Do modern surveillance systems represent new systems of power

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It has been suggested by various writers that modern surveillance systems do indeed represent a new system of power. In this essay, the previous systems of power that were in place will be discussed, and how surveillance systems have developed so that they can be seen as a new system of power. The way in which surveillance has been utilized over time is important to understand; this will also be examined.

Firstly, a clear definition of what is meant, loosely, surveillance means (Abercrombie et al 2000) ‘keeping watch over,’ ‘guarding’ or supervising,’ however, in sociology, surveillance has a more conceptual meaning and refers to the relationship between information and power. Surveillance systems are more often than not, used for the purpose of corporate companies, the state or an individual, the object that is generally been surveyed is an individual or organisation. Often, it is the nation state that conducts the surveillance, such as keeping information on the citizens of the nation state.

It has previously been suggested (Lyon 1994) that there is a distinct relationship between information and power. As the use of surveillance increases, the amount of information available increases, thus the amount of information available to individual/groups/nations, which then increases the amount of power that is obtainable. In society today, surveillance often takes the form of closed circuit television (CCTV), in Britain alone, it is estimated that there are 2. 5million CCTV cameras in Britain alone (Guardian 2002) and the numbers are growing. CCTV can take two forms, overt and covert, more often than not, CCTV is overt.

Other forms of surveillance that are less evident are the monitoring of consumer patterns, which involves tracking the use of credit cards and loyalty cards, Foucault (1969 argued that knowledge is a means of ‘keeping tabs’ on people and thus having power over them. These methods of ‘keeping tabs’ have also been referred to as forms of ‘hyper-surveillant control;’ Boggard (1996) originally coined the term hyper-surveillant control. As a definition, hyper-surveillant control means, “Not just an intensification of surveillance, but the effort to push surveillance to the absolute limit.

Boggard was referring to modern day society and included all types of surveillance, including the previously discussed and methods of surveillance, which are more recent, including monitoring consumption patterns when using credit or debit cards. When people use credit or debit cards, banks can monitor where, when, time, what they bought, and all this information is logged and stored. Moreover, every time a form is completed, information is given on all aspects of a person’s life, once the form has been completed, the individual can never be clear what happens to the information.

Furthermore, in this day of increasing consumerism, where more and more people are using the Internet, websites that have been viewed are stored and then tailor made advertising will appear on screen. The previously mentioned “absolute limit” that Boggard (1996) discussed, is an imaginary line beyond which control operates. Previous methods that were used to obtain power could range from the barbaric, e. g. the method of punishment as described by Damiens in Foucault’s book (Discipline and Punishment 1975) to the work of Tonnies (first published in 1887) and his work on community.

Foucault writes how in contemporary society, power is exercised with punishment, where as, Toennies (1887) discusses the importance of Gemeinschaft, which loosely translated means community. In pre-modernity societies, community and kinship were important to maintain social order. The use of surveillance systems have been increasing since the 19th Century when police first began patrolling ‘the beat’ (McLaughlin & Munice 2000) in order to reduce crime and in hope of becoming more accessible to the public.

Moreover, by making a police presence felt, it could be suggested that this is one of the earliest forms of using surveillance as a system of power. The police are still used as a form of surveillance in the present day; however, this is an accepted form of surveillance and people do not largely see this as a system of power that infringes upon civil liberties and is there legitimatised, whereas, the afore mentioned monitoring of consumption patterns could be seen as hyper-surveillance (Boggard 1996). However, some sociologists (Rose 1989) argue that there has to be coercion within society for these types of surveillance to have effect.

Rose (1989) discusses the way in which systems of social control, such as administration and record keeping, are only maintained by the co-operation of the population, Rose called these processes ‘governing the soul’. Durkheim also argued that social order could only be maintained through a ‘conscience collective. ‘ Durkheim was writing in the late 19th century, and Rose in the late 80’s, the both agree that power can only be accumulated through the collaboration of population and therefore legitimate.

In modern states, surveillance systems are well developed and advanced, and therefore surveillance systems have become to be replied upon in order to retain power, while in Pre-industrial states, surveillance systems are inadequate, consequently, power is maintained through coercion. In the late 18th century, Jeremy Bentham came up with the idea of a Panopticon; this idea was a prison, where surveillance enforced power. This prison had no bars, but observation was the key to power, the wardens would be able to see every part of the prison, but the prisoners would not be able to see the wardens.

Foucault (1975) suggested that the Panopticon worked because “It induced a state of conscious and permanent visibility that ensures the automatic functioning of power. ” As the prisoners are aware that they are being watched, it is said that their behaviour alters because of this. The Panoptic prison was never developed, however, Foucault does argue that the idea did have an influence on other institutions such as hospital, schools and factories. The Panoptic idea was an idea that social control can be enforced through complete surveillance.

Although the Panopticon was never built, Foucault suggests that the idea can still be seen in the way that some building, such as schools; factories and hospitals, are built. The Growth of surveillance systems has prompted some writers such as G. Orwell (1949) to speculate how far surveillance will go, Orwell wrote in his infamous book Nineteen eighty-four about a society that was continuously watched over and consequently, the nation state knew everything about it’s citizens. This ‘big brother’ society is improbable, but the idea of extreme surveillance would mean the more power that can be exerted.

It is clear that surveillance systems are important in today’s society, in Britain alone, we are using surveillance as a way to keep track of criminals and to save money on sending them to prison. It is now possible to put electronic tags on a person, therefore knowing where that person is at all times. Modern surveillance systems have been shown to be a relatively new system of power, albeit, previous systems of power did also include surveillance without the technical advancements that have been achieved, some writers (Orwell: 1949) had suggested that a totalitarian approach had been achieved.

Modern surveillance system have shown to not always be as effective as we might think, even with the vast amount of technology that is available, surveillance systems have failed. There are still large amounts of benefit fraud and tax evasion remains undetected by the nation state. This shows that although surveillance systems have brought about changes in the way that power is obtained, it not always effective.

As discussed previously, power can only be obtained through the agreement of the population, not just through surveillance. It is not possible to avoid surveillance, therefore, as the amount of information about you becomes available, Lyon (1994) would say, this leads to the more power that can be exerted over you. To conclude, it would be easy to consider that modern surveillance systems do indeed represent new systems of power, although, it has been shown that some of these surveillance systems have been know to fail.

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