Electric Eye in the Sky: Some Reflections on the New Surveillance and Popular Culture
In D. Lyon and E. Zureik (eds.), Computers, Surveillance & Privacy, 1996. Note the original article contains a number of visual illustrations which are not reproduced here. Some further thoughts on this subject can be found here: Soul Train: The New Surveillance and Popular Music.

Back to Main Page  | Notes | References

Gary T. Marx

Stare. It is the way to educate your eye and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.

-Walker Evans, Walker Evans at Work The country doesn't give much of a shit about bugging... most people around the country think it's probably routine, everybody's trying to bug everyone else, it's politics. -President Richard Nixon on Watergate Most analysis of information technology uses printed words and numbers. As important as historical, social, philosophical, legal, and policy analyses are, they are not sufficient for a broad understanding. We also need cultural analysis. This essay considers elements of surveillance as they are treated in popular media. Attention to visual images and music can tell us about cultural themes and values. The images we hold of surveillance methods are incomplete and partially independent of the technology per se. Images are social fabrications (though not necessarily social deceptions). Images speak to (and may be intended to create or manipulate) needs, aspirations, and fears. They communicate meaning.

Surveillance technology is not simply applied, it is also experienced by users, subjects, and audiences. Cultural analysis can tell us something about the experience of being watched, or of being a watcher.

One may well ask whether the serious social questions raised by surveillance technologies (such as computer dossiers, video and audio monitoring, drug testing, satellites, and electronic location monitoring and undercover methods) are not trivialized by considering mass media depictions. But here Erving Goffman's admonition to look for big meanings in little things, as well as Shakespeare's to "by indirections find directions out" apply. There are strong intellectual and political grounds for studying popular culture and information technology.

To understand the threats (as well as the opportunities) posed by these devices, we must look at their cultural backdrop and ask how culture supports or undermines our most cherished values. For example, as a result of surveillance devices for monitoring and surveillance toys, children are now raised to view being watched and watching others through sense-enhancing technologies as the normal order of things. As adults, how will they respond to requests for information that in the past might have been seen as inappropriate? Conversely, will they be more likely than their parents to use privacy-invading technologies? Will this mean changes in interaction and in the meaning of intimacy and trust?

If liberty is indeed at risk from these tools, we need to know how the public perceives them and what sense it makes of media depictions. Where are the soft spots? What are the contours of public resistance or support for technologies that cross boundaries that in the past were impenetrable and even sacrosanct? What themes and representations do the supporters and opponents of the new technologies offer or fail to offer? What is referred to only by innuendo or euphemism?

 The various actors involved with the culture of surveillance are engaged (whether they realize it or not) in a struggle to shape popular images. Should social scientists choose to merge their science and politics, the right picture and/or sounds can be worth much more than words, or words alone, in bringing about or blocking the spread of invasive technologies.

Apart from any advocacy issues, as social scientists we can better understand the technologies by looking at the meanings and symbolism that surround them. The images are socially patterned, not random.

Popular culture, of course, reflects developments in technology. For example, contrast Paul Simon singing in 1967's "Mrs. Robinson," "We'd like to know a little bit about you for our [presumably manual] files" or about the spy in a gabardine suit whose "bow tie is really a camera" in the song "America" to his "lasers in the jungle" and "staccato signals of constant information" in the 1980s song "The Boy in the Bubble."

But this also works the other way as well. Art, science fiction, comic books, and films have anticipated and even inspired surveillance devices and applications to new areas. For example, the 1936 film Modern Times, in which Charlie Chaplin's private reverie in the bathroom at work smoking a cigarette is shattered by the sudden appearance of his boss on a wall-sized video screen gruffly saying, "Hey, quit stalling and get back to work." The boss has a two-way video camera. H. G. Wells, Dick Tracy, James Bond, and Star Trek are some other familiar examples. In another example, a Spider-Man comic inspired a New Mexico judge to implement the first judicial use of electronic location monitoring equipment.

I approach the popular media with many questions (only some of which are dealt with here): How have culture creators depicted the new technologies? What images, symbols, and themes appear most often? A more difficult question concerns the symbols and themes that are not used. Familiarity with materials from other times and cultures and from critical media can help us discover what these are. What kinds of symbols are used for new, unseen, and unfamiliar elements, such as DNA sequencing? What assumptions do the creators appear to be making about the technologies? Is there an art of glorification, as well as denigration? What shared understandings are these believed to communicate? How is the desire for security balanced with the desire to be free from intrusions? How do social factors affect the behavior and definition of the surveillant and the surveilled? What conclusions can be drawn about how characteristics such as gender or race of the artist (or of the intended audience) affect the work? Is there understandable variation across media and types of surveillance devices (e.g., visual versus auditory, physically invasive versus noninvasive techniques, self versus other surveillance)? How do depictions of surveillance technology intended to help one person watch another differ from depictions of technologies intended to protect the individual from the surveillance of others? What separates the more moving and enduring creations from the less? How have themes evolved as the power and potential of the techniques have become clearer in the past two decades? How much consistency is there across media? How do treatments relate to the written ideas of social scientists and critics? How are these treatments affecting popular conceptions and understandings?

A particular challenge lies in linking the cultural images of surveillance to social, political, economic, and technical factors. Rather than a reductionist model, stressing the causal primacy of any one of these factors, they are interactive. Culture both shapes and is shaped by the available technology.

Another important issue involves the connection between what individuals perceive and experience and what the creators and/or owners of the cultural form intend them to experience. There are two parts to this: (1) Do such depictions accurately reflect personal experiences with surveillance? (2) How are they perceived by the audience? These are not necessarily independent. Through their educational role, the media help prepare individuals for what they should experience as watchers or as the watched.

Artistic statements, unlike scientific statements, do not have to be defended verbally. But the social scientist can ask about their social antecedents and impacts. Do they move the individual? Do they convey the experience of being watched or of being a watcher? Do they create indignation or a desire for the product? Do they make the invisible visible?

I will consider depictions of surveillance technology in popular music, jokes and cartoons, illustrations, advertisements (whether for products or ideas), and art. Like the material it is based upon, this essay is intended to communicate immediately and viscerally. In offering examples, my initial goal is for the reader/viewer/listener to consume and experience the materials. The message is to be found directly in what the songwriter, cartoonist, illustrator, advertiser, or artist suggests to the audience. The materials can descriptively stand by themselves. But I seek to go beyond being a collector, even at the risk of treading in alien interpretive waters, by asking how these depictions can be organized and what they may tell us about society and surveillance.

Jurgen Habermas has stated that "my question is my method." My approach is driven by a desire to understand surveillance in a broad fashion, but I also seek to systematize. In the first instance I have simply observed. The material presented is an illustrative sampling from a larger collection of materials gathered over the past decade. Clearly, surveillance is not a theme in most popular songs, jokes, or art. Not having taken a representative sample, I cannot say how minimal it is. However, I am confident that the materials presented here represent the popular materials that do deal with surveillance.

There is, of course, a leap from impressions to meaning. Subjectivity must be a part of any broad understanding of human affairs. Yet it can mislead if we claim that our subjective experience is necessarily representative. Although what is offered here is primarily my personal experience and interpretation of the materials, I hope it is suggestive of questions for more systematic and quantitative research.

Popular Music

Surveillance themes are pervasive in popular culture, although we often do not think of them as such. Consider, for example, the familiar song "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." The words to this religious panopticon song are well known-Santa "knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake." The message here is not be good because it is right, but be good because you will be externally rewarded and you won't get away with bad behavior anyway. Someone is watching-consistent with computer dossiers, "He's making a list, he's checking it twice."

I was surprised at how many surveillance songs I could identify, once I started listening for this. One well-known genre represents the positive, protective side of surveillance as something an individual seeks. Many religious songs involve the theme of an appeal to, or statement about, an all-powerful and all-knowing God looking over humankind. Another type involves the yearning for a lover and/or protector by someone who feels weak or vulnerable. The familiar song "Someone to Watch over Me" is an example. Such songs (at least until recently) were much more likely to be sung (and perhaps written) by females than by males. They are the passive expression of a hope or a plea, rather than an active seeking out of the individual. In contrast, males have been more likely to write and sing about their prowess as active watchers and discoverers.

