Dr. Sharla Sava, a guest lecturer for our CultureNet program, spoke to us about the transformation of surveillance over the years and how it has evolved from something that was once a “source of fear” to what is now considered to be an “antidote to fear”.
Surveillance is the process of monitoring the behavior of people or processes within organized systems to ensure conformity to the expected or desired norms for security or social control. The concept of surveillance originated as a “source of fear” used in prisons to watch over the prisoners. A famous form of surveillance was designed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1785 which was called the Panopticon or the “All Seeing Eye”. The concept of this design was to allow the guard to watch over the prisoners while the prisoners were not able to know whether they were being watched or not. This omnipresent sense of constantly being monitored caused the prisoners to internalize that process of control exerted by the guards and thereby motivating them to behave themselves.
An example of internalized control due to an omnipresent presence is illustrated by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty Four. In this book, a totalitarian super-state used computers to monitor and to enslave the population. This bureaucracy used surveillance techniques such as two-way televisions and hidden microphones. They even went so far as to brainwash children and informants to monitor its inhabitants. Those who did not conform to the rules of the Party were considered to have committed a “thoughtcrime”, which was punishable by death.
This fictional world may seem like a far cry from what our society’s surveillance system is like today, but is it really? To truly consider this question, one would have to take a closer look at today’s forms of surveillance. If one were to observe our state and its security services, it would be noted that they have the most powerful surveillance systems because they are enabled under the law. Our government and the government of many other countries are actively interested in controlling our ideas and actions. Due to the advancement in computer technology, the level of state security has been able to increase. Governments are now able to draw together many different sources to produce profiles of people or groups in society. Nevertheless, governments are not the only ones who have access to our personal information. Many companies legally trade information on people, buying and selling these mini profiles to other companies or government agencies, which are usually used for marketing or advertising purposes.
Today, most people find this type of surveillance to be an “antidote to fear”. They find comfort in having security cameras tacked up to the sides of buildings and having security guards patrolling high crime areas. However, I find it rather unsettling that because security cameras are installed almost everywhere, there are very few places that one can go without being picked up by some modern form of surveillance. In addition to being constantly surveilled, what many of us are not consciously aware of is that not only are there surveillance technologies and other groups recording information about us constantly, we are unknowingly putting information out about ourselves out to be surveilled. Dr. Sharla Sava states than an excellent example of this is Facebook. Full names, birthdates, location, schools, and even phone numbers of participants are readily disclosed to the general public. This information can not only be viewed by our friends, but can be sold to companies, or even used for criminal purposes such as credit card fraud.
In conclusion, I am not the Chicken Little, running around claiming that our government is out to get us. I do believe that surveillance is a very useful, and can and should be utilized to ensure the safety of our citizens. However, I believe that we should be cautious about the amount of information that we choose to reveal about ourselves and the level of surveillance we allow to be incorporated into our daily lives.