Foucault, Surveillance, and Cell Phones


I was reminded of this by the recent BCC post about smart phones at Church. Thanks, Scott.

In the postmodern era, we do not need to be under the surveillance of our overlords, masters, or prison guards. Foucault points out that behavior was once controlled by torture and physical harm, or at least the threat thereof. This is best represented by public torture and public hangings (though we should not forget burning witches at the stake).

In the early 1800s, in an attempt to “humanize” punishment, punishment was transformed from torture to surveillance. The hallmark of this “advance” was the Panopticon prison which allowed for constant surveillance from a central location, whether from the guard tower or the hallway. Rather than having the constant oversight of many guards, there is self-control because the inmate knows that wherever they are they could be seen by their overseers.

For Foucault, we are constantly under a form of self-surveillance as we worry about our appearances. This is not so much our physical appearance but the way in which our behavior is viewed. Somebody could be watching, so we best conform at all times.

As we discussed surveillance and the technological means by which we are monitored, such as store security cameras or camera attaches to traffic signals, my mind quickly turned to those forms of contemporary technology which in many ways are devices of surveillance, though we likely do not think of them that way. The two examples that I want to use are the laptop computer and the cell phone. While we might normally think of these as technological advances that provide us with more freedom or flexibility, Foucault would find this to be consistent with the modern impulse to confuse increased surveillance with greater freedom, when in fact it may be the opposite.

The laptop computer allows us to perform computer functions (games, email, word processing) at just about any location. It frees us from the confines of our office. Right? Not necessarily, in many ways it means that we can never leave the office because we can always be working. Sure we can leave the office, but can we ever leave work. With the laptop available, shouldn’t we be getting some extra things done at home? If we do not do so, will we fall behind our colleague or competitors who do continue their work “off hours” at home or at the internet café? As a result, we leave are compelled to put in this additional work. Is this flexibility or a burden.

I once saw a picture that was part of a direct sales promotion. The message was: Wouldn’t it be nice if you could be your own boss (by starting your own business/franchise)? The picture was of a man sitting on a beach in his bathing suit with a laptop on his lap. Now maybe it is because I am not a beach person (or a business person) but I was left wondering why if one went to the beach they would want to bring their work with them (plus, what would the sand do to the laptop?). While the purpose of the image was to show the freedom one would have running this type of business, it made me think of how such a business would never allow me to escape the related burdens and worries.

The cell phone is a newer technology that I love. It allows me to keep in contact with my wife. It allows me to keep in contact with any number of people, whether it is people who I have responsibility for at church or the elementary school that my children attend. In fact, my cell phone doubles as my laptop and I used it to write a good junk of this post.

Once, my son missed the bus while playing in a neighbor’s tree. My wife, thinking that he had boarded the bus, left to meet me in town for lunch. While eating lunch, we got a call from a neighbor who told us that Shem had knocked on her door and told her that the bus had not come and his mom was not opening the door. This neighbor gave him a ride to the school. We were comforted by the fact that we could be informed right away about the incident. Of course, finding out faster did not change the situation much. We found out sooner, but still after the fact.

I have found that cell phones make us less patient. We expect to get through to people faster, or at least get a quick return call, whether it is warranted or not. When my wife calls and leaves a message, she expects to get an answer. If not, the question that quickly follows is “where were you?” While this may often be a question of general curiosity, it is also a matter of surveillance; wherever I am my wife would like to have instant access to me. This is convenient when I am grocery shopping and something is left of the list. It is less so when I am running late and I am expected to provide an account of my whereabouts and the cause of the delay. Yet, I am no different. We do not have a land phone line. Therefore, whenever we call each other we are calling the cell of the other spouse. I tend to feel put off when I call and do not get a response.

In many ways, we have confused convenience with freedom. These technologies might expand the extent to which we are mobile but they also expand the extent to which we are controlled, or monitored, by others. Additionally the traditional controlling spheres of the home and the workplace are expanding. Now they extend to wherever we go. While Foucault did not live to see widespread laptop usage and cell phones, he did see that way in which we mistakenly call all things progress whether they really make us free or not. Part of the problem is that we are so overly caught up in the modern social constructs of progress and individual autonomy.

I have recently added an iPad to my postmodern tool kit. Make no mistake…I am enslaved to it. I am also loving every moment of it.

4 Replies to “Foucault, Surveillance, and Cell Phones”

  1. Since I’m that guy at the beach with my laptop, I approve this message … When I can’t get back to sleep at 2:00 a.m., I might as well sit up and transcribe another couple of pages of client work. When there’s a good movie on TV, I might as well be working on the keyboard while I listen to it, never watch it. When dinner is in the oven I might as well sit down and type rather than sit back and put my feet up. I can almost never justify shelving work for an evening of freedom.

    I don’t use a telephone, either landline or cell. That began as a cost-cutting thing when I was starting my business, but now I resist a phone because I *don’t* want to be instantly available. Clients who insist I call them so they can give me instructions by phone invariably take eight or ten times as much of my time than if they had typed out their instructions via email; they don’t like to be charged for the time they’re instructing me (read: blathering on self-importantly), or for the time I spend making a record of the conversation and getting them to sign off on it (because invariably they won’t remember later quite what instructions they gave and the fact that they didn’t tell me they had already searched such-and-such a source). But the worst surveillance is the client who is used to being on a cell constantly, who emails every day, or even more often, wondering how I’m coming on the project and do I have any questions and can I give an interim report. Reporting to such a client takes the time I need to be putting into their research!

    Hate surveillance! or at least the attitude of those who confuse instant availability with closer cooperation and quicker progress on work.

  2. On the subject of the Panopticon, and surveillance:

    Remember that Santa Claus sees us when we’re sleeping, and knows when we’re awake. He knows when we’ve been bad or good.

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