Anticipatory Conformity: Will the Growing Surveillance Panopticon Cause us to Self-censor?

Old-thinker news | Dec. 21, 2007

By Daniel Taylor

Since the attacks of September 11th, surveillance has expanded exponentially. The amount of technology at the disposal of Big brother has also grown. From biometrics, facial recognition, phone tapping, camera’s that analyze your walk, to shouting CCTV cameras, the west is rapidly slipping into a surveillance society. An often neglected question is this: What sociological and psychological effects will the trend toward an expanded surveillance apparatus have on our social interactions?

Lynne Duke writes in the Washington Post,

“If we know we’re being watched and know there is an expected mode of behavior, how does that change our actions?”

Duke is referring to a term coined in 1988 by Harvard psychologist Shoshana Zuboff called “anticipatory conformity.” Duke quotes Zuboff in her explanation of the term,

“I think the first level of that is we anticipate surveillance and we conform, and we do that with awareness,” she says. “We know, for example, when we’re going through the security line at the airport not to make jokes about terrorists or we’ll get nailed, and nobody wants to get nailed for cracking a joke. It’s within our awareness to self-censor. And that self-censorship represents a diminution of our freedom.

Applying that concept to the post-9/11 era, Zuboff says she sees anticipatory conformity all around and expects it to grow even more intense.”

Duke comments,

“We self-censor, she says, not only to follow the rules, but also to avoid the shame of being publicly singled out. Once anticipatory conformity becomes second nature, it becomes progressively easier for people to adapt to new impositions on their privacy, their freedoms. The habit has been set.”

The Panopticon

The shape of the prison allows for continuous surveillance of prisoners

In a Panopticon style prison – designed by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1785 -, inmates are set up in a circle surrounding a central tower, which is constantly manned by security guards. The shape of the prison allows for continuous surveillance of prisoners, who never know whether or not they are being watched. The psychological effect of this omniscient, oppressive and unpredictable gaze of overseers causes inmates to regulate their own behavior.

The United Kingdom has become a model society for a Panopticon style prison expressed in the form of electronic surveillance. Shouting surveillance cameras ensure that deviants and “anti-social” behavior is kept in check by an embarrassing scolding from an invisible voice. With a generation grown up with these cameras watching and shouting, how will their behavior be shaped as a result?

George Orwell foresaw such an oppressive surveillance system, which he describes in 1984,

“The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”

The surveillance apparatus in America has been given increased attention, attached to the idea that the watchful eye of big brother is there for our own good. As time goes on, the surveillance society will no doubt expand, and awareness of this apparatus will increase (whether through positive press or negative). How will our society react? Will we maintain the free spirit that made America, or effectively become our own jailors and be cowed and corralled into an obedient people ever aware of the gaze of big brother?