Reflections on Surveillance

Philip Vitone (Dawson College)

The effective government of large areas depends to a very important extent on the efficiency of communications. --Innis (1972)

In contemporary metropolitan Los Angeles, a new species of special enclave is emerging in sympathetic synchrony with the militarization of the landscape. For want of a better term, we might call them "social control districts" [SCDs]. Merging the sanctions of the criminal or civil code with land-use planning, they create what Michel Foucault would undoubtedly have pegged as further instances of the "discip-linary [sic] order" of the twentieth-century city. --Davis (1993)

The above citations suggest a convergence of themes. In the first, Innis states what has become a truism in much contemporary thinking about the relation between technological mediation of communication and social order. In the second, social critic Mike Davis refers to particular instances of the harmonization of two policy domains to control activity in specific urban spaces. In both citations control is the clear subject, with the second emphasizing more sinister features that emerge when command becomes a specific goal.

We have become used to the latter type of account. It is highlighted here because it represents a commonplace sample of much of the lore about the technologically driven social world.1 Orwellian tropes on intellectual barbarism and brutal force segue into Foucault-style detailing of the reflexive compulsions to self-surveillance engendered by exotic electronic panoptics. Many are tempted to leap hastily from the totalizing feeling evoked in the rhetoric of the prose to seeing technological possibility as a grid for the empirical world. Yet, the world, or virtually any section of it, has fallen short of being totally controlled and continues to do so. There remains some margin for movement, some room for eccentric configuration. Still, pessimistic critical accounts hold that this is so only because the present state of technology is inadequate, and new and foreseeable technologies are deemed to be the instruments to close this gap. Davis (1993), for instance, cites an Economist article describing the possibility of cameras that could stealthily scan for unique and suspicious "biometric" details. He himself anticipates the use of LANDSAT technology time-shared by city planners, traffic controllers, and police. With such satellites, the infrastructure would be in place for police to be able to monitor "electronically tagged individuals and their...automobiles," and where necessary, place "the equivalent of an electronic handcuff on the activities of an entire social strata."

Surveillance Management: Economy and Excess

The approaching world, virtually fully monitored, is understood to be held at bay not merely because of the inadequacy of technology, but also because of what can be characterized as "resistances," basic reactions directed against the ordering schemes imposed. Unlike Orwell's, accounts such as the one provided by Davis spare the reader blunt and inescapable closure, and see the possibility of forging effective challenges in the remaining free space. Yet, such challenges must truly be effective, otherwise resistances become energizing resources for the more stubborn and resilient hegemonies of order.

Surely there exist sensible political oppositions to some control schemes conceived for the contemporary social world, but there are also other significant articulations and actions that do not fit neatly into dichotomous surveillance schemes often proposed by civic authorities and their clients. In the same article on Los Angeles, Davis mentions that one suburban community established America's first "child molestation exclusion zone." Ironically, he comments,

This Twin Peaks-like suburb in the eastern San Gabriel Valley was sign-posted from stem to stern with the warning: "Hands Off! Our children are photographed and finger-printed for their own protection." I don't know if the armies of pedophiles lurking in the mountains above San Dimas were actually deterred by these warnings, but any mapping of contemporary urban space must acknowledge the existence of such dark, Lynchian zones where the social imaginary discharges its fantasies. (Davis, 1993, p. 128)

Technologies long utilized for security purposes and the control of criminals are in this case used in accord with some parental prerogatives to "protect" children from a putative threat of imminent violation from sexually dysfunctional members of society. It is uncertain whether one should see the action of this community to be the displacement of a real threat behind an imaginary one, or merely an overreaction which will return as an embarrassing legacy for the community. If the latter possibility were to be realized, it would hardly be unique. One thing is certain: the technologies serve little purpose with regard to the objective intended by those involved.2

Davis attributes the development and implementation of the misconstrued project to an overactive, guilt-ridden imagination. Perhaps he is right, but then in the same routine way that he uses media-tropes to characterize the civic action as gloomily repressed, so the citizens of San Dimas may have reacted similarly when they evaluated the nature of the world in which their children live. In principle, they could have just as easily made their community a "nuclear-free zone," a "drug-free zone," a "drift-net tuna-free zone," a "lawn-chemical free-zone," or any of a number of existing popularly organized and media-covered fields of "exclusion" that could be linked to the protection of children. The orientation to molestation of the residents and authorities of San Dimas probably relates to their particular history, a history that aggregates accounts of personal experience, selected circulating media accounts, and predispositions to action of this particular citizenry, city council, and bureaucracy.

