The Surveillance Society

I guess even if the courts don’t work it’s alright as long as everyone is always filming everyone else.

– Marge Simpson

A friend and I were having a discussion recently about how neither of us have Facebook and he joked that one of the reasons for avoiding getting it was that when Skynet[i] takes over, Facebook is going to be what it uses to track everyone down. People without Facebook will be effectively invisible while the rest of humanity is being rounded up into camps by our new robot overlords.

Skynet, interestingly enough, is also the name of the British satellite communication system that the UK’s Ministry of Defense have been using since the 1970’s and it is the government’s use of technology to spy on people that most of us immediately think of when we think of the rise of the surveillance society. Many were troubled when the hacking group Anonymous released the data of over a million people that they claim to have retrieved off of a single FBI laptop. Indeed, the Big Brotheresque image portrayed here in the most recent edition of Rap News is a cause for legitimate concern; however, this feature should be seen as emblematic of the surveillance state, rather than surveillance society. While much of the technology that has given rise to the surveillance society was originally produced under military contract, the ability to control that technology in a consumer driven world has rapidly crumbled in recent years. For these reasons, as David Lyon notes, the surveillance society is notably different from the surveillance state that Orwell depicts.

The proliferation of cell-phone cameras also means that people are able to constantly watch the government. The Sage-Francis video featured here describes how we might use the same proliferation of surveillance technology to distribute information about abuses of power to better keep our governments in check. Filming the police is an extremely effective way of keeping their power in check. Furthermore, the recent release of a $50,000 a plate fundraiser by Mitt Romney, talking about the poor in a much more honest (and embarrassing) manner than usual has had significant political blowback. So while the surveillance society means that our ‘evil government’ can watch us more effectively, it also means that we can watch our government more effectively. This is not always a progressive development. Videos of Barack Obama’s former pastor, Reverend Wright, were the subject of intense media scrutiny because of the black nationalist sentiment expressed in some of his sermons. While the government can be better criticized for their reactionary policies, they can also be embarrassed by some of their more progressive messages.

Our obsession with surveillance doesn’t end with the powers that be, however. It also encompasses our interactions with one another. When Michael Richards and Mel Gibson had their racism caught on camera it had a major social impact. Society has a powerful new tool of social control in the form of pocket cameras and access to the internet, capable of censuring those who behave in a manner that, while not illegal, society deems to be unacceptable. The ability to film one another committing various indiscretions seems to have become liberal society’s response to the charge that because it has ceased to instantiate all of its moral views in the form of laws, that it gives a pass to a lot of behavior that is morally injurious. The sex scandals of a number of political figures are a perfect example of this phenomenon (the naked photos of Prince Harry in Las Vegas, for example). The case of Karen Klein (the New York bus monitor who was bullied to tears by children), who recently collected a $703,000 check after the video went viral and a Torontonian who saw the video started an online fundraising campaign to lend her their support, is an example of how even morally praiseworthy acts can garner important attention in a surveillance society; while the recent topless photos of Kate Middleton have again raised questions about limits that should be placed on our access to images. Compare the reaction to the photos of Kate to those of Prince Harry only a few weeks ago. The scandal over the release of the latter was greater because of the negative view that society took of the Prince Harry incident relative to Kate Middleton, who was merely sunbathing at a private residence.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the surveillance society, however, is our growing obsession with ourselves. The profiles we create of ourselves have more salience than our actual lives. The social control that is exercised under the surveillance society is increasingly self-imposed. Not in the ways listed above, where most of the examples listed censure ‘bad behavior’. We construct our identities primarily through social networking sites. People are complex and irrational beings, but online profiles have a certain rationalized teleology to them. We construct an image of ourselves that we would like to present to the world and then we begin to structure our lives to adhere to this image. We also discipline ourselves by living our lives according to social networking principles. I’m constantly surprised that when I meet people, nearly the first thing they say to me about any future plans for our getting together is: “What’s your Facebook name?”, and then when I tell them I don’t have it they immediately say: “ya, Facebook is horrible. Good for you for avoiding it.” I’ve had this exact conversation such an incredible number of times that I start to wonder why people continue to live so much of their lives on Facebook. The most recent time I had this conversation, I retold my friend’s Skynet joke to a friend I hadn’t seen in awhile. “Skynet’s already here man, don’t let it get you too,” he replied in a similarly joking way. Sometimes the best jokes are the ones that make you feel a little scared and sad after telling them.


[i] The AI program that takes over the planet in The Terminator franchise.

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One Response to The Surveillance Society

  1. Pingback: The Surveillance Society (Edited Version) – View From the Metropole

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