Rezension: Liquid Surveillance

Rezension: zusammen mit Criminologia-LogoKopie

Bauman, Zygmunt and David Lyon. 2013. Liquid Surveillance: A Conversation. Cambridge: Polity.

von Kris Unsworth, Philadelphia


While many discussions engaged with questions of surveillance and technology in today’s society end in visions of dystopia, which draw on the imaginings of fiction writers and philosophers; Liquid Surveillance demonstrates an active engagement with the issue. This book is a collection of conversations held between two noteworthy scholars: Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon. Bauman is Professor Emeritus at the University of Leeds. His concept of liquid modernity (2000) is a motif throughout and is applied as, “a way of situating surveillance developments in the fluid and unsettling modernity of today” (p.2).  Lyon is Research Chair in Surveillance Studies at Queen’s University in Canada and brings his expertise and insight in weaving a discussion that ultimately offers the reader a sense of cautious anticipation for a possibility of agency and morality in regard to surveillance technologies and their use throughout society. While the chronology of these conversations isn’t given, the collection is ordered to bring us through the ethical and moral ambivalence enabled through technology to a final word on how to maintain awareness and agency while engaging with these tools.

Summary of content

By way of introduction, Lyon shares that the intention of the conversation is, “to probe the historical and Western origins of today’s surveillance and to raise ethical as well as political queries about its expansion” (Z. Bauman & Lyon, 2013, p. 2).  He posits that Bauman’s concept of “liquid modernity” frames the diverse use of surveillance technologies and offers a means in which these may be “confronted and countered” (p. 3). Surveillance technologies have grown, from relatively fixed and physical forms (be they machines or individuals) to a network of channels, “creeping weeds” as framed by Deleuze or the ‘surveillant assemblage’ as developed by Haggerty and Ericson (p. 3). Uses of information gleaned by these diverse technologies affect all aspects of life. While earlier conceptions of surveillance as ‘panoptic’ rely on a central watcher, the role has multiplied as if reflected by mirrored and mic’d walls, floors and ceilings. We find our actions recorded, replayed and repurposed.  ‘Liquid surveillance’ is witnessed through the unlinking of politics and power developed in Bauman’s articulation of ‘liquid modernity’ (p. 5). Borders are no longer defined as physical spaces, but can be recognized in affordances of access made via consumer monitoring, government security wiretaps and data mining.

This collection is divided into six sections, beginning with a discussion of drones and social media and ending on notes of agency and hope. This trajectory leads us through the, “tensions and paradoxes in contemporary surveillance” (p. 14). As is often the case with engaging conversations, each section could be further explored in numerous article and books.

In the first collection of exchanges Bauman and Lyon discuss how surveillance in liquid modernity is in no longer embodied but has morphed to things like drones and social media and ask if the pervasive use of one -social media – make us more comfortable with the use of the other – drones. In a way the two seemingly disparate technologies serve similar functions through different means. Through social media we are able to publicize our every move and drone technology promises to deliver footage of the most intimate detail. We still do have a choice however in regard to how much we are willing to share via social media – but the cost of anonymity or refusal to participation in these technologies is invisibility. By choosing to engage we enter in to a form of do-it-yourself (DIY) servitude. Those who are unwilling to share information are held with suspicion, as if they have something to hide.

While the concept of the panopticon has been used to discuss all types of modern surveillance, in liquid surveillance as post-panoptic Bauman and Lyon discuss, among other things, the concept of the ‘ban-opticon’ as used to manage unmanageable populations (p. 63). Management in the broad sense is no longer existent in the bureaucratic form but has been retro-sourced to DIY surveillance. Bauman notes that this dovetails with the “managerial revolution mark 2”, where the tasks of security and management are deftly returned to the surveilled and the managed (pp. 70-71, 140).

More precise management techniques were driving attributes of modernity. The primary goal was to create the best functioning system by eliminating anything that could cause unhappiness, was redundant, confusing or discomforting (p. 80). The result is that we are increasingly living in what Hans Jonas referred to as the “consequences of the modern victory of technology over ethics” (p. 85). Remoteness, distancing and automation, the third section in this collection, presents the concept of adiaphorization or the displacement of our actions from our moral evaluations of them. While this term has been used by Bauman and others to discuss the moral distancing allowed through drone and unmanned warfare, Lyon brings the term to play in relation to migrants and borders. The number of borders has multiplied to include economic and digital lines of demarcation. With this has come a more fluid and ongoing type of border control, where membership and access can be verified remotely and continually. This leads to a key question that is foundational throughout the conversations namely, “how can we behave responsibly towards mediated others” (p. 96)?

As with borders, categories of risk are fluid in relation to the continual development of technology. We are in a state of ongoing in/security and surveillance and with each new way to verify authenticity – consumer patterns, social networks, retina scans and other biomarkers – “suspicious categories” have taken the place of individual evildoers” (p. 101).

A rewording of Descartes well known edict to, “I am seen/watched, noted, recorded therefore I am” (p. 130) frames the next group of exchanges: consumerism, new media and social sorting. In reference back to the earlier sections of the collection Bauman and Lyon assert that “the commodities [individuals] are prompted to put on the market, promote and sell are themselves” (p. 31) and “society … has been reshaped in the likeness of the marketplace (p.31).

How we can begin probing surveillance ethically may be found in what Lyon refers to as an ethics of care that examines the process of adiaphorication (p. 135). The phrase, ‘someone to watch over me’ is problematic when that “someone is all too often something – and the something is supposedly disembodied information.” Social sorting based on this information occurs by means of software and statistical techniques distant from individuals and moral responsibility (p. 137).

Throughout the work the two conversants draw on Levinas’ philosophical treatment of the Other. In the last section, agency and hope,  Lyon states that, “if the panoptic gaze objectifies the Other then Levinas prompts us to see that this does not shut out the possibilities for another kind of gaze. Vision does not necessarily blind us to the humanity of the other” (p. 146). In this era of liquid surveillance we are experiencing a “crisis of agency” (147). Digital surveillance is powerful and in Bauman’s words it is “a sharp sword which we don’t as yet know how to blunt” (p. 149). We need to critically face the power of these tools and come to an understanding of the ethical and legal framework necessary to live with them. Ultimately both Bauman and Lyon believe that since human choice remains a possibility there is also a possibility and inevitability of morality (pp. 153-154).

The preceding is only an abbreviated presentation of the rich dialogue offered in Liquid Surveillance The collection of exchanges is a valuable addition our understanding of surveillance in contemporary society. As is the case with many excellent conversations, the participants draw extensively from their own expertise and the book is a wealth of resources for further inquiry.

Bauman, Z. (2000). Liquid Modernity: Wiley.
Bauman, Z., & Lyon, D. (2013). Liquid Surveillance: A Conversation. Cambridge: Polity.

Kris Unsworth. Assistant Professor, College of Computing and Informatics, Drexel University Philadelphia, PA USA

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