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Contemporary surveillance practices.

Contemporary surveillance practices.

Are we living in a post-panoptic society? Discuss in relation to contemporary surveillance practices and their links to the discipline or control society.

The watchful and potentially wrathful (although also sometimes caring and safety) eyes in the Biblical God in the Old Testament offers an early on example of surveillance. More modern authors include Hobbes, Rousseau, Bentham, Marx, Nietzsche, Weber, and Taylor. Foucault (1977) (although writing about earlier centuries) is the grandfather of contemporary surveillance studies. The field of surveillance studies came to increased public and academic attention after the events of 9/11 (Monaghan, 2006; Ball et al., 2012). But the topic in its modern form has been of interest to scholars at least since the 1950s. This is related to greater awareness of the human rights abuses of colonialism, fascism, and communism and anti-democratic behavior within democratic societies. The literary work of Huxley, Orwell, and Kafka and the appearance of computers and other new technologies with their profound implications for social behavior, organization, and society are also factors in the field’s development. In the form of the surveillance essay current writers from many disciplines and perspectives (e.g., political economy, social control, law and society, and criminology) draw on and extend the earlier theorists to describe the appearance of a new kind of society with new forms of social ordering (Table 1). As ideal types, the terms in Table 1 such as the ‘panopticon,’ ‘disciplinary society,’ or ‘maximum security society’ combine many strands that need to be separated if we are to move beyond sweeping claims made about surveillance. The concepts discussed in this article seek to bring greater precision and to add some leaves to the trees. One way to do that is to develop a middle range approach that fills out a general concept such as the maximum security society (as well as most of the other broad surveillance society naming concepts in Table 1) by identifying subsocieties that compose the surveillance society.

The English noun surveillance emanates from the French verb surveillir. It is related to the Latin term vigilare with its hint that something vaguely sinister or threatening lurks beyond the watchtower and town walls. Still, the threat might be successfully warded off by the vigilant. This ancient meaning is reflected in the association many persons still make of surveillance with the activities of police and national security agencies. Yet in contemporary society the term has a far wider meaning. What is surveillance? The dictionary, thesaurus, and popular usage suggest a set of related activities: look, observe, watch, supervise, control, gaze, stare, view, scrutinize, examine, checkout, scan, screen, inspect, survey, glean, scope, monitor, track, follow, spy, eavesdrop, test, or guard. While some of these are more inclusive than others and can be logically linked (e.g., moving from look to monitor), and while we might tease out subtle and distinctive meanings for each involving a particular sense, activity, or function, they all reflect what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein calls a family of meanings within the broader concept. At the most general level surveillance of humans (which is often, but need not be synonymous with human surveillance) can be defined as regard or attendance to others (whether a person, a group, or an aggregate as with a national census) or to factors presumed to be associated with these. A central feature is gathering some form of data connectable to individuals (whether as uniquely identified or as a member of a category).

A lot of modern-day theorists give you a narrower description associated with the purpose of manage (e.g., Dandeker, 1990 Lyon, 2001 Manning, 2008 Monahan, 2010). Taking a cue from Foucault’s earlier writings, control as domination is emphasized (whether explicitly or implicitly) rather than as a more positive direction or neutral discipline. Yet, as Lianos (2003) observes, the modern role of surveillance as control must be placed in perspective alongside its fundamental importance in enhancing institutional efficiency and services. Surveillance – particularly as it involves the state and organizations, but also in role relationships as in the family – commonly involves power differences and on balance favors the more powerful. Understanding this is furthered with comparisons to settings where control and domination are not central as with other goals such as surveillance for protection, entertainment, or contractual relations; where surveillance is reciprocal; and where it does not only, or necessarily, flow downward or serves to disadvantage the subject. Authority and power relations are closely related to the ability to collect and use data. The conditions for accessing and using information are elements of a democratic society (Haggerty and Samatas, 2010). The greater the equality in subject–agent settings, the more likely it is that surveillance will be bilateral. Given the nature of social interaction and a resource-rich society with civil liberties, there is appreciable data collection from below as well as from above and also across settings. Reciprocal surveillance can also be seen in many hierarchal settings.Mann et al. (2003) refer to watchful vigilance from below as sousveillance. The definition of surveillance as hierarchical watching over or social control is inadequate. The broader definition offered here is based on the generic activity of surveilling (the taking in of data). It does not build in the goal of control, nor specify directionality. In considering current forms we need to appreciate bidirectionality and horizontal as well as vertical directions. Control needs to be viewed as only one of many possible goals and/or outcomes of surveillance. When this is acknowledged, we are in a position to analyze variation and note factors that may cut across kinds of surveillance. In his analysis of “The Look” Sartre (1993) captures a distinction between nonstrategic and strategic surveillance. He describes a situation in which an observer is listening from behind a closed door while peeking through a keyhole when “all of a sudden I hear footsteps in the hall.” He becomes aware that he himself will now be observed. In both cases he is involved in acts of surveillance, but these are very different forms. In the latter case he simply responds and draws a conclusion from a state of awareness. In the former he has taken the initiative, actively and purposively using his senses.