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The Detrimental Effects of Surveillance On Our Behavior - Cathy Holt

Updated: May 20, 2020

I was listening to Public Radio International (PRI) when then presented a newscast on CCTVs and facial recognition in London. There are an estimated 420,000 CCTVs in London compared to about 30,000 in Washington, D.C. (London's Dazzle Club uses makeup to protest police use of facial recognition technology, by Orla Barry).

If having your every move in London monitored was not enough, the Metropolitan Police is going ahead with a plan to use facial recognition called FaceWatch to compare the facial images captured with those of known criminals. Whether you agree with using this technology this way, or not, its use brings up an array of issues about behavior and conformity to social norms.

In the late 18th century, an English Philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, created the concept of a panopticon. He described a prison in the round where the guard towers were at the center of the circle so they could surveil the prisoners at all times. The theory being that prisoners would “behave themselves” knowing they were constantly being observed. Eventually, prisoners would self-monitor and the guard rotations could be staggered without their continual presence. Underlying this theory is the acknowledgment that the prison and the guards would be determining what constituted good behavior.

So, back to London and their CCTVs. Who is determining what is behavior that warrants further investigation? Criminal behavior is more obvious, but what becomes unacceptable – littering, discarding a cigarette, jaywalking, getting a bit pushy in a crowd?

And how does knowing you’re being watched change your behavior? Studies show that under surveillance, people start self-monitoring for fear they might not be accepted by others. They try to present their positive self, based on what is viewed by others as normal. Normal is socially constructed. In general, the dominant society gives value to things and behaviors and then agrees on that value. Norms are rules of behavior that are expected for individuals to conform to “their group”. They are the basis for judgement and enforcing conformity. And, in today’s world of immediate feedback, monitoring at school, work and in our communities, we are under surveillance and being constantly judged.

But all of us are made up of overlapping identities like our race, gender, ethnicity, social class, abilities – different backgrounds that affect the way we encounter the world. This intersectionality, the concept that each person is an intersection of their multiple identities, is imperative to understanding people, their lives and experiences. If people are being judged based on the norms set by those with larger influence in a particular society, those from different backgrounds and with different identities are not considered normal and are often ignored or ostracized.

When applying this concept of constant monitoring to the workplace, some studies have shown that constant surveillance of employees diminishes their capacity to operate as independent thinkers and actors (Watching Me Watching You,” British anthropologists Michael Fischer and Sally Applin). And, some studies “suggest that workers who sense they are monitored have lower self-esteem and are actually less productive” (The Atlantic).

This combination of effects of surveillance and subsequent judgement, especially that people will conform to socially constructed work behaviors, is counterproductive to creating a culture of diversity where differences are celebrated and respected. A more inclusive workforce opens dialogues that include different perspectives and experiences and creates a sense of working for the greater good. It motivates and unifies. It supports creative thinking and problem-solving using the gifts and talents of diverse workers who are not trying to fit into a mold.

Watching Me Watching You,” Sally Applin and Michael Fischer

The Atlantic, The Employer-Surveillance State, Ellen Ruppel Shell October, 2018.

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