The Sociological Quarterly, Volume 43, Number 3, pages 461-478.
Papers discussed here:
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Gosh--the denial of death, simulacra, the postmodern, neuro-aesthetic signals, fragmented and alienated selves, heteronormality subtext, genre play, affective solipsism, intertextuality--all I was trying to do was share with colleagues a juicy psychological report that came to me anonymously over the Internet. Consistent with the blurring of borders and the confusion around copies and originals, I edited it a bit and put my name on it in order to have something to list on my department’s annual report.
On a more truthful note, if there is an academic heaven beyond that blissfully self-indulgent state of the perpetual sabbatical identified by David Lodge, 1. it must lie in exchanges such as this with thoughtful colleagues, as we jointly struggle to see darkly through the glass. Unlike most forms of consumption, information has a wonderfully subversive quality in which the very act of sharing it may enhance rather than lessen the original.
In the usual article-comment-rejoinder format, the author is given the last word in responding to commentators. But in this case, since I chose a genre that disassociates the voice of the author from that of the narrator, it is not clear how to respond: as Tom, as myself commenting on what Tom means, 2. responding to what the commentators say, or responding to some remarks Tom might direct to me. I will opt for a little of each. I begin with an e-mail from Tom to the participants.
From: “Tom I. Voire” email@example.com
To: “Nagel, Joane” firstname.lastname@example.org, “Bill Staples” email@example.com, “Christena Nippert-Eng” Nippert@charlie.cns.iit.edu, “Peter Manning” firstname.lastname@example.org, “James Willis” James.email@example.com, “Susan Silbey” firstname.lastname@example.org, “Gary T. Marx” email@example.com
Subject: Re: Response to My Life
Date: Mon., 31 Apr 2002
The eyes cannot by the law of England be found guilty of trespass.
--Entick v. Carrington (1765)
Hi all. Thanks for receiving my message. While scanning the Internet using the latest sniffing technology as part of my “tiger team work” testing the vulnerability of computer systems, I came across your use of my name and some other interesting things you have on your home computers. Did you know my name is copyrighted and I charge for its use? You and all those mass marketers are liable for using it without my permission. On another legal matter, I know it’s a cynical ritual for many fieldworkers, but under the Freedom of Information Act I am entitled to, and hereby request, a copy of your Human Subjects Review Board application for this project. (only kidding)
Bill and Joane (I hope it’s ok to call you that,--from your writings I know you are hip egalitarian informal professers who stand in solidarity against all the old male hierarchy stuff). What can I say? At least you speled by name correctly.
I am more than sorely vexed by Joane’s being only “a little disturbed” by all of this. As a woman, your superior abilities to empathize and intuit should have led you to feel and understand my pain. An “apologia”? Hardly. I think you owe me an apology. My story is about injustice! How would you like to have a secret video made of your nature calls, be accused of unspecified violations by anonymous denouncers, and be denied employment and social participation because of your gender? I guess you sociologists just stand for principle when the case involves one of the right categories of the tripartite mantra.You also sound a little guilty about the way “our work reinforces the social order,” but many of us see you social researchers as doing exactly the opposite--undermining society by constantly pointing out what’s wrong, rather than what’s right with it.
Bill --Having read your book Everyday surveillance: Vigilance and Visibility in Postmodern Life, I would expect a little more sympathy from a guy who writes about “meticulous rituals of power,” “domination,” “the body as an object that can be watched, assessed, and manipulated,” and who puts quotation marks around the term “objective.”
Are these just abstract professional gaming words that go by the wayside when you encounter a real case like mine? I doubt it. I think there is a better explanation and ironically you gave me the lens to see it. It’s about power and knowledge. I will assume what you say about my case (and even more, fail to say) is related to the fact that Dean Nagel is your boss.
It is also clear that you don’t see things the way we in law enforcement do. I never understood Foucault’s critique and all the accompanying self-righteousness regarding the supposed “invention” of normality. Maybe you are shielded in the ivory tower, but in the world I inhabit, there really are criminals and very troubled, even evil, people. We need to be protected from them and they need to be helped and changed. Scientific means of assessment and evaluation are essential for this. We judge by differences, and we need to compare the atypical with the typical. Your talk of “normalization” seems to imply some kind of self-interested, status-quo fostering conspiracy by the hegemons, rather than the altruistic pursuit of consensual goals.
Sure, large organizations have ever more informational power over us little guys. But it goes both ways, and the technology can also help even the score. I was able to put the recording I obtained of the department store discussing my case (and their illegal tapping of my communications) to good use. I also had an unprecedented level of privacy at work because I used my own encryption on all communications.
Christena–You are my kind of person! I’m also an ethnographer of sorts. No one has ever before said they love me--let alone someone with private islands. I really agree with you that “fun is . . . something not to be underestimated.” In all of your fieldwork I am sure that the parallel between peek and peak has not been lost on you. I love Peter Sellers and am honored that you connect me with him. He was one profound dude in Being There.
I sense that you understand me and to show my appreciation (and contrary to James Willis and Susan Silbey’s unkind statement about my inability to reciprocate) I recently purchased 341 copies of your book Home and Work and sent them to Dominion Swann Industries and its affiliates (pseudonymously known as the Omniscient Organization--a high-tech firm honored for its work monitoring practices and efforts to eliminate the home/work distinction in a recent business publication).
We also agree that women are generally more upset with watching than are men, not to mention that they are sometimes favored in choirs, workplaces, restrooms, etc., etc. As I told Ms. Comstock and old Dr. A. Fount De’Knowledge, women who feel that way need to work on those feelings, lighten up, and take equality seriously. As Emerson said, “inconsistency is the hobgoblin of a crumbling society.”
One minor point of disagreement. You note that the technology can be miss used as with stealing identity. Here I sense some lurking technophobia often found among social scientists and humanists teaching in technical institutes. Yes, there unfortunately will always be people who take advantage, that’s why we need strong policing and accountability. The best way to get that ironically is through the visibility and documentation offered by the new means of technology. Do you know that over 100 wrongly convicted people have been released from prison based on DNA evidence? Think of all the children who would find out who their father really is if we had mandatory DNA testing. You liberal types seem to have a bit of a dilemma here. You worry about the social control and power aspects of the technology but ignore the validation, efficiency, and justice aspects. My reading of the Fourteenth Amendment suggests that police have a constitutional obligation to use every available technology.