As a description of the basis for social action, Davis's "dark Lynchian" unconscious displacements verge on the pejorative and refer to a realm of experience playing itself out behind the backs of the participants. One would expect that some expert versed in social pathologies could step up to explain what is wrong with these people. On the other hand, a detailed documentation of the aggregates of personal and circulating social accounts leading to an active community organization and culminating in a feasible policy initiative might suggest an important role for contingencies. Such a perspective would emphasize how people are continuously attempting to sort out what arises out of their immediate context of communication. Following this approach, one would anticipate an endless succession of actions and consequences, intended and unintended, including any associated with the experts these people may have chosen as advisers. It is probably worth keeping both analytical frameworks in mind, but for now, I would like to explore the plausibility and usefulness of the latter approach for understanding technology, communication, knowledge, and social order. I wish to do so by making reference to Innis's approach to the study of history and communications.

The Weight of Circumstance: Contingency in History

In Innis's redrawing of economic features of world history, he brings to light the relationship between staple products incidental to the geographic background and the economic field. For him, the essential elements which mould societies are not simply on the supply side, but on the demand side as well. Moreover, supply and demand relations are enhanced by things like accessibility of staple supply and the readiness to process. These two factors can both meet and enhance demand. Innis cites the important connection between the pulp and paper industry in Canada and the expanding world of "new journalism" and public opinion in the British Empire and Anglo-Saxon countries (Innis, 1972). Within Great Britain, the rapid spread and consumption of printed materials and the diverse perspectives these expressed was facilitated by the fact that an extensively and suitably treed territory was a colony. The existence of appropriate paper-producing technology from the mid-nineteenth century was also essential. The territory of Canada was colonized for an extensive period prior to that of industrial, imperial expansion, but the essential convergence of technology, social conditions, and resources were yet to occur. The French and early British colonists had neither the technology nor the market to make use of what only later became a staple commodity. The colony of Canada developed both because of the accidents of its geography--space, relative lack of population, particular staples--and because it was attached to a large empire that fostered industrialization and included a multiplicity of social groups committed to free and open expression. This developmental interconnection points to the significance of historical contingency. Innis examined other social and technological developments in this manner but it is worth examining this example a little further to see the way in which social knowledge is shaped.

This shift in perspective involved seeing this territory less as a fur-rich wilderness and Loyalist colony, and more as an extensive source of raw materials for a burgeoning information sector. The crucial knowledge of the potential of Canada shifted dramatically as a result of a relationship between cultural attitudes (free trade and free expression), a mode of communication (literacy), an educational-informational goal (knowledge and skills obtained from books, journals, and newspapers), and a technological capability (production of paper from pulp and printing). A "tree" became an object that was a "possible raw material for paper" in addition to its existing characteristics of the time such as "timber," "part of a forest," "shade," "obstruction to farming," and so forth. Today Canadians live with the legacy of this particular development, both good and bad. A few newer features of this legacy include: "falling export markets," "conservation and recycling," "reckless exploitation of a renewable resource," "ecological movements," and "suitable alternatives to a resource-based economy."3 Perhaps it is a bit vexing but nonetheless germane to recognize the discontinuity in the current notions of trees and forests with those of the nineteenth century. In the light of then-existing state taxes on newsprint, trees and forests may have linked freedom, both in a civic and entrepreneurial sense, to an uninterrupted supply of paper. From a contemporary point of view, the association of free speech and resource exploitation may appear to be muddled thinking. In the same way security-tagging and protection from molestation might also be seen as muddled thinking. Yet, within each context, the respective connections appear to have made sense to the participants.

