Surveillance Systems

Surveillance as we know it today - that is, as an institutionally central and pervasive feature of social life - did not emerge until modern times. That 'eye in the sky' as its called nowadays has only been around for a small amount of time. While its primitive forms may be seen for instance in the eleventh century with Domesday Book, its expansion from the nineteenth century was dramatic. Systematic surveillance, on a broad scale as we shall understand it here, came with the growth of military organization, industrial towns and cities, government administration, and the capitalistic business enterprise within European nation-states. It was, and is, a means of power; but not merely in the sense that surveillance enhances the position of those 'in power'.

Paradoxically, as we shall see, surveillance expanded with democracy. Indeed, it is associated with the post-Enlightenment political 'demand for equality',9 and with populations previously denied access to full political involvement. At the same time, older local, familial, and religious kinds of surveillance declined or were diluted. Historically, then, the development of the eye in the sky is complex. The question of who watches whom and with what effect cannot be answered without reference to specific social situations at specific times.

Before proceeding any further, we should note that although until fairly recently sociologists have not written a lot about surveillance per se, the theme is extensively explored under other rubrics from the time of the nineteenth-century sociologists onwards. Of course they themselves were children of modernity, and as such held ambivalent attitudes to it. On the one hand, being so close to the transformations they attempted to describe, they were in an especially good position to evoke the sense of a sea-change in society. On the other hand, the very magnitude of change sometimes blinded them to continuity and persistence. A glance at these commentaries will serve as a rough guide to what follows.

One abiding feature of societies we call modern is the economic system of capitalism, which brought with it a strong surveillance dimension. For Karl Marx, surveillance was located within struggles between labour and capital in the business enterprise and the capitalist system. Previous means of co-ordinating workers on a large scale had involved coercion; under capitalism, labour was no longer coerced. According to the new doctrine, the worker was, in a formal sense, free. But the capitalist manager still had to maintain control of workers so that they would keep the business competitive by producing as much as possible within a given time at the lowest cost.

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