See and Be Seen
Gary T. Marx examines surveillance through history —and how it’s changing in the digital age.
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.
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.”
From the MIT Community
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Please submit titles of books and papers published in 2015 and 2016 to be considered for this column.
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