Thursday, October 09, 2008

Self Surveillance

I've been reading the book Distracted:The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson (excellent read BTW). There's a section on surveillance that i can't adequately summarize here, but one of the key points is that surveillance is about control. Control, whether it's over your children, employees or citizens is antithetical to trust. Surveillance attempts to make people behave by reminding them that they are being watched, while trust requires the assumption that people will use their best judgement even when nobody is watching.

A meme that i've seen lately trying to escape the primordial ooze of the internet is the idea of self-surveillance. Just to be clear self-surveillance is the process of monitoring one's self, as opposed to surveillance directed outward on the rest of the world (which has been called sousveillance or inverse surveillance). Self-surveillance is basically just a software-assisted form of what calorie counters and budget minders have been doing for ages. However, the ubiquity of the internet, GPS, and other self-sensors make the process simpler and more comprehensive than previously. You can monitor calories and fitness, track your attention, track your sleep while you sleep, and if you're not sleeping you can keep score of, ahem, other things. [I got these examples from FlowingData, an awesome web site for data geeks]

No doubt self-surveillance is about control, and i think there's an element of self-mistrust also (keeping a diet log is often less about keeping precise calorie totals than being honest with yourself). As an avid runner, i've kept track of the distance and duration of my workouts for several years, ostensibly for improvement but i also have to admit that logging a run is as satisfying as checking something off your to-do list. It's very easy to buy into the idea that if you can measure it, you can improve it; and the more you can measure... you see where this is going.

Still there's something unsettling to me about self-surveillance. In part it's the same vague unease that i have with recommendation technology and my concern that trying to discern preferences from behavior limits the serendipitous discoveries. With self-surveillance i'm concerned that monitoring is a way to replace reflection, in the same way that our attempts to manage a flood of information have supplanted deep thought on any particular subject. It's true that keeping a budget can improve one's finances and logging your diet might improve your health. But human beings don't always improve incrementally. Mistakes, accidents, and the occasional delusion seem to be necessary elements in human growth, sort of like how mutations can lead to both harm and evolution.

Of course, another problem with self-surveillance is that it facilitates regular surveillance. Every signal you emanate, every database you update, every link that you establish between disparate sources is a potential channel for the watchers too. That might seem like a strange concern for those of us already exposing so much of our lives on blogs and social networks, but there's a big difference between what we actually do and what we "surface". It seems likely to me that there will be a reaction to self-surveillance that explores the precise technical nature of trust and privacy.

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