Also a giant YES! to your mention of accessibility. That is a big part of my project–harvesting all from the expanding cornucopian opportunity structures this wonderful technological age offers! As brother Cliff sings, “I just want what’s mine.” On the reciprocal side again, I am very accessible–email, pager, cell phone, fax-should you want to study me.
P.S. Please don’t ever worry about the “hotel room with a mirror facing the bed.” I can show you a simple means of discovering, and if necessary, blocking that. Whatever you do, don’t think that you can become invisible by putting lemon juice on your face, as one of my former cell mates thought. On the collection side, I have lots of suggestions for unobtrusive data collection that you may not have encountered. I say that only because I once heard that social scientists were the last to get the news. Did you hear the old Chicago story: Question: “What’s a sociologist?” Answer: “A person who spends $250,000 of tax money to find a house of ill-repute.”
Peter: At last an honest man, if only I had a kingdom to give you in return for seeing the irony and pathos of my situation. I sense you know the true meaning of the story about the little child who said that the emperor was unclothed, when all about him were waxing eloquently about his cool threads.
I act logically, consistently, and honestly and try to live up to American ideals and in return I get tried and fried, hung in the dung, diced and sliced, nailed and jailed. It’s enough to make you want to withdraw or at least not live in Los Angeles.
I appreciate your mention of so many great films and books. You refer to a commercial-profit driven and defined culture--how about that scene in The Big Lebowski when the Dude is asked by a police officer to show his ID and all he can offer is a Safeway card? We are what we consume. The King of Hearts must speak to you-especially that line where the mental hospital patient, in observing the so-called sane persons, says, “What funny people.” Well, as I think you know, that’s the way I feel when I look at your/our culture.
Jim and Susan: Like Peter you strongly sense how the society is responsible for my behavior. But then you get moralistic on us about reciprocity and separation from the social context. I remember studying about how conflicts can escalate. By avoiding direct interaction, I eliminate the possibility of conflict and misunderstanding, not to mention the hypocritical creation of the gap between self-presentation and the real me. Reciprocity is neutral and can be positive or negative. Why take the chance?
You say, “Tom has no sense of the harm his actions cause.” But here you conveniently elide the fact that Eve never learns how I honor and protect her. You might want to reread Richard Posner on the social consequences of moralism for society. Like the Greeks, he stresses outcomes. Isn’t it the case that “what you don’t know can’t hurt you”? One of the best sociology articles I ever read was by Tumin and Moore on the social functions of ignorance.
Gary: As far as you are concerned, if you really exist, I don’t know you from a coat hanger. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if you are using a pseudonym and are really a hypocritical, politically correct, crypto-feminist, male-hating female trying to muddy the waters of reflection by satirically editing a clinical report that I never signed off on (indeed, they refused to even show it to me because of a billing dispute with the health insurer). They even said they owned my records. I don’t remember what I said to Dr. Funt but he wrote it all down except when he was dozing off. How do I know he got it right? I do recall that he seemed to believe everything I said. How do I know I got it right? Who can you believe these days?
I agree with the mental patient in the King of Hearts who said, “This joke has lasted long enough, let’s go back to bed,” or in my case, back to my virtual world. You treat my life as a joke and make fun of me. But in reality, it’s your contradictions and illusions that are funny. I am just a reflection in a pond. You paint me as some far out, peripheral character, but I am from the very center of your society.
Also, isn’t it a violation of the American Sociological Association Code of Ethics on informed consent, nonexploitation, and confidentiality for you to get professional mileage out of my life? What’s in it for me? If my story reflects what you really feel about high-tech surveillance and men and women, why don’t you be man (woman? person?) enough to just come out and say it, instead of shrouding it in this confusing genre melange (clinical report, journal article, science, satire, facts, fictions, my words, Ms. Comstock’s words, the shrink’s words, your words)? I like layers in my cakes, not in my communication. You are just another timid, vicariously observing sociological obfuscater, protected by your abstractions who lacks the clarity, intelligence, and courage to tell it like it is. As Sharon Stone said at the end of Sliver, “Get a life.”
From: Gary T. Marx firstname.lastname@example.org
To: “Tom I. Voire” email@example.com
Tom--You are an original (although not necessarily in the sense meant by Umberto Eco and Peter Manning). As the discussants imply, you might even be the posterboy for the penultimate, paradigmatic, ideal-typical, protean, postmodern, invisible twenty-first-century man with all your contradictions, separations, deceptions, opacity, and technology. However, I am not sure if you should be seen as an object of scorn or of sympathy, or viewed more neutrally as just another piece of social meat to be understood and helped by those of us with superior scientific and professional insights. I don’t get personally involved with those I study, so I will just ignore your ad hominem insults.
I am sorry if you feel that I was making fun of you. That was certainly not my intent. I hope further therapy can help you better deal with those feelings. I am sure you will agree that in this period of resource constraints it’s a lot easier to fit people into existing systems than to change systems. I urge you to find a therapist who will focus less on your narcissistic self-development and more on assessing the consequences of your behavior.
The presence of humor is not meant to trivialize your situation, deny your pain and confusion, or suggest that these issues are unworthy of serious attention. Indeed, it is the means for calling attention to them and helping me sustain my motivation. Freud said there are no jokes and he wasn’t kidding.
Reflective Social Researchers
Joane Nagel and Bill Staples are the most critical of Tom/Gary. In this limited space I will address only one issue: the presumed impact of my motivation and situation on the results of the case study.
Your question about why, with all the things that could be written about surveillance technology, I chose to give it a sexual slant is well put and easy to answer. Certainly as good sociologists and psychologists of knowledge we need to be aware of what you call “intentionality” and “positionality.” Were it not for the fact that Tom is only one of fifteen chapters in the book, your argument would be more applicable and it would be helpful to find out whose dirty pictures (p.419 this journal) they really are. Sex is interesting to write about and garners attention. More on sex, gender, and surveillance in a minute.
