Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Eye of Power and “Sousveillance”

After reading the interview with Barou, Foucault, and Perrot, in addition to the piece on “Sousveillance” it is clear that in the 21st century there exist diverse methods and effects of surveillance. At one point in the interview, Foucault mentions that the importance of Bentham’s concept of the gaze is archaic by today’s standards. No longer can something like Bentham’s panopticon model be thought of as an ultimate solution to easily control the behaviour of a large number of people. Today we are constantly using a variety of technological devices, which use a variety of methods of tracking us and mining our information. The idea that big brother is watching – that we are all under one vast overseeing gaze – is hard to reinforce because there are an increasing number of methods of surveillance today. Furthermore, it is becoming less and less obvious to individuals that they are under surveillance as the methods used for tracking people and information are disguised in the form of a necessity, a tool, or an entertaining activity.

Steve Mann’s experiments go a few steps father than Bentham’s concept. The article discusses some of Mann’s surveillance experiments and shows how our attitudes and concerns can change about being watched – but it depends on where we believe the gaze originates. “Sousveillance” is an interesting term in the article; it refers to the use of panoptic technology to monitor authority figures and help individuals take control of how they are being monitored. Indeed, by turning the gaze on those who are used to being the “watchers” Mann was able to cause a minor breakage in the power relationship, empowering the individual as opposed to the authority. But we’re not allowed to just go around everywhere with a camera attached to our body. It is tricky to implement Mann’s theory in real world settings. So what can we do?

I believe the website is an example of one way in which we can start to shift the gaze around. The site offers org charts of the major US companies, listing the names of their directors and illustrating how much power a few companies and directors actually have over the economy. I love the concept of this site. Having information about major companies, being knowledgeable about a conglomerate’s assets, etc. provides an everyday person with power as a consumer. Keeping an eye out on the power relations between companies is definitely an example of sousveillance because it undermines the branding of major corporations that disguise themselves with a variety of brand names. Such knowledge means that the individual can’t as easily be manipulated by companies who purport to have specific values when really their values are the same as their relatives. The information on can enable a person to make more informed consumer decisions, rather than falling victim to corporate manipulation and advertising – the corporate gaze.

While all this talk of the gaze and power relations can be a bit scary, what’s even worse in my opinion is the fact that sometimes the gaze is invisible. As I mentioned earlier, new fun gadgets and convenient technologies (debit cards, visas), make it less obvious to individuals that they are being tracked. When the gaze becomes invisible, or when we don’t know where it’s coming from but we know we’re under watch – that’s when I would be most concerned. I thought about the Google Street View car example that we discussed in lecture.... If the Google car was driving around my neighbourhood with a big camera taking pictures, yes it would feel a bit invasive, but at least I would have a good idea as to why it is in my neighbourhood. If a car with no name on it was driving around taking pictures – I would be much more worried. I wouldn’t know why it was taking pictures, or where the pictures might end up. And I wouldn’t really be able to practice sousveillance because how would I know what authority to keep watch on?

To sum it up, I agree that Bentham’s concept is archaic as new technologies allow surveillance of individuals in a greater variety of ways than simply one gaze. I also like the concept of sousveillance to undermine the power of authorities. But my problem is that as the technologies become more advanced, they become more invisible – and so does surveillance. As the example with the nameless car shows, it becomes more difficult for us to know when we are being watched, to pin down the authority, to know why we are being watched, what type of data is being gathered, and why. Invisibility of the gaze makes it very hard for us to be aware that we should even be practicing sousveillance.

No comments:

Post a Comment