Constitutional statement and manifesto

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From time immemorial, detailed records have been accumulated on the health, morality, cognitive development, motivations, sexualities, incomes, work activities and whereabouts of certain populations – not to mention on animal relations, planetary constellations, environmental conditions, and the like. Yet, in recent years, metropole societies have experienced a significant intensification and diversification of technologically facilitated surveillance mechanisms, CCTV cameras, credit and loyalty cards, body scanners, private investigators, DNA swabs, RFID tags, Web 2.0 platforms and Internet cache cookies constituting only some of the many tentacles which routinely extract and transport personal information. Surveillance systems operate to make everyday phenomena discernible and identifiable, to harvest and cross reference data, to better manage risk and uncertainty, to normatively condition the conduct of those exposed, to rationalize organizational decision making protocol/activities and to regulate spatial and service access and related mobilities. More often than not, these ‘scopic regimes’ serve the interests of data-hungry social and commercial institutions, who gather (and trade/exchange) information reams before applying a complex classificatory calculus to identify, measure and determine behavioural standards/patterns and concomitant abnormalities, and to fashion evidence-based interventions in the form of policy or commodity design. The steady growth of surveillance cultures correlate with wider sociohistorical changes, particularly the establishment of consumer capitalism as the dominant mode of production (and thus related supervision of worker productivity and consumption habits and patterns), bureaucracy as the dominant form of institutional organization (and the related information retrieval and auditing this facilitates) and advanced liberal-democratic nation states as the dominant style of political administration (and the accompanying forms of security, taxation, voting and welfare management this mode of governance requires). Technological advancement, particularly in computer applications and related dependence, and wider cultures of risk, fear, distrust and consumption, have also proved significant in legitimating surveillance as a tool of social organization, regulation and popular entertainment. Surveillance, we might say, acts as a ‘companion species’, accompanying us on our respective journeys through life. Although surveillance makes social action visible, the relative invisibility of surveillance as a social process has meant that many of the methods and analytical techniques utilized have become ‘naturalized’, relatively unexceptional objects and unproblematic processes in the physical and cultural fabric of everyday living.

The University of Sydney’s Surveillance and Everyday Life Research Group comprises an eclectic and interdisciplinary mix of scholars interested in exploring collectively the social implications of surveillance circuitry and the new transparency associated with everyday life and practice. The group is specifically concerned to better understand the intersection between everyday living, visibility and surveillance technologies: how people perceive, experience and comprehend surveillance, how surveillance is represented in popular culture, how different modalities of surveillance operate and with what consequences, the historical origins of surveillance and the construction of monitoring/recording technologies, and the performative, exploratory and resistive possibilities proffered by the emergence of ‘surveillance space’. Our research team is comprised of representatives from a plurality of disciplines - Sociology, Socio-Legal Studies, English, Law, International Relations, History, Gender and Cultural Studies, Art and Digital Cultures - to name but a few, and so the skill set is extraordinarily rich/broad and the remit exceptionally innovative/diverse. Having a diversity of disciplinary knowledge and methodological plurality at the group’s disposal and capitalizing on the broad and interesting array of research experience, skills and interests proffered, will enable the complex historical, cultural, social, political and economic dimensions of surveillance – and wide array of ‘fields’ in which protocols are embedded – to be better comprehended and understood. It is hoped that the contacts and networks each member brings to the initiative will further help accomplish – and extend – the initiative’s goals.

The group is comprised of the following core and associate members:

  • Dr Gavin Smith (Group Convenor), Sociology and Social Policy
  • Dr Peter Marks, English
  • Associate Professor Stephen Robertson, History
  • Professor Pat O’Malley, Sydney Law School
  • Dr Greg Martin, Socio-Legal Studies
  • Dr Kane Race, Gender and Cultural Studies
  • Dr Kathy Cleland, Digital Cultures Program
  • Dr Rebecca Scott Bray, Socio-Legal Studies
  • Dr Charlotte Epstein, Government and International Relations
  • Mr Garner Clancey, Sydney Institute of Criminology
  • Dr Murray Lee, Sydney Institute of Criminology
  • Dr Martin French, Sociology, Queen’s University, Canada
  • Dr Sami Coll, Sociology, University of Geneva, Switzerland
  • Meg Mundell, Writer, Researcher and Editor
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Our major constitutional remit is to critically investigate and understand the everyday impact of surveillance (broadly defined) on the lives of citizens, in their roles as pupils, workers, managers, consumers, travelers etc. Despite the ubiquity and pervasiveness of surveillance, critical knowledge is still in relatively short supply and this situation presents the group with an exciting opportunity to contribute a diversity of expert perspectives to an area of growing social, cultural and geo-political significance, and to position the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences on the world stage as a milieu where innovative, collaborative and policy relevant surveillance research is undertaken and transmitted. Moreover, because human surveillance is employed to gather personal information from people for the purposes of informed decision making and social control, the collective will address pressing social justice issues, for example, privacy, liberty, social profiling and data discrimination. Our group seeks to address the following thematic questions:

  • How and why has surveillance expanded as a mechanism of governance in contemporary society?
  • How is surveillance represented in popular culture and what effect does this have on citizenry perception, awareness and understanding?
  • What everyday role does the body play in the politics and practice of surveillance?
  • What are the socio-political and ethical consequences of surveillance for humankind?

Current research topics for investigation include: ‘Surveillance and the Scientific Imagination’ (i.e. how surveillance devices are creatively imagined by scientists and then assembled in relation to wider political economy influences and social processes); ‘Surveillance and Popular Culture’ (i.e. how surveillance is represented in films, web games and literature, and how that intersects with popular interpretations and understandings); ‘Surveillance and Governance’ (i.e. how surveillance is used as an ordering technique, particularly in relation to cultures of ‘risk’ and ‘insecurity’); and ‘Surveillance and Embodiment’ (i.e. how surveillance is experienced by embodied subjects, particularly in the politics of identification and in medical settings). Coverage of these salient areas will facilitate the identification of a distinctive, longer-term program of surveillance-related research.

The Surveillance and Everyday Life Research Group have featured and feature prominently in both the local and national media. Dr Smith has appeared on ABC local and national radio on numerous occasions, most notably featuring on the Late Night Live show with Phillip Adams and on Mornings with Margaret Throsby. His insights have also featured in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian, and many other international broadsheets. Dr Peter Marks has also appeared on several ABC local and national radio broadcasts (teaming up with Dr Smith on Late Night Live), as has Garner Clancey and Dr Greg Martin.

Dr Gavin J.D. Smith
Founder & Convenor, The Surveillance and Everyday Life Research Group