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Supervision: An Introduction to the Surveillance Society by John Gilliom and Torin Monahan (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 55, Number 2, April 2014
pp. 515-516 | 10.1353/tech.2014.0056

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Supervision: An Introduction to the Surveillance Society. By John Gilliom and Torin Monahan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Pp. x+ 188. $22.50.

Do you ever wonder if the data generated by your Facebook page, your Google searches, your amazon.com purchases, your cell phone calls, or your credit card activity are used to control you for marketing purposes or for more sinister reasons? Do you need help navigating our new information-infused technology-driven society? If so, then this book is for you. Do you want an abstract intellectual theory about contemporary “surveillance society” with one strong argument? If so, this book is not for you.

Supervision is a model of clarity and accessibility and should appeal to a non-specialist audience. It is short, well-organized, and reader-friendly. It is designed as an introduction to contemporary surveillance society, and it succeeds immensely on this count. The conversational reading style is especially noteworthy since a university press published it and the coauthors are academic researchers. John Gilliom is a professor of political science at Ohio University, and Torin Monahan is an associate professor of communication studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

While the layperson likely thinks of surveillance as watching people to catch a criminal or a spy, surveillance studies scholars define surveillance very broadly. For the purposes of this volume, the authors define it as “monitoring people in order to regulate or govern their behavior” (p. 2, italics in original). As a result, the book is not about surveillance in a national security sense—monitoring people to find and punish wrongdoing. In fact, only one chapter is devoted to security; the others cover cell phone (the new “Swiss Army knife”), credit card, and school and work surveillance. Anyone who uses a cell phone, credit card, and the internet, or goes to school or work or drives a car is being watched and assessed for marketing purposes and credit decisions.

The chapter on security diverges from the other examples and focuses on changes since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Although most of the chapter covers topics like airport security, securing borders, and drones, it also includes the iconic image of surveillance—the video closed-circuit TV (CCTV), as well as WikiLeaks (as anti-surveillance), and [End Page 515] a section on the collaboration between AT&T and the National Security Agency (NSA). The authors’ argument here is that most surveillance technology does not help stop crime, though it might confirm it after the fact.

If this book had been written and published after Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations in June 2013, the authors likely would have come to different conclusions about the role of big government in surveillance society. Here they argue that contemporary surveillance grows out of the private corporate sector and therefore “Big Brother” arguments are no longer applicable. The new revelations underscore the way in which big government has increased its power and reach using corporate innovations in a network of global surveillance.

It is noteworthy that AT&T’s collusion with the NSA was already reported on in 2003 and in this book. The company apparently had a secret spy room for the NSA that contained a fiber-optic cable the NSA used to monitor all domestic and international communications. Using this example, the authors point out that boundaries between public and private sectors have become increasingly blurred since 9/11. Instead of a single argument, the authors present Ten Big Ideas that are meant to remain in the background as the reader goes through the text. Some of the ideas are not that big, but others are worth noting.

The authors reject well-worn terms Like “Big Brother,” the “Panopticon” and even “privacy” to frame their study. They find them outdated and not necessarily applicable to contemporary society. But while eschewing these terms they do not replace them. They think the stuff of everyday life is too complicated and capable of change to do so. Perhaps this is a testament to the staying power of these words. They suggest that the danger of the new world order lies more in “function creep...