My concern here will be more with the process of actually being a watcher, or the experience of being watched, than with pleas for the latter, and with changes in the music as more powerful surveillance technologies have appeared. Popular songs in this genre tend to involve either a love-inspired male surveillant or a chronicle (often of protest or satire) of what a surveillant does to others. Some suggest the erotic fantasy of secret watching.

The love songs discussed below can be categorized with respect to whether they involve (1) an equation of watching and knowing with love, (2) a search for a true love, (3) the surveillant's power to discover deception, or (4) voyeurism. These songs all refer to extrasensory powers of cognition possessed by the male singer as he watches a female. As sophisticated surveillance technology came into wider use in the 1970s, there was a shift from magical, intuitive powers to sense- enhancing technologies. In most cases the power for surveillance is greatly overstated. The ability to know more than can be known with the senses is equated to the ability to know everything.

The film Rear Window appeared at the height of a Cold War-generated climate of suspicion and the availability of new imaging technologies such as the zoom lens. It contains the classic line spoken by Thelma Ritter, "We have become a nation of Peeping Toms." Its syrupy theme song, sung by Bing Crosby, "To See You Is to Love You," is a traditional ballad of adulation, attesting to the powers of the love object. Here the mere sight of the woman is sufficient to make the singer love her. This song has none of the hard-edged obsessive watching and/or covert surveillance of later decades, in which the woman must be watched because she cannot be trusted. The singer is infatuated: "To see you is to love you and you're never out of sight." She has invaded and colorized his mind. Her charm means that the male singer sees her "anyplace I look" and "I see you all the time." Real watching and fantasy merge. Director Alfred Hitchcock juxtaposes the professional surveillance of James Stewart as a photographer suspiciously watching a neighbor's window with the male gaze in which he watches his girlfriend, played by Grace Kelly, and a scantily clad female entertainer in another window.

The Clovers' 1954 song "I've Got My Eyes on You" contains the essential elements of the possessive, all-powerful male gaze typical of many such songs, including Sting's "Every Breath You Take," which appeared almost thirty years later. The Clovers song has a strategic goal: "I'm gonna make you mine." The singer can "see everything you do." He watches "you all day long. I watch you all night, too. Know everywhere you go." The song can also be seen as offering a public marker. In singing "I've got my eyes on you," the singer announces his intentions and choice. To say, "I have my eye on that" need not literally mean it is being intensively watched, but rather "I choose that." This song conveys the idea of the woman as an active stimulant of the singer's attention: "The way you wiggle when you walk, it'd make a hound dog talk." In most other songs the object of attention is passive or unknown, not realizing that she is "performing" or has behaved badly, thus calling forth the intense male surveillance.

The Doors sing about "a spy in the house of love" who "can see you and what you do" and who knows your dreams and fears, and "everywhere you go, everyone you know."

In their 1957 song "Searchin'," the Coasters express a common ballad theme-the search for true love. Unlike in later songs, this is not a threat, nor is it bragging. The actions sung about are not motivated by suspiciousness of a woman who cannot be trusted or by the desire to gratify a secret obsession. Instead, the song represents a statement of determination, optimism, and yearning in proclaiming that the singer will "find her"-the ideal woman.'

"Searchin'" links directly to the search of the detective who is like the Northwest Mountie and hopes to bring in the ideal woman "someday." Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Sergeant Friday, Charlie Chan, and Boston Blackie have nothing on him. Unlike the song in the Hitchcock film mentioned above, here there is an explicit and easy link between the male gaze and the professional surveillant.

The surveillance in "On Every Street," recorded by Dire Straits, has as its theme an effort to locate a particular individual. The song refers to the tracks increasingly left by inhabitants of an electronically marked world: "There's gotta be a record of you someplace, you gotta be on somebody's books" and "somewhere your fingerprints remain concrete." This involves a sadder, less hopeful search than that of the Coasters; perhaps the yearning is deepened because the singer knows exactly what he has lost and is looking for.

Suspicion-Driven Surveillance

In 1956, in "Slippin' and Slidin'," Little Richard has been "peepin' and hidin'" to discover his baby's jive, and as a result he "won't be your fool no more." Bobby Vee sings that "the night has a thousand eyes" and that these eyes will see "if you aren't true to me." If he gets "put down for another" or told lies, he warns, "I'll know, believe me, I'll know." The Who more directly imply the possession of extrasensory powers when they sing, "There's magic in my eyes." The singer knows he has been deceived because "I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles." Hall and Oates sing about the inability to escape my "Private Eyes," which, while "looking for lies," are "watching you. They see your every move."

In a more contemporary song, the Alan Parsons Project makes direct use of technology to discover lies and to tell the deceiving lover to "find another fool" because "I am the eye in the sky looking at you I can read your mind."

Perhaps surprisingly for a group called the Information Society, the emphasis in their song "What's on Your Mind?" is not on sophisticated communications technology but on traditional means, perhaps involving intuition, and a gentle plea to inform the singer. The song contains the lines "There are some things you can't hide" and "I can see behind your eyes," yet asks, "If you hide away from me, how can our love grow?"

The classic song of this type is "Every Breath You Take," written by Sting, who reports that it is about "the obsessiveness of ax-lovers, their maniacal possessiveness"-written after a divorce. It is about surveillance, ownership, and jealousy (Rolling Stone, March 1, 1984). Sting has expressed surprise that many people think of it as "a very sweet love song." Many listeners hear the affirmative, protective, and positive aspects of surveillance, as when parents look out for children or caretakers watch those who are ill. Although Sting reports that he reads critic Arthur Koestler, he says that his song is personal, not political. The female is warned that her faked smiles and broken bonds and vows will be observed by the singer. In a wonderful example of life imitating and using art, this song was popular when it was released with police doing surveillance (thus detectives in Boston, and likely elsewhere, played the song while they tailed organized crime figures).

Although the song does not mention technological supports for the omnipresent and omnipotent surveillance it promises, it is easy to connect it with contemporary tools. One can hear the song to suggest the following:

Every breath you take [breath analyzer!

Every move you make [motion detector]

Every bond you break [polygraph]

Every step you take [electronic monitoring!

Every single day [continuous monitoring!

Every word you say [bugs, wiretaps, mikes

Every night you stay [light amplifier]

Every vow you break [voice stress analysis!

Every smile you fake [brain wave analysis!

Every claim you stake [computer matching! I'll be watching you [video]

In most of the songs mentioned above, we see surveillance as a means of protection and discovery and even prevention, often in a context of doubt. Yet in other songs we see the pleasure of watching as an end in itself. For example, consider Queensryche's unsettling (from a standpoint of the object of surveillance) song "Gonna Get Close to You." Here the singer is "outside your balcony I have a room with a view and I'm watching you." He knows "when you're alone, I know when you turn out the light." In "Voyeur," by Lizzy Borden, we hear a similar theme: "I'm watching you, you're in my sights. I know you so well, I know your every move." In this song there is an element of compulsiveness ("I can't stop watching you") and the singer is distraught "because you don't even know me."

Chronicles of Surveillance

Here the voice is not that of the surveillant, but of an individual subject to surveillance, or of a third party telling us about it, frequently in the form of a satirical warning. The songs are concerned with threats to liberty, the chilling effects of being spied upon and the loss of privacy. A central theme is "They are watching us." Here the voice is not that of the swaggering, boastful, omnipotent watcher who makes veiled threats about his power, but the voice of the subject, victim, or concerned chronicler warning us about surveillance.

One form deals with the negative impact on the watcher. The 1966 television theme song "Secret Agent Man" warns of threats to life ("Odds are you won't live to see tomorrow") and depersonalization ("They've given you a number, and taken away your name"). For Dire Straits, "Private Investigations" result in being "scarred for life-no compensation." At the end of the day you are left with whiskey and lies and a "pain behind the eyes."2

In "Framed," the Robbins offer a first-person account of victimization by an informer. The lead singer is put in a police lineup and realizes he is a victim of "someone's evil plan. When a stool pigeon walked in and said, 'That's the man."'

Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" expresses many themes. One is the threat of covert surveillance involving a "man in a trench coat" with "badge out," microphones planted in the bed, and telephone taps. As a result, youth are satirically warned to look out. The song suggests that youth are being watched, regardless of whether they have actually done anything wrong or not. To avoid surveillance, they should not wear sandals and should try to be a success.

In "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" Dylan parodies the search for Communist conspiracies. What is initially omnipresent here is not surveillance, but Communists. But to overcome the problem requires a search that satirizes in its breadth. Communists are looked for "under my bed," "in the sink and underneath the chair," "up my chimney hole" even "deep down inside my toilet bowl," "in my TV set," "the library," and among "all the people that I knowed."

Sy Kahn, in "Who's Watching the Man," poses a classic issue for social control theory, asking "Who is watching the man who's watching the man who's watching me?" He doesn't understand why he is a target, because he pays taxes and doesn't vote or criticize. He reports a truck with a telephone company sign next to his house, which has no phone, and new wires on his roof. Unrealistic paranoia toward the end of the song makes its satirical intent clear. He wonders about three men in his barn "trying to read my electric meter through a telescope" and about someone living in his TV set.

In Orwell's 1984, a video device links mass surveillance with mass communication (Rule, 1984). Individuals have almost no control over being seen or over what they see, hence they are doubly controlled. There are allusions to either or both mass surveillance and mass communication in a number of songs.

XTC's 1979 song "Real by Reel" protests the secret "invading our privacy" as "we play for the ministry." The most mundane acts and private recesses are now subject to documentation. "They" can film you everywhere-in bed, in the bath, when you cry or laugh. The camera can distort "so you won't know what's 'real by reel.'" It can even record "everything you feel."

The television viewer as a manipulated voyeur is a theme in several songs. Siouxsie and the Banshees, in "Monitor," express discomfort at seeing a victim who "looked strangely at the screen." Something too personal has been communicated to a mass audience in the comfort of their living rooms. The singers suggest a double meaning in singing about a "monitor outside for the people inside." This could refer to outside leaders watching citizens, or to a TV monitor for citizens who are outside the system of power to watch and be conditioned by. The monitor offers both a "prevention of crime, [and a passing of time."

Vigil Cliche, in "The Voyeur," deal with predictable themes such as "private lives up for auction," information overload, and living vicariously through the mass media. As in the Peter Sellers film Being There, in which the main character's persona is formed by reflecting back what he sees on television, the singer lacks a firm identity.

The song also directly suggests a rarely acknowledged aspect of being captured on video-narcissism and exhibitionism. Television permits the singer to identify with media stars and to fantasize that he too is a celebrity. More generally, negative reactions to video invasions of personal space are very much tempered by the allure of seeing oneself on the video and feeling important as a result.

"Spy in the Cab," recorded by Bauhaus, is a song protesting the meters that record the driving behavior of truckers. The electronic extension of the employer's vision is resented by the drivers. "Hidden in the dashboard the unseen mechanized eye" with "a set function to pry," brings a "coldly observing" twenty- four-hour "unblinking watch."

In their 1979 "Fingerprint File" the Rolling Stones complain about "feeling followed, feeling tagged." The fingerprint file, "it gets me down." In a rare direct attack: "There's some little jerk in the F.B.I. a' keepin' paper on me ten feet high." Concern is expressed over "listening to me on your satellite," informers who will sell out and testify, and "electric eyes." As in Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," listeners are urged to be suspicious, lay low, and watch out. The song ends in a whisper: "These days it's all secrecy, no privacy."

Rockwell begins "Somebody's Watching Me" with a synthesized voice asking, "Who's watching me?" Like Sy Kahn, he makes the point that he is just an average man who works "from nine to five" and all he wants "is to be left alone in my average home." The listener is led to ask, "Why would anyone want to monitor him?" The implied answer is that the surveillance is out of control. Even ordinary people there is no reason to suspect become targets, not simply those who "deserve" to be surveilled. We cannot be sure if this is an out-of-control system or a logic of random application to create deterrence through uncertainty.

The singer always feels "like somebody's watching me and I have no privacy." Unlike the singers of religious songs, he does not get a feeling of safety from this surveillance. He wonders "Who's watching me?" It might be neighbors, the mailman, or the IRS. Yet these realistic questions give way to satirical unreality. He wonders if the persons on TV can see him and he is afraid to wash his hair "'cause I might open my eyes and find someone standing there." The latter could also be interpreted as satirizing those who complain about the loss of privacy. It takes something serious to a ridiculous extreme.

Judas Priest, in "Electric Eye" (1982), offers us the bragging voice of an electronic surveillant "up here in space" that has truly awesome powers: it watches all the time; its "lasers trace everything you do"; it probes "all your secret moves"; it is always in focus; its subjects "don't even know I'm there"; it is accurate, offering "pictures that can prove." It correctly equates knowledge with power: "I feed up on your every thought and so my power grows." People think they have private lives, but they should "think nothing of the kind." Unlike some songs that encourage resistance, this one advises, "There is no true escape" and "There's nothing you can do about it."

Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" suggests ambivalence. Simon catches the power and frenetic rhythms of telecommunications with "lasers in the jungle" and "staccato signals of constant information." With heart transplants and the boy in the bubble, these are "days of miracle and wonder"-yet this appears to be sarcastic, as it comes with images of remote bombs in baby carriages.

Mojo Nixon applies Nancy Reagan's "Just say no" to his defiant "I Ain't Gonna Piss in No Jar" (1987). He can be fired from his job, but something more important can't be robbed "my freedom and my liberty." He urges everybody to go to Washington. If "they want our piss we ought to give it to 'em. Yeah, surround the White House with a urinary moat."

"California Uber Alles," sung by Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, tells of a long series of perceived negative policies by the governor of California.

Although social control is a major theme in rap songs, in general (as with graffiti wall art), they do not deal with the more subtle forms of surveillance. The emphasis is on direct coercion, harassment, and arrest at the hands of uniformed patrol officers. One exception is a Public Enemy song about the FBI infiltration of the Black Panther Party.

Cartoons, Comics, and Jokes

A colleague of Samuel Johnson wrote to him in 1778, "I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but, I don't know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in" (quoted in Davis, 1993). The same sentiment applies to the analysis of some of these materials. I have tried in my time to be a serious analytic, systematic sociologist and a righteous social reformer, but in working with these materials cheerfulness was always breaking in.

I have identified four types of surveillance humor: (1) accommodation, (2) machine-human frame breaks, (3) dystopias, and (4) reversals. A given example may fit more than one category, and other categories could be added. I will illustrate the four types with examples from cartoons and comic strips.3

The accommodation or cultural assimilation theme involves routinizing and folding into everyday activities new (and sometimes shocking) devices. The technology is domesticated and made familiar through its association with commonplace activities. It may serve as a functional alternative to traditional means. Some illustrations of accommodation surveillance humor follow.

Two businessmen are in an office concluding a deal. The man behind the desk offers his hand and says, "A handshake's good enough for me, Jack. This whole meeting's on videotape anyway." The camera is not seen.

Just before going to bed, a small boy in pajamas says, "I'm clean, mommy." In successive frames the mother checks his hands, face, and ears. In the final frame, the child hands her a bottle as she says "Urinalysis! "

Two men are riding exercise bikes at a gym and one says, "I think we're getting serious she's springing for a credit check and a surveillance on me."

A man visiting a bank's loan department is told, "That's right, sir, no collateral is necessary. However, we will have to chain this little electronic device around your neck."

Two couples are standing talking at a cocktail party and one of the women says, "Franklin can't discuss that-he's under constant electronic surveillance."

A man approaches a suburban house with a white picket fence and encounters a sign reading "Beware of the Technology."

In an office meeting at the IRS audit division a supervisor, accompanied by an employee, tells the director, "Good news! McDonald [the employee] broke into a taxpayer's home computer."

