By Emanuela Gallo
There are a lot of interlocking parts of this essay! One thing that stood out to us, though, was the wide range of sources and topics it incorporated into its 9 pages. Dipping into specific and focused textual analysis in multiple parts of this paper, Gallo’s essay is a strong example of how to connect multiple examples and subpoints into a longer, more nuanced, argument.
—Zefyr Lisowski, editor
Surveillance acts as a compelling force in regard to human behavior. The state of being observed enforces societal norms, defined as socially enforced rules, behavioral patterns, or internalized values. Public visibility applies pressure on individuals to conform to expected conduct. Michel Foucault, in “Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison,” describes this phenomenon by analyzing the panopticon, a social control mechanism characterized by a circle of prison cells surrounding a central observation tower. He writes, “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power … he becomes the principle of his own subjection” (Foucault 7). Inmates internalize the surveillance and assumed omniscience, thereby regulating their own behavior in accordance with the rules. Cyclical by nature, the relationship between surveillance and norms does not end here. When confronted with the prospect of surveillance, norms play a major role in dictating one’s response. Just as surveillance compels adherence to norms, norms compel adherence to surveillance. The values people hold drive them to ignore the terrifying consequences of privacy violations and into the cold embrace of heightened surveillance. By analyzing norms through a legal, ethnographic, and literary lens, this essay will argue that surveillance fulfills needs created by societal norms—protection from abuse anxiety, ego blows, and perceived racial lawlessness—putting pressure on individuals to fall in lockstep with surveillance.
Surveillance serves to violate privacy rights. When a society has normalized certain ideologies or values, it is more willing to subject themselves—or specifically, marginalized groups—to surveillance. Norms resulting in a disregard for privacy can be observed in “The Spirit of 1968: Toward Abolishing Terry Doctrine” by Frank Rudy Cooper, which examines the relationship between norms and surveillance through a legal lens. The article focuses on Terry v. Ohio, a U.S. Supreme Court case decided in 1968. It ruled that the requirement for stop and frisks was mere reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The previous standard of probable cause, which required more evidence and was in alignment with the traditional interpretation of the Fourth Amendment, was disregarded. It was a shift away from the privacy rights the Fourth Amendment protects. The reason behind this change lies within the racial unrest of America at the time. The lives of revolutionaries such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy upset those opposed to the change they called for, while their assassinations angered rioters whose activity engulfed the national consciousness. White resentment increased by 1980 as the pie started to be shared with racial minorities, splitting them into either “good” or “bad” and characterizing the latter category as dangerous. Cooper connects how values of white superiority affected the Terry decision:
The mainstream of the public has made an implicit contract with those seeking law and order: the police are granted nearly unfettered discretion so long as they do not use those powers on “good” citizens. Donald Dripps reveals why this contract is formed: “Almost everyone has an interest in controlling crime. Only young men, disproportionately black, are at a significant risk of erroneous prosecution for garden-variety felonies.” We must recognize that this is the linchpin of the denial of rights. People are willing to trade rights for law enforcement protection based on the implicit bargain that excessive law enforcement power will be utilized primarily against the marginalized … It is the presumption of black dangerousness that drives a “culture of control” in which surveillance and preemptive strikes are normalized as methods of dealing with the marginalized. This is a culture wherein the present interpretation of the Fourth Amendment trades black civil liberties for a (false) white sense of protection. (106-107)
Norms in the late 1900s prioritized ‘law and order’ over the civil rights of African-Americans. By rejecting the probable cause standard, the Court reflected the white anxiety around lawlessness and made it easier for Fourth Amendment privacy rights to be violated. The dynamic between white values and the unchallenged Terry decision is evidence that norms cause acceptance of surveillance. Normalized concerns around the “danger” of African-Americans are complicit in the disregard for their privacy rights, for the purposes of control and perceived protection. These purposes, specifically created by racist thinking and oppressive norms, are fulfilled by self-serving surveillance.
