Thinking Beyond the Couch-Hero and the All-Seeing Eye: getting up to date on Surveillance and Sociology

Anyone who listens to podcasts and has thought about surveillance, privacy, and the shaping of the self in the age of the selfie, alongside the silent corporate algorithms that channel our digital lives, should be listening to Benjamen Walker’s new series on his podcast Theory of Everything. Walker’s first in this series is “Burning Down the Panopticon” which raises absolutely overdue questions about our tendency to analyze surveillance and privacy issues using Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon model, which supposes a 360-degree gaze of an all-seeing, all-judging eye as a metaphor for new and insidious forms of social control.  Michel Foucault, of course, also harnessed the idea in his book Discipline and Punish, and the Panopticon became quickly unmoored from its penological settings.

That wasn’t a dishonest unmooring – both Bentham and Foucault saw the model as one that would be relevant way beyond the penitentiary walls. Bentham, the utilitarian, saw good applications of the model’s spread and Foucault, mainly bad ones that would ultimately serve unfreedom in quiet but effective ways. We’d all learn to “work on our own” to shape a self that expected constant surveillance. I’ve thought about this issue a lot, but truthfully not very carefully, ever since I wrote about the rise of reality crime shows in the 1990s. In 1998, Mark Fishman, along with Grey Cavender put together an edited volume, Entertaining Crime: Television Reality Programs, with ten chapters on varying aspects of what was then a burgeoning and somewhat unique genre. My chapter, “Armed with the Power of Television” explored the genre’s pretention to becoming a kind of entertainment-based civic tool in the United States, where the public sector was under siege and yet authoritarian populism ruled the day despite (or maybe because of) dropping crime rates.

Foucault’s take on the modern Panopticon was that it more or less supplanted the spectacular forms of punishment – public tortures and executions, for instance. In their place, is the ever more precise and dossiered scientific surveillance of the criminalized population. With the rise in reality crime programs, which were often co-produced with law enforcement agencies, my argument in “Armed with the Power” was that a new place for spectacle had been formed, with the passive-yet-praised-as-active audience inculpated and feeling like the couch-heroes that they were.

There’s also the dimension of data, surveillance, and media production reinventing memory and working-copy reality, as well.  “Armed with the Power” did address this “media as omniscient” move in reality crime programming, but the examples and observations were brief, partly because I was genuinely surprised and disturbed by it, and partly because that’s all I had – an observation. I didn’t know what to make of it then. Now, I feel like I do – ubiquitous data gathering and surveillance, even the democratically gathered kind, maybe even more so now, attempts to fill in all the unknowns with its personalized curation. And so a videotape of street brawl, or a politician walking across the stage, or a manager making a comment to a staffer, means whatever you can convince others that it means.

There’s misrepresentation, and factual nihilism, on the one hand, but the problems are now so much deeper – because they’re conjuring realities, not just distorting them — in the digital age. Walker points out the problems with using the Panopticon metaphor in the current situation. First, as he puts it, what happens when the “guard in the tower is disintermediated” and we routinely “compile our own files on ourselves” with every miniscule decision we make online, or at a payment register? Every electronic payment, loyalty card, social media like or post, every search on Google now added to Your Permanent Record.

The legacy of using the Panopticon metaphor to create a “simple minded” tale of government dragnet spying such as that uncovered by Edward Snowden is that we miss the big data guard tower that we are building for ourselves, through registration, online behavior and commerce.  I agree with Walker that the old model is not inaccurate, it’s just increasingly inadequate. Even when we use the Panopticon to explain our feelings of violation, or infringement, we keep forgetting to get back to the conversation about how all of this is shaping our behavior, our social relationships, and our sense of selves.

The world of surveillance studies needs to be reconsidered, although I’d have to say I’m way behind on my reading in this area. Appropriately, Amazon helped me out with many suggestions once I plugged a few names in. I’d already known the work of one of the most prolific writers and researchers in this area, David Lyon, Director of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University in Canada. I just started reading his book Surveillance after Snowden (2015). He also wrote a short piece for Time in which he spelled out how diffuse the problem is. Much of the data about ourselves that we deliver is done so seamlessly that we barely notice – we are asked to produce credentials for authorized usage for the most mundane of tasks. Social media, a less compulsory dimension, nonetheless evokes a sense of anxiety about our identity and social connections in us, even as it delivers to us terrific things we wouldn’t ever experience, or perhaps even access, otherwise.  Lyons, like Walker, would like to get back to that conversations of effects and costs. “It’s one thing to explain why people might self-surveil and another to ask the ethical question: Should we?”

Shoshanna Zuboff wrote a provocative article in Frankfurter Allgemeine in which she describes the emergence of surveillance capitalism, in which a significant source of profit extraction, business modeling, and new global economic development depends on storing data on our every move, certainly on-line, but increasingly off-line, too. “The assault on behavioral data is so sweeping,” she says “that it can no longer be circumscribed by the concept of privacy and its contests.”  Zuboff’s book, Master or Slave? The Fight for the Soul of Our Information Civilization, isn’t out until Summer 2017, and I’m looking forward to it.

The Panopticon model requires centralization – which seemed to be what was going on at the time when I thought about reality crime programs. But hasn’t in some ways the tendency been the opposite – to the centrifugal, the phone camera, the body cam, the home surveillance system?  Yet also the street protest on Periscope, being live Tweeted? A great democratic tribunal as Bentham also imagined, keeping the guard tower honest, checking the prerogatives of power? That’s what we keep hoping.  But so much data. So much epistemic distrust. Editing and curation by the dispersed forces who cannot agree on What Just Happened.

I don’t want to exaggerate the differences between the digital age and the media of the modernist print era. Print narrative can tell any number of stories, too, mutually exclusive ones, shaped for eager and loyal audiences. But data transforms reality now, too. The example that many of us are familiar with is the erroneous credit report, or the crossed digital wires that create an inter-mingling of someone else’s financial activities with our own. It’s not a true abstract of your financial life, but it may as well be. Is your Facebook page really you? People have noticed how we idealize in social media, but what about how it idealizes us?  Not long ago, I started getting mobile adverts for a cool home-goods store. I think I’d accurately describe it as my taste, only slightly better. It was convenient. It also gave me digital chills.

Media transformations were rudimentary in the 1990s and guesses about where the digital juggernaut was going often turned out to be spectacularly wrong. To me, it’s not surprising that the networked society has enabled more surveillance; but what is surprising is how much privacy we gave up so easily to commercial interests. In my case, I think I succumbed out of convenience and FOMO. And now we have reached a point where, with the exception of some always vigilant, advanced-skill hacker types, most people would be hard-pressed to figure out how not to leave a trail of digital bits, ripe for the harvesting, in even the most ordinary transactions.

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