When I write about surveillance, I’m typically writing about states and businesses surveiling citizens and other members of the public or voluntary organizations using the logic of state surveillance to regulate their members.
I’ve also recommended Janna Malamud Smith’s book Private Matters a number of times on this site. In the book, Smith uses psychology, sociology, and history to explain the components of the personal, non-public sphere of life and how Western conceptions of privacy have evolved over the last three centuries.
DAVID GERGEN: Recognizing then how important privacy is to freedom and to dignity, how serious are the threats to privacy today?
JANNA MALAMUD SMITH: I think they’re very serious. And maybe the most serious one is how little we think about some of the changes that we make to protect people against the downside of our culture.
And what I mean by that is that as we get more isolated from each other and we can’t watch each other personally, we’re more and more kind of in an anxiety, turning to means of surveillance as a way of watching each other, whether it’s through cameras at the office place or urine tests, or–one of my favorite examples are teddy bears with video cameras in them so that you can watch the person taking care of your child.
And so, in a way, in an effort to get on top of some of our fears about contemporary life, we are too quickly sacrificing privacy.” —David Gergen and Janna Malamud Smith, July 1997
The most famous symbol of total surveillance is Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, imagined as a round watchtower in the center of a prison yard. I think Smith is right when she suggests that the root of surveillance is anxiety. It might be anxiety about terrorism, or about abuse, or about people in a teetotal organization who drink; whatever the specifics, the drive to hover and monitor may elicit compliance yet it also corrodes trust among group members and between group members and group leaders.
Behaviorists who study habit formation suggest that if we do want to sustain a new habit, we shouldn’t hyper-monitor ourselves. For example, Betterment is a passive investment company that strongly discourages new investors from checking on their holdings too frequently. Instead, the team suggests automating deposits so that money flows into the market at a steady pace and users aren’t tempted to watch the markets ups and downs to the point of trying to “time” when they buy or sell.
The old saying about a watched kettle may have been right all along.