Is Surveillance Altering Our Behavior For Better Or Worse?

Tom Stevenson by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

We all think we have freedom. We instinctively crave it, but are we truly free?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously said that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” This comment referred to the general population in France during the Ancien Regime, but his thoughts are still relevant today.

We are now at a point where almost every aspect of our lives is under surveillance. From the plethora of CCTV cameras in our cities to the data we send every day to the likes of Apple, Google, and Facebook, we’re under constant surveillance.

Most of us have nothing to fear from the level of surveillance in our lives. Hopefully, the majority of people in society are not planning to commit heinous crimes. Yet the rise in surveillance since the turn of the millennium does raise some important questions from a philosophical angle.

Does the constant and almost omnipotent surveillance in society cause us to modify our behaviour? And if so, does this limit our freedom or not?

Are We As Free As We Think?

Whether we think we have it or not, none of us truly possesses freedom. We are free to do as we please, but only within the constraints of the legal system. If I objected to my neighbor owning a better car than me, I’m not within my rights to go and take it. I’m bound by the legal system and the laws of nature, which preclude me from doing so.

Thankfully, the majority of us agree stealing is morally bankrupt. As such, we do not feel as if this impinges upon our freedom because it is an act we would not countenance. We are happy to be constrained by the law in this manner. This is comforting, as it allows us to live our lives with a certain degree of security.

The power of the law is all-encompassing, but the majority are content with it. It’s explicit in what is allowed and what isn’t. If we feel that the law has become outdated in any way shape or form, we are free to challenge it, encourage debate in our parliaments and the judiciary on whether they need to be reformed or not.

As long as the law remains just, honest, and clear in the power it exerts over us, we’re happy to consent to it. By consenting, we don’t feel our freedom is restricted.

While we may be free in this sense, we are not truly free from the apparatus of the state. In the modern-day, our movements are more carefully scrutinized than ever before.

In the UK, it’s estimated 1.85 million CCTV cameras are in operation across the country. With a population of around 60 million, that’s one camera for every 32 people. Of those 1.85 million cameras, at least 51,600 of them are operated by local authorities.

Most of us have nothing to fear from the near-constant surveillance we’re under. But, this situation does raise some important questions. Do we need to be monitored so closely? What exactly are these cameras capturing on a day-to-day basis? Should I be worried about mass surveillance?

The common argument is if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear from increased surveillance. While this sounds logical on the surface, it is only true to an extent. Mass surveillance of this kind invokes images of George Orwell’s famous novel, 1984, where Big Brother is an omnipresent presence in society.

Almost every orifice of public life is riddled with cameras. The only place to escape the constant surveillance is to head out into the countryside. Even then, the fear of being watched hangs over the main characters like a menacing cloud. Orwell describes the spectre of surveillance in his novel as such:

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment… you had to live… in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.”

We are a long way from society mimicking the worst excesses of Big Brother, but we are creeping ever closer. Constant surveillance impacts our freedom, whether we think it does or not. If you walk past a bank of cameras or spot yourself being filmed, you’re likely to alter your behavior.

When this happens our minds no longer become a place of freedom, they become a prison. These cameras may not be watching us, but because we feel like we are being watched, our behavior changes.

Nowhere was this was more evident than in the prison known as the Panopticon.

The Panopticon

The Panopticon was a prison designed by the English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. He conceived it as the “perfect prison.” What made the prison ‘perfect’ was that the cells were arranged in a circle around a central tower.

Within this tower, guards would be able to watch prisoners at all times. In reality, this wouldn’t be the case. The guard would not be able to watch everyone all the time, but this wouldn’t matter. Modelo, an example of a Panopticon prison.

The prisoners would be under the impression they were constantly under watch. With no way of knowing whether they were being watched or not, they would modify their behavior. Bentham described the Panopticon in a letter, as “a mill for grinding rogues honest.

The beauty, or ugliness, of Bentham’s prison, was that the external expression of power such as the concrete walls and metal bars became internalized in the prisoner’s minds. The mind was now imprisoned as well as the physical self.

Although no Panopticon was built in Bentham’s lifetime, and barely any since, debate has continued to rage about the idea. Bentham envisioned the Panopticon as a rational and enlightened solution to societal problems. His idea is now seen in a more insidious light.

The Panopticon is illustrative of an instrument used to observe and normalise behavior in society. Instead of operating as a solution to societal problems, it instead operates as a power mechanism. The philosopher, Michel Foucault, was a proponent of this theory.

He argues that the Panopticon is a figure of modern architectural power which utilizes surveillance technology to create a prison in one’s mind:

“On the whole, therefore, one can speak of the formation of a disciplinary society in this movement that stretches from the enclosed disciplines, a sort of social ‘quarantine’, to an indefinitely generalisable mechanism of ‘panopticism’.”

Foucault references quarantine procedures in response to the bubonic plague at the end of the seventeenth century. Although this predates the conception of the Panopticon, it mimics the control dynamic.

Plague-ridden towns were partitioned with each house locked. Guards were located on the end of each street creating a feeling of constant surveillance similar in nature to the prison Bentham would conceive decades later.

With the feeling of constant visibility utilised as power, chains, bars and locks are no longer necessary for domination. The mere threat of surveillance is enough to alter the behavior of society. Those in power may be watching, but those around you are watching too, reinforcing the power dynamic.

This is all well and good, but what does it mean for society, nowadays? What effect does it have on our daily lives? The answer, in short, is a lot.

The Prison of The Mind

While we may not feel like we are in a prison, more of our behavior and movements are monitored than ever before.

Foucault argued we’re all in a kind of Panopticon. We have all started to modify our behavior to please the external powers who may, or may not, be watching. Nowhere is this more evident than in the workplace.

At my old office job, we had to clock in and out of work every day. We started at 7 am, but were expected to arrive earlier. When we tapped into our employee ID into our telephones, the times we logged in were accessible to our manager.

This simple act makes it more likely you’ll follow the rules and not arrive late. We also had an allowance for lunch and toilet breaks. Any slight deviation over these time limits was met with questions. Where have you been? What were you doing? Why are you late?

This simple act of surveillance, whether utilized or not, is enough to subtly modify your behavior. It didn’t matter whether our manager was monitoring our arrival times or not, the threat of them doing so was enough to modify our behavior.

This is a subtle invasion of our mind, but an invasion nonetheless. While it may seem natural and benign to us, the potential is there for this to become more insidious. The prevalence of CCTV cameras in Britain is one area.

The sheer number of cameras is not a worry if you are a law-abiding citizen. However, if a Fascist regime suddenly seized power the threat would become more real. If the regime decided to imprison those who did not agree with their views, the cameras would take on more significance.

The regime would not need to watch everyone. The threat of being watched would be enough to make most people conform, regardless of whether they agree with the regime or not. In this scenario, the Fascist regime has invaded our mind, controlling us to a certain extent. Our behavior would be modified to acquiesce to the whim of the regime.

In this scenario, our behavior, choices and freedom have become bound to the wishes of those who wield power. In some senses, regardless of who runs the country, our mind is always a prison. We consciously modify our behavior due to the potential of surveillance.

We do this to fit in, be it at school, at home, or in the workplace. We often modify our behavior to meet expectations that do not always meet our own. This has the potential to be good and bad.

Surveillance will remain constant in all our lives in the years ahead. We need to ask ourselves prescient questions to counter any unease we feel with the reality we face. Am I shaping my choices? Have you chosen to do something because you genuinely want to? Or are your choices due to the expectations of others you have internalized, who may or may not, be watching?

If you cannot answer these questions, then maybe your mind has already become imprisoned.

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