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Does surveillance make us behave better?

Would you alter your behavior because you know someone is watching? What if that someone is constantly watching you? Is there a point where you just ignore the observer because you know they are always there?

Surveillance as a means of control was suggested by Jeremy Bentham, a renown English philosopher, in his Panopticon. The Panopticon is a design for a prison where discipline achieved via constant surveillance rather than force. The prison is design in a circular building where all the cells are exposed to the center of the edifice. In the center there is watch tower, from which the prison guards are able to watch the inmates. For Bentham, internalizing surveillance was a mean of control. Bentham was an enlightenment scholar and he came with this idea after witnessing the harsh form of corporal discipline prevalent in Russian prisons. The idea behind the design was that the prisoners will internalize the guards’ constant gaze and discipline themselves. In a way, the Panopticon is the precursor of the camera.

The French philosopher and social scientist Michel Foucault described this shift from corporal punishment to surveillance as part of the evolution of social discipline, or how societies discipline their members. According to Foucault, in the modern world, we internalize the fact that we are being watch and therefore we discipline our behavior. However, is it true? Do we always change our behavior because there is a camera around? After all, a world disciplined by surveillance should not have crime and terrorism.

The answer is complicated. Surveillance can alter our behavior but it won’t necessarily do so. In some instances, such as security line at the airport or in a formal event, we are painfully aware of the camera or observation. We will discipline ourselves to look more social or harmless. Several studies showed that police body cameras change police officers’ behavior as they are aware to the fact that they are being monitored. A study on the influence of prison CCTV on inmates’ violence in Australian prisons showed that monitoring reduced planned violent behavior. Planned violent incidents between prisoner and prisoner or prisoners and guards were less likely to happen in the areas under surveillance. Of course, surveillance did not eliminate the inmates’ violence. First, there were instances where people just lost control regardless of the cameras, non-planned violence. Also, violence just moved to the unsurveilled areas. The prisoners just waited until they were out of the camera sight to settle scores.

When we encounter surveillance in our day to day life, such as in the ITM cameras or convenient store CCTV, we just forget the fact that we are being recorded. We take the surveillance for granted and instead of internalizing and self-regulate our behavior, we just ignore it.

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