Given what we know from Freud about hidden motives and from Goffman about presentational prevarications, can we ever get an adequate grasp of intentions (even if we had the latest in brain wave reading technology)? When scholarship is well done and scientific findings validated across observers, then neither intention nor location make much difference.
Your mention of positionality and old white guys reminds me of a story. A traveling saleswoman unexpectedly comes home a day early from a road trip and finds her best friend in bed with her husband. Shocked she asks, “What are you doing here?” Her friend replies, “Well, everybody’s got to be somewhere.” So it is with our observations. We are rooted in space and time and culture. So what else is new? Because there are limits and some relative components to knowledge, do we give up?
Certainly the situation of a monogamously married white guy raised in Hollywood, who spent the year in Washington, D.C., during the titillating Clinton-Lewinski spectacle (when Tom’s dossier appeared on my computer), is not totally irrelevant. But we must not confuse the message with the messenger nor reduce reality simply to varied intentions, positions, and social constructions. Those doubting this should try closing their eyes during rush hour and then walk across a busy intersection thinking about the rich implications of positionality and intentionality for the social construction of reality. Yes, Virginia, there really is a world out there. It is a world in which surveillance frequently has sexual overtones and involves profound gender differences. Telling Tom’s story is one way to deal with that.
As Harry Caul said in the Conversation, “It has nothing to do with me. I just turn in the tape.” You can’t understand what runs through a pipe or is carried on a conveyor belt by studying the means of conveyance. Better to look at what they transport. I’m not much more than an ambulatory camera or a slightly tinted mirror just trying to reflect the social reality out there and to do this under the sway of a professional ethic that says tell the truth, be logical, submit your ideas to criticism and try to differentiate your empirical from your normative claims. If the shoe fits, it doesn’t matter who the cobbler is.
The day we in good faith have to routinely legitimate what we study by reference to our identities, rather than by the quality of the work or the properties of the reality we seek to understand, is a good day to find another occupation or to lead a sit-in.
The critics are undecided about how Tom should be evaluated. On the one hand, we have Jim Willis and Susan Silbey who note that Tom represents much that is good about American society: self-improvement, honesty, patriotism. He is also compassionate, forgiving, and protective of those he cares about. A tactful Goffmanian study in etiquette, he submerges his own strongly felt needs in order not to inflict harm or embarrassment on others.
Christena Nippert-Eng, steeped in rich data on the public and the private from her research (1996) on the borders between work and home, finds Tom’s issues to be all too familiar. She appreciates Tom’s characterization. Even with some questionable behavior, she sees Tom falling toward “the milder end of things” and not “really getting to the skin-crawling level.”
Peter Manning doesn’t show us his hole card. Like a sportscaster, he offers commentary, but doesn’t take sides. We don’t know what he personally thinks of Tom. Perhaps this reflects the “value neutrality” lesson learned as a graduate student. Or perhaps his hesitancy reflects the difficulties he notes in getting a handle on what is real in the contemporary period and on determining who is telling the truth in the story and even who is telling the story. With so much deception, illusion, haze, and so many political landmines, prudence dictates evading a position.
Joane Nagel and Bill Staples in contrast are more critical of Tom. They see him as “way high on the ‘creepy’ meter” and “a hapless stalker, a misunderstood sociopath.”
What are we to make of the fact that these leading qualitative sociologists, whether from the very heartland of America or Boston, the citadel of higher education in the United States, don’t agree? Is Tom, like the society he reflects, just a giant Rorschach in which observers offer their location-saturated mishagas as truth? With respect to where the truth lies (or does it? How’s that for a postmodern pun?), can we do no better than the congressman who, in responding to testimony he did not agree with, politely said, “Well, I guess everyone is entitled to their own statistics.”
Yet there are commonalities in analysis, apart from issues of judgment. Whatever the power, gender, and sexual themes, this is a story about values in conflict, the absence of clearly defined norms, and the limits of rules in a rapidly changing society.
Manning writes of the blurred “boundaries of the self,” “inconsistent standards,” and “contradictions in our collective life”; Nippert-Eng refers to “the fuzzyness of borders”; Staples suggests that Tom crosses an “ill-defined line into the realm of THE creepy”; Willis and Silbey mention the unclear “line dividing unwanted and threatening sexual attention from harmless flirting”; Nagel notes the absence of a bright line between “notice” and “NOTICE.”
Concepts such as fuzzyness, blurring, ill-defined or absent lines, and contradictions call attention to “ambivalence” as a central theme in analyzing and judging Tom and, more broadly, surveillance in society. 3. Responsibly used surveillance is an essential feature of social life; irresponsibly used it destroys trust and the social, and there is a sense in which the surveillance society is a contradiction in terms.
The ambivalence takes several forms. One involves the conflict between competing values such as freedom of inquiry and communication versus the penumbra of privacy-supporting values in the Bill of Rights and in our culture more broadly. Even a given value such as individual liberty can be emphasized with respect to the right to treat one’s personal data as one’s property or solitude and the right to be left alone absent cause (whether from government, organizations, and other individuals) vsersus the right to access what is freely (if often involuntarily) offered and publicly archived. There is also the need to attend to our environment to interact with others and for security. Our society emphasizes freedom of thought and expression and focuses on controlling behavior. Yet we also value proper motives and thoughts, and much social energy goes into trying to create these, whether from education, religion, or psychotherapy. There is no easy resolution to conflicts of rights and expectations other than acknowledging such conflicts and being clear about how and under what conditions we prioritize values. Manners are an opaque mechanism or compromise for permitting right behavior, while leaving out inner beliefs and feelings. 4.
Another source of ambivalence and blurred boundaries rests in the fact that it is social context much more than the literal qualities of behavior that determine evaluation. It is not so much what one does, but where and in what way and under what conditions. To look can be to honor and not to look can be taken as hurtful. Yet to look can also be intimidating and frightening and to not look a sign of respect for the other. Thus, the line between subtle friendly glances and unwanted leering is on a continuum and is clearest as we move toward the extremes. There is no bright line separating these. It is the vast middle area that can be problematic. There is ample room for misinterpreting looks intended as harmless. Yet there is equal room for a perpetrator to misperceive what seems to others to be inappropriate behavior.