A sign in front of a building with a long line of cars waiting to enter identifies it as "Joe's Drive-Thru Testing Center" offering a variety of testing, including emissions, drugs, blood pressure, polygraph, stress, loyalty, and cholesterol.

A second type of surveillance humor involves an element central to much humor-the breaking of frames. In this case machines, humans, or animals act like each other and cross the boundaries of what is conventionally expected of the type in question. This type of humor is part of a broader genre of person/machine jokes in which the frames that keep these distinct are crosses and the juxtaposition of things we "know" don't go together is humorous. Examples of this type follow.

A man receiving money from an ATM hears the machine say, "Now, remember that this has to last all weekend, so don't spend it foolishly. And don't forget the phone bill." The caption beneath reads "Why the Automated Talking Teller Never Caught On."

In a national park a ranger wearing a bear costume (minus the head) is standing in front of a sign reading "Do Not Feed the Bears" and writing a citation to two tourists who had previously offered the fake bear food.

A sign on the floor of a hotel room reads "This Way Marion Barry." A woman sits seductively on the bed waiting to activate a large mouse trap and a voice from a closet with hidden video equipment says, "Now remember, no entrapment."

A man puts his feet up on his desk and a sign appears on his computer monitor reading "Take your feet off the desk."

The computer screen of a data entry worker reads "Faster! Faster! You're working 12% slower than the person next to you." Next to her is a smoking robot also entering data into a terminal.

A boss cracking a whip inside a galley ship with data-entry personnel lined up in columns is yelling, "Keystroke! . . . Keystroke!"

Finally, four "Far Side" cartoons:

At night a cow is sitting with several cowboys around a campfire. The cow tells them, "A few cattle are going to stray off in the morning, and tomorrow night a stampede is planned around midnight. Look, I gotta get back.... Remember, when we reach Santa Fe, I ain't slaughtered. "

A man walking past a dog's house is met by the dog pointing a device at him that reads "Fear-o-sensor."

A couple who are passed out in their backyard wearing electronic collars is captioned "Hours later, when they finally came to, Hal and Ruby groggily returned to their yard work-unknowingly wearing the radio collars and ear tags of alien biologists."

From the inside of a house occupied by whales, a picture window opens onto humans with cameras. One whale is saying to the other, Uh-oh, Norm. Across the street-whale-watchers."

The third type of surveillance humor is "1984 dystopia," in which the image maker intends to shock us through satire. This says, It's all-powerful, it's everywhere, it's inhuman, it's crazy, and this is what it could/will logically lead to. This also suggests the question, Where will it end? Examples include the following.

A classic "Doonesbury" strip shows a black congressional aide delivering a proposal to his employer in Palm Beach, Florida. At the entry to the town he is stopped by police and asked for his pass card. He responds, "My pass card? You guys are kidding, right?" (This was cartoonist Garry Trudeau's response to a proposed law requiring nonresidents of Palm Beach to carry identification while in that city.)

A drawing of Manhattan is captioned "Under new zero-tolerance rules the entire island of Manhattan has been confiscated by federal agents after a marijuana seed was found on West 23rd St. (see detail). Entire island will be sold at auction soon. Includes Brooklyn Bridge."

A second-grade classroom in the midst of great student pandemonium shows FBI agents entering and the teacher saying to them, "Thank heaven you're here." The cartoon is captioned, "Following their orders to investigate domestic terrorist organizations, the FBI checks on Miss Toog's second grade."

Three men are in a restroom looking in (unbeknownst to them) a one-way mirror. One says, "Company lie detector tests, company urine tests, I swear, where's it all gonna end?" What they don't see is the man on the other side of the mirror taking notes on their conversation.

Two men are talking. The first says, "Your wife just gave you that beautiful gold watch a week ago-now she's divorcing you?" The second, holding up his wrist, says, "It has a surveillance camera in it."

The cartoon "Sylvia" shows SuperCop exhorting a couple in bed: "The national average is 2.5 times a week." The man says, "She's here again," and the woman responds, "Tell her we're doing the best we can. "

The final form of surveillance humor involves "reversals." Here an action may backfire and machines go out of control or end up being used in unanticipated ways. Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times remains the classic example of this type of humor; in one sequence in the film, he is literally drawn into an assembly line. The hubris of humans in thinking they are in control is revealed, as is the latent threat involved in tampering with the unknown. Actors are hoist with their own petards. Unintended consequences and surprise accompany innovations. Mistakes occur The reliability and validity of the machine's results are questioned. The last laugh or revenge may even be had by the subject of the surveillance. The usual power relations enhanced by the technology may be reversed, or a device may be so out of control that everything gets destroyed. Some illustrations follow:

In a "Bloom County" cartoon, police with drawn weapons break into a man's house, having been called by the man's young son, who told them his father was using drugs. The son, in obvious response to educational efforts at school, says, "I just couldn't stand by and watch you flush your life down the toilet, dad!!" The police officer next asks the son what drugs are involved. The boy replies, "Tobacco, caffeine, Schlitz . . . you name it."

A couple sitting on a sofa are about to kiss when suddenly a loud siren goes off. The man exclaims, "Damn! I forgot to disconnect my personal alarm system."

A couple are lying in bed and the man says, "Not tonight, hon. It'll just wreak havoc with the motion sensors again."

A couple at home are watching a politician on TV giving a campaign speech; a device of some kind is attached to their television set. The husband states, "According to the voice-stress analyzer, he is not going to lower taxes."

A barricade in the middle of a blocked-off street has written on it, "POLICE LINE-NO VIDEO CAMERAS BEYOND THIS POINT..


Newspaper and magazine articles, editorials, and professional, business, and social movement communications concerned with surveillance and technology are often accompanied by illustrations or political cartoons.

Given the continuous flow of social interaction and words in everyday life, the communication of meaning through a single frozen frame is an accomplishment. As Erving Goffman (1979) notes, this is accomplished by a variety of conventionalized cues. The best-known visual symbol of surveillance is the eye, followed by the ear. This reflects sight and hearing's centrality to surveillance relative to the other senses. It is also more difficult to depict visually the contents of smelling, tasting, and feeling, and even the activity of the last of these.

The emblem of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency-a simple eye with the slogan "We Never Sleep"-is a good illustration. It suggests the agency's dedication to duty and the threat in its omnipresence. A public service poster from the MIT Campus Police shows a large computer-drawn eye made up of many visible dots and includes this message: "Counting your eyes there are about 18,000 eyes on our campus. There are only 52 in the MIT Campus Police Department. If you see something suspicious give us a call." An article on databases uses for illustration the familiar cue of an eye looking through a keyhole. WAC, a social movement concerned with stopping violence against women, has as its symbol an eye surrounded by the words "WAC IS WATCHING WOMEN TAKE ACTION." These have a direct, literal quality. We immediately understand the implications of a watchful eye.

Yet literal visual representations of surveillance are not common. The medium of drawing offers creative possibilities beyond traditional photography or testimony in court, which is more bounded by the reality. Common to many illustrations is the breaking of frames, in which things that are not usually together, or could never be together, in the real world are joined. As in humor, breaking frames is attention getting and often is seen as "interesting." Many surveillance-themed illustrations involve the grafting of two discrete elements together with a transfer of meaning (whether reciprocal or one-way) between objects. As with much linguistic communication, something new comes to be understood by reference to something already known. The familiar serves to inform or to offer a new way to think about the unfamiliar.

As with surveillance jokes, a common frame break in illustrations involves the merging of the human and the nonhuman. Eyes, ears, and technologies for enhancing seeing and hearing (magnifying glasses, binoculars, telescopes, microphones) are joined to elements that they are not (and generally could not be) joined to in reality. We see human-like technology and humans as machines. Some examples include the following:

Although the vast majority of the articles these illustrations accompany include at least implied warnings and some ambivalence about the technology, images of individuals as direct victims are not common. An example of such an illustration is one of a man holding up a hand to block a spotlight that is shining down on him. Other examples include a drawing of persons cowering inside their homes as an unfriendly surveillance eye shines down on the houses and one in which a roof is lifted off a house to permit a view of the interior from above.

