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Liquid Surveillance

May 31, 2013

My first thoughts, on reading the preface to Liquid Surveillance (Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon, 2013), were of Spy Fiction (which was my interest in accessing it), but actually, this relates to modern adolescence, too…

Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon write:

Surveillance is a growing feature of daily news, reflecting its rapid rise to prominence in many life spheres. But in fact surveillance has been expanding quietly for many decades and is a basic feature of the modern world. As that world has transformed itself through successive generations, so surveillance takes on an ever changing character. Today, modern societies seem so fluid that it makes sense to think of them being in a ‘liquid’ phase. Always on the move, but often lacking certainty and lasting bonds, today’s citizens, workers, consumers and travellers also find that their movements are monitored, tracked and traced. Surveillance slips into a liquid state.” (

Elsewhere in their book/conversation, Bauman and Lyon have the following to say:

Lyon: “Surveillance is a key dimension of the modern world and in most countries people are all too aware of how surveillance affects them. Not only in London and New York but also in New Delhi, Shanghai and Rio de Janeiro video cameras are a familiar sight in public places. Travellers through airports everywhere are conscious that they not only have to negotiate twentieth-century passport control but also newer devices such as body scanners and biometric checks that have proliferated since 9/11. And if these have to do with security, other kinds of surveillance, relating to routine and mundane purchases or online access or participation in social media, are also increasingly ubiquitous. We have to show ID, insert passwords and use coded controls in numerous contexts from making online purchases to entering buildings. Every day, Google notes our searches, prompting customized marketing strategies. / But what does this mean, socially, culturally, politically?” (p.1)

Lyon: “It is widely accepted that surveillance is a central dimension of modernity. But modernity does not stand still. We also have to ask, what sort of modernity? Today’s conditions may be described as ‘late’ modernity, possibly ‘postmodernity’ or, more colourfully, as ‘liquid’ modernity. Zygmunt Bauman suggests that modernity has liquefied in some new and different ways (beyond Marx and Engels’s early modern insight that ‘all that is solid melts into air’). Two features stand out.
First, all social forms melt faster than new ones can be cast. They cannot hold their shape or solidify into frames of reference for human actions and life strategies because of their short shelf-life. Does this apply to surveillance? A number of theorists have noted the ways in which surveillance, once seemingly solid and fixed, has become much more flexible and mobile, seeping and spreading into many life areas where once it had only marginal sway.
Gilles Deleuze introduced the ‘society of control’ where surveillance grows less like a tree – relatively rigid, in a vertical plane, like the panopticon – and more like creeping weeds. As Haggerty and Ericson observe, [-p.4]following this, the ‘surveillant assemblage’ captures flows of what we might call body data, turning them into highly fluid and mobile data doubles’. William Staples also notes that today’s surveillance occurs in cultures ‘characterized by fragmentation and uncertainty as many of the once-taken-for-granted meanings, symbols and institutions of modern life dissolve before our eyes’. Thus the bounded, structured and stable liquefies.” (pp.3-4) “Secondly, …power and politics are splitting apart. Power now exists in global and extraterritorial space, but politics, which once linked individual and public interests, remains local, unable to act at the planetary level. Without political control, power becomes a source of great uncertainty, while politics seems irrelevant to many people’s life problems and fears. Surveillance power, as exercised by government departments, police agencies and private corporations, [-p.6] fits this depiction well. Even national borders, which once had geographical locations – however arbitrary – now appear in airports distant from the ‘edge’ of the territory and, more significantly, in databases that may not even be ‘in’ the country in question. Continuing with this example, the issue of mutable borders is a source of great uncertainty for many. It is an anxious moment to go through airport security, not knowing exactly whose jurisdiction you are in or where your personal details may end up, especially for those who may be part of a suspect population. And if you are unfortunate enough to be detained or to discover that your name is on a no-fly list, knowing what to do is notoriously hard. Beyond this, effecting political change that might, for instance, make necessary travel more straightforward is a daunting challenge.
The melting of social forms and the splitting of power and politics are two key features of liquid modernity that have obvious resonance with surveillance, but it is worth mentioning two further connections. One is the mutual relation between new media and fluid relationships. While some blame new media for social fragmentation, Bauman sees things working both ways. He suggests that social media are a product of social fragmentation, not only – or necessarily – vice versa. He says that in liquid modernity power must be free to flow, and barriers, fences, borders and checkpoints are a nuisance to be overcome or circumvented. Dense and tight networks of social bonds, especially based on territory, must be cleared away. For him, it’s the brittleness of those bonds that allows the power to work in the first place. / Applied to social media, this is controversial, because [-p.7] many activists see great potential for social solidarity and political organizing in tweets and messaging. ….However, this is an area to be carefully watched, not least because it is already being surveilled. Social media depend for their existence on monitoring users and selling the data to others.” (pp.5-7)

Lyon: “One of the most striking things made possible by the twentieth century’s astonishing technological development is the vastly increased capacity to act at a distance.” (p.76)

Bauman (addressing the question of ‘agency’): “…the nation-state is not the only ‘agency in crisis’. Another ‘agency in crisis’ is the individual, called, encouraged and expected to find (as Ulrich Beck repeatedly reminds us) ‘individual solutions to socially generated problems’. We are all now ‘individuals’ courtesy of that decree – unwritten, yet deeply engraved into all or nearly all social practices. We are all ‘individuals de jure’ – yet most of us on many an occasion find ourselves far short of the status of an ‘individual de facto’ (because of a deficit of knowledge and skills or resources, or simply because the ‘problems’ we confront could only be ‘resolved’ collectively, not single-handedly: by concerted and coordinated action by the many). But we are unlikely to be forgiven for that gap between social expectations (also internalized by us) and our practical abilities – neither by so-called ‘public opinion’ nor by our own (even though socially groomed) conscience. I guess that this deeply humiliating sense, denying self-dignity and hope of redemption, of having been cast in a state of inescapable and unredeemable disqualification is the most powerful stimulus to the present-day version of ‘voluntary servitude’ (our cooperation with electronic/digital surveillance)….” (p.144)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon (2013) Liquid Surveillance: A Conversation. Cambridge; Malden, MA: Polity

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