Blog 16: Watching and watched

Blog 16: Watching and watched

The narratives on the pervasiveness of wearable technology often lead to discussions of surveillance. More plainly, we are concerned with the always-on cameras and recorders that would capture our likeness and actions with or without our acknowledgment. Undoubtedly, it’s easy for users to surreptitiously take photographs or record video or audio files using a smartwatch or smart glasses. Covert capture of videos and images of sensitive areas, as well as confidential information, is a very real concern. I recall personal anecdotes from members of my research group that their friends and family members would not allow them to wear a pair of Google Glass while in the company of others unless it is previously communicated and agreed upon. Given the speed with which wearable computers are being adopted and proliferated in various aspects of our lives, we can only look forward to a day when we no longer could ask another user to remove their wearables simply because we don’t feel comfortable being a subject of the potential recording. It would be akin to asking a random smartphone user on the street to not use his or her phone in the open because you’re uncomfortable with the fact that it’s capable of recording you in the background.

In an open society today, everyday citizens assume freedom to express themselves in public domains but also want to be left alone in particular moments when they are not fond of being monitored. In this notion, critics argue that we live in a time where we are constantly watched, in one way or another, and there’s no escaping of this reality. On open streets and public squares, we are under the surveillance of traffic and city-owned cameras. In banks, airports, retailers, and businesses, we are again under the lens of closed circuit recorders. Each time we use a credit or loyalty card to make a purchase, our activities are documented. Even in the comfort of our own homes and personal workspaces, we are monitored by computers and phones. The websites we browse, the channels we watch, the emails we send, the keystrokes we enter… up to the conversations we have in the presence of these devices, can be recorded for tracking and data mining purposes.

The rise of wearables gives us the ability to watch and watch back through sousveillance, a juxtaposition of surveillance. Sousveillance denotes bringing monitoring from high-up architectures––metaphorically and literally––down to the human level. In other words, everyday citizens can now be walking/traveling surveillances themselves with the help of wearable devices such as the new Spectacles by Snapchat and lifelogging cameras like the Sony Xperia Eye.

These wearables use sensors to detect faces, smiles, and moments of interest. Common narratives for the use of these wearables revolve around freeing the wearers from holding or staring at a screen so they can regain the experience of staying connected with the real world. While the seamless interfaces of these wearables highlight the benefits of not needing to interrupt any moment with a glaring hardware, it downplays the fact that these devices are now omnipresent and can be used to monitor or spy on others. Steve Mann and his colleagues (2003) argue that this “inverse surveillance” makes for a new system of observation where “individuals now can invert an organization’s gaze and watch the watchers by collecting data on them” (p. 336). They elaborate:

Wearable computing devices afford possibilities for mobile individuals to take their own sousveillance with them. Given this frequent sociophysical mobility, it makes sense to invent forms of wearable computing to situate research devices on the bodies of the surveilled (customer, taxicab passenger, citizen, etc.). The act of holding a mirror up to society, or the social environment, allows for a transformation of surveillance techniques into sousveillance techniques in order to watch the watchers. (Mann, Nolan, & Wellman, 2003, p. 337)

This transformation, while fearsome to many, creates new sociotechnical dimensions in composition and communication wherein our bodies become the subject that’s subjected not just to scrutiny and quantification, but to subjective use for monitoring of others. Under this circumstance, we use our bodies not just as representations of our messages and meanings, but as an agent of vigilance for ourselves and others.

For our class discussion:

  • Is the grand narrative around surveillance mythified by the cyborgian notion of a society? Or is it true to some extent?
  • How do/might everyday citizen “watch back” at their Big Brother?

Mann, Steve, Nolan, Jason, & Wellman, Barry (2003). Sousveillance: Inventing and using wearable computing devices for data collection in surveillance environments. Surveillance & Society, 1(3), 331-355.  

Neff, G. & Nafus, D. (2016). Self-Tracking. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


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