The technique of helping us understand something new by reference to something old can be seen in an illustration depicting a DNA identification card. This shows a double helix and some numbers that would be meaningless to most people, yet when these are made part of a familiar ID card, the meaning is very clear.

The idea of the "data shadow" or "data image" has been illustrated by showing a person with a shadow or a head made up of the kinds of personal data stored in computer databases. This shows the person as visible and suggests new meanings of the self or personhood.

The use of visual metaphor can be seen in the case of the politician skewered on the antenna of his cordless phone. He was overheard talking to his mistress, and when this information became public, it damaged his political career. This illustration presents a literal rendering of the damage done.

The verbal cliche is sometimes the subject of an illustration, as in a drawing of a wall with eyes and ears ("the walls have ears") and a federal agent holding up a spider's web with a gun in the center This illustrated a news story about a gun purchase sting that bordered on entrapment-a web was spun for the suspect and bait was offered.4

Exaggeration is also used to make a point. One story about parents using beepers to locate their teenagers was illustrated with a drawing of a youth wearing four different-colored beepers on a belt.

A final element in surveillance-themed illustrations involves the extent to which they are moving and memorable. Does a picture make one take notice and want to comment on it to others? Is it something that stays with the observer (much as most people who have seen Edvard Munch's The Scream or the last scenes in Casablanca are likely to remember them). There is of course variation, but this is likely patterned and related to the characteristics of the individual and the material. What are some of the characteristics of memorable images? To answer this question fully would require a phenomenological analysis of the materials in which one studies how individuals make sense of the material. Judging only from my own responses, the most memorable images are those that mix the sacred and the profane and that build upon the historical memory of the viewer. Images of the American eagle and the Statue of Liberty joined to the dirty tools of eavesdropping are memorable. A drawing of a wrist with a bar code (from a book of German political cartoons) is moving because viewers bring to it their knowledge about concentration camp victims with numbers on their wrists.


In contrast to the kinds of illustrations discussed above, images in ads generally show less creativity and frame breaking. They are more straightforward. They describe a product or service and make more use of words along with the images. This greater realism reflects their partisanship in the promotion of tangible products rather than abstract ideas, which may be illustrated in a more balanced, or at least broader, fashion. In showing only a representational photograph of a product, an ad lets it speak for itself, although assumptions are made about how the audience will fill in the blanks.

This direct approach is illustrated by one ad that shows a variety of devices and simply asks, "Where can you go to see and hear what your eyes and ears can't?" No explanations or justifications are offered. The ad implies that it is obvious why you would want to do this, and there is no lurking moral ambiguity. Even more minimalist are some of the handwritten signs I have seen on the University of Washington campus-"Seattle Surveillance Specialists the cheapest rates in town."

However, when ads are undertaken to promote political agendas or films-such as the ads included here for the American Newspaper Publishers Association and for the 1991 movie Kafka-we often see greater imagination and framebreaking.

Western culture, and in some ways particularly the United States, is ambivalent about surveillance as a reflection of its more general attitudes toward power. We seek to be protected by surveillance and welcome the watchful eye of the protector. Yet we also fear the invasive or evil eye that breaks the boundaries between self and others and the group and society.

Not surprisingly, ads tend to emphasize the positive and ignore the negative aspects of surveillance. They deal with volatile material and are as interesting for what they say as for what they fail to say. Ads may provide legitimations and deny the nasty potential and normative violations made possible by surveillance. A television ad for a directional microphone asks, "Are you a curious person?"; an ad for a device designed to allow one to hear sounds from the other side of a wall euphemistically invites the viewer to "diagnose sounds through a solid surface from any source"; an ad for an eavesdropping device that looks like a radio "focuses ambient sounds onto a sensitive microphone"; a children's ad for "Super Ears" pushes the product's uses for listening to the sounds of nature. A Washington State appeal for motorists to report those driving illegally in special car pool lanes says, "Thanks for being a HERO" and invites them to call 764-HERO. A purveyor of surveillance technologies reports that his goods "empower the consumer."

Relatively few ads show the direct and honest appeal of one inviting you to "Eavesdrop for under $80!" And such a bargain! "You'd expect to pay double for a mini-recorder . . . especially one that's voice-activated." Also straightforward is an ad for "electronic ears disguised as a radio," which shows a happy image of birthday domesticity and the caption, "People assume you're listening to a radio. In fact, you're hearing every word of their conversation . . . literally gives you super-hearing." It is also "fun for amateur spying."

An ad for a surveillance book shows a wolf's eyes peering out and asks, "Are you a hunter or the hunted?" The obvious implication is that it is better to be a hunter and to strike first. Consistent with the idea that the best defense is a good offense, some ads gloss over the potential for customers to use the products for aggressive gathering of information on others; instead, they redefine the technology as a defensive measure to protect oneself from snooping. There is line blurring with respect to the often morally suspect offensive uses and the more easily justified defensive uses of the technology.5

The name of a national chain that sells spying devices, Counter Spy Shop, suggests justification through the need for protection. One of its products, "the briefcase that sees everything," can be used to "capture theft, conspiracy or break-ins on tape!" Unstated is that it can just as easily be used as part of a theft or conspiracy and that, whatever its ostensible goal, its secret use in some states may constitute a felony.

Similarly, an ad for the widely publicized "secret connection briefcase" simply asks, "Bugged?" This implies a need to be protected. The first feature listed is a "pocket-sized tape recorder detector [that] lets you know if someone is secretly recording your conversation." It also includes an "incredible 6 hour recorder-so small it fits in a cigarette pack. " Although the ad does not say so, the latter is intended for use in secretly taping others, assuming they don't also have a detector.

Some of the largest security companies profit from this amoral mix by selling both surveillance and anti- surveillance devices. Outside of specialized publications, there are few ads for devices designed for protecting oneself from the snooping of others. The public market for snooping seems much larger than that for protective devices.

Deception and lying may be defined in ads as "pretending." Thus an ad for a call-forwarding device reports that you can be at home and pretend to be at the office, and "best of all, the person calling never knows." Rather than words such as secret, hidden, covert, snoop, or spy, we see "discreet viewing," the possibility of "less conspicuous use," the ability to "unobtrusively snap a photo" or to gather information "unobserved."6 A telephone conversation recorder "automatically records your conversations for replay so that you can concentrate on your call and later retrieve information without the bother of time-consuming note taking." Unstated are the advantages that a secret recording can offer "without the bother of having to ask permission."

Attention may be guided away from what the product is used for, or the conditions of its use, and toward its other attributes, such as design or materials. This offers other reasons for the purchase. For example, "The M3 is housed in a nice Parker knock off pen, so you not only get the best recording possible, the pen housing shows a bit of class as well." A camera hiding in a lighter has an "impressive enamel like finish and gold trim."

An osmosis-like transfer of legitimacy may be suggested by reference to valued symbols. The aura of science, with its suggestion of modernity, power, efficiency, and certainty, is often drawn upon with terms such as "sophisticated technology," "high tech," "the scientific measure of truth," "ultraminiaturized," "solid-state electronics," "integrated circuitry," "voice stress computer," "electronic analysis."

Hiding a video camera or an alarm in a warm cuddly object such as a teddy bear not only is intended to deceive but may make the transition to secret spying or alarms easier. A picture of a child hugging a big doll accompanies an ad for a baby monitor that permits you "to listen to what the children are up to."

The transference may involve esteemed sponsors or carriers whose use sanctifies or vouches for use by the ordinary person. The technology may be built to "military specifications" or may have been "originally designed for the DEA"; it may be "the same sophisticated technology used by professionals" or "used by U.S. government agencies." An ad for "electronic ears disguised as a radio" invites the user to "hear like a super hero."

The advertisements seek to show how the product is needed by, or serves the interests of, the consumer. In extreme cases this is even extended to the subject of the surveillance. For example, an ad regarding "new technology in the office" from United Technology informs us that it's all about "fun."

Some ads may attempt to create or manipulate fear. They may draw on a sense of responsibility or obligation. Ads for protective devices for children may imply that if you really love your child you have a duty to purchase the product.

