David Lyon: The Electronic Eye-The Rise of Surveillance Society Essay

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David Lyon’s The Electronic Eye-The Rise of Surveillance Society moves beyond Orwellian threats to incursion of technology in our lives and traces a post-privacy approach to surveillance. A surveillance that is real. It is not just real but taking place all the time, whether or not we are aware. There are hundreds of ways in which surveillance operates: through identity numbers, camera images, or by other means as finger print and retinal scan. According to Lyon, surveillance is the central activity of all contemporary industrialized society.

He examines surveillance not just by the government but by the large private agencies as well. In the process, he has reviewed the other literature on the same issue. He finds that surveillance of individuals is not a new social phenomenon, but has been used since historical times by the governments to exert control over individuals so as to consolidate power exerted over them. However, in recent times computer technology has added an altogether new dimension to surveillance.

The author has examined Orwellian ‘big brother’ model and Foucaultian model of the Panopticon for his analysis. While both these models are valuable, the choice of one or the other is really a normative choice, according to him. David Lyon is a professor of Sociology, presently teaching at Queen’s university at Kingston. His background determines his perspective. He has written extensively on information society which we live in the present times. It places a heavy emphasis on surveillance, an inherent aspect of the information age.

While recognizing electronic surveillance as central to modern society, he analyzes the process of surveillance and outlines a response to the issue. He doesn’t hold that the appropriate response by individuals should be paranoia, despair or a matter to be worried about. According to him the most appropriate response to it should be a critical analysis of the whole issue on the one hand and concerted political action to set some limit on the action of surveillance undertaken by the surveyors. The book has three parts, each almost equal in length.

Part 1: Situating Surveillance Part 2: Surveillance Trends Part 3: Counter Surveillance The author begins with the definition of surveillance society. “Precise details of our personal lives are collected, stored, retrieved, and processed everyday within huger computer data bases belonging to big corporations and government departments” (p. 3) Part one explores a number of themes. This part analyzes electronic surveillance through historical, sociological and cultural perspectives. The themes discussed here are: One, surveillance of individual is not something recent or novel.

Only, this social phenomenon is just another phase in the time-honored practice of all governments meant to exert social control and expansion of their power. Two, the surveying agency this time is not just the government. A single-minded obsession with state surveillance perhaps misses the issue of surveillance in the broader perspective. Surveillance by commercial organizations is far more pervasive than imagined. Three, we are witnessing an altogether different kind of surveillance, thanks to the ubiquitous use of computers.

The author terms it ‘new surveillance’. In part two, the author analyzes at great length and depth how the new surveillance is taking place in societies in Canada, the U. K and the U. S. The examples to illustrate surveillance taking place in these societies have mainly been borrowed from secondary sources and some of them are his personal experience as well. The surveillance is examined through the models of George Orwell and Foucault.

Big Brother and Panoptican models as scrutinized through the perspectives of Anthony Giddens, James Rule and Gary T. Marx obviously falls short in analyzing the new surveillance for its sheer width of scope and expanse. The fact of surveillance extends to citizens by the Government, employees by employers, consumers by marketers, service providers and manufacturers so that no one is really out of the prying scan. In brief, the author has in this part attempted to “place current debates over computer power and social control in the contexts of historical development, social theory, ethical reflection, and the politics of policy-making and social movements” (p. 81).

Counter Surveillance (part three) focuses on analytical approaches to the rise of surveillance society and adequacy of the political responses to the new surveillance. We come across challenges to surveillance in the form of privacy laws and social movements that may not be quite widespread at present. Besides these, a number of other issues have also been examined in this part such as the difficulty of using personal privacy and search for other analytical models.

The author approaches the subject matter from a neutral perspective and concludes that the typical responses associated with postmodern analysis of surveillance must move beyond paranoia. The author pleads for a more imaginative analysis the moves beyond dystopian social theories and approaches the subject matter from the ideas drawing upon participation and purpose. David Lyon rightly points out that the sociological response to the general issue of surveillance has been dominated by the images of Panopticon. This holds true especially for CCTV surveillance.

Comparisons can be drawn here from Bentham’s (1787) proposal for an architectural system of social discipline applicable to prisons, factories, asylums etc. Panopticon was designed as a central tower surrounded by the cells where the inmates lived. Control was exercised by the sense that the invisible eye was watching. From Bentham’s model Foucault got a crucial idea that Panopticon would spread from institutional spaces to non-institutional spaces and populations. Anthony Giddens understands surveillance to mean two kinds of phenomena.

One is the coded information on individuals that can be used to administer the activities of the individuals about whom they have been gathered. The other meaning of surveillance is direct supervision of other by those exercising authority over them. In context of the accumulation of ‘coded information’, powerful computers and telecommunication networks has allowed for the systematic categorization for the whole populations. Thus the individuals in their daily lives as citizens, employers or consumers are constantly identified, classified, examined and controlled for their access to goods and services.

The meaning of terms like surveillance, privacy etc. has fairly widened in scope and should not be seen in a narrow perspective to appreciate David Lyon’s work. According to him, the debates surrounding new technology have turned more sober, if not somber, because of the failure of computer based economies to take us out of recession, the advent of electronic war and of course the realization that computers have an enormous capacity to track minute details of our lives. Surveillance is no longer limited merely to the acts of policing.

Today it means collection and analysis of individual data in a variety of contexts. Not all forms of surveillance are threatening. However, some forms of surveillance as employee monitoring, or other sorts of private sector surveillance. Surveillance can be good or bad depending on who does it and with what motive. I agree with Lyon that the rise of ‘New Right’ policies within advanced societies make it a compelling need for the growth of new surveillance technologies. While on the one hand there is a strong emphasis on the need for a ‘strong state’.

We want a state with strong internal and external security for which newer forms of surveillance technology is a natural ally (p. 54). On the other hand there is a paradox of ‘free enterprise’ and ‘surveillance’ that harnesses the power of technology in an attempt to control consumer behavior (p. 55). The approach of the author is to treat the subject of surveillance as a focus of an open debate rather than as a close-ended issue that is either evil or laudable. The author has lucidly presented the context of surveillance in its proper perspective.

His arguments are cogent and the narrative, clear and simple. While this book is a valuable guide to the students of Sociology it may be found equally useful for the students and research scholars from other social science discipline who would like to have a fresh perspective on the impact of Information Technology on Society. The book is lucid and free from jargons, but intellectually stimulating that requires slow reading.

Conclusion David Lyon’s work is critical in opening our eyes to the true understanding of surveillance. This work goes beyond Orwellian or Foustian models of surveillance that can be paralleled with what we may understand by the concept of ‘iron-state’. His discussion is largely in context of ‘New Technology’ that has an overwhelmingly pervasive influence in the modern society. David Lyon’s electronic eye may be benevolent or sinister, but it is certainly powerful that has unleashed powerfully efficient ways of gathering data on individuals with hardly with little cost. The data and information can be used in more ways than imaginable for consumers, and citizens.

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