New forms of surveillance in public space?

It is more difficult to discipline myself into blogging, particularly at busy times, than I had imagined. Nevertheless, I still want to devote this post to the (draft) paper I presented at the AAG meeting last month in New York.

The paper I gave discussed a shift in the surveillance of public spaces that seems to be taking place in the Netherlands. The key idea was as follows: “As part of neoliberalisation, under the influence of shifting discourses and enabled by socio-technological developments, the Netherlands are currently witnessing a broadening of surveillance in public spaces from the government of others to ethical government of the self, which demands us to further rethink surveillance theory in human geography and beyond”. This is of course quite a complex sentence but what I tried to convey is this:

In various ways citizens are urged to monitor the behaviour of others and to intervene if they misbehave — for instance, when they bully or harass paramedics, police officers or other emergency service providers: In such a situation ‘good citizens’ are expected to ask others for help and come up to the perpetrator; call the national emergency number (112), stay with and give care to the victim; and make photos for the police and report themselves as witness. This at least is the central message of a media campaign launched by national government. And recent information and communication technologies are used in creative ways in this campaign. Not only is there a dedicated website (, only in Dutch) and are Facebook and Hyves (a Dutch social networking site) used to disseminate the message (and creative watchful subjectivities); the campaign also assumes that people have access to mobile phones equipped with cameras and deploys this notion to regulate public spaces. What is more, in the city-centres of Rotterdam and Amsterdam short movie clips are shown on large screens in public space, which combine real-time footage of public space with pre-recorded scenes in which ambulance personnel is attacked by a few youth. The effect is that people walking past the screen see themselves projected into the scene with ambulance personnel in real time. In this way they are directly confronted with the consequences of passivity and non-intervention among passersby.

What we see here is that video-technology is not so much used to keep people under surveillance, as with CCTV (closed-circuit television). Rather it is used only to induce a process of self-government in users of public spaces. That is, we see a shift from using camera footage to govern others to using video technology to trigger government of the self. Note that this is a relative shift, for self-government is also part of the CCTV logic. After all, a key reason for installing CCTV relates to its presumed preventative function. The idea is that potential perpetrators who see a CCTV camera will become less inclined to commit a crime, given that the ‘cost’ of undertaking that course of action increases (or is assumed to increase) when the whole situation is filmed. Nonetheless, drawing on the work of Foucault, we can still say that the balance or matrix of self-government and the government of others is different in the regulatory regime promoted in the recent media campaign vis-a-vis the more traditional regime centred on CCTV.

And this brings me to the final part of the key idea that I presented in New York. For if we, as social scientists, are to make sense of the regulatory processes that currently take place with regard to public space in the Netherlands, it is ever more important that surveillance theory is rethought with regard to the effects of watching and being watched. To use some more jargon, more attention needs to be paid to the subjectivities — the ways of being and doing — for the people who are watching and/or are being watched. The developments in the Netherlands make it clear that it is no longer adequate — if it ever was — to think of the people who are being watched as passive receptacles of the view of others. Nor does it suffice to think of watching and being watched in terms of domination and resistance (as with artistic or other protests against the installment of CCTV systems). Thus, thinking theoretically about CCTV and video technology in public space more generally needs to really move beyond Foucault’s panopticism and concepts that are directly indebted to this, such as counterveillance or sousveillance. Instead we need to embrace the thinking by Hille Koskela and others. Koskela has elaborated four ‘modalities of surveillance’ of which traditional panopticism and counterveillance are only two. One of the other two is what she terms ‘humble servants‘ and consists in public authorities mobilising the ‘eyes on the street’ to supplement official surveillance and so realise their political agendas around security. This, then, is the modality of surveillance that we currently see becoming more important in Dutch public space.

Unlike some surveillance scholars, I still think that Foucault’s philosophy is very helpful in understanding the humble servant modality (and other forms) of surveillance. In fact, the largest part of the paper I gave in New York was devoted to the following argument: Rather than moving away from Foucault altogether, we need to draw a wider set of ideas and concepts from his oeuvre and combine these with notions form (post) phenomenology. For understanding the humble servant modality we can use Foucault’s writings on self government and ethics very well. And if we combine this with the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Iris Young and Don Ihde we can even better understand the significance and consequences of the media campaigns of the past months in the Netherlands.