The effort to generate anxiety and then to offer a means of coping with it is clearest in ads for defensive products and services. An ad for an intrusion detector shows a shadowy burglar breaking in, with the caption "Chances are that your home and both your vehicles don't have security alarms. Your daughter or son, away at college, are probably relatively defenseless as well." But not to worry, the simple Security Monitor will solve all problems. An ad for Child Guardian shows a smiling child wearing his electronic sensor on a belt but warns that "the number of child abductions each year grows increasingly alarming." But with Child Guardian, "your active youngster is under a 'watchful eye' every moment." An ad for Guardian Angel that includes an idyllic picture of a child playing warns, "It can happen anywhere: one moment your child is playing at your side. The next, he or she is gone." An ad for a drug testing system reports that "teen age drug abuse is our #1 problem" and shows a worried mom saying, "Something was wrong with my son but he'd insist things were O.K." Ordering the drug testing kit helped her "find the problem and helped put my family back together." An ad for a "memo muncher" asks, What is the cost of a memo seen by "a wrong person"? Is "your competition looking through your garbage at night?" Even absent that you can't be certain-"People are naturally inquisitive and you can never be quite sure that some private document doesn't end up in the wrong hands." Unless of course you spend $300 on their product. An ad in a computer magazine advises "GET DEFENSIVE! YOU CAN'T SEE THEM BUT YOU KNOW THEY'RE THERE. Hackers pose an invisible but serious threat to your information system."

The legal or ethical uses of a product may be mentioned, but with the understanding that other uses are possible. The choice, then, is the user's, and not in the product as such. Thus a voice stress computer "can sit on a desk or inside a drawer." The PB1 Mini Parabolic Mic System "should find application in situations from big game hunting to legal recording." An automatic telephone conversation recorder is "small enough to fit discretely underneath or next to your telephone."

Although much of the technology is new, the marketing of surveillance in work settings is not. A series of ads for "accounting and writing machines" from Business Week magazine in 1929, which by today's standards seem crude and even eerie in their directness, make visible verbal cliches such as "an eye for every angle of your business."

Computer programs called PEEK and SPY are more contemporary versions that let the employer do just that. To increase security, monitor production, and aid in training, the operator may peek at a "target" user's computer, but with the user's permission and he or she "may disallow watching at any time." The SPY program permits monitoring computer use without the user's knowledge or permission. In trying to convey the surveillance possibilities, an ad-intended to be humorous, shows a manager's neck stuck into a computer screen, a wire running to a workstation, and then a head coming out of the screen, watching.

The relative absence of actors makes these materials more difficult to analyze than the gender commercials studied by Erving Goffman (1979). Yet there is a clear gender component when humans are depicted. In most cases when a user is shown it is a man. Consistent with muting what actually goes on, and to avoid stimulating a sympathetic counterreaction, rarely is the object of the surveillance shown. When it is, it is likely to be a subordinate, such as a child, worker, or prisoner. Women are more likely than men to serve as objects.

This illustrates what Foucault calls the male gaze and may reflect erotic curiosity and men's generally greater interest in technology. An implicit link between sex and violence may be seen in an ad that shows an attractive female within the viewfinder of a camera-which could equally be a rifle scope. For example, one ad for a book on surveillance shows an attractive woman in such a scope, and an ad for a nightscope frames a scantily clad woman in its lenses. It is captioned, "The dark holds no secrets with the night penetrator." This is "ideal for discreet viewing or map-reading, nocturnal wild life and astronomic observation, or maritime navigation." If that is so, one wonders why the ad shows a woman as the subject of surveillance. I have found only two ads that involve women as users, and no examples of the female gaze, in which a man is the object of technology applied by a woman.7

The ads reflect normative patterns in which it is more common for men to look at women than the reverse. Whether or not the male impetus to look is stronger, it is less socially inhibited.8 Increased feminist consciousness and awareness of sexual harassment may further enhance the male market for covert surveillance devices, as the normative boundaries become more restricted. But it may also mean greater equality in the gaze. We might expect more ads showing females as users, with males as objects of surveillance.9

Visual Art

Contemporary artists, in reflecting the material culture and cultural themes of their time, have turned to surveillance media and topics-using the technology to reveal unseen elements and to help us experience surveillance.

Although the inert eye, from Dali and Magritte to the engraver of the U.S. dollar bill, has always been a theme, video and related technologies offer new possibilities-particularly for performance art, which directly involves the audience and which merges, or at least breaks down, the conventional differences between subject and object. Video art, because of its real-time quality and mixing of images and sound, is an ideal medium for the artist concerned with surveillance themes. It offers temporal continuity and breadth and hence is more comprehensive than still photography.

Illustrative of the breakdown between art and reality is the work of artist Julia Scher.10 Scher obtains loans and donations of equipment in order to reveal the conflict between the need for protection and the possibility of being victimized by the particular apparatus. Her art exemplifies what it seeks to communicate. Unlike fiction, it does not imitate reality. Rather, like cinema verité, it tries to capture something that is there. It reflects and creates reality. In a 1987 group exhibit in Los Angeles titled Surveillance, she placed the gallery itself under surveillance.11 Viewers became part of the spectacle. The viewer's body heat tripped invisibly projected infrared beams at the entrance to the building. This caused flashing lights and an alarm (embedded in a representation of a human torso on the wall) to go off.

In another exhibit, Scher created a mock interrogation room in which subjects enter their names into a computer and then see their images on the screen along with a list of crimes they are (wrongly) accused of committing. Surveillance cameras are set up in various rooms permitting subjects to see themselves and others as they pass through the rooms. Reality and art fuse, as do target and agent. The surveillance cameras are not an invented form that mimics reality. This differs from "real" surveillance only because of its context and goals. The artist recontextualizes the technology in order to critique and even expose it. Her goal is to educate or entertain rather than to surveil. The viewer experiences video surveillance as both the object who is watched and the subject doing the watching.12

This self-monitoring is a form of biofeedback and illustrates one theme of contemporary surveillance societies: the voyeur and the exhibitionist may be merged. For those who are there, it is participatory art. It can be a mocking form and can involve playacting, as the participant chooses it and is aware of it. But it is not simply pretend. Further mixing elements is the fact that when Scher is not doing art, she runs a company named Safe and Secure, which installs surveillance systems.

Artist Richard Lowenberg uses contemporary military and industrial surveillance technology to reveal protected or unseen things- such as an air force satellite communications receiver or invisible heat patterns made by dancers. Absent technical supports, these are unseen because of distance, darkness, or barriers such as walls and skin.

Lowenberg's unobtrusive night work uses darkness-illuminating technologies. There are no telltale flashbulbs to give it away. Although his photographic art is hidden in darkness, the technology he uses pierces a barrier that for most of human history has protected information. The image intensifier (or nightscope) amplifies starlight twenty-thousand times and FLIR (forward-looking infrared) systems need no light at all. The FLIR uses infrared sensors to provide a high-resolution thermal video display. It makes visible what we would experience (if we were aware of it at all) only as temperature variations, even though the infrared spectrum is omnipresent. The FLIR offers a shifting window into an ever- present thermodynamic world unaffected by light or darkness. This technology permits us to see in the dark and to see things that for normal communications purposes are not really (or at least practically) there.

For Lowenberg, thermal patterns serve as a kind of invisible ink. He produces temperature prints using a heat-reflective screen. We see variations in temperature rather than light-the darker the color, the warmer the area. In one example, using the FLIR imager he videotaped a dance performance that occurred in complete darkness. Dancers dipped their hands in water and finger-painted on a blank wall. As the temperature of the water gradually changes, amazing patterns are seen on the wall, even though neither the audience nor the dancers could see this absent the conversion of heat variations to light and dark hues.

In another example of using technologies to surface the unseen (but not purposefully hidden), Nina Sobel offers a visual representation of ever-present, but rarely seen, brain waves. Her Encephalographic Video Drawings records brain waves on video. In a unique example of self-monitoring, individuals confront their own previously unseen "mediated images." What is reflected is "real," even though the medium for showing it is not the phenomenon as such.

