Surveillance is becoming more and more a part of everyday life as technologies become increasingly sophisticated and accessible. Darren Ellis uses qualitative interviewing to study everyday experiences of surveillance. The ambivalent, ambiguous and shifting accounts reflect the uncertainty around the nature and function of surveillance in modern society.
A lot has been said recently about the uses and abuses of the ever advancing surveillance and dataveillance technologies. In the popular media, we usually hear about the impact this has on high profile people such as celebrities or government officials. The media furore has facilitated a form of sousveillance, wherein the powerful are surveilled by the masses (‘Bigotgate‘ for example). Although this is an interesting cultural turn, David Harper, Ian Tucker and myself at UEL have been more interested in everyday experiences of surveillance, the kind that that the majority of us who don’t make the news headlines undergo.
Many of the studies that have sought to ‘find out’ about the attitudes of people towards surveillance have tended to do so through surveys (with a few notable exceptions). We’ve preferred to collect data on attitudes towards surveillance and experiences thereof through qualitative interviewing as its much better placed to understand participants’ subjective experiences. We’ve found a number of issues which are of interest; for example, the forms of conspiratorial narratives that we heard and the variety of paranoid positions that they give way to was quite alarming. There were also more plausible experiences narrated which appeared to have had a direct bearing upon trust related attitudes. Additionally we heard a number of people suggest that they simply weren’t bothered by surveillance; the old chestnut here was the refrain ‘if you’re doing nothing wrong, then you’ve got nothing to worry about’. There were of course voices from the other end of the spectrum who spoke about the benefits of surveillance.
Indeed, the spectrum of forms of surveillance is extremely wide, which perhaps reflects the extensive range of attitudes towards surveillance, not only between individuals but also within an individual interview. We found many ambivalent, ambiguous and shifting accounts. There was a sense that attitudes towards surveillance were much more processural, that is in states of flux and negotiation, than they were statically formed positions. Of course the semi-structured interviewing technique allows participants to actively engage with the subject matter in a much more fluid way than surveys and so the data was more likely to be nuanced and less polarised than former surveys have tended to suggest (although even some of the latter have generated relatively contradictory findings).
One of the things from the interviews that struck us was that there did seem to be quite a bit of indifference towards surveillance. One of the reasons for this is arguably due to the fact that surveillance today is so ubiquitous that it has become a normalised and therefore a relatively unnoticed part of everyday life. This is a point that some participants were keen to point out. For example, one participant said: “I don’t notice it anymore – I really have to think about it – I’ve forgotten it’s there basically”.
Some felt that it is now so encompassing that to concern oneself about it is quite futile. As there is no avoiding it and not much one can do about it, why think about it? It seemed as though for some participants its presence was being suppressed away from conscious awareness, rather like a Stoic form of apatheia. This is a bit different from ‘apathy’ which involves a lack of interest, it is rather about suppressing associated anxiety (emotion) that one can do nothing about. As one participant stated: “you learn to block it even though you can see the camera”.
Similarly therefore, trust in surveillance systems was often portrayed as difficult to negotiate, for all the reasons described above and additionally because they are often fundamentally faceless and covert abstract-systems. Other institutes have what Anthony Giddens refers to as access points through which it is given a face. For example, a general practitioner can be an access point for the National Health Service. Here trust is negotiated personally, for example through what Erving Goffman refers to as face-work, which can help facilitate a consequent institutional trust or indeed distrust, whichever the case may be.
What is becoming increasingly important, therefore, for such faceless institutions is the development of the inter-face. For example, a website provides a space through which interface-work can occur. When asked whether he trusted shopping on-line, one participant replied “I don’t but I can”. Here he explained how he develops trust through the recognition of certain features of a website which may or may not bring about trustworthiness. This individual however was an IT graduate. Others, probably less familiar with the internet, suggested that they probably had enhanced their surveillance through the use of the internet but continued to use it despite this. The benefits of social networking and internet shopping seemed to out-weigh surveillance anxiety.
So despite promises from governments, surveillance is likely to become more and more a part of everyday life as technologies become increasingly sophisticated and accessible. The effects of this upon subjectivity are presently relatively unclear. Indeed we are all a bit uncertain as to how much surveillance there actually is, who has access to it, in what ways it is psychologically negotiated and what its underlying affective impacts are. The latter points are issues that we have begun to address but clearly further work here is required, particularly from social scientists.
This article draws on research by Darren Ellis and his colleagues David Harper and Ian Tucker published in 2013 The Dynamics of Impersonal Trust and Distrust in Surveillance Systems, The Affective Atmospheres of Surveillance and The political economy of personal information: Everyday experiences of surveillance technologies.
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About the Author
Darren Ellis is a senior lecturer and programme leader for the BA in Psychosocial Studies at the University of East London. He has just completed a book on the social psychology of emotion. His interest in emotion has influenced his research on a variety of topics including: reasonable suspicion in the stop and search context, trust and affect in the surveillance context and constructions of the self in the emotional disclosure context.