Who is Watching You?

Surveillance and social constructivism: 
or why being watched is dangerous for us all

There is a pervasive myth that each individual human possesses a ‘personality’, a collection of behaviours, instincts, beliefs and other characteristics that persist over time and mark each of us as somehow distinguishable from and separate from each other.

It is a comforting myth, one that hides the more mundane reality that personality is really the product of environment, defined by the brute physical reality of the world and by our interactions with other people.  

Each of us exists only in so far as we are defined by the spaces we create between other people, our personalities abstracted from the day-to-day and moment-to-moment encounters.  If there is consistency across time it is only because we generally find ourselves in situations which are similar to the recent past – the fragmentation and restructuring of personality when a person is transplanted into a wholly new environment is well-attested, and each of us has experienced the sense of anomie and dislocation that comes with a new relationship, a new home or simply a particularly exotic holiday.

This model of personality as abstraction, as a construction rather than a constant or essential aspect of human existence, gives us one of the more philosophical arguments against the growing surveillance society.  

If we define ourselves as the space between the people we encounter, then we must know something about those people in order to have personalities shaped by them.  But surveillance, by cameras or listening devices or web-based monitoring or keylogging, is done by people we do not know, for purposes of which we are often unaware.  

We cannot shape the person we want to be around our understanding of the watchers because we know nothing of them – certainly nothing specific enough to allow us to carry out the daily act of creation which conjures a reasonably coherent personality from the mass of of sensations, perceptions and emotions which make up the raw material of conscious perception in human society.

And as a result our boundaries become more fluid, our outlines less certain, and the nature of our interactions with other people less well-defined.  We become blurred, unable to mark ourselves out clearly, unable adequately to delineate the boundaries of character or personality.  Society loses clarity of purpose as the individuals who make it up lose the power of individuation, and eventually all that can be observed by the all-seeing watchers is a soup of undifferentiated behaviours, attitudes and affect.

Perhaps the watched society is no society at all, but a hive.

Sent from my iPad

Posted via email from billt’s posterous