Given a free market and the double-edged, multiple-use potential of any technology, the usual workings of surveillance from the more to the less powerful can be highlighted and reversed. Paul Ryan and Michael Shamberg use video technology to watch the watchers-to catch them in the act, so to speak. In a 1969 video called Supermarket, they document a video surveillance system in a Safeway store-recording a large sign that says, "Smile, you are on photo-scan TV." The store manager tells them to stop and that it is illegal to shoot images in the store, to which they respond, "You're taking pictures of us, so why can't we take pictures of you?" This of course raises the first question of social analysis: Says who?

Another example of using technology to survey the surveyors can be seen in the film Red Squad, based on a New York collective following and interviewing police red squad members. This becomes reciprocal as they then become the subject of the red squad's gaze as well. Artist Lewis Stein takes pictures of surveillance equipment. Rick Preliner, in an audio scanning installation called Listening Post, permitted the gallery-goer to eavesdrop on airwaves used by federal agents and local police in the Los Angeles area.

Another form of artistic expression does not focus directly on surveillors as subjects, but intercepts their data on others. This represents an egalitarian sharing of the data or, in Susan Sontag's words, the "democratization of the evidence." Here the artist, like the control agent, invades the private space of the subject, but with a different purpose-to demythologize, authenticate, or question. We are shown what authorities see and hear about others.

Maria Kramer's video installation goes straight to the source. Jean Seberg/The FBI/The Media uses FBI documents to report on the U.S. countersurveillance activities directed at the actress. By enlarging and then displaying the documents, Kramer exposes (in both meanings of the term) the surveillance activities that may have shortened Seberg's life.

Michael Klier's Der Reece ("the giant") uses images from video surveillance cameras in a variety of urban settings to create a composite work. Louis Hock's The Mexican Tapes: A Chronicle of Life Outside the Law is a video narrative using night vision technology applied to three Mexican illegal immigrant families.

In Abscam (Framed), Chip Lord mixes real surveillance data with fictional material. He plays a whispering newsman who returns to the scene and thus adds "fake" material. But given the fact that Abscam itself was, to a large degree, an artifact of the agents' intervention (creating a fake setting with some very attractive unrealistic inducements), such work raises deeper questions about just what real means. The ability to retouch or to create photo images digitally (e.g., as when National Geographic altered the size of a pyramid to fit its cover) raises related questions.

Gary Lloyd's Radio Painting (1983) is a canvas with a low-power FM radio transmitter embedded in it, so that anyone speaking within the presence of the work has his or her voice transmitted within a five-block range. Here the artist exercises some control over the "critic" by enforcing publicity and broadening the number of critics. The artist is in a position to hear the remarks made in front of the painting.

Artists also use more conventional tools to invade privacy and make public what is usually not recorded. Photographers traditionally have done this. Walker Evans used a concealed Leica camera for his famous series of New York subway photos.

French photographer and conceptual artist Sophie Calle has done a number of things along this line. She once randomly picked a man from a crowd and followed him to Venice, where she photographed him and kept notes of his activities. She took a job as a hotel maid and photographed the possessions and interiors of the same room over a three-week period as different persons stayed there. She invited strangers to her own apartment and photographed them while they slept. Once, she had her mother hire a private detective to follow and photograph her on a particular day. The detective did not know that the artist knew about and had arranged the surveillance. She recorded her feelings and imaginings as she went about the day-knowing she was being recorded and watched, but not when, where, or by whom. The resulting artwork juxtaposes the surveillance photos with her own conjectures and artificially manufactured emotions. This powerfully conveys her experiences of suspicion and paranoia, as the detective could have been anyone she saw that day.

In a variation of a Garfinkel or Goffman experiment, Calle has reported finding an address book and photocopying it, before returning it to its owner. She then called everyone in it and asked if she could interview them about the book's owner, without ever encountering him.

Some Implications

In the first instance, the materials discussed above literally or symbolically speak for themselves. As with a good meal, the value comes from the experience. Films such as Rear Window, the Conversation, and Kafka; songs such as "I Ain't Gonna Piss in No Jar"; and images of a robotic arm, with its hint of a skeleton cradling or crushing flowers, give us a jolt and a type of understanding that is otherwise unobtainable. This involves not only Verstehen, or understanding what another person experiences, but a nonreflective shock. These materials certainly can (and must) be considered on their own terms. There is wisdom in E. B. White's observation that "humor can be dissected as a frog can, but it dies in the process."

I would certainly not want to profane the sacred by connecting urine in a cup with the president's wife, nor would I have abstract emotionless analysis detract from the artistic experience. The broad exploratory approach taken here does not lend itself to a rigorous model of scientific hypothesis testing. Rather than deductively straining these materials through varieties of available theory, I will proceed inductively and indicate the theoretical implications that I find in the material.

Social scientists generally draw too rigid a line between their data and the offerings of the artist. Artistic creations can significantly inform us about surveillance and society. They can be approached from the standpoint of the sociology of knowledge and we can ask about the messages conveyed, how this has changed, and how it correlates with the characteristics of the creator and the context. Here art is treated as a dependent variable. But the materials can also inform us about broader societal issues, and we can speculate on their social impact.

I will consider below implications involving (1) education, (2) conflict, (3) power, (4) conflicting and uncertain values, (5) contextual meaning, (6) the need for research on the social impact of such material, and (7) comparisons between art and science as ways of knowing.

1. These materials can help us see and understand (whether emotionally or cognitively) new developments in surveillance. They offer an alternative language through visual metaphors. The meaning of authoritarianism, repression, domination, intolerance, and spying is likely to be different when experienced vicariously through seeing and hearing, rather than through reading and quantifying. The traditional role of the artist in making the unseen visible has a particularly appropriate meaning here. Such media can educate in a distinctive and perhaps more profound sense than can the exclusively verbal. They can help us see and experience in different ways, especially things that are new. For example, we can more readily understand electronic data and microscopic DNA sequences when they are transformed into images through artistic representations.

These new ways of seeing may include the idea of an alternative way of constructing the self, such as through the data image or shadow (Laudon, 1986; Clarke, 1994; Lyon, 1994). The meaning of personhood is changing. An image that shows a human form that is nothing more than credit card transactions and identifying numbers gives you the sense that there is another "you" out there, largely beyond your knowledge and control, that others have access to and even own.

The ease with which data can be distorted and manipulated is also illustrated by these materials. For example, computers make possible the distortion of a face or physical presence (the film Rising Sun gives a good example) and the mixture of real and nonexistent elements. When we actually see a "photograph" or image of something that has never existed (a horse's head on the body of a person, or an Egyptian pyramid of altered proportions, for instance) we can more easily come to appreciate the increased possibilities for deception and to question the validity of visual images. In this sense, "seeing is believing"-at least believing that we should not believe. This has major implications for courtroom evidence as well as for other presentations. Materials such as those discussed above can communicate the fragmented and movable quality of the "realities" we perceive, and may lead to a healthy skepticism-or an immobilizing paranoia.

The blurring line between human and nonhuman-robots, cyborgs, implants-is more easily grasped when we see the results through artists' imaginary creations. And finally, materials such as those addressed in this essay can help us grasp the scale, totality, comprehensiveness, and simultaneity of the new forms of surveillance across multiple dimensions. We can literally more easily see the big picture. The cartoon described above regarding the "drive-in testing service" is a good example of this, as are video pastiches made from far-flung surveillance cameras.

Artistic materials can educate and politicize by telling us what is happening and by offering warnings. They can bring the news to broader audiences (e.g., the cartoon about Palm Beach and the one featuring a computer telling an employee to work faster), in that they may have a wider audience and may use potentially more powerful and poignant means of conveying their messages.

2. A struggle is going on over what surveillance technology means and how it ought to be viewed. While we must be skeptical of simplistic determinisms, image and interest are often linked. To oversimplify, this involves conflicts over symbols and words, with vendors and dominants on one side (e.g., security companies, managers, various guardians) and subordinates, civil libertarians, skeptics, and resisting social movements on the other. Each side has allies in culture production. For the former, these tend to be manufacturers, advertising agencies, and their glorification of surveillance. For the latter, these tend to be cartoonists, popular songwriters, and artists who demystify, expose, and delegitimate. Reduced to essentials, the artists tend to view technology as the enemy or the problem, and the advertisers view it as the savior or the solution. The sides are mirror opposites. It is an interesting exercise to fill in the other half of the story. Such work is as revealing for what it says as for what it does not say.

Art and politics are often treated as if they are more independent than is the case. Scottish poet Ernest Fletcher said, "Let me write poems, I care not who writes the laws." Plato, on the other hand, wanted poets to be controlled by the state-and with good reason, from an establishment perspective.

3. A related point is that these materials remind us that surveillance is often about power. Many of the visual and textual messages make it clear that there are those in the role of controller and those who are controlled (managers and workers, men and women, parents and children, guards and prisoners, merchants and consumers). The notion of the all-powerful, all-knowing entity-whether involving God, superheroes, government, bosses, or parents-is so embedded in our culture as to be commonplace, and we rarely take note of it. It is against this backdrop that many of these materials are offered. As subordinates in some or many of the roles we play, we are in a position to understand this and can readily identify with the subject's experience.

4. The materials also suggest that our relatively democratic and egalitarian society is uncomfortable with the naked facts and brute force of power. Hence many of the messages are subtle, use euphemisms (bugging devices as "diagnostic tools"), deal only with the positive aspects of surveillance technology (nightscopes as great for watching nocturnal animals), and seek to transfer warm feelings from one type of object (e.g., a teddy bear) to another, unpleasant, type (e.g., a hidden camera).

Such treatment indicates the value conflicts and resulting profound ambivalence of our culture toward surveillance. These materials may convey the omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient character of surveillance and, in so doing, its similarity to an all-knowing God. We are both fascinated (especially in North America) and repelled by it. It honors fantasies of omnipotence and desire for control and reinforces our fears of the inhuman and inhumane mechanistic. This ambivalence can be seen more generally in the contrasting views of the evil eye and the eye of God. The technology can both protect and violate. An important issue for study is whether this ambivalence has lessened in recent decades as concerns about security, productivity, and health have increased.

The ambivalence one can read into this material also reflects value uncertainty beyond value conflicts, in which meaning is unclear and still being negotiated as new products and uses continually appear. Conflicting laws, policies, and public opinion data also suggest this.

In this sense, culture is not a perfectly integrated system, but an ever-changing crazy quilt made of bits and pieces that are barely held together by weak threads, which often pull in opposing directions. Whether in physics or morality, this results in tension.

5. We see that the meaning is not in the object, but in the context and how it is interpreted Thus electronic location monitoring technology used to confine those under judicial supervision may be presented and viewed as different from the same technology used to protect abused spouses, children, and those with Alzheimer's disease.

6. This material calls attention to areas for social research. It is important to study the social functions and consequences of this material. How do audiences fill in the blanks? Like paint-by-number kits, these materials are often unfinished, and they rely on our bringing the connecting lines and colors to them. We need a better ecology of perceptions and values that will tell us what people see, or hear, when given a vague surveillance stimulus. The creators and owners of culture think they know (especially advertisers). But what images and assumptions do they hold, and are they correct? To what extent do they lead or follow? Do they reflect or create?

On balance, what is the net effect of popular media in creating an environment that welcomes, tolerates, or opposes the new surveillance? Does it educate for citizenship in a democratic society and create a healthy skepticism and even indignation? Does it demoralize and depress and create an immobilizing paranoia and beliefs that the technology is more powerful than it really is, and that we are in the iron grasp of an unstoppable technological determinism? Does this material subtly prepare us, prime the pump, create a receptive (if not necessarily overly welcoming) public, softening us up, much as long-range artillery does, before an assault? As social fictions and reality are blurred, what happens? What is the impact of songs such as "Secret Agent Man" and the television programs associated with them? What was the impact of Candid Camera in making a joke out of video invasions and deception, or of today's home video shows that treat these as entertainment or merely as the means of creating entries for competitions to win prizes? Does constant media exposure normalize, routinize, domesticate, and trivialize surveillance?

7. Finally, this material reminds us of the parallel between science and art, as both may seek to go beneath surface realities and to question conventions. For example, Richard Lowenberg's unmasking of the electromagnetic environment shares the goal of some researchers in mapping and making visible the invisible world. The sociologist does this when he or she analyzes latent functions and unintended consequences, demystifies social practices, and identifies the obfuscatory role that ideology and words can play (Marx, 1972). It would be useful to compare the work of artists and scientists discussed here with respect to subjects, presentation, and audience response, as well as to understand reciprocal influences among these two somewhat different, if overlapping, ways of knowing.

Back to Main Page | Top | References


This essay draws from my forthcoming publication, Windows into the Soul: Surveillance and Society in an Age of High Technology, ASA-Duke University Jensen Lectures. I am grateful to Ann Marie Wood, Jen Owen, Deborah Irmas, Mathieu Deflem, and Eve Darian-Smith for their help.

1. It is of course possible that the search is for a particular individual who does not want to be found, but given our notions of choice, that would put the singer in a negative light-pursuing someone who has rejected him. By the 1990s, antistalking laws criminalized such actions.

2. Of course, the adventure, bravery, self-sacrifice, and patriotism this song suggests can also be viewed positively.

3. Copyright and resource restrictions prevent my reproducing here more than a fraction of the materials discussed. However, I will provide them to readers who contact me c/o Department of Sociology, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309.

4. Comprehending some illustrations fully requires effort, as most people respond to images directly and-initially at least-literally, rather than looking for linguistic and other referents and symbols. l had the ears and eyes in the walls image for several years before I "saw" the artist's intent. Where there are levels of meaning, as with this illustration, differences in our individual styles of perception and knowledge condition how much we see.

5. With respect to offensive and defensive uses, we need to differentiate defensive devices such as bug detectors, which have only one use, from more neutral tools such as bugs, which can be used defensively (e.g., in response to a perceived threat) or offensively.

6. An ad for the M2 fountain pen is an exception to the neutered language of most ads. This device is "small enough to be secreted in a coat sleeve" and is designed for "surreptitious" recording. However, this ad appears to be directed toward security professionals.

7. One illustration does involve a woman looking at a man, but the observed man is himself calling a hot line to report a tip.

8. This may be turned around and exploited. Consider the marketing of "Anne Droid," an attractive department store surveillance mannequin with a camera in her eye and a microphone in her nose. This has something of a last-laugh quality to it, as the leering male may himself be observed. The culture of surveillance may also be transferred back to ads for more conventional products, such as lingerie.

9. There are, however, advice manuals specifically directed toward women; see Culligan (1993) and Moers (1992).

10. On this breakdown, see Baudrillard (1983) as well as Mark Poster's contribution to this volume.

11. A copy of the catalog containing many of the works discussed in this section may be obtained from LACE, 1804 Industrial St., Los Angeles, CA 90021.

12. A nice cartoon rendering of this by Toos shows a man in his living room with a video camera pointed at him as he sits and watches himself on his television set. It is captioned

"Andrew has his own show on cable."

Back to Main Page | Top | Notes


Baudrillard, J. (1983). Simulations, trans. P. Foss, P. Patton, and P. Beitchman. New York: Semiotext(e).

Clarke, J. (1994). "The Digital Persona and Its Application to Data Surveillance." Information Society 10 (June).

Culligan, J. (1993). When in Doubt Check Him Out. Miami, FL: Hallmark.

Davis, M. (1993). What's So Funny? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Goffman, E. (1979). Gender Advertisements. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Laudon, K. (1986). Dossier Society: Value Choices in the Design of National Information Systems. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lyon, D. (1994). The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Marx, G. T. (1972). Muckraking Sociology. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Moers, G. (1992). How and Why Lovers Cheat and What You Can Do about It. New York: Shapolsky.

Rule, J. (1984). "1984-The Ingredients of Totalitarianism." In I. Howe (ed.), 1984: Totalitarianism in Our Century. New York: Harper & Row.

Back to Main Page | Top | Notes | References

You are visitor number to this page since November 1, 1999.