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Constructive Surveillance and Social Intervention

I share the concerns that many people have on the use of surveillance – particularly in this period of data monetization and commodification.  I am not troubled by surveillance itself but rather problems relating to the responsible and constructive use of data.  There are reality television shows where the placement of cameras is intended to capture personal and private moments.  Society is quick to pick up on these senseless episodes; yet it seems to tune out and turn away from the harsh realities affecting real people – e.g. brought on by poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, and drug addiction.  Indeed, if the average person making use of highly personal surveillance data is much the same as that watching reality television, I would consider this a serious problem.  I personally would prefer that the person exposed to such data be genuinely caring, committed to social good, and extremely tolerant of different behaviours.


The term “constructive” has different meanings.  To some extent, I believe it has become synonymous with “positive.”  This term also relates to the construction or development of structures: people behave differently when they are aware of being watched.  A retail store might therefore install cameras that only appear to be operating in order to deter or discourage theft.  Customers are not the only individuals that steal from a store.  Employees at the cash register and in the stock room might also take items without authorization.  With drivers installing cameras on their dash – and with cameras now becoming standard on vehicles to improve safety – clearly the technology is becoming more accessible.  Retailers don’t need to use fake cameras anymore.  Cameras therefore can become routinely and increasingly socially constructive – giving rise to or shaping society.  If we ignore the issue of theft, sexual assault, liability from slips and falls – all being extremely useful to have recorded – consider the interesting issue of using surveillance data to evaluate employee performance.


Police officers are beginning to wear cameras ostensibly to improve personal safety.  But those cameras might eventually provide information on the interactive and public relations skills of the officers.  Imagine a store manager firing an employee for eating a bag of chips.  True enough, eating a bag of chips from inventory is probably against the rules.  Yet the same manager might perform behaviours costing the outlet far more dearly than any bag of chips – such as taking cash from the tills and blaming others.  I am merely pointing out that surveillance is sometimes highly desirable.  I believe that good citizens and employees need to be “built” or constructed.  External systems are always needed – but especially so if internal belief systems are underdeveloped, damaged, broken, unresponsive, or lost.  I call the construction of a worker that fits comfortably in the context of society “social ergatigenesis.”  At the opposite end are structures that give rise to monsters or “social teratogenesis.”


In Toronto, there was recently a case of a number of young individuals from a private school being arrested for events that include sodomizing a student and posting the video online.  There are certain privacy advocates that would insist any incursion of surveillance technology without authorization is unacceptable.  Yet I ask myself whether a culture of toxic masculinity can arise if dark secret behaviours are brought out into the light for all to see.  Now to be clear, to me it is quite an extreme to bring all forms of deviance out into the open for public scrutiny – mostly because we as a society haven’t reached an adequate level of selfless and thoughtful maturity.  (It is too much of a reality television show for some people, I fear.)  However, facial and behavioural recognition systems combined with social intervention protocols among specially selected and trained individuals might be useful to combat the early emergence of questionable behaviours – e.g. bullying.  We can deal with questionable behaviours before they become suspicious; suspicious before they become deviant; and deviant before they become criminal.


It isn’t my intention to punish bullies per say.  I have met my share of bullies during childhood.  Some of them, I recall, became likable individuals perhaps after they received professional counselling.  Others I never saw again.  I had some quirks and peculiarities myself.  I remember once throwing an empty bottle quite high in the schoolyard.  It landed and shattered.  Soon enough, there I was sitting in the principal’s office.  “I need to know why you threw that bottle up,” Principal Collins said.  “To see if it would break,” I explained although not entirely certain myself.  “To see if it would break!  Don’t you realize there is broken glass in the yard now?  Because of you, I have to get Robbie to clean that mess up!  You are wasting his time.  You created a danger to the other students.  What do you have to say about that?”  Sadly the geometry of educational service delivery these days probably contributes to greater disassociation between students and those responsible for operations.   What am I saying?  Drug deals, knife fights, sexual assaults, vandalism, theft, and bullying might fall below the radar and become almost normalized and entrenched.


For those still wondering at this point, yes I made it through primary school just fine.  I remember that same principal asking me to join the hockey team and help build a storage chest for the school’s toys.  Presumably he felt that I had excess energy and aggression that needed to get sorted out.  I think that young people – and even adults – just sometimes do things that don’t make sense.  They might be “fine” in that they are just plain ordinary.  But society needs to take responsibility for building citizens.  This is not a critical comment.  It is actually logistical.  Humans are generally not born physically or mentally “perfect” if there is such a thing.  Or I should say, people are not perfectly aligned with social systems and structures.  It is normal to emerge a bit out of place.  Surveillance is part of the constructive regime.  If there is granularity, the data can be used for social intervention.  Surveillance can bring out the best and worst in people.  It can encourage them to behave better.  More importantly, it can help society make them better.  But those involved in the surveillance systems might themselves have a deep deviance and criminality – e.g. a desire to exploit, ridicule, and intimidate people.


Those that have read my blogs might be aware that I spend much of my time following people through the metrics that they generate.  I study their performance and how they interact with the market.  No, I don’t use surveillance cameras or audio recorders, thank goodness.  But I still use their data.  Something that I have never shared with anyone – although I will do so now – is that I actually “care.”  I want people to be the best that they can be – and also to be as content as possible in the context of the duties they must perform.  To be part of this self-realization process is a tremendous privilege and responsibility.  However, I recognize that social ergatigenesis has far go; and the roles that define us might not allow for the level of intervention that people need.  I consider this troubling because companies have a habit of discarding those that don’t fit or can’t seem to “convert.” Not everyone can easily fill the performance outlines imposed on them.  At the same time, I also have a deep appreciation for the market.  Employees need to fit the organization the same way an organization must fit or find a place in the market.  Society is itself an organism struggling through life, ideally using every willing worker in the colony.  It is time to make proper use of surveillance data and to understand its critical role in social development.

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