However, surveillance can also be used for more positive ends, often embraced when norms surrounding abuse create a need for those in power to make interactions with vulnerable people visible. “Surveillance and conformity in competitive youth swimming” by Melanie Lang joins the conversation by observing how a rise in publicized child abuse in sports has resulted in a climate of social anxiety and distrust. In the name of safety, norms have developed to be skeptical of child/adult touch. Rules reflect this as well, as the Amateur Swimming Association Child Protection Policy “advises coaches to, ‘Avoid one to one situations with a swimmer except in an unavoidable emergency’, ‘Make sure you have another adult accompanying you’ and ‘Get coaches/club officials to work in pairs’” (Lang 31). With the spotlight placed on these interactions, coaches have welcomed surveillance to foster trust and deflect any suspicion of wrongdoing. Lang’s ethnographic research found that coaches were pleased with the panoptic architecture of swimming pools. Surrounded by public viewing areas, coaches worked with students while observed by others. A coach named Kevin stated, “If [a hug between a swimmer and a coach] is done on pool where there’s other people watching, then that’s probably OK, that’s probably the right place to do it because everyone can see what you’re doing” (Lang 30). The location of where a certain touch occurs determines whether or not it is appropriate. A touch deemed suspicious in private is more likely to be interpreted as harmless if it is in view of others. This provides an incentive for surveillance:
Occasions when public view could not guarantee observability, such as when coaches held private meetings with athletes or supervised closed-door land-training sessions, were a source of particular anxiety. In such instances, coaches intensified the practice of surveillance for their own safety, going to great lengths to ensure they were perpetually visible … Steven had propped open the door [of the land-work room] and positioned his chair in the doorway between the room and the spectator area. When I asked why he was sitting there, he said it was so ‘everyone’ could see him. (Lang 31)
Privacy has negative connotations in this context, causing coaches to find it uncomfortable. As a result, an assistant coach named Steven went out of his way to make himself visible. Norms linked safety with observability, putting pressure on coaches to position themselves in the presence of others when working with underage students. Moral complexity is introduced due to the positives of surveillance in this context. Heightened monitoring of coach-student interactions protects against abuse; the norm is rooted in an objectively moral cause. The hand of surveillance both ensures morality and enforces stigma and anxiety among swimming teams. The coaches have driven themselves into the arms of surveillance—a response to norms that value transparency due to societal anxiety about abuse.
Norms resulting in submission to surveillance are also present in David Eggers’ novel, The Circle. The corporate culture of tech company The Circle is one of narcissism. As Mae becomes accustomed to the normalized practice of indulging others on social media, there becomes a need to receive that same type of attention. This norm-driven desire fuels Mae’s eventual entrenchment in surveillance culture. Early in the novel, Josiah confronts her about her lack of social media activity, asking, “Do you think your passions are unimportant? Do you think this might be an issue of self-esteem? Are you reluctant to express yourself because you fear your opinions aren’t valid?” (Eggers 106). By doing so, he associates passivity toward self-documentation with a lack of self-worth. Under The Circle’s norms, Mae must “always” believe what she experiences is significant, which is synonymous with constant participation in surveillance. Self-worth quickly develops into vanity as explored in “More, Huxley, Eggers, and the Utopian/Dystopian Tradition,” by Peter Herman, who describes how Mae responds to The Circle’s norms:
Every interaction Mae has in this book gets rated … in the Circle’s world, everyone lives “willingly, joyfully, under constant surveillance, watching each other always, commenting on each other, voting and liking and disliking each other, smiling and frowning.” Mae happily dives into what seems a dystopia of nonstop and ever-proliferating surveys, tweets, and social media connections. Why? Because they allow Mae to feel that she matters. After a “zing” (the Circle’s version of a tweet) she wrote “was forwarded 322 times […] the validation felt good” … She found signing a bunch of petitions “energizing.” (192)
Herman highlights how The Circle’s norms surround constant participation and engagement with others through social media. There is great importance placed on everyone’s experiences, opinions, and whereabouts. When confronted with these norms, Mae ultimately conforms by going “fully transparent” and broadcasting her everyday life. A product of a self-important climate, she internalizes their values and behavior, becoming addicted to her fans and peers’ approval and attention. This narcissism is directly correlated with her acceptance of surveillance as it is a vehicle of the validation she craves. Mae has an internal meltdown when 3% of Circlers send her frowns, feeling “numb,” “devastated,” and “stabbed” (Eggers 222). She then realizes that through knowing the names of the 3%, she can win them over and resolves to do so: “The elegance of it all, the ideological purity of the Circle, of real transparency, gave her peace, a warming feeling of logic and order” (Eggers 227). Her ego, bruised from the lack of validation she was trained to crave, is only soothed when the power of surveillance provides her a solution. At the end of the novel, she describes the act of betraying Ty in service of The Circle “braver than she thought possible,” characterizing herself as someone with “integrity,” “strength,” “resolve,” and “loyalty” (Eggers 267). Mae’s arrogance comes full circle. In her warped view, her efforts to subvert the opposition and support surveillance are incredibly noble, feeding her ego further. The Circle’s norms of narcissism were conducive to their surveillance society, breeding compliance with it in exchange for the fulfillment offered by social media.
An alternate perspective to this argument can be found in existing ethnographic, literary, and legal thought. It can be argued that norms do not always influence people to accept surveillance, especially if they are opposed to and refuse to conform to their society’s norms. In “Performing Honor Online: The Affordances Of Social Media For Surveillance And Impression Management In An Honor Culture,” Katy Pearce uses ethnographic research to explore honor cultures such as Azerbaijan, which use surveillance to ensure people adhere to behavioral codes. Women, in particular, are required to follow norms of modesty, chastity, and public decency. These do not push them toward surveillance; instead, they employ a number of strategies to escape the male family members tasked with regulating their behavior. These strategies include having no social media accounts, deactivating accounts temporarily, obscuring true identity, and self-censorship. It is true that these women are rejecting surveillance in their attempts to avoid backlash. However, it is only a private and inner rebellion; they continue to use social media and publicly pretend to live in accordance with the norms. Norms created a need for behavior watching and surveillance fulfills that need. Thus, while norms in this case did not influence women to pursue surveillance, they could only reject it in private, behaving normatively online for the male watchers.
