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In the Eyes of the Beholder: Introducing Participation and Ethics to Surveillance

Research output: Book/anthology/dissertation/reportPh.D. thesis

In this dissertation I explore, analyze and develop the idea of participation in the context of surveillance, and selected ethical issues are studied and discussed. The main focus of the dissertation is to understand surveillance, and participation and ethics have been ways to grasp the concept. I introduce the concept “participatory surveillance” to emphasize aspects of surveillance practices which are not adequately expressed in the current surveillance studies literature or by the two familiar metaphors, Big Brother and Panopticon. These aspects relate to the subjectivity which actively takes part in its own surveillance for purposes ranging from empowerment to playfulness. This way of grasping surveillance might be in stark contrast to the everyday understanding of something unpleasant and unwanted, which terrifies and controls its passive victims, a description we know so well from depictions in books, films and TV series. However, when certain everyday social relations are studied, e.g. online social networking, these practices can be described as active, positive engagements with surveillance. Consequently, there seems to be more to surveillance than meets the eye.

More precisely, my attention is directed towards technologically mediated surveillance. My primary approach to technology is philosophical rather than sociological. I am inspired by the postphenomenological tradition wherein technology is constituted according to its relations in use (Ihde, 1979, 1990), and I try to combine this with a pluralistic understanding of surveillance. This understanding defines surveillance according to perspectives and situations. Thus, in my understanding, surveillance practices and technologies are both defined by their pluralistic, relational character. With the sociological tradition concerning surveillance technology I share a departure from the idea of technological determinism which “underestimates both the role of social factors in shaping the technology in the first place, and also the variety of social contexts that mediate its use” (Lyon, 1994, p. 9). A postphenomenological approach provides a more nuanced way of understanding the implications of mediation for design and ethics (Friedman, 2004; Friedman, Kahn, & Borning, 2002; Verbeek, 2005) in the context of surveillance technologies.

My primary ethical interests are design and responsibility, which I discuss in several of the papers in this dissertation. First, with regards to design, my interest is in the idea of preempting ethical issues, which moves the ethical work from the evaluation phase to the development where the ethicist functions as co-developer and advisor. However, since this theory in my opinion does not have an elaborated concept of technology, I suggest combining the phenomenological approach to technology and value-conscious design. Second, my interest in responsibility has to do with the new flows of information caused by surveillance practices and technologies which change the conditions for ethical action. In other words, we can learn something new about other people and things by keeping an eye on them, and this new information often leads to new ethical responsibilities.

The subtitle of the dissertation expresses the introduction of participation and ethics to surveillance, as discussed above. I have chosen the title, In the Eyes of the Beholder, for at least two reasons: First, it signals the pluralistic, relational understanding of surveillance practices and technologies. Therefore, it seems prudent to study surveillance, technologies and ethics by focusing on relations rather than separate entities. I find it a better strategy to emphasize the contextual aspects, rather than isolating elements, as it is a way to avert determinism as well as to stress social relations and mediation. Second, the title illustrates an important ambiguity, since “in the eyes of the beholder” refers to both seeing and being seen. Combined with the pluralistic understanding of surveillance, seeing and being seen encompass situations which both evoke feelings of suspicion and condemnation relating to violation of our basic rights of freedom, and everyday situations in which surveillance is a way to protect our rights, facilitate friendship and empower us to act. In other words, surveillance can be frightening and terrorizing, or, it can protect, empower and amuse us – it all depends on the context. Consequently, the ethical questions are not concerned with surveillance practices and technologies being right or wrong, but rather with how they provide new knowledge, change our ability to act and extend our responsibility.
Translated title of the contributionMed andre øjne: Overvågning set i lyset af deltagende praksis og etisk handlen
Original languageEnglish
PublisherInstitut for kommunikation, Aalborg Universitet
Number of pages231
Publication statusPublished - 2008
Externally publishedYes

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