Fear Itself   /   Fall 2003   /    Articles

Fear, Surveillance, and Consumption

David Lyon

“Bionic Man.” Photograph by Mads Sabtoe (2015). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Surveillance is a key theme for the twenty-first century, particularly after the attacks on America now known as 9/11. This strikes a somber note. Surveillance often smacks of the sinister, a world where suspicions and secrecy rule. In the post-9/11 climate, surveillance also speaks of security, of airport checks and border controls, of risk reduction and the averting of danger. If surveillance was not already a recognized and taken for granted aspect of quotidian life before 9/11, it is now. Social control is one consequence of surveillance, within a broader frame of governance, and it spans social terrains from spying to shopping.

Surveillance is not new; it has a long history in the U.S., as elsewhere. From the early mutual surveillance of settler villages in New England,11xSee David H. Flaherty, Privacy in Colonial New England (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1972). where the church courts were the nearest thing to institutional surveillance, to today’s high-tech infrastructural surveillance systems, people are used to being watched. But that experience has gone through a variety of phases. The mid-twentieth century’s cumbersome system of bureaucratic rule in government offices, police departments, and human resources units of large corporations had by the 1970s begun to undergo intensive computerization. This computerization in turn enabled new kinds of data-matching across organizations, which, though limited by law, began to spill over the banks of all previous conventions after 9/11. Computerization also permitted commercial surveillance to flourish in hitherto unknown ways, through insurance companies’ actuarial practices and database marketing. Surveillance now has a curious connection with consumption. Today, after 9/11, the intricate networks linking consumer records with policing and intelligence gathering activities form a panoply of surveillance that is as yet little understood, but that clearly has some profound consequences.

Intertwined with surveillance is another feature of today’s cultural terrain: fear. Without endorsing some general view that a “culture of fear” has become a general condition of contemporary societies,22xSee, for example, Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things (New York: Basic, 1999). it is worth remarking that fear, in a multiplicity of manifestations, has risen to a prominent position on the cultural radar. Pedestrians in downtown cores have imbibed the lurid lore of local newspapers and television such that they fear to walk those streets designated as dangerous. In the consumer context, retailers fear the supposed loss of trade that occurs when homeless people or teenagers hang around their stores, and support street video surveillance as a means of discouraging them.

On a societal level, above all in the U.S., fear has become a dominant motif since 9/11. The racialized characteristics of an elusive “enemy within” have produced an unprecedented suspension of civil liberties and flouting of the Constitution that includes the widespread use of new surveillance technologies to create categories of suspicion.33xSee Christian Parenti, The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slavery to the War on Terror (New York: Basic, 2003); and David Lyon, Surveillance after September 11 (Malden: Blackwell/Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003). Fears have been fanned by the establishment of a Homeland Security Department and by the constant admonitions to ordinary citizens to become the “eyes and ears” of the agencies of policing and law enforcement. Such “eyes and ears” are intended to work in conjunction with the fully-fledged systems of intelligence and surveillance whose budgets have burgeoned since the fateful events of 9/11.

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