New Nordic Research: Life in a Surveillance Culture

The possibilities to surveil people have increased and been further refined with the implementation of digital communication over the last couple of decades. In a new research anthology published by Nordicom, different researchers study how living in a “culture of surveillance” affects our daily lives and societies.

In Everyday Life in the Culture of Surveillance (2023), researchers from fields such as media and communication science, digital humanities, history, philosophy, and sociology study how ordinary people deal with their daily lives in a “surveillance culture”. Sara Stenkvist, communications officer at Nordicom, met up with two of the editors, Lars Samuelsson and Stefan Gelfgren, from Umeå University to talk about the book, surveillance, and society at large.  

Sara Stenkvist (SS): Tell me, how did you end up writing a book about surveillance?

Lars Samuelsson (LS): We started talking about this project with a couple of other researchers from Umeå University some ten years ago. It was in wake of the war on terror and Edward Snowden, and a time when we could see how criticism against data collection, Big Data, and surveillance was growing. We could all relate to the topic because we are all part of this highly digitalised society where it is pretty much impossible not to be surveilled. Try to cope with your everyday life without a mobile bank-ID – it won’t take long before you face some serious problems…

We could also see how this raised important principled discussions about digitalisation and democracy, where some groups are left behind or completely outside the system. In a society where you need a smartphone to even pay for parking, it becomes a necessary resource, but not everyone can afford it, have the competences needed, or wants to be forced in such a direction. It’s fascinating, because the extensive digitalisation happened very quickly, and it has caused persistent changes in society – and not least opened up for massive, easy, and unregulated surveillance.

LS: In this book, we try to deal with surveillance from different perspectives, from state surveillance to surveillance capitalism. But above all, the focus is on the surveillance we expereicence as ordinary citizens in our everyday lives. Our worries are no longer directed only towards someone “up there” with power who wants to control us. Now, we can be watched by almost anyone – various companies, of course, but also our fellow citizens, like friends and colleagues – and these are different types of worries. Some chapters describe worries about surveillance that takes place through social media. There is always a kind of concern that people can see what you are doing and judge it; but there is also a tangible concern about the amount of information we give to private companies. Before, the main fear was about an overly powerful state monitoring its citizens. Today, people feel the same kind of fear, but instead about what big multinational companies can do with their data.

Good purpose, enourmous risks?

SS: You write in the introduction about the well-known sociologist David Lyon and his thoughts and ideas about us living in a “surveillance culture”. Tell me more about this!

Stefan Gelfgren (SG): Yes, David Lyon was a good starting point. He has written a lot about how people orient themselves in this complex world where surveillance is an integrated part of our lives and societies. He points out that the rapid technological development of recent decades, together with the emergence of an increasingly digital and globalised society, has meant that possibilities for surveillance have grown enormously. Surveillance has now penetrated more and more spaces. This is valid, we think, not least in the highly digitalised contexts such as the Nordic countries.

SS: As a society, we are moving towards legally and technically increasing the possibilities for surveillance. I read an editorial in Svenska Dagbladet where Jan Jonsson (CEO of Mullvad VPN) discussed Chat Control, a new EU regulation which will force companies that provide digital services to scan all information that goes via chats, e-mails, and online services for the kind of material that could point to sexual child abuse. He writes that this type of mass surveillance could be seen as something that has a good purpose, but there are enormous risks. He thinks that, even if the actual risk of getting caught in the surveillance net remains low, that ordinary people will start self-censoring just because they know they are being watched. We can only guess who is monitoring our communications and with what agenda, and Jonsson thinks that this is going to change our behaviour. What do you think?