To move to a general point, the historical context is something that can be reconstructed in a reasonably thorough manner for contemporary understanding. Doing so permits an analysis that can make sense of the limitations that available materials and knowledge may have imposed on the actors in a particular instance. In looking back at each instance, it is clear that it is not always possible to choose the type of "raw material" or initial state of demand or supply of resources when a task such as the broadening of information in society is to be carried out. Furthermore, upon performing that task, it is likely to be difficult to change the "staple" while in process. It is certainly not possible to return to some past point of origin, if such a point could be found at all. Problems stemming from an inappropriate development must be taken on the chin because such unforeseen long-term consequences are an all-too-common, routine hazard of any development. The possibility that methods exist that could meet necessity while leaving a buffer for contingency and unintended consequences would certainly lift many a heart. In fact, I would agrue that historical approaches such as Innis's and ethnomethodologically sensitive methods are of some use in this regard (Garfinkel, 1967; Heritage, 1984; Giddens, 1984). Among other things they demand that limits be set on generalizing, totalizing conceptions of the social world.

Surveillance in a Contingent World

During the Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King affair, a news report featured a chase between a car driven by arson suspects and a police helicopter. The car was videotaped from the aircraft as it zigzagged through the city streets attempting to escape the chopper's pursuit. The car eventually succeeded in eluding the airborne surveillance when it disappeared behind smoke coming from a burning building. The irony would have been complete if the latter had been a blaze for which the suspects were responsible. Similarly, the circle of irony would close itself in a few years if a suspect is arrested for sexual abuse in San Dimas who turns out to be one of the children tagged for their own protection.

Here is my purpose in referring to surveillance in modern societies alongside a brief recapitulation of Innis's historical view of Canada's pulp and paper industry, and the development of modern public opinion. It appears that surveillance is one of those areas of social activity involving communications technology that tempt some scholars to provide general descriptions of an imminent future derived from narrowly drawn technological applications.4 In my estimation, such approaches are reductive in that they miss some crucial facts of social action. The full lesson to be derived from Orwell is surely that total dystopias and utopias are equally imaginary. In the current world and state of technological mediation of communication, generalizing descriptions of the latter lose salience in the pressing tasks of the day. In the face of a world in which numerous small nations are engaged in brutal and destructive ethnic strife with no real possibility of effective intervention by more powerful states, notions of technological heaven or hell seem to offer little.

Surveillance is a real fact of life, but it is commonly neither thoroughly paralyzing nor merely limiting for those under its eye. Control for Innis meant something like "workable," as in "efficient" government, and implied a balancing between various natural and social technologies, forces and pressures, which could never be fully contained. For many surveillance- oriented analysts, control means "handcuffs," coercion, and restraint, the negative connotation of discipline. Surveillance is a complicating fact of life, and has always been so in one form or another. It is always constructed as a framework within which certain operations become possible, and the effectiveness of the latter are the sources of the "truths" Foucault explicitly pointed out (Foucault, 1980). Yet, I would argue that such frameworks have a reversible, circular dimension, and are very much open to contingent change.

Communications History: The Circularity of Surveillance

In a seminar on the social history of education, a professor spoke of the entry of literacy into European social life. He made reference to the introduction of bureaucratic writing to England by the Normans in form of the Domesday Book. It was used to record "every hide and pig, [and] was a massive attempt to reduce every man's right to a definitive form" (Goody, 1986). In answer to a query on the popular response to this new means of surveillance, the professor wryly noted that people became skilled at hiding animals.