Yet another source of ambivalence lies in the area W. F. Ogburn (1952) referred to as cultural lag. There is a frequent gap between new technology and effective means of dealing with its consequences–whether involving laws, policies, or manners. Over time, greater consensus often emerges over what behavior means and how it should be treated. Consider, for example, the gradual emergence of standards over whether and when it was proper to telephone others at home and the arrival decades later of strong restrictions on wiretapping or the legal move from the acceptability to the unacceptability of intercepting others’ e-mails or sending junk faxes.
As noted, Tom is the beneficiary of culture lag. Given the power of new technologies to give meaning to previously meaningless personal emanations involuntarily or freely given off (such as image, heat, scents, DNA, eye movements, stomach flutters, biological leavings, and garbage), the question of when the person ends and something beyond begins is contestable. The traditional embodied self discussed by Peter Manning has a series of shadow selves as companions whose validity and appropriate use are subject to question.
As observers, we show ambivalence in settling on explanations. The tension between social and cultural determinism and individual responsibility and choice generates ambivalence. Tom is in a complex society whose social organization and messages are often contradictory or unclear. Given the vagaries and conflicts in culture and social structure, he can in good conscience rationalize his behavior and behave badly or on the edge, while not violating the law. Tom may even warrant our sympathy for the messy muddles that society thrusts upon him. Who then is to blame? He can’t be faulted for having the bad luck to land in a less that perfectly integrated society whose universal rules ignore social contexts. Yet structural pressures are hardly the entire story. Most others in the same social setting don’t behave the way he does.
The commentators also show ambivalence in being uncertain of whether Tom is a villain or a hero, a victim or victimizer. The multiplicity of social contexts and consequences makes it difficult to reach an overall conclusion. Tom victimizes others, if softly. He also uses surveillance to act heroically, or at least in a socially responsible fashion (e.g., alerting police when Eve had a disorderly visitor, working as a lifeguard and store detective, and volunteering as a neighborhood watcher). He is also victimized by the Navy’s snooping into his email account, by anonymous denouncers, and by hidden cameras. He is also the beneficiary of positive surveillance–from his parents who successfully helped him become an adult, the doctors, who after extensive testing, evaluation, and monitoring, diagnosed and treated his childhood illness, not to mention the vast array of unseen food, air quality, transportation, product, and work safety inspectors.
Tom’s story is accessible and resonates with most readers because we all are both objects and subjects of appropriate and inappropriate surveillance. We also are consumers of surveillance. In our various social roles and simply being out in the world (or having the world come into our home over electronic media), we watch others–and not always legitimately. It is the familiarity and tension or ambiguity that makes the topic interesting and very fit for social research. The ambivalence, lack of clarity, and inherent contradictions make for a feast of ironies.
There is irony in the fact that in logically following one set of values, such as freedom of inquiry and of expression, Tom runs afoul of others, such as the invasion of privacy. We see Tom prying into other’s lives even as we pry into his in spite of the opening warning about confidentiality. Professionals, shocked at his behavior, behave in similar ways and are occupationally rewarded for doing so.
We also see irony in the tension between separating prisoners and seeking to integrate them into the community. In Tom’s case his job training and exposure to data of women’s medical records, also gave him the opportunity to wreak some havoc.
It is ironic that the surveillance that Tom uses is in turn used against him. Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, although never literally built, was a place where the guards and supervisors were to be watched as well as the inmates (Boyne 2000). Current technologies tend to be distinctive because the very tool for controlling others can itself also be a tool for controlling the controllers. The video camera is indiscriminate and egalitarian in catching all who urinate in the coffeepot or sleep under bridges, regardless of their organizational station.
There are existential ironies rooted in the very nature of things perceived. To hide or mask an identifiable object or to withhold information known to exist can be to throw down a gauntlet to the interested parties denied access. The withholding or shielding may even pique curiousity and intensify interest, as the informationally excluded wonder what the secret is, or how the object appears unsheathed. The answer to Joane’s question about whether getting dressed is an invitation to be undressed, at least in the mind of the interested observer, is “yes” (although it is also interesting that being partially unclothed is generally more alluring than the full monty). However on any quantitative basis, the strategic reasons for seeking the secret far outweigh the prurient.
Sexual material has an ironic or paradoxical quality that makes it difficult to avoid suspicions of pruriency, whatever the intentions of the analyst. As the feminist and religious critics of pornography who must engage the materials they find distasteful have discovered, there is an ironic contamination effect--like trying to clean up a paint spot with a rag that has paint on it. In dealing with sexual materials, the critics are subject to complaints about their prurient interests or at least the prurient impact of their work. Freud said in the beginning there is the body--no amount of detached analysis or moral high ground can quite overcome that.
The resolution to much of the ambivalence over unclear or absent lines is to clarify or to draw them. This leads to the issue of line drawing and attention to social context rather than behavioral acts per se. C.K. Chesterton said something like, “Art is like life. You have to draw the line somewhere.” The same might be said of surveillance. All of the commentators seek the luminous line that separates the good from the bad. But it is elusive. We are dealing with multdimensional continua that do not sit isomorphically or cleanly overlap.
In response to Jim and Susan asking for “an explanation for why some types of secret surveillance are preferable to others,” the following distinctions may be helpful. Analysis requires differentiating between thoughts and overt behavior, real and simulated information, awareness or lack of awareness of the subject/object, and then the consensual and nonconsensual collection of information, whether the information is available to the unaided senses or requires a technology to extract, and assessing the type of relationship whether personal or impersonal, the place of the collection, whether there is surveillance reciprocity, and the goals.
