New ERC Project Exploring the Intersection between Surveillance and Morality

‘Smart cities’, ‘employee assistance programmes’, the pervasive language of ‘security’ – the implementation of surveillance technologies has consistently been framed in relation to moral ideas. This ambiguity has been observed by surveillance scholars for many years, David Lyon once describing the alternating ends of ‘care’ and ‘control’ which these technologies serve. Yet the study of surveillance has predominantly concerned itself with the latter. This ERC-funded project, recently initiated through the Department of Digital Humanities, opens up a different range of questions. If morality is the medium through which surveillance technologies have so often been popularly legitimized, then what if there is a history of the phenomenon yet to be written – in which surveillance proliferates not as a lever in power relations – but through these accepted notions of ‘the good’.

The project is anchored in the discipline of anthropology, involving four ethnographies that explore everyday relationships to digital monitoring. This shapes its epistemological approach in two important ways. The first is a conceptual collectivism. Although many of the ethnographic encounters will be with individuals, the focus is not on individuals per se, but on the role that digital monitoring plays in the mediation of their wider relationships, both intimate but also potentially very abstract. The second is a sensitivity to cultural difference. With two studies in each country, the project erects a binary contrast between Germany and Britain, as places with visibly distinct histories and attitudes towards surveillance. Aside from modest opposition to the introduction of ID cards, the response to the intensification of surveillance in Britain has been placid, even sympathetic. By contrast, Germany has witnessed widespread civic mobilizations against monitoring over the past forty years: from the census protests of the 70s and 80s, to more recent protests against the retention of data by mobile phone companies, or the boycotting of image collection by Google StreetView. Through this comparison the project aims to problematize this question of the good further. What kinds of collective experiences are being drawn on when people support or oppose surveillance?

Overall, the study pivots around the moral ambivalence of surveillance that members of highly technologized societies increasingly find themselves faced with. If surveillance enables forms of care – for the body, the friend, the family, the nation – cannot their insalubrious applications simply be overlooked? It is this moral tangle that, we offer, consistently inhibits restrictions on the growth of these technologies. By studying, through long-term ethnographic fieldwork, how and why people themselves use monitoring technologies voluntarily, we aim to establish greater clarity on those modes of monitoring that support human health, happiness and dignity – and those that are inimical to it.