That staples become staples long after initial colonization, that they produce unanticipated and unrelated consequences, that such staples no longer serve the same purposes in another epoch, and that the terms that explained the nature of this staple have been supplemented, changed or abandoned, is something well understood from Innis's historical perspective. The same case can be made with respect to the limited and contextual reach of surveillance methods. Any particular configuration of surveillance methods has a distinct and possibly extensive effectiveness in certain circumstances, but it must also fall short in others. This is precisely Innis's view of the bias of media and technology, and the basis for his view of the inevitable rise and fall of empires. As empires encountered other groups who were able to play a role in determining the changing, incidental and contingent accessibility, processability, and management of various staples necessary for communication, they were able to transform the social order.5

The social history of communications is littered with instances of the failure of technologically mediated forms of surveillance. The studies of the ancien régime in France by Robert Darnton and Daniel Roche suggest that despite its censorship and policing efforts, state authorities could not control the flow of diverse literary materials, much of which cast the rulers in a negative light (Darnton, 1982; Darnton & Roche, 1989). That some of these tracts were luridly and graphically libellous did not eliminate the fact that the aristocracy and its friends came under public scrutiny. We see the painful and dreary remnants of this surveillance of royalty in the clandestine photos and tapes of Britain's royal family. The history of turn-of-the-century muckraking journalism in America illustrates similar tendencies to provide derogatory exposure.

In current times, the number of similar instances multiply. Smugglers in Eastern North America use the geographic result of a necessarily clumsy treaty settlement, that is, a native reserve spread over international and regional boundaries, as a route for the importation of cheap contraband cigarettes. Canadian law enforcement authorities bitterly complain that the perpetrators possess better arms, boats, and communications--surveillance equipment (telephones, radios, night-vision glasses) than they do. The smuggling effort is so successful, and has found such favour with Canadian smokers, that at least one provincial jurisdiction, Quebec, has proposed to lower duties if the federal government would follow suit, in order to eliminate the incentive for illegal trafficking.

Surveillance requires effort, and that effort usually means deployment of resources: financial, human, and technological. Any agency eager to enhance this effort will attempt to do so effectively and with the most economy. In the current historical context, large, complex societies must quickly face an upper limit on financial and human resources. The long history of modern forms of government reveals an abiding faith or desperate hope in cheap technological solutions. Yet in the clear acknowledgment that such "fixes" have, at best, inconvenienced and, at worst, brutally penalized diverse social groups, the net impact of technological fixes has been to create more complexity over and above the elimination or virtually complete confinement of the problem.

Beyond the scanscape of the fortified zone is the halo of barrios and ghettos that surround Downtown Los Angeles. In the words of historian Kevin Starr: "This is, of course, the Blade Runner Scenario: the fusion of individual cultures into a demotic polyglotism ominous with unresolved hostilities." (Davis, 1993)

The legacy of inequitable treatment of indigenous people notwithstanding, the reality of constitutional impasses and unfinished issues surrounding land claims and self-government reveals how inextricably bound the surveillors and surveilled are. It has been useful to both sides in this over 300-year-old negotiation to use communications media to illuminate their own and each other's conduct for others to survey. As a consequence, the mobility of various Canadian governments in relation to native peoples is constrained, and the use of modern communication technology by the latter has forcibly and irrevocably tied them to realm of the modern. In the meantime, other demotic features of Canadian society impose themselves for consideration in the project of nation building. No level of surveillance will contain or eliminate the issues and problems that arise in our own or in any other context. Again, the Balkans, Somalia, Haiti, Los Angeles, and Kanesatake present the dilemmas in striking relief.

What happens when the tools of surveillance are turned against the surveillors as in the case of the four police charged in the videotaped beating of Rodney King? They are acquitted. Yet only to condemn the city of Los Angeles to violence and escalating fear. In the midst of the violence, others are spied beating an innocent truck driver. Their trial involves the jury in unprecedented procedures related to overwhelming stress, and then the suspects are convicted on lesser charges. The jury knew they were under surveillance and they apparently understood that their conduct needed to be judiciously mediating. It is difficult to know where the surveillance begins and ends, difficult to know where the impact is most durably, if not poignantly, experienced.

