November 19, 2007

Living in a Surveillance Society (II) [12:12 pm]

The Picture Of Conformitypdf

All this surveillance, monitoring and eavesdropping is changing our culture, affecting people’s behavior, altering their sense of freedom, of autonomy. That’s what the experts say: that surveillance robs people of their public anonymity. And they go even further, saying that pressure for conformity is endemic in a surveillance culture; that creativity and uniqueness become its casualties.

While there are benefits to surveillance — the sense of security, the ability to view crime scenes — the loss of autonomy represents the downside of our surveillance-heavy culture, says Jeffrey Rosen, a George Washington University law professor and author of “The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age.”

“You need a sphere of immunity from surveillance to be yourself and do things that people in a free society take for granted,” says Rosen. Things like going to the park or to the market. The loss of such autonomy is one of the “amorphous costs of having a world where there’s no immunity from surveillance.

“This will transform the nature of public spaces in ways we could hardly imagine,” he says. “People obviously behave differently when they’re unsure about whether they’re being observed. We know this from personal experience.

“I’m not at all suggesting that Orwell’s ‘1984′ is around the corner,” he continues. “But things will change, and some of the changes will be good and others will be bad.”

[...] In fact, we can be watched and tracked from so many different angles in so many different ways that hints of the Panopticon are hard to ignore. That was the invention of the 18th century British economist Jeremy Bentham, who conceived of the Panopticon as a circular prison in which warders could see prisoners at all times.

The Panopticon would create in the inmate a sense of “conscious and permanent visibility,” and yet he “must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so,” wrote philosopher Michel Foucault in his 1975 book, “Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison.”

Today, says [Harvard social psychologist Shoshana] Zuboff, we operate within an “information Panopticon.”

“In our modern dematerialized world, you don’t have to build a building to have permanent surveillance over individuals and their behavior,” she says. “You can do it with an information system.”

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