Understanding Digital Culture, Everyone is watching: Privacy and Surveillance In Digital Life


In this chapter of his book ‘Understand Digital Culture’, Vincent Miller studies the position privacy and surveillance hold in the technological age. He begins by outlying what privacy means, saying that it is a concept ingrained in society and culture centred around three ideas; solitude, secrecy and anonymity. Although indeed prevalent in our society today, privacy is a nation that is fluid and can change over time. Miller mentions medieval times, where small-scale settlements, close-proximity of living and high interdependence between people meant that modern notions of privacy didn’t exist. Although this seems easy to grasp, what this means is that what we conceive to be our private lives doesn’t really exist. A few generation’s from now, people’s perception of what privacy means may be entirely different to ours, yet it will still entirely appropriate given the context around them. This gives light to the power that technology, and the creators of technology have, especially in determining people’s opinions and perceptions. Miller goes on to say that this change is our understanding of privacy will be driven by ‘security’ and ‘commercial enterprise’.

In regards to security, Miller shows that we have been in a state of hyper-surveillance since 9/11. Methods of surveillance range from extensive use of CCTV, to collecting data about what people are saying on chat rooms and texts, being able to listen through a telephone’s microphone at any chosen time.Not only does his intensive form of surveillance take away privacy, but it can also be used to locate specific individuals for any given reason, a power no one should have. A relevant story in the news is Donald Trump’s ideas about tracking down and deporting people living in the country illegally, or having a register for US Muslims. The powers given by technological surveillance would aid Trump in such acts, giving him heightened power and stripping away privacy and ironically, security for all Americans.

This breach of privacy happens due to commercial enterprise too. Miller mentions how companies collect information about individuals through internet ‘cookies’ which record internet activity enabling computer programmes to render profiles of each individual. These profiles are then categorised and sent to companies looking to target certain markets and populations. This information can also be used to determine peoples’ eligibility for loans, mortgages etc through monitoring internet use. This can adversely affect people’s lives as information can often be taken out of context (Miller mentions engaging in ‘risky online activity when the explanation may be entirely logical, such as helping a family member). .

The internet is huge, and data can now be stored on an incomprehensible scale. Technology is integrating itself more and more into our lives, up to the point where what we think can be expressed by our technological interactions – such as what we search on google, look at on Instagram, watch on Netflix, and we become dependant on it through work, shopping and social interaction. If all of this can is recorded, then no part of ours lives will remain private. Here Miller brings up notions of forgetfulness and forgiving, stating that in the past individuals have been able to rewrite their wrongs through hard work and showing betterment. However in the case of mass data storage, no individuals mistakes are ever hidden or forgotten. This brings Miller on to the idea of the ‘digital panopticon’, a consciousness where you are aware of always being watched, permanently visible, even if it’s not direct. This awareness results in changes in behaviour, meaning that people follow rules more rigidly.

Miller raises some important points in this chapter. It is evident that governments and corporations have far too much power in terms of collecting information about peoples’ lives. It is important that we realise that people should be allowed to make mistakes, and grow through them without the fear that they will one day be judged for having made it in the first place. If the ‘digital panopticon’ is realised, then humans will stop being themselves and will instead become a projection of what the ‘watchers’ (state/corporations) want them to be.

In order to avoid a future where humans become living, breathing robots who cease to make mistakes or express themselves, scientific communities, the state and the public need to engage in  open discussion about how technology is developed and what role it should be allowed to take.

I question how the children of today are prepared for this kind of surveillance, whether they understand that what they do is never private. Until laws have been made that protect the privacy of individuals online, the education system should teach the importance and dangers of online use so that future generations are aware power the internet gives to others.