The Inescapable Fact of Interaction

The potential for the circularity of surveillance and the reversal of its intention and meaning is inescapable. The capability of any technological device used for surveillance purposes will provide data whose significance will be determined in the contexts of use. These contexts are continuously unfolding and are in the process of being redetermined as various actors, technological mediations, and fields of activity impact upon them (Bijker, Hughes, & Pinch, 1989). Any number of these impacts may be directed interventions, but their overall significance remains a contingent fact. In fact, it has always been a mistake to remove or conceive of removing the act of surveillance from the context of interaction. Given this embeddedness, it is no more possible to predict and consistently regulate how actors will connect the various resources in the form of information, technology, materials, manpower, etc., into a reasoned basis for situated action in these contexts anymore than it is in mundane ones. The grammar of knowledgeable action is partially formalizable, at best. To construe surveillance to be unidirectional, asymmetrical, and a virtually total possibility, either to be constructed or critiqued, is to miss this elemental point that the Innisian perspective on the history of communication provides--as do Wittgensteinian philosophy of language and phenomenological sociologies such as ethnomethodology.


Two wire-service articles, "All-seeing Eye of Coporate Data Bases" (Flowers, 1993) and "Spectre of Single Government File" (Millin, 1993), surrounded a photo collage representing Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four featuring the header "Nightmare of the Computer Age," on the "Dossiers" page of The Gazette (Montreal). Computer networks and databases are amongst the latest and most prominent technological forms to be widely discussed for their surveillance capabilities. For a similar, somewhat more scholarly approach to these technologies see Poster (1990).
In my understanding, a fingerprint-photo record would have dubious effect at the intra-familial or intra-community level, contexts in which a significant number of abuse incidents take place. Davis cites the "Red scare" of the 1950s and 1960s as similar to the attitudes behind the San Dimas initiative. If this is a fair comparison, then this is a very clear example of an excessive episode which has returned to haunt society.
The complexities of the relationship between Canada's relatively prosperous development and the pulp and paper resource industry are foregrounded almost daily in media, government, and public accounts. See, for example, the case of the Queen Charlotte Islands in Matas (1993). On the other hand, the somewhat paradoxical relation between how it has become possible to reflect on and debate these issues and the role Canadian pulp has played in this possibility requires a further elaboration of what is found in Innis's initial studies.
The development of "expert systems" is another emerging area that incorporates communications technology and receives reductive treatment. Forms of the latter range from heedless optimism to sceptical denial of any useful applications. For a comprehensive discussion, see Collins (1990).
In this regard, see Innis's discussion of the Roman and Byzantine empires. Innis attributes the development and longevity of the latter empire to a "compromise between organization reflecting the bias of different media: that of papyrus in the development of an imperial bureaucracy in relation to a vast area and that of parchment in the development of an ecclesiastical hierarchy in relation to time" (Innis, 1972, pp. 113-115).


Bijker, W., Hughes, T., & Pinch, T. (Eds.). (1989). The social construction of technological systems. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Collins, H. M. (1990). Artificial experts: Social knowledge and intelligent machines. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Darnton, R. (1982). Literary underground of the old régime. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Darnton, R., & Roche, D. (Eds.). (1989). Revolution in print. Berkeley: University of California Press in collaboration with the New York Public Library.

Davis, M. (1993). Scanscape. Mondo 2000, 10. Berkeley.

Flowers, S. (1993, November 27). All-seeing eye of corporate data bases. The Gazette (Montreal), p. B1.

Foucault, M. (1980). History of sexuality: Vol. 1. New York: Vintage.

Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Goody, J. (1986). The logic of writing and the organization of society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Heritage, J. (1984). Garfinkel and ethnomethodology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Innis, H. A. (1972). Empire and communications. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Matas, R. (1993, November 13). In the beginning there was Moresby. The Globe and Mail, p. D1.

Millin, L. (1993, November 27). Spectre of single government file. The Gazette (Montreal), p. B1.

Poster, M. (1990). The mode of information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rorty, R. (1989). Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1958). Philosophical investigations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

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