Inspired by the previous article highlighting Steve Mann — the world’s first cyborg — this is a short piece on Mann’s concept of “sousveillance.”
Surveillance is a french term composed of two parts: “sur,” meaning on or above, and “veillance,” meaning to watch. Therefore, surveillance, or watching from above, has an embedded power dynamic, such that the entity observing is not only often physically above the observed, but also hierarchically above, such as an employer or government agency.
Although surveillance is often associated with video monitoring, observations can also be gathered via cell phone data, telephone tapping, or written correspondence. In today’s world, many of our actions are monitored automatically and most people leave a trail of surveillance evidence while completing their daily activities. Nevertheless, the Oxford English Dictionary offers the “Close observation, especially of a suspected spy or criminal” as the word’s definition (emphasis mine).
However, it is clear that with modern surveillance technology the vast majority of Americans are being watched in some way, even those not under suspicion of crime or espionage. Still, from a utilitarian perspective, if everyone is watched then everyone is safe because people who would cause harm are worried that they will caught.
This idea — that people behaved when they think they’re being monitored — is the foundation for Jeremy Bentham’s ~1780 concept of a panopticon. Originally, the idea of a panopticon was a prison wherein the inmates’ cells were arranged in a circle surrounding a central watch tower. The tower emitted bright light, allowing the watcher to see the prisoners, but not allowing them to know who specifically the watcher was observing.
The panopticon reemerged in public interest in 1975 when Michel Foucault published Discipline and Punish. Foucault pointed out that the idea of a panopticon could be used by disciplinary governments to subjugate its citizens. In regard to the observed, Foucault wrote: “He is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication,” and therefore the prisoner self-monitors, fearing punishment.
Many social scholars argue that modern day America functions much like the panopticon due to the nearly ubiquitous use of video surveillance by businesses, city governments, and even private residents. Without someone monitoring the watcher, this entity is able to use fear, and often punishment, perhaps unfairly and without recourse.
Because of this unease, a new form of monitoring is sometimes employed by those who would otherwise be the watched. Steve Mann coined the term “sousveillance,” contrasting the French term for above (“sur”) with the word for below (“sous”).
Sousveillance, therefore, alters who has the ability to monitor; the use of “sous” denotes that the monitoring equipment is both physically lower, often mounted on a person rather than an edifice or telephone pole, as well as hierarchically lower, belonging to the individual and not an agency or government.
Sousveillance is often recorded from the first person perspective and does not necessarily have a social or political agenda. In a slightly different vein, the term “inverse surveillance” is a subset of sousveillance in which an individual who is normally the subject of surveillance monitors the actions of authority figures for inquiry or their own protection.
While it is generally true that people behave better when they know they are being monitored, an unchecked use of surveillance could foment into the gross misuse of power through oppression and suppression. It is because of this budding inequality that activists and political watchdogs have adopted the use of sousveillance in an attempt to level the playing field.