Adam Warren reflects on the idea of surveillance as part of a personal investigation during his DPS year.
Surveillance (within the context of academic theory) is something that I’ve found increasingly more interesting since originally studying it as part of my CTS last year.
One could say that the study of this topic begins with the ‘Haussmanisation’ of Paris – an architectural feat engrained with concepts of surveillance. The changes to Paris in the late 1800s consisted of three large avenues built through the condensed slums of the city in the attempt to create a clearer point of view for patrolling policemen (this also allowed the military to access certain points of the city more efficiently). The logic behind this being that it would lead to a degree of self-regulating society and thus, reduce crime.
This idea ties up nicely with the ‘Panopticism’, a concept coined and first written about by Jeremy Bentham. He believed that you could encourage a self-modifying behaviour within prisons thanks to an architectural design as opposed to physical torture and pain. The hypothetical design of the building is a circular prison-cell structure with a large watch tower and courtyard in the centre through which guards can see prisoners, but prisoners cannot see them. The idea behind this is that once prisoners are aware (or unaware) of whether they are being watched, their behaviour and cooperation will automatically improve. Whether or not this design is effective or morally sound is a point of discussion, but the concept itself is extremely relevant in the context of ‘surveillance’. Panopticism has been written about by many philosophers and psychologists since Bentham’s first ideas, including Michel Foucault. He went on to say that the ideas behind Panopticism could potentially be applicable ‘in hospitals, workshops, schools’, etc.
It’s interesting to try and find structures in contemporary life that reflect these ideas of being watched or watching someone: CCTV is the perfect example of modern-day panopticism. Increasingly, we’re living in a society whereby nearly all our movements can be traced. Whether that’s thanks to our travel cards, payments, CCTV footage or even our own social media which tend to act as an individual’s self-documentation of movements. A paper on the main surveillance theories and concepts by Tjerk Timan of the Tilburg University in Holland excellently describes this recent shift. ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ is the change of intention from an organisation or government using surveillance as a means to discipline, to using it as a way of controlling society – the aim being to modify human behaviour as a means to produce revenue, e.g. tailored advertising.
I’d like to incorporate my interest in surveillance studies into my practice, somehow. I noticed recently that the language used behind CCTV signage often tries to imply that the existence of surveillance cameras is solely for the benefit of the citizen. My aim is to create a small publication that visually researches this language with a short essay acting as a foreword, contextualising the imagery.