Technology & Surveillance Research Paper Starter

Technology & Surveillance

(Research Starters)

The the co-evolution of technologies of power and technologies of surveillance has generated various forms of criticism. In some ways, society has come to accept elements of the infamous surveillance state described by novelist Geoge Orwell in seminal work 1984. Many argue that society in the age of information has already a surveillance society.

Keywords 360° Feedback; Biopower; Consumerism; Discipline; Digital Divide; Forms of Power; Micro Chip Tagging; Panopticon; Patriot Act; Political-Industrial-Military Complex



There have always been critical voices in the social sciences that have viewed technological developments with skepticism and warned of their potential negative influence on the private sphere. The debate over how advancements in technology influence liberty, democracy, and autonomy has occurred for decades. Michel Foucault, in his investigations into the technologies of power, in his lectures at the Collège de France, and in his famous book Surveillenir et Punir has described the invasion these technologies make, beginning from the somatic punishment of the Inquisition via Bentham's Panopticon towards the biopower and disciplining of our physical bodies, which we could nowadays supplement with the surveillance and discipline of our "neuro-chemical selves."

Social movements in the late 1960s were concerned with the influence and power wielded by governments and the political-industrial-military complex. If governments were equipped with the right devices to monitor their citizens every move, they could wield tremendous influence over citizens' lives. In the years following the the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the terrorist bombings of Madrid (2004) and London (2005), and the inception of the American Patriot Act, it has been argued that citizens are beginning to welcome restrictions on their freedom and autonomy that, they believe, will ensure their security. This, coupled with the research commercial companies undertake on the private lives and behavior of customers, has made more amendable to transparency of information.

Further, it is not just governments and companies that are using surveillance technologies: an increasing number of people are using surveillance technologies within their homes to monitor the activities of their children and spouses. In a time and age in which the polity, the economy, and the zone of infringement between the private and the public sphere are all constituted by capillaries of information made transparent by the progressive digitalization of all facts of life, modern society has come to embody a surveillance society.


Public vs. Private Sphere

The distinction of a public and a private sphere is crucial to understand surveillance as a sociological issue as well as an ethical one. Also, it must be understood that the conception of privacy, as we take it for granted today, is a modern concept. As Jürgen Habermas has shown in his Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), the 18th and 19th centuries were a crucial historic time during which cultural transformations shaped the distinctions between public and private that we recognize today.

In his The Civilizing Process (1939/1994), Norbert Elias cited many examples of behavior typical of prior centuries that would nowadays be considered intrusions into privacy, such as servants being present during a king's or queen's wedding night. With the emergence of privacy, however, there came the potential of using this privacy to gain and maintain control over groups of people. Of course, these groups would largely comprise people considered harmful to society: deviants, outcasts, criminals.


In this regard, the idea of a total control of the incarcerated was epitomized in the Panopticon, the prison Jeremy Bentham designed in 1785. The cells in such a prison are arranged in a circle around a central watchtower from which the prisoners can be observed at all times. Prisoners are unable to know, though, when they were being watched and when they are not. Because of this uncertainty, a sense of omniscience pervades the prison: since the prisoners cannot know when they are being watched, they tend to act under the assumption that they are being watched all the time.

Michel Foucault used the Benthamite Panopticon as an example for the emergence of the modern "disciplinary" society. In a disciplinary society, norms are "inscribed into the body," rather than merely taught. The discipline constructs the body. In a critical interpretation, the body is thus formed to adhere to the functions of an industrial community and of labor based capitalism.

In a historical perspective, we should be mindful of the methods that were applied by organizations such as the Gestapo, the Stasi, and the KGB to spy on their own countries' citizens in order to establish total control. Extreme historical cases of surveillance being used as a tool for oppression can be found in the Nazi's Gestapo and communist East Germany's Stasi. Both groups relied heavily on the citizens' surveillance of each other. Out of fear (or sometimes opportunism), people spied on their neighbors and friends and reported suspicious activity, which then led to the incarceration or murder of the spied upon. The Stasi meticulously documented the lives of the citizens of the German Democratic Republic through taped conversations, interrogation protocols, and other means. They developed many techniques of surveillance, a number of which were documented in the motion picture The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen).


In recent years, critical thinkers and skeptics have become highly critical of a potential surveillance method: the use of micro-chips to track citizens' movement. While many commercial products are already equipped with micro-chips to prevent theft, these chips can potentially be used for other purposes, too. By now it has become a matter of fact that new American passports are issued with an RFID chip that contains personal information. These chips can be identified within a radius of ten meters. However, similar chips have already been implanted in humans also. A few clubs and discotheques have spearheaded this use by injecting micro-chips into the arms of regular customers in order to provide them with easier access and an electronic tab that does away with the need to carry money or credit cards. Ironically, it follows that surveillance can be used not only as an implicit and secret form of control, but has been accepted in business circles as a way to provide explicit 360° feedback. This type of feedback involves the evaluation of managerial performance through auditing the entire organizational context. However, this process can give rise to micro-politics within an organization and invite denunciations and blackmail.

It has been argued that this is the perfect form of discipline in that it makes the subject of disciplinary power feel welcome and invite discipline openly. Similarly, skeptics fear that we are willingly creating the transparent human or the "Man of Glass" by laying bare every personal detail and making these details subject to control by outside forces.



Foucault's Discipline and Punish was originally published in 1975. It begins with an account of a torturous execution in the 18th century, which is then contrasted with a 19th century prisoner's schedule, a highly regulated daily routine. Taken together, the two accounts illustrate the changes that had occurred in the penal system over the course of the intervening century.

The transformation from punishment to discipline, Foucault argued, was a change from one technology of power to the other. However, Foucault's concept of power has often been gravely misunderstood. In Foucault's account, power is not a means of domination, but rather a productive force. In themselves, the bodies and practices that disciplinary power produces are not to be viewed as good or bad effects of power. Foucault is an ardent student of Nietzsche in this regard. As such, if one seeks to follow a Foucauldian analysis, one should first study the changes in surveillance techniques today, rather than study them from the point of view of domination. This, however, must not be the only perspective.


Leftist and Marxist oriented critical thinkers have held — and increasingly hold — deep reservations about the invasion of the private sphere by either the government or multinational companies. In 1956, the American sociologist C. Wright Mills warned of a conflation of the political, military and economic elites in his book The Power Elite,. Delineating the emergence of a shared world view among these elites, he foresaw a military metaphysic that would guide all three institutions in a "community of interests" in a permanent "war economy."

C.Wright Mills' work on political sociology and Alvin Gouldner's on the history of social theory together drove a major shift within sociology during the 1960s and early 1970s. The classical theories of Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Talcott Parsons, the last of which had dominated sociology from the mid-1940s into the 1960s, were denounced as being authoritarian and conservative, oriented toward the establishment, and set on...

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