Surveilling to Remember: The Impact of Technology on American Democracy

I still follow the politics of my home state of Wisconsin. On April 5—the date of Wisconsin’s spring election and presidential preference primary—I tracked Facebook carefully, and routinely refreshed local news pages and watched election results on local media outlets. I learned that one Presidential candidate was allegedly campaigning within feet of a polling site in Waukesha. It was even rumored he had been inside the location. Some people were taking photographs of him. Others were asking if anyone had filmed video of the Republican presidential candidate, especially inside the polling location. Not everyone was confident of the legality of his actions, but most people posting comments were uncomfortable with what they perceived as his unethical behavior, characteristic of voter intimidation. While this account concerns political campaigns, they represent only one process by which to gain insight into how citizens informally regulate perceived threats to their self-governance. This essay discusses the use of sousveillant technology and considers its potential impacts on democratic practices in the United States.

Brief History of Sousveillance

The formal study of surveillance dates to publication of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon in 1791. Nearly two hundred years later, Mann developed the related concept of sousveillance, or the recording of an activity by a participant in an activity, from an analysis of Garfinkel’s 1967 ethno-methodological approach to breaching norms (Bakir, 16). Mann conducted his initial research in the 1980s, before the advent and ubiquitous use of hand-held computers, digital cameras and smart phones. By developing WearCam and WearComp, Mann sought to connect sousveillance technology directly with personal agency and power (Mann, 2001 & Mann, Nolan, and Wellman, 2003). These devices allow a user to watch, record and broadcast her surroundings. Mann hoped that sousveillance would enable people to stand against or contravene the state’s oversight of their activities. He also suggested that such individual involvement in surveilling government activities might also cultivate a better informed citizenry, since one could learn much about what is happening in government through such observation.

The relative informality of sousveillance contributes to its accessibility, but may also invite abuse. In practical terms, sousveillance faces fewer impediments to the distribution of its content than commercial media products do. Sousveilliant technologies are much simpler to use than traditional production tools, reducing the need for expert knowledge. Mann understood that inappropriate use of sousveillance devices would be scrutinized, but he argued that such attention would arise from the inherent nature of sousveillance as a way of individuals exercising control over a recorded moment and gaining insight into their personal epistemology (Mann, 2005). Sousveillant technology makes errors visible, unlike secretive surveillance cultures whose overseers are unlikely to allow their errors to be detected publically (Mann, 2001). Other researchers have described privacy breaches arising from surveillance issues as empowering. One analyst, for example, has contended that webcams and exhibitionist acts enabled by technology can transform surveillance regimes into a kind of “spectacle” that emboldens citizens (Koskela, 208).

A Case Study

The ongoing debate over the reach, character and appropriateness of sousveillance technologies is a vital one for democratic societies, as the line between exercising appropriate agency and behaving bombastically is sometimes a fine one. Bakir has highlighted the inappropriate use of handheld technology devices by U.S. Army and CIA Abu Ghraib prison guards to record human rights abuses in Iraq in 2003 as an example of what these technologies can both encourage and reveal. Susan Sontag captured the moral repugnance and gravity of that situation by comparing it to an earlier travesty, photographs of lynchings of African Americans in the South:

If there is something comparable to what these [Abu Ghraib] pictures show it would be some of the photographs of black victims of lynching taken between the 1880s and 1930s, which show small-town Americans grinning beneath the naked mutilated body of a black man or woman hanging from a tree. The lynching photographs were souvenirs of a collective action whose participants felt perfectly justified in what they had done. So are the pictures from Abu Ghraib. If there is a difference, it is a difference created by the increasing ubiquity of photographic actions. The lynching pictures were in the nature of photographs as trophies — taken by a photographer, in order to be collected, stored in albums; turned into postcards; displayed. The pictures taken by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib reflect a shift in the use made of picturesless objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated. (2004, paragraphs 6 and 7)

Photojournalists or news reporters did not shoot the photos of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse; U.S. soldiers and CIA employees perpetrating the abuse used their personal digital cameras to record their atrocities (Bakir, 88). In a sousveillance culture, individuals determine what they find atrocious or beautiful and what is appropriate to record, which images to share and to whom the information should be distributed. This example illustrates that these technologies are not simply about capturing a child’s first step and emailing it to family or posting it to Facebook for one’s “friends” to like. Instead, a sousveillance culture can raise profound questions related to trust, consent and democratic agency.

The Place of Consenting and Forgetting in Democracy

The Abu Ghraib disgrace and the repulsive history of lynching demonstrate that society might not always like the portraits sousveillance helps us see. Yet, there is evidence that communities are not always willing to countenance such evidence, however plain or clear it may be. Discursive amnesia, the public or collective forgetting, downplaying or decontextualizing of economic or political events that call a country’s or group’s actions into question for the sake of individual well-being can challenge even patently obvious injustices so as to preserve dominant understandings. As Lee and Wander have argued, these “specific acts of collective forgetting perpetuate privilege and interest in a particular economic and political context,” and through these episodes, “a group identifies itself not only through what it publicly or officially recalls, but also through what it systematically forgets” (1998, 152 and 154).

Paradoxically, sousveillance can appeal to activists and others who seek to remember or raise awareness of various issues in America, in turn amplifying their voices of dissent. Yet, just as there are challenges with “motivated forgetting” (Lee & Wander, 1998, 153), the self-preserved Abu Ghraib videos and photos of moral outrages as well as earlier photos documenting community picnics at lynchings suggest that sousveillant technologies can reveal a painful individual and collective willingness to countenance deeply unjust and undemocratic behaviors as well.

Michael (2015) recently thoughtfully explored the issue of consent and her argument has implications for sousveillance. She pointed out that such technologies can capture images of people who have not granted their consent to be recorded. When this happens, Michael considers it to be a human rights violation, suggesting that every individual has a basic right to control their image and go about their life without the intrusion that being recorded represents. It is unclear if Michael holds government surveillance efforts to the same standard, but it would seem both sousveillance and surveillance run a high risk of violating individuals’ rights in just such a fashion. Her critique also raises additional significant legal and moral questions, such as whether government or authority figures, or even advocates protesting extreme oppression of their civil rights, are justified in violating human rights for the sake of what they may perceive to be a greater good.

Sousveillance surely provides the technological ability for more people to engage in strategic political communication, as its existence implies that the state no longer enjoys a monopoly on political communication. Sousveillance also suggests that possible exposés of corporate or public official wrongdoing are no longer likely to be the province of a small cadre of journalists alone. Critically, however, sousveillance is primarily focused on the technology that enables it. In this sense and at its best, it merely provides potential mechanisms by which to transform popular social demands and moral outrage into community or policy changes. Meanwhile, however, American society must pay due diligence to the pressing moral and democratic questions that frame the ways in which sousveillance technology is now increasingly being employed.

Implicit in the preceding cautions is a still deeper challenge raised by the growing ubiquity of surveillance and sousveillance technologies alike, first observed by the American philosopher and educator John Dewey. Commenting in the aftermath of World War II, Dewey argued in 1950 that, “living as we now do in what is almost a chronic state of crises, there is danger that fear and the sense of insecurity become the predominant motivation of our activities” (247). He explicitly connected fear-ridden choices with civic health by suggesting that, “when we allow ourselves to be fear-ridden and permit it to dictate how we act, it is because we have lost faith in our fellowmen—and that is the unforgiveable sin against the spirit of democracy” (Dewey 1950, 248). Dewey wrote about a society far less surveilled than America is today. The challenges associated with the socially corrosive effects of widespread public fear and the human rights abuses it can portend to which he pointed are even more salient today.


Technology is perhaps most often seen as an avenue to making life “better.” Sousveillance provides unprecedented tools to human society and likewise presents an enormous opportunity for citizens to organize, promote and share personal thoughts, opinions, behavior and stories with broader populations. Yet this potential may not be realized. As Mann recognized, there is nothing about sousveillance that prevents its appropriation by the Panoptic, traditional surveillance state (Mann 2001). That is, although Mann conceived sousveillance with the intent of resisting the Panopticon, there is nothing intrinsic in most of these technologies that mandates or controls their usage exclusively for that purpose. Thus, we find ourselves in a de facto 21st-century Panoptic battle: How do we use individual communication technologies now available to enable new civic agendas rather than to privatize society still more completely, or to invade the rights of our fellow citizens, or to provide new modes of oversight for a state now bent on “protecting” us, at our collective behest, from our own fears? How will we harness our ability to reflect human nature, agency and political struggles creatively and compassionately and with an authenticity that has never before been achieved? Can we use the personal technologies increasingly available to build stronger communities or will we be content, instead, to fall into self-absorption and Snapchat with the cool kids until the next iPhone model is released while the government oversees more and more elements of our daily lives?

1The Presidential candidate I reference here is Donald Trump, but since this essay is concerned with the act of photography and videotaping, and not his campaign ethics, I have chosen not to name him explicitly in the central text.

2For the record, the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board formally investigated these complaints, but found no wrongdoing, as the cited Stein newspaper story reported.

3Bentham foresaw surveillance occurring in places such as schools, prisons and workplaces and suggested that the use of “total” surveillance would prevent people from misbehaving and increase their own self-regulation of their behavior. He included three kinds of oversight in his total Panopticon concept: actual, implied, and potential. Michel Foucault (1977) described the Panopticon as a method of social control in which individuals regulate their own behavior by conforming to social rules exerted by those in power.

Bakir, Vian. 2010. Sousveillance, Media and Strategic Political Communication: Iraq,
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Dewey, J. (1993). “John Dewey responds” In D. Morris and I. Shapiro (Eds.), John
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Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. New York: Vintage

Koskela, H. (2004). “Webcams, TV Shows, and Mobile Phones: Empowering
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Lee, W. and Wander, P. (1998). On discursive amnesia: Reinventing the possibilities for
democracy through discursive amnesty. In M. Salvador & P.M. Sias (Eds.), The public voice in a democracy at risk (pp. 151-172). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Mann, S. (2001). Cyborg: Digital destiny and human possibility in the age of the
wearable computer. With H. Niedzviecki. Canada: Doubleday Canada.

—-(2005). “Sousveillance and cyberlogs. A 30-year empirical voyage through ethical,
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Mann, S., Nolan, J. and B. Wellman (2003). Sousveillance: Inventing and using
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Consumer Electronics Magazine. April 2015, pp. 92-94.

Sontag, S. (24 May 2004). What have we done? Retrieved November 26, 2015 from

Stein, J. 5 April 2016. “GAB: Donald Trump broke no election rules at polling place.”
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mary-ryanMary K. Ryan is a doctoral student in the ASPECT (Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought) program at Virginia Tech where she teaches in the Department of Political Science. Mary is also a Virginia Tech Graduate School Diversity Scholar. She received her M.A. in Public Service from Marquette University and is an alumna of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab and the Tufts Summer Institute of Civic Studies. Her research interests include: U.S. social movements; racism and white privilege; civic studies; moral philosophy; and ethical understandings of truth, responsibility and sympathy.

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