Skip to Content
MIT Technology Review

See and Be Seen

Gary T. Marx examines surveillance through history —and how it’s changing in the digital age.

August 23, 2016

Is surveillance good or bad? Right or wrong? Gary T. Marx, the author of the new book Windows into the Soul: Surveillance and Society in an Age of High Technology, says it’s not that simple. He adapts a line from Hamlet to explain his view: “Surveillance is neither good nor bad, but context and comportment make it so.”

Marx, a social scientist and professor emeritus at MIT, has been writing about surveillance since the 1970s. He has studied covert policing, computer matching and profiling, work monitoring, drug testing, and caller ID, among other topics, and he observes surveillance issues through the lenses of history, culture, public policy, and social structure. In the book, he writes that he aims to provide “a language and a conceptual guide to the understanding of surveillance structures and processes.” “I’m the Linnaeus of surveillance; excuse my lack of humility,” he says, chuckling.

Windows into the Soul
By Gary T. Marx
University of Chicago Press, 2016, $35

In the book, Marx maps out the basics of surveillance studies and offers a brief history of the practice, from 15th-century religious surveillance, which was focused on rooting out heretics and adulterers, to the technology-based techniques—video and audio recordings, DNA analysis, webcams—that allow us to watch each other much more closely today. As he writes, “The world is awash in new kinds of data which previously had no meaning or whose meaning was hidden and unknown.”

Marx walks readers through how to evaluate all the new data that today’s surveillance technologies can collect, and he examines the issues that data can raise. He uses social-science research and his own interviews and observations to explore and explain the ethical, political, and cultural arguments that are used to justify and oppose surveillance efforts—and to look at their effects on people’s social, personal, and professional lives.

To illustrate some of the book’s key concepts, Marx includes four satirical narratives about fictional characters. (“Just because it’s important doesn’t mean it has to be deadly,” he says.) Tom I. Voire, for example, is a “free-range voyeur” who Marx says “behaves despicably, but he almost never breaks the law.” Marx uses Voire to demonstrate the potential for conflict when private details (such as facial appearance) are available within the public sphere. Rocky Bottoms, a security professional who supports maximum use of advanced technology and nonconsensual data collection, “represents a blending of security and control sectors.” The collection of personal information is no longer only the purview of a centralized government entity; instead, private-sector groups such as market researchers, detectives, and employers gather data for their own needs, resulting in complex, changing networks of power and communication.

The book includes a liberal sprinkling of apropos quotes from sources ranging from Cole Porter (“I’ve got my eyes on you ... I’ve set my spies on you”) to Socrates (“The unexamined life is not worth living”). Marx hopes to help readers examine the examined life by offering “a systematic way to think about being watched and being a watcher.”

 

Recent Books
From the MIT Community

The Proof and the Pudding:What Mathematicians, Cooks, and You Have in Common
By Jim Henle, PhD ’76
Princeton University Press, 2015, $26.95

A Guide for Dual-Career Couples: Rewriting the Rules
By Eve Sprunt ’72, SM ’73
Praeger, 2016, $37

Lysenko’s Ghost: Epigenetics and Russia
By Loren Graham, professor emeritus of the history of science
Harvard University Press, 2016, $24.95

Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse
By Andrew J. Hoffman, SM ’91, PhD ’95
University of Michigan Library, 2015, $19.95

By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism
By Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, SM ’03, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman
NYU Press, 2016, $29.95

Quantitative Viral Ecology: Dynamics of Viruses and Their Microbial Hosts
By Joshua S. Weitz, PhD ’03
Princeton University Press, 2016, $69.50

Analytical Methods for Dynamic Modelers
Edited by Hazhir Rahmandad, PhD ’05, visiting assistant professor at the Sloan School of Management, Rogelio Oliva, PhD ’96, and Nathaniel D. Osgood ’90, SM ’93, PhD ’99
MIT Press, $60, 2015

Please submit titles of books and papers published in 2015 and 2016 to be considered for this column.

 

Contact MIT News
E-mail mitnews@technologyreview.com
Write MIT News, One Main Street, 13th Floor, Cambridge, MA 02142