It is also helpful to indicate just which dimension(s) of public and private we draw upon. 5. Some of the mental cacophony associated with surveillance stems from a failure to differentiate between, and note the interrelations of, the following factors:
1. Public and private geographical places as legally defined
2. Public and private information access as legally defined
3. Customary expectations and manners regarding information access
4. Accessibility or inaccessibility of information/communication to the unenhanced senses
5. The actual state of knowledge as being publicly known or unknown
6. Social status, roles, and personal attributes as they affect the concealment and revelation of information
Standing on the corner
watching all the girls go by,
Buddy if you’ve got a rich imagination,
matter of fact, so do I
--The Lettermen circa (1957)
There is a pronounced male gender theme to much voyeuristic personal surveillance activity. Given our culture, it is not surprising that the female form draws greater sexual attention than does the male. Advertisements for surveillance devices often show young women as the subjects. The purchasers and users of the technology are disproportionately men, as are the consumers of pornography. Contrast the circulation of Playboy and its imitators with that of Playgirl. In the traditional striptease women reveal and men observe, rather than the reverse, which is why The Full Monty was funny. We do not find many songs written by girls about “standing on the corner watching all the boys go by” (although there are more now than previously). Nor do men usually complain about being yelled at or observed by female construction workers (and only partly because there are so few). Nor are there complaints about female landlords hiding cameras in the bath and bedrooms of their tenants, nor do women frequent shopping malls with hidden video cameras.
As Joane Nagel notes, Tom’s story fails miserably if he becomes a she who engages in the same behavior. It is just too far-fetched, even in our more sexually liberated age, to have women behave toward men the way Tom behaves toward women. 6. With the genders or biology switched, we are unlikely to feel the same degree of indignation and shock over her behavior, or sympathy and concern for the object of her surveillance, as we do over Tom’s. Differences in power, risk, and the nature of sexual roles and expression as shaped by culture (and maybe more) help explain responses to the story of Tom as a male watching a female. It is also interesting to speculate on how the reader’s response might change if it turned out that the story ended not with Erving Goffman’s powerful insights but with Tom’s surveillance discovering that Eve was really Evan, a man who presented himself as a woman.
Yet the sense of invasion transcends biology and gender roles. Some feelings of invasiveness remain even if the case involves a woman watching a man, same-sex watching, or watching for nonsexual purposes. Elsewhere I suggest that individuals are likely to feel personal borders have been crossed when any of four conditions are present (Marx 1998). These involve breaching of a “natural,” social, temporal, or spatial border protective of information or violation of the assumption that interaction and communication are ephemeral and transitory, like a river, and are not to be captured through hidden video or audio means without the subject’s awareness.
It is possible to overemphasize the gender differences. The issue may be one of form and content more than greater or lesser interest or desire to know. 7. With respect to content, men appear to find entangled bodies and the female form of sufficient interest, while women are more likely to want a fuller context and story. Are women really less interested in observation of the opposite sex or just more affected by social customs? They are more likely to use surveillance for defensive and protective rather than for prurient purposes. Women may be better at watching than men; women may watch for different things and more subtly. They are better at interpreting nonverbal meanings. That women are more likely to engage in “relationship” talk, to discuss the personal and share confidences, and perhaps to gossip more than men does not suggest any lesser curiosity. As mothers watching their infants and children, they may, on the average, be more attentive than men. They also, particularly when alone, are more attentive to threats posed by their environment.
That surveillance technology lends itself to disembodied, a contextual information may mean that men find it more attractive. On the other hand, its very distancing quality makes it safe in a way that direct observation is not. Anonymous surveillance mediated by distance does not run the immediate risk of retaliation, invitation, or seeming to show bad manners from staring or other direct interaction. Thus, one might expect that over time, as women become more familiar with the various technologies, they would make greater use of them. Caller-ID, for example, has been marketed more for women than for men. In a related example, women may be as, or more, likely than men to silently record phone conversations with the potential now offered by answering machines.
Sex And Surveillance: Unveiling Secrets
In beginning the surveillance project, I did not intend to say anything about sex, let alone devote attention to it in this form. Yet it soon became apparent that sexual themes often hover over the topic or lurk in the background, particularly when surveillance is covert. Sexual images and metaphors (whether conscious or latent) surround the subject. Covert surveillance especially offers a “safe” passage to excluded but presumably attractive or desirable territory and to things that are not “public” in the sense of being available to anyone. Surveillance and sex share the increased excitement that can accompany activities that are forbidden, illicit, or risky. Secret surveillance represents a form of power over the other and can stimulate the imagination. Voyeurism feeds consciousness, and sex is as much in the head as anywhere else.
There are general features of sex that relate it to surveillance apart from gender. Both sex and surveillance involve crossing exclusionary borders. The allure of sexual secrets (whether the existence of a relationship or its details) is well known. 8. Consensual sexual encounters consist of seeking barriers against the surveillance of others (e.g., the privacy offered by darkness, empty houses, closed doors, basements, barns, the woods, cars, covers, and secret getaways). Yet they also do the opposite in overcoming barriers to mutual surveillance and direct contact. Involved here are a series of parallel and progressive unveilings, revelations, and entrances--from the outer walls of a structure, to the doors of a bedroom, to the shedding of clothes, to the contact of separated bodies, to the revelation of inner thoughts and feelings that are masked in the public and proper presentations of the self otherwise put forward. Here we see the cooperative elimination of anti-surveillance measures in order to facilitate surveillance of, and by, the partner. The hidden observer vicariously participates in this unveiling.
Beyond these parallels, surveillance and sex may be explicitly joined as new technologies offer opportunities for the consensual videotaping of sexual encounters. Whether covert or overt, watching and filming in some form is a frequent theme of conventional and pornographic films. This may serve as a stimulant to the hidden watcher, to those being watched if they know, or imagine they are being watched, and to the doubly voyeuristic viewing audience.
For any eye is an evil eye
That looks in onto a mood apart
--R. Frost, “A Mood Apart” 9.
What kind of harm occurs from a privacy invasion that the individual does not learn about and that results in no direct detrimental action? As the discussants note, Tom’s behavior is troubling, but it is not easy to indicate why. In Eve’s case, for example, he skirts but does not really violate the criminal law. He has not engaged in trespassing, breaking and entering, or theft as these are legally defined. One form of privacy invasion involves a betrayal of trust, whether based on friendship or a professional relationship involving confidentiality. Yet Tom is betraying neither a personal nor a professional relationship. Nor do the conventional tort invasions of privacy (disclosure of intimate facts, putting someone in a false light, profiting from a person’s likeness, or intruding into their solitude) fit the case.
We lack an adequate vocabulary for dealing with much of Tom’s behavior. Nor do we have adequate concepts or theories for analyzing the social setting in which such behavior appears and can be justified.