SG: It’s interesting what happens to us when we feel watched. We’ve asked people if they censor themselves on the Internet, and they do, at least to some extent. And it’s not just about criminal or embarrassing behaviour, but they talk about it as an awareness that there is an ever-present and scrutinising gaze upon their every action. Most people become more aware of what they are doing, leading to thinking ahead and feeling constricted and less spontaneous. This of course is nothing new, but the new aspect is that we are aware that what we say and do on the Internet can spread and be preserved there forever. For example, I have three teenagers, and I’m absolutely convinced that their behaviour is governed by the knowledge that they can be filmed with a mobile phone at any moment, at the same time as they stage their behaviour to be filmed and distributed.

But there are counter forces at a high level as well. After all, there is EU legislation that attempts to regulate or neutralise surveillance, such as GDPR, for example. It is extremely important that the monitoring is surrounded by reliable restrictions and regulations that ensure the collected data does not end up in error.

Positive aspects of living in a surveillance culture

LS: But at the same time, it´s important to remember that digitalisation brings many positive aspects as well…

SS: The general attitude in Sweden seems to be rather positive, right? Surveillance is thought of as a way to create security, as effective crime fighting. In a recent editorial in Expressen, Anna Dahlberg wrote that “Sweden must become a surveillance society”. She describes the British system with cameras everywhere as something Sweden should strive after. What are your thoughts about the positive aspects of surveillance technology?

SG: The use of data, the compiling of new and large datasets, on a large scale, can lead to more efficient sharing of resources and energy maximisation, for instance, and this can be key to a more sustainable society. The potential to understand health-related issues and find remedies for illnesses, for example, are massive. Through digitalisation and collection of information, data can be coordinated, and we can detect large patterns, for good or bad, depending on your perspective on things. We have, by the way, just started a new research project, called DINO (Data Is the New Oil), on the digital transformation of society and how people relate to that. How do people reflect upon, understand, and deal with the fact that their data is used by, for example, welfare actors, intelligence, and companies to develop product and services? Here, we think it is important to take ethical and cultural aspects in consideration.  

LS: But perhaps this anthology has given more room to the negative effects of digitalisation and surveillance. Just the word “surveillance” itself has negative connotations, right? But there seems to be a paradox. There is resistance and critique and obvious risks, but at the same time we see an accelerating development towards more surveillance. We allow more and more of our personal data to be collected.

What about the privacy paradox?

SS: I think the different chapters reveal the contradictory picture of people’s attitudes towards this. There are chapters that show a tremendous resistance to this form of digital surveillance, where you are forced to give away your personal data for free to large companies or the state. But at the same time, there are also chapters dealing with how people use, for example, health apps, where they voluntarily enter extremely private data about themselves and seem to view this in a positive way.

LS: This is what’s called “the privacy paradox”. On the one hand, people don’t want to give up their privacy, but on the other, it’s hard not to be a part of a system where you are forced to give away personal data. So, the vast majority choose to give up their data, despite knowing – and, at least on some level, understanding – the consequences. It’s interesting from an ethical perspective: Is it really ok for companies to collect large amounts of data just because people have clicked a box somewhere? To what extent is it really necessary for this collection of data to be ongoing? I mean, what if you could arrange society so that everyone could have access to the services they want without being taken advantage of?

SG: It’s paradoxical since we as humans try to manage an incredibly complex world in the best possible way. It is not clear-cut, and that’s what makes it so interesting. Our ambition is to try to understand the complexity of people’s everyday reality and to see how people deal with what they actually encounter.

In interviews, we can see that people are reflexive and pay attention to their own behaviour in relation to data collection. But at the same time, they must deal with the existing reality and make pragmatic decisions. Especially Nordic youth seem to understand that they are giving up certain values ​​because they know they are driven by short-term needs, like validation.

SS: It reminds me of people’s awareness of climate change – the awareness exists but does not necessarily lead to changed patterns of action. And many people seem to think that surveillance is something that doesn’t affect you if you are an ordinary, responsible citizen.

LS: At the same time, it appears that people are bothered by the constant monitoring and collection of data. So, even if it doesn’t have any negative consequences for you as a person, people don’t seem to think it’