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It seems unquestionable that human beings do not thrive under systems of surveillance. I seem to recall a book or film or fifty about that.

And yet, we seem to be increasingly subject to surveillance in all areas of our lives. We are in an Age of Surveillance.

One of the realities of our Age of Surveillance is that we are often tasked to be both a watcher and the watched.

Classroom apps like Class DoJo allow for a real-time capturing of student performance and behavior, as recorded by the instructor. This data is displayed for the entire class, a constant reminder to students that they are being watched and judged. At the same time, the data is collected and archived, a way to track the work of the teacher at corralling student behavior.

Newer, more speculative technology that nonetheless appears to find a lot of momentum among those looking to “reform” schools posits that facial recognition technology or brainwave monitors can reveal whether or not students are paying attention in class,[1] under the theory attention is the same as “learning.” In this case, the instructor will be one of the watched by proxy, their performance potentially assessed according to student attention scores.

How soon before we have studies measuring the efficacy of different techniques to redirect student attention in the monitored classroom?

Forget the debates about laptops in the classroom. I can see a future where we’re debating about the use of airhorns v. electric shock in increasing student attention scores.

Being both watcher and the watched has had demonstrably negative effects in other professional spaces.

Paperwork now threatens to overwhelm the medical profession as nurses and doctors are required to document more and more of their moment-to-moment activities. The data collection literally keeps doctors and nurses from interacting with patients. A failure to collect the data makes doctors and nurses subject to punishment or sanction. More than half of a doctor’s 11-hour day may be spent on electronic documentation.

The desire to prevent insurance fraud – a real, but relatively small problem relative to the size of our medical system – has resulted in wasting professional time on bureaucratic hoop jumping. A need to engage in constant “risk assessment” for example, determining how likely it is for a patient to fall, takes away from the ability to actually prevent patients from falling. 

The irony is thick. The surveillance supposedly intended to make sure the job is being done prevents the job from being done. These trends are threatening to invade higher education, as more an more demand for external “accountability” makes its way on to the scene. I think we can all imagine how an LMS may be used for such ends.

Even when we are primarily the watcher, rather than the watched, surveillance can harm us. A recent Slate article by Evan McGarvey describes his experience as the Ring video doorbell turned his domestic life into a “domestic horror movie.” 

McGarvey writes, “But gradually, Ring’s hold on my brain deepened. And it started to seem more sinister. The thing has a motion sensor. Whenever something trips it, the phrase ‘There is motion at your Front Door’ dutifully pings your phone. And goodness, look at that language. ‘There is motion’ is the kind of military-industrial abstract anxiety that DeLillo’s made a career off of. Even the capitalization of Front Door adds an imperial twist: Enemies at the gate! Valar morghulis!

More irony, the technology which was supposed to make him feel safe, induced a kind of paranoia, alerting him to dozens of potential phantom “threats.” My friend Susan Schorn covered the ways our fear is stoked and then marketed back to us in a series of essays titled, “Fear, Inc.” The very existence of the technology induces us to believe there may be a threat where none exists.

Even nominal bystanders can be harmed by a culture of surveillance. I remember semi-eavesdropping on a first-year student discussing her essay-in-progress - concerning Instagram and its effect on self-esteem - with a group of peers, and the conversation turning to how annoying it was to have to keep on top of monitoring and liking the posts of friends who went to different schools.

If they didn’t like their friends’ posts in a timely fashion, they may get a text asking if something is wrong. Maintaining the friendship from a distance required a kind of constant maintenance that felt oppressive and made their feeling decidedly less warm for their absent friends.

They reported a similar issue in being practically required to maintain their own social media feeds, where if they went more than a couple days without posting, people would inquire if they were “dead.” This behavior has become increasingly normalized without sufficient consideration of its potential damage. Some students express a wish to opt-out, but worry over the social cost of such a choice.

Even when we are seemingly removed from the watching, the culture of surveillance may have negative consequences.

I have experienced this with the Nextdoor social networking service. In theory, Nextdoor is meant to better connect you with your neighbors, bonding you through these increased moments of contact.

But in my experience, Nextdoor’s primary effect on me has been to make me wonder if I’m surrounded by loons and racists. The pettiest of arguments crop up, threads going for dozens of comments of increasingly vicious back-and-forth, and there is hardly a black face that can appear on our streets without being called out as “suspicious.” Rather than feeling bonded to my neighbors, I am feeling considerably less charitable towards them.

It may, in fact, be much easier to feel neighborly to your neighbors when you know much less, rather than much more about them.

Sometimes we don’t even know who the watchers are. Technology consultant Doug Levin recently demonstrated that school and school district websites are frequently larded with 3rd party ad tracking software, soaking up data about schools and students. Some of this tracking software can even be found on pages where student work is housed. 

I never thought we’d be volunteering ourselves for the Panopticon, but here we are.


[1] I’ve written previously about the “false god” of attention as a proxy for learning.

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