A part of the answer, as Willis and Silbey note, is that the magisterial universalism of the law is divorced from social context. The unstated assumption here is that social contexts are somehow equal. This ignores stratification as a central feature of society. Individuals who are to be treated equally by the law are subject to unequal social pressures pushing them to deviate and conform. They also have unequal social resources to protect themselves from others exercising their individual rights and to defend themselves if apprehended. 10. Tom, under the flag (and broom) of egalitarianism and individualism, sweeps away the different meanings (and risks) to men and women of being watched by someone of a different sex and justifies his behavior. When this is mixed with individual liberties disconnected from social interaction and responsibilities, there is ample room for the good faith holding of righteously sociopathic constructions of reality.
If neither Eve nor anyone else ever finds out about Tom and his data, is harm done? Can an individual be hurt by secret surveillance intended to be consumed only by the collector? Yes, what you don’t know can hurt you and, even if it doesn’t, there is a sense in which such behavior offends the broader society. As Durkheim noted under modern conceptions of criminal law, offenses are viewed as an attack on the community at large, not just on the wronged party (whether he or she knows or cares about the violation). Pris Regan (1995) effectively analyzes the social values of privacy, apart from the individual as such.
We can identify several kinds of harm and risk. While any single strand of information may be relatively harmless, multiple strands offer a fuller picture of the individual, revealing things that the person may not even know about him or herself. There is a threshold point in the aggregation of information that Tom has crossed. The creation of a “mosaic” in which, through a “value-added model”, combining information (regardless of whether it is public or private or available to the unaided senses or requires extractive technologies) fundamentally alters its character. We assume that those with whom we have only impersonal or no relationships will not come to know details that we have not ourselves revealed. Under such conditions, it is unseemly for an individual to make inferences about another’s health, happiness, beliefs, behavior, life chances, and so on, and to create representations in the way and to the degree that Tom does.
Tom can also be faulted for behaving deceptively. While he prides himself on being open, he hides many of his data collection activities (cameras in dark glasses and a cigarette lighter, a parabolic mike disguised as a satellite dish, and the use of pseudonyms and pretenses in purchasing data about her). Tom is clever in arguing that he takes advantage of situations not people, but his use of ruses and sophisticated technology to extract, record, and combine information means that he is hardly the passive agent he claims to be. That he might rationalize his behavior out of a desire not to upset those he is interested in is beside the point. Such behavior violates trust. We assume that, under normal circumstances, both people and objects are as they appear to be. Expectations of trust are not restricted just to personal relationships, although they are strongest there.
While your physical property can be protected by borders of concrete and steel, your image, much of your personal information, and what someone does with you in their imaginary world is protected by nothing more than manners and their sense of decency. The fact that appearance is in one sense a free good for the sighted, like air or the water of a rushing river, adds to the confusion in assessing Tom’s behavior. 11. However, if we regard a seemingly free good (such as the appearance others offer for us to look at) not only as one that can simply be taken in the world without physical resistance or technologies, but as one that the individual must be entitled to take (in anything beyond the most innocent regard), then the look or photograph are not free goods. They are surrounded by rules, levels of access, and a sense of propriety.
Looking may be free in one sense, but it is not necessarily cheap. Mythology suggests that those who violate this control of image may suffer. Lot’s wife was turned to salt after looking when she was told not to, and those looking at the gorgon Medusa were said to be turned to stone (except for Perseus who was able to kill Medusa by wearing a cap that made him invisible). According to the seventeenth-century legend, when Lady Godiva made her naked ride, citizens were required to remain indoors. Peeping Tom, who looked out of the window, was struck blind and dead (presumably in that order).
There can be harm in violating the spirit, if not the letter, of laws protecting property, contracts, and legitimate access. In “copping a symbolic feel” there is a questionable cheap thrill element in which the voyeur takes something he is not entitled to. A trespass may occur in the ether and within the imagination, if not in physical space. What is taken has either not been paid for or access has not been granted to it.
There is a kind of rip-off here in which Tom appropriates her personal data with such intentionality that he colonizes her representations. In his totalizing behavior he violates tacit assumptions that we make about how others will respond to our personal information. We assume that the kinds of information Tom gathers will not be much noted by others (absent warrant to do so) and, if noted, will not be collected and aggregated.
The erotic looks that lovers may grant each other in public are usually not acceptable when offered by others. Tom makes the logical error of thinking that because he can with ease look lasciviously, or gather massive amounts of public data on an individual, that he is entitled to do so. Yet just because there is a legal right to, or no legal restriction on, doing something does not make it right.
For many/most people these opportunities are used with discretion as a result of manners and/or a desire not to be thought of as a boor, lech, or slut, or to invite unwanted reciprocal attention or sanctioning. We learn to avert our eyes even as we could look (this is often the case with a dead body or when someone does something embarrassing, what Goffman refers to as disattending). Children are taught that it is bad manners to stare. It can also be dangerous. We offer respect for the other by not watching too attentively or by recording and, in so doing, we also affirm something about the kind of person we are.
It is not that women or men do not want to be looked at and noticed, but that they have a proprietary interest in controlling who looks at them and in what ways. A part of their personhood is defined by the autonomy and ownership and a degree of control over their data and image, whether in face-to-face interaction or beyond. It is interesting that a visual honor system works so often in public. One can marvel that men and women are so relatively (if not equally) inhibited in their looking.
When individuals have reason to suspect that they are under such surveillance, they may take steps to prevent it (e.g., closing blinds, using a shredder, not using a cordless phone, debugging rooms, unlisting a phone number, encrypting computer and phone communications including answering machines and, when there is interaction, perhaps even obtaining a restraining order or getting a guard dog). Most people do none of the above because they assume there are no Toms seeking to be a vicarious part of their life. This leads to the issue of the harm that can come from discovery.
The pain, poignancy, and consistency in the voices of those who speak out about their discovery of voyeuristic behavior and related forms of the inappropriate crossing of personal borders is striking. Among responses are a sense of betrayal, uncertainty and paranoia, embarrassment, and shame, not to mention the possibility of strategic disadvantage. This raises the question of what is the likelihood that the information will become public? How good is the secret surveillor at keeping the results secret?
