#Sousveillance and community – some implications


I’ve been thinking through the implications of community practice and behaviours for quite a while now. Just under nine months it’s been in its latest tranche (actually, I’ve been miscounting exactly how long in a number of recent posts – so apologies there).


There’s a useful post here which I wrote in June this year, and which concludes in the following way (the bold is mine today):

And so we come that full circle back to hyperlocal environments. And to the dilemma I’ve already kind of sketched out: how can we be constructively local, mapping out society, news and local democracy, without becoming more spy-like and hierarchically controlling than the East German Stasi could ever have dreamed of being?

How can we inform without informing on?

I was focussing mainly on the relationship between the surveillance state versus the independent defenders of our freedoms, who should be our free press. As the data-crunching, open-data extracting behaviours of modern journalism discover more about us than we can ever know ourselves, I wondered – then – what could ultimately differentiate the goodies from the baddies. Or, indeed, as is my complex wont, who the baddies might actually be.

Sousveillance – the concept

The following picture is relevant to the discussion. It’s drawn by the 6-year-old daughter of a thinker called Steve Mann, who coined the word “sousveillance” (the Wikipedia entry providing more background to the terminology can be found here).

SurSousVeillanceByStephanieMannAge6” by GloggerOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Essentially, what is judged to be a wholly prejudicial and overarching surveillance from the state – and perhaps other large organisations too, either in cahoots or on their lonesome – can potentially be counteracted by the concept of sousveillance as conceptualised and understood by Mann (the following is quoted from the Wikipedia piece linked to above) (again, the bold is mine today):

Sousveillance (/suːˈveɪləns/ soo-VAY-ləns) is the recording of an activity by a participant in the activity, typically by way of small wearable or portable personal technologies.[13] The term “sousveillance”, coined by Steve Mann,[14] stems from the contrasting French words sur, meaning “above”, and sous, meaning “below”, i.e. “surveillance” denotes the “eye-in-the-sky” watching from above, whereas “sousveillance” denotes bringing the camera or other means of observation down to human level, either physically (mounting cameras on people rather than on buildings), or hierarchically (ordinary people doing the watching, rather than higher authorities or architectures doing the watching).[15][21]

Bad versus good versus bad

There is, I think, in the above a clear assumption that surveillance is bad – a subject which has been heavily debated, as it should – whilst sousveillance, devolved as it is to the common man and woman (or, in the case of the picture, the quite uncommon young girl), is generally good.

But wondering about some implications of sousveillance today, as I have been, I am minded to think of the case of drones as an analogy for how complex the issue might get.

Drones – an analogy

Drones are used for surveillance; lately to kill people from afar; for photography of most glorious kinds; for mapping of countrysides and landscapes, ancient and modern; for delivering packages; or, even, just as a hobby for messing around with, as we used to mess around in boats.

A whole host of different purposes, then – some industrial, some very warlike, some creative, some genuinely playful.

And so we have a very simple tool: simple to all intents and purposes, taking on a range of very contradictory shades of meaning – which, in themselves, lead to great confusion about what the concept and idea should mean to us. Play, war, creativity, utility … all these things in one object surely make the object incredibly disconcerting to our perceptions of what it really is.

Sousveillance’s possible contradictions

It seems to me that sousveillance must have similar confusions. Let’s see if I can’t convince you.

Surveillance is widely judged as being negative, though CCTV technology – one of the most visible if not commonest forms (the commonest being those which by their nature we do not see) – probably has broad acceptation amongst the general public. All I mean to say by that is we can’t assume the majority are against.

Sousveillance meanwhile, in Mann’s universe, is – I’m sure – gaining ground as a positive contribution to re-establishing a balance around what is seen to be an overbearing cousin – a surveillance which deliberately seeks to confuse the issues of privacy with the separate issues of secrecy.

The technology that surveillance uses is way beyond ordinary people’s means. My understanding of sousveillance, however, is that – in much the same way as that $500 drone now under the Christmas tree – people inclined to can now afford to carry out such counter-surveillance (for whatever reasons) at very little cost (again, quoting from Wikipedia):

Sousveillance typically involves community-based recording from first person perspectives, without necessarily involving any specific political agenda, whereas inverse-surveillance is a form of sousveillance that is typically directed at, or used to collect data to analyze or study, surveillance or its proponents (e.g., the actions of police or protestors at a protest rally).[27][28][29]

So far, so good. But two issues spring to mind: the first, obvious; the second, less so.

  1. What if the counter-surveillance (either sousveillance or inverse-surveillance) cheaply bought becomes counter-productive for the minimum levels of security and safety any liberal society needs to maintain? That is to say, just because people are ordinary doesn’t make them good. Power corrupts, they say, and absolute power corrupts absolutely; but this absolute power may be within a family unit or a neighbourhood just as much as a town hall or parliament. It’s possible that ordinary folk, with such tools and skills to hand, may redress an imbalance; alternatively, they could create a different one, where the forces of security and societal safety find their job more and more complicated.
  2. So what if the counter-surveillance – the citizen sousveillance, I mean – is used not to defend a community from potential abuses of power, nor to speak truth to power in hallowed tradition, but to allow individuals within a community to attack, control and interfere with the rightful privacies of other individuals? In this sense, sousveillance, conceptualised as Mann does, stops being a dynamic where communities talk to power and, instead, reverts to a kind of internalised battle of wills, where within flatter community hierarchies it is not truth that is spoken to power but cheaply purchased tools of power which allow certain citizens to impose their truths on others.

Good people versus bad leaders – a societal conundrum

It’s a thought, isn’t it? How we always assume the little people must be good, in a society where we argue the big people are necessarily bad. But it does, also, beg another question, which George Monbiot kind of let slip the other day: if we are so good, and around three-quarters of us do apparently believe in being and doing nice things, how is it out of that maelstrom of wonder do so many grasping and evil leaders emerge?

The converse being, of course, if so many leaders are truly terrible, how is it that three-quarters of the rest of us can really be so kind?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s