“Surveillance is Useful and Also Threatening”

by Joe Scarry, from Scarry Thoughts

I was reuniting with high school friends last week. One of them is now a principal in a suburban elementary school. He loves his work — and I can’t think of a better person to be shaping young lives.

Over a diner breakfast one morning, he said, “You know, Joe, we now have cameras throughout the school. So when a parent calls and says their kid had a problem, we can pull up the video and see exactly what happened.” He told me that many schools installed camera systems in the wake of the Newtown shootings. (See for instance Schools beef up security after Newtown; cameras, panic buttons installed)

For him, as a principal, total visibility into the school is great. (Just imagine trying to settle a he-said, she-said dispute without being able to go back to replay.)

And the technology supports crisis management, if that should become necessary. (Local police are able to link in to the system.)

Of course, there are limits. There are no cameras in the bathrooms. (Yet.)

My friend is aware of my work on the issues of surveillance and drones. We talked about some of the philosophical and ethical issues. In general, the children in an elementary school are assumed to require the oversight and direction of school staff, so it is not unreasonable to have adults watching the children. On the other hand . . . .

I proposed a thought experiment: “Can you envision a situation in which a parent came to you about an issue, and you might elect to not make use of the video record? What would it be like to engage the people involved in resolving the conflict without being impacted by that video?

(I think that my proposal was stimulated by the fact that what had been really interesting to me was listening to his descriptions of engaging with young boys who were engaging in troublesome behavior. As he recounted the way he talked to them, I thought, “He is not coming at them from a position of power and threat; he’s using empathy, humor, modeling.”)

We talked about the work of Michel Foucault, and his insights about how observation — especially total observation — is the tip of the iceberg in a system of one-way control. From the time I started focusing on the problem of drones — about four years ago — the work of Foucault and the alarm he raised about the “panopticon” society has been in the front of my mind.

How does someone who holds in his hands the power to see everything resist the temptation to control, and instead focus on the need to understand?

This conversation helped crystallized for me the broad insight: “Surveillance is useful and also threatening.

I hope a large number of people will take this up and struggle with it.


Here’s more on the issue as it relates to schools: “Privacy vs. Security: Are you prepared for the thorny issues surrounding student surveillance?” by David Rapp in Scholastic

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