A distinction needs to be drawn between momentary consumption of the data by the surveillor’s senses versus the creation of a reproducible record. Empirical artifacts reflecting the surveillance such as photos, video and audio recordings, and photocopies have a very different moral status than mere imagination. The risk of leakage or accidental exposure with a permanent record takes the surveillance down several moral notches relative to overhearing or watching without recording.
In Tom’s case, for example, he could change his mind or undergo a psychological change that could lead him to want share his work. Even if he remains steadfast, what if a cleaning service, landlord, or fire or ambulance personnel come upon it? What if there were a police search or burglary of his home and his materials became public, whether because of failed blackmail, a news story, or a trial? One of the cruelest ironies of all is that the invaded person may then doubly suffer from the shock of discovery of the surveillance and from having their information disseminated beyond their control.
Even given legal rights to easily available information, the would-be secret surveillor needs to ask questions such as: If the subject suspected that she was under such surveillance, would she alter her behavior in any way to block or deflect it? What would the likely psychological impact on Eve be if she were to learn of Tom’s behavior? Does Tom want to be responsible for that? Would he be embarrassed, humiliated, or ashamed at having his kamikaze surveillance behavior become known? How would he feel if someone treated him or his mother or sister this way?
Fiction And Fun
Satirical fiction offers a neglected way of knowing, communicating, and doing sociology. Much of the book in which Tom will appear involves conventional sociological data and abstract analysis. Yet, as important as systematic data and theory are, they usually lose the nonspecialist reader and neglect the richness of situational detail. Ernest Hemingway advises the writer to show rather than to tell. But the scholar should not be forced to choose. As Nippert-Eng notes, if we wish to engage wider publics in consideration of important social issues, we need to do both. The affectivity of art, whether in the form of narrative writing or visual images, may enhance the effective comprehension of analysis. We understand some things noncognitively, and passion can fuel the effort to cognitively understand.
With Tom (and other fictions in the book ,such as the “Omniscient Organization” and a speech by “Rocky Bottoms” the president of American Society for Security), I try to avoid what Mark Twain referred to as the “impressive incomprehensibility” of many scientific treatises. Our conventional approaches can be supplemented by more explicitly writing sociological fiction.
Things may be fiction in multiple ways. One involves lies, deception, hoax, fraud,
and distortion, in which it is claimed that something happened that did not in fact happen. When caught, scientists and journalists get a bad name for passing off fiction as fact. In contrast, conventional fiction acknowledges that it is imaginary and makes no necessary claim to direct correspondence to a particular empirical entity. An intermediate case is the roman-a-clef which involves real persons under invented names. Language conspires with us here in giving multiple means to words such as “fabricate” which means both to construct and to concoct, and “forge” to shape and to invent. 12.
Another type of fiction well known to the social scientist is the ideal type that makes a greater claim on reality. For Max Weber, this was abstract and involved relatively few elements in pristine form. But more detailed case reports, such as Tom’s, are also a form of ideal type. Tom is fiction because he is not “embodied.” Nor is he a copy. Yet as an ideal type, he resonates with empirical events and captures essential objective and subjective features of watching and being watched. The question is not did it really happen this way, but does it happen this way and is the account useful in capturing the central features of the behavior we wish to understand? While the scenarios I offer are fiction, they are to be judged by a standard of verisimilitude that need not burden the novel.
A composite account may be true, even if it is impossible for it to be empirically accurate. While the Tom I. Voire incidents did not occur together at the imaginary times and places I describe, they do happen. Tom may be fiction, but he is not science fiction. The line between fiction and reality can be fluid and Tom represents intentional genre blurring. The complexity of the situation made me do it. While I have taken some leeway, most of the substance and many direct quotes are from my observations, interviews, and reading. A composite account may be true, even if it is impossible for it to be empirically accurate.
A map or compass coordinates are not literally the territory. Yet they reflect elements of it and can be essential in navigating it. In the same way I hope my use of fiction can help make sense of actual and emerging social worlds. And perhaps by sparking thought can help shape these.
Tom is both docudrama and mockudrama. The nature of such writing must be clearly stated, else misuse of the form may degenerate into propaganda. There can be a tension between the scholar’s need for accuracy, balance, fairness, logic, and depth and the requisites of provocative satire and fiction. Education needn’t be entertaining, but neither should the solemnity of the academy preclude its being entertaining. Psychologists have a natural advantage over sociologists here in dealing with individual narratives as against the abstractions of social structure.
The risk for a social scientist in mixing fact and fiction is that some readers will assume that the situations described are real in the literal sense, rather than being real in the ideal typical sense of representations of things in, or potentially in, the world. 13. At the other extreme, some readers will dismiss it all precisely because it isn’t “real” as in literal.
In a moment of aging indiscretion, I had the temerity to offer thirty-seven moral mandates for aspiring sociologists (Marx 1997). I urged greater attention to writing and argued for new ways of communicating. I also suggested that sociologists should have more fun. Drawing again from Weber (1958), I argued for sociology as a vacation as well as a vocation. Life is short, and the stuff many of us study is depressing and tragic. Humor not only can alleviate stress, it can afford unique insights by pointing out cultural contradictions (Davis 1993). Having a store of information built up from studying the topic for a decade, I didn’t have to do research. I simply thought about Tom and his case flowed out. It was great fun. I loved writing it.
I think our methods courses would do well to train students in writing reality-grounded fiction and in the uses of irony, parables, satire, and humor. There is a well-established fictional tradition in quantitative analysis of using simulated data. It is more than time to develop an equivalent tradition for qualitative work.
In describing Tom, I emphasized the bizarre and atypical to surface and highlight the issues. However, his extreme behavior and responses are at one end of a continuum. He illuminates potential uses of the new technologies and the lack of adequate formal or mannerly protections against violation. Whatever his distinctive psychology, he reflects elements of our culture and conflicts within it.
Tom reminds us that the social and ethical issues around information technology do not just involve large organizations (merchants, banks, insurers, workplaces, government) and their treatment of individuals, or their organizational rivals, but also the behavior of individuals toward each other.
Willis and Silbey’s use of the Pogo epigraph is telling. Tom does not come from the far reaches of American society. He has been formed and affected by surveillance experiences in mainline institutions–the military, education, work, therapy. His ideas are not drawn from the sanity-defying fringe media but from mainstream sources such as “Reality TV” and the popular press.
He shows how easy it is to rationalize highly questionable behavior 14. and how muddled expectations regarding all of this can be. There is some of Tom in all of us, regardless of gender, although in our culture more in men than in women. To varying degrees, we also share something with the objects of Tom’s unwelcome (and often unrecognized) surveillance.
In offering Tom as satirical fiction, I do not wish to detract from the mundane and omnipresent reality of the topic nor from its seriousness. Tom may be an outlier and even an outlaw, but it is premature to conclude that he is not also a guinea pig and pioneer.
Papers discussed here:
Boyne, Roy 2000. “Post-Panopticism” Economy and Society 29: 285-307.
Davis, Murray 1993. What’s So Funny? The Comic Conception of Culture and Society.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lathem, Edward (ed.) 1975. The Poetry of Robert Frost. New York: Holt, Rinehart and
Lodge, David 1995. Small Worlds: An Academic Romance. New York: Penguin.
Marx, Gary T.1987. “Raising Your Hand Just Won’t Do.” Los Angeles Times, April 1.
------. 1988. Undercover: Police Surveillance in America. Berkeley: University of
-------. 1990. “The Case of the Omniscient Organization,”. Harvard Business Review 90:
------. 1994. “New Telecommunications Technologies Require New Manners.”
Telecommunications Policy 18:538-551.
------. 1997. “Of Methods and Manners for Aspiring Sociologists: Thirty-seven
Moral Imperatives.” American Sociologist 28:102-125.
------. 1998. “An Ethics for the New Surveillance.” Information Society. 14:171-186.
------. 2001. “Murky Conceptual Waters: The Public and the Private.” Ethics and
Information Technology 3:157-169.
-----.forthcoming. Windows Into the Soul: Surveillance and Society in An Age of High
Technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Nippert-Eng, Christena. 1996. Home and Work: Negotiating Boundaries through
Everyday Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ogburn, William F. 1952. Social Change. New York: Viking Press.
Regan, Priscilla 1995. Legislating Privacy: Technology, Social Values, and Public
Policy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Smelser, Neil 1998. “The Rational and the Ambivalent in the Social Sciences,”.
American Sociological Review. 63:1-15.
Staples, William 2000. Everday Surveillance: Vigilance and Visibility in Postmodern
Life. Lanham, MD.:Rowan and Littlefield.
Weber, Max 1958. From Max Weber. (eds.) C. Wright Mills and Hans Gerth. New York:
Oxford University Press.
Wenger, D., J. Lane, and S. Dimitri. 1994. “The Allure of Secret Relationships” Journal
of Personality and Social Psychology 66: 287-290.
Papers discussed here:
1. “In theory, it was possible to wind up being full professor while doing nothing except to be permanently absent on some kind of sabbatical grant or fellowship” (Lodge 1995).
2. My analysis chapter on Tom will be in Marx, (forthcoming) Related articles can be found at garymarx.net
3. Neil Smelser (1998) shows how useful ambivalence is as a category for social analysis. There may also be ambivalence within the individual as raw self-interest, whether socially or biologically driven, struggles with learned rules that define the desired behavior as wrong.
4. I consider the issue of manners and new telecommunications in Marx (1994).
5. In articles on an ethics for the new surveillance and the multiple (and muddled) meaning of public and private, these themes are dealt with in detail (e.g., Marx 1998; 2001).
6. There are of course the occasional cases of the jealous and perhaps revenge-seeking female stalking the male.
7. Ease with using technology and opportunity may also be factors. Note the enthusiasm with which Sharon Stone in the film Sliver, after a culturally expected obeisance to the shock and insult of invasion, becomes intrigued and a regular in watching her wired high-rise building. The film Kika chronicles a female voyeur. While more muted, Grace Kelley in Rear Window also becomes an interested observer. Of course, we must not too unreflectively leap from movies to generalizations about human behavior. Yet as Goffman noted, “It’s all data.”
8. For example, Wenger, Lane, and Dimitri (1994) find that shared secret romantic relationships have greater resonance than do open relationships. What is true for the social secret may also be true for the individual with a secret obsession such as Tom.
9. In Latham (1975) p. 385.
10. Among social mechanisms that may overcome some of this are subsidization aimed at generating a more level playing field, differential penalties for violation depending on characteristics of the offender and the victim, and compensation for victims.
11. Of course, when a river is dammed, frozen, or made to endlessly recirculate, new property and use issues appear just as they do with recording voice and image.
The veil and the separation of men and women in traditional Islamic societies seeks to alter the free good quality of the look. Although in doing so it ironically may intensify the desire. To enforce consumatory restrictions, it may have to break its own taboos, as police must peer at women to be sure they are appropriately covered and wearing stockings.
12. With respect to the self there is the implication that presentations as constructed or forged may be also, but need not be disingenuous or deceptive.
13. Of course, this is not a problem for those who view social science as mostly fiction anyway, whether because of the complex, ever-changing nature of its topics, its relatively weak methods, or the biases of its practitioners. I learned about this problem when some readers, seeing earlier satire, wrote and wanted to know where they could purchase the control technologies described to regulate bathroom behavior and sought the address of the Omniscient Organization. (Marx 1987; 1990).
14. In so doing, he demonstrates a number of dogmatic shoot-from-the-lip fallacies of folk reasoning. These include (1) the fallacy of literalism in which a normative principle is rigidly asserted, making no allowances for shades of grey, contingencies, or discretion, (2) the fallacy of assumed representativeness in which a single (often personal) example is believed to apply universally, (3) the fallacy of reductionism in which a given cause or level of analysis is assumed to explain everything, (4) the fallacy of value primacy in which a given value is asserted to always overrule other values, (5) the fallacy of the final authority involving legitimization through transference in which a quote from a famous person is offered as sufficient justification for a position taken, (6) the fallacy that because behavior is not as bad as it might be negative moral evaluation should be softened or withheld, and (7) the fallacy of the double standard in which when his personal informational borders are invaded he is angry, yet he feels no remorse about behaving this way toward others. Survey research suggests very strong support for protections from the privacy invasions of others but much less support with respect to what the individual feels entitled to do to others.
Papers discussed here:
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