Tuesday 5 December 2006, by Surveillance Studies Network
All the versions of this article:
Introducing the Surveillance Society
Surveillance Society: summary, history, definitions
We live in a surveillance society. It is pointless to talk about surveillance society in the future tense. In all the rich countries of the world everyday life is suffused with surveillance encounters, not merely from dawn to dusk but 24/7. Some encounters obtrude into the routine, like when we get a ticket for running a red light when no one was around but the camera. But the majority are now just part of the fabric of daily life. Unremarkable.
To think in terms of surveillance society is to choose an angle of vision, a way of seeing our contemporary world. It is to throw into sharp relief not only the daily encounters, but the massive surveillance systems that now underpin modern existence. It is not just that CCTV may capture our image several hundred times a day, that check-out clerks want to see our loyalty cards in the supermarket or that we need a coded access card to get into the office in the morning. It is that these systems represent a basic, complex infrastructure which assumes that gathering and processing personal data is vital to contemporary living.
Conventionally, to speak of surveillance society is to invoke something sinister, smacking of dictators and totalitarianism. We will come to Big Brother in a moment but the surveillance society is better thought of as the outcome of modern organizational practices, businesses, government and the military than as a covert conspiracy. Surveillance may be viewed as progress towards efficient administration, in Max Weber’s view, a benefit for the development of Western capitalism and the modern nation-state.
Some forms of surveillance have always existed as people watch over each other for mutual care, for moral caution and to discover information covertly. However, from about 400 hundred years ago, ‘rational’ methods began to be applied to organizational practices, that steadily did away with the informal social networks and controls on which everyday business and governing previously relied. People’s ordinary social ties were made irrelevant so that family connections and personal identities would not interfere with the smooth running of these new organizations. But the good news was that by this means citizens and eventually workers could expect that their rights would be respected because they were protected by accurate records as well as by law.
When the nation-state was in its heyday, and departments proliferated, after World War Two, systems started to creak and even crumble under pressure. But help was at hand in the shape of new computer systems that reduced labour intensivity and increased the reliability and volume of work that could be accomplished. In time, with new communications systems, now known together as ‘information technology’ (IT), bureaucratic administration could work not only between departments of the same organisation, but between different organisations and, eventually, internationally. Something very similar is also true of businesses, first keeping records, then networking, and then going global, courtesy of IT. Yet even such ‘joined-up’ activities relate to technical and modern desires for efficiency, speed, control and coordination.
Impersonal and rule-centred practices spawned surveillance. Essential to bureaucracy is the oversight of subordinates and creation of records within the system. Business practices of double-entry book-keeping and of trying to cut costs and increase profit accelerated and reinforced such surveillance, which had an impact on working life and consumption. And the growth of military and police departments in the twentieth century, bolstered by rapidly developing new technologies, improved intelligence-gathering, identification and tracking techniques. But the main message is that surveillance grows as a part of just being modern.
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