glancing at them. We know what tech has done to our privacy, yet we check “I Agree with the Terms and Conditions” like legal lemmings. We know how social media and news echo-chambers have skewed the way we interpret our society—so much so we have entirely different visions of America, perhaps literally, based on our party affiliation or zip code—yet we dig our trenches deeper and deeper.

The scary part is, this could get worse, quickly. Between license plate e-readers and facial recognition, the kind of surveillance that had once seemed science fictional is now quite possible. Authoritarian regimes like Xi’s China monitor people’s social media, even when they’re not in China; there are many stories about families being threatened or punished for things their kids in American colleges have posted online. In Mexico, the army has used Pegasus technology to track journalists—and surely they’re not the only ones who have done so. Increasingly powerful AI will only add to the menu of options for those who want to use their power to curtail the rights of others.

The characters in my book argue about whether they should fear government overreach or powerful tech corporations more, and these days people have slightly different bogeymen, depending on their politics. The last few years have vividly reminded us that the undemocratic methods of other nations can easily take root here, especially when the tech tools are so available and easy to use. Let’s hope that the next time we opt in to a cool new tech trend, we aren’t securing high-tech handcuffs around our wrists.



About Blind Spots by Thomas Mullen:

Seven years ago, everyone in the world went blind in a matter of months. Technology helped people adjust to the new normal, creating a device that approximates vision, downloading visual data directly to people’s brains. But what happens when someone finds a way to hack it and change what people see?

Homicide detective Mark Owens has been on the force since before The Blinding. When a scientist is murdered, and the only witness insists the killer was blacked out of her vision, Owens doesn’t believe her―until a similar murder happens in front of him. With suspects ranging from tech billionaires to anti-modernity cultists―and with the bodies piling up―Owens must conduct an investigation in which he can’t even trust his own eyes.

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