In “The Circle” by David Eggers, however, the existence of norms fails to convince Mercer to embrace surveillance. In fact, the more The Circle escalates in its goals, the more he recedes into off-the-grid privacy. His rejection of surveillance is illustrated in a letter to Mae where he writes, “I await the day when some vocal minority finally rises up to say it’s gone too far, and that this tool, which is far more insidious than any human invention that’s come before it, must be checked, regulated, turned back, and that, most of all, we need options for opting out” (Eggers 201). Mercer was so revolted by The Circle’s values of self-importance and surveillance that he quite literally drove off a bridge to escape them. However, Mercer and others who rejected The Circle’s vision, including Mae’s parents and Ty, are in the shrinking minority of people as Mercer himself acknowledges. The acceptance of surveillance is not confined to just Mae or other employees, but almost everyone from regular citizens to powerful politicians. The few dissenting voices here and there are ultimately worth nothing, as they are ignored and overwhelmed by the ever-increasing mob of Circlers led by Mae marching toward ‘completion’.
The norms of surveillance were not always widely practiced, as seen in “The Public Gaze And The Prying Eye: The South And The Privacy Doctrine In Nineteenth-Century Wife Abuse Cases” by Jerome Nadelhaft. 19th-century norms surrounding marriage advocated for the opposite of state surveillance and interference. Nadelhaft writes:
These concepts, marriage as salvation, marriage as a sacred institution, the good of the community vs. individual rights, came to the fore in a number of court decisions in the middle of the nineteenth century. Seizing on the notion of privacy, justices sometimes referred to it to justify inaction and sometimes to explain why, having acted, they would rather not have had to. (7)
Marriage was highly valued and seen as a sacred institution; anything that threatened it and the privacy of domestic life was rejected. Therefore, norms acted as the reasoning for why the Courts wished to stay out of marital affairs, even if doing so perpetuated wife abuse. While it is true norms worked against surveillance in this case, it is important to recognize that norms change with time. In the 19th century, norms against abuse were outweighed by the norms supporting privacy. However, in the modern age, norms supporting privacy are outweighed by norms against abuse, as seen in Lang’s “Surveillance and conformity in competitive youth swimming.” Societies in different places and times value different things to different degrees, and this has an impact on the people’s response to surveillance.
Norms and surveillance are locked in a self-perpetuating cycle, where each informs human response to the other. Norms, specifically, create the need for the purposes of surveillance. An analytical look at Terry v. Ohio found how norms of racism and unrest created hysteria over the perceived danger of African-Americans, which could only be satisfied by the stripping of their privacy rights through the lower standard of reasonable suspicion. Surveillance aptly acts in service of what societal norms call for. However, they do not have a neutral cause-and-effect relationship. It can be observed from these three situations how the cycle is often driven by sinister motivations. Surveillance is sometimes used as a tool of oppression, as seen weaponized against racial minorities, women, and dissenters. Similarly, ethnographic research studying youth swimmers and coaches found that norms against abuse created social anxiety about the potential for it, which could only be satiated by surveillance. As a result, coaches invited surveillance into their pools and meetings to preemptively prove their innocence. Additionally, literary texts explored how normative social media overuse created a society of narcissists who relied on a constant stream of validation via surveillance. Further than this, in all three cases, human behavior is driven by a sense of self-preservation or selfishness. By welcoming surveillance, coaches avoid lawsuits, Circlers keep their egos satisfied, and 19th-century white folk protect their privileged status in society. Understanding these oppressive and self-serving tendencies is significant because it allows us to see the concepts of norms and surveillance through a prism of morality. As Foucault said: “Visibility is a trap” (Foucault 5).
Cooper, Frank. “The Spirit of 1968: Toward Abolishing Terry Doctrine.” New York University Review of Law and Social Change, vol. 31, no. 3, New York University Review of Law & Social Change, June 2007, p. 539–.
Eggers, Dave. The Circle: a Novel. Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.
Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism from Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison.” Race/ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts, vol. 2, no. 1, Indiana University Press, Oct. 2008, pp. 1–12.
Herman, Peter. “More, Huxley, Eggers, and the Utopian/Dystopian Tradition.” Renaissance and Reformation, vol. 41, no. 3, Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme, July 2018, pp. 165–93, doi:10.33137/rr.v41i3.31560.
Lang, M. “Surveillance and conformity in competitive youth swimming”. Sport, Education and Society, vol. 15, no. 1, Sport, Education and Society, 2010, pp. 19–37.
Nadelhaft, Jerome J. “’The Public Gaze and the Prying Eye’: The South and the Privacy Doctrine in Nineteenth-Century Wife Abuse Cases.” SSRN, 7 May 2007, papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=984736.
Pearce, Katy E., and Jessica Vitak. “Performing Honor Online: The Affordances of Social Media for Surveillance and Impression Management in an Honor Culture.” New Media & Society, vol. 18, no. 11, Dec. 2016, pp. 2595–2612, doi:10.1177/1461444815600279.
Published June 24, 2021