Wednesday, January 9, 2008

When "the gaze" gets you fired

Over the holidays, my sister mentioned that her friend's husband, Leam, had just been "let go" from his job as a mid-level executive at a well-known bank. The reason? Someone (a.k.a. "the gaze") discovered that he had been logging on to an oh-so-evil Web site called "" on an almost daily basis. Despite the facts that 1) each visit lasted fewer than five minutes, and 2) he had been a loyal and valued employee for four years, his violation of the company's "no personal browsing" policy was enough to get him immediately and permanently removed. On his not-so-merry way out the door, he thought, still in shock, "Who knew that checking on a simple football score could get you ousted."

But it did. And I was instantly reminded of this modern-day surveillance scenario when I was reading our assigned Foucault pieces this week. While the word 'internet' never appeared in either piece, its connections to the modes of discipline and surveillance Foucault discussed were all too apparent.

In Bentham's architectural Panopticon, a single guard could monitor numbers of prisoners while the guard remained unseen. The same went for my sister's friend Leam. While he was making his routine contributions to American capitalism and taking sanity breaks to check in on his favorite sports teams, the eye of power--whether it was a computer-based detection program or a real human being--caught him in a disloyal act.

"Our society is not one of spectacle, but of surveillance," said Foucalt in his Panopticism. "…the circuits of communication are the supports of an accumulation and a centralization of knowledge… We are neither in the amphitheatre nor on the stage, but in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves since we are part of its mechanism" (217).

With new technologies introducing themselves every day, it's hard to avoid being affected by machines, or mechanisms, of power. While it'd be easy for me to say, "Yeah, well, I'm never gonna work for a company that enforces rigid policies like Leam's did," the truth is that I don't need to have an official association with a company to be subject to a larger surveillance mechanism. After all, I own a laptop. If I send an email from my gmail account about an upcoming ski trip to Whistler, it's certainly no mistake that an instant later, a banner ad for cheap flights to Vancouver pops up. Marketing specialists would call that brilliant. I call it freaky. I call it surveillance.

And from The Eye of Power: There is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze (155). Leam's removal was far from dramatic that day. To the contrary, he said it was surrounded by an eerie silence that followed him until he reached the urban sounds of the outdoors.

So, I'm guessing that one connection these readings might have to our 597 seminar is the notion that technology is power, and power can either be used wisely and sensitively or to violate and abuse. Its implications for racial profiling and targeting in our nation are especially frightening. And the idea that we often can't identify the tyrant, or monarch, enforcing our laws (due to the complexity and decentralization of power that technology has caused) is equally frightening. Centers of power have multiplied, and as Foucault mentioned in Panopticism, 'Discipline’ may be identified neither with an institution nor with an apparatus; it is a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets; it is a ‘physics’ or an ‘anatomy’ of power, a technology (215).

My question: How do we find the balance of loving the conveniences and creativity that technology offers us while still being cautious of these surveillance scenarios? More important, how do we communicate both sides to our students? (The story I mentioned above made my sister absolutely paranoid of using her work computer, which is NOT where I want to land.)

1 comment:

kristin said...

I really enjoyed reading this post--it's a great integration of Foucault's main ideas and some real world examples. I find, for myself, that in synthesizing theory I always need to bring it to a practical level to really make it 'stick' in my brain.

You ask: "How do we find the balance of loving the conveniences and creativity that technology offers us while still being cautious of these surveillance scenarios? More important, how do we communicate both sides to our students?"

Great question, and I think that's one of the challenges of teaching with technology--or at least, it's something we really need to consider as we go about implementing the latest and greatest new gizmo.

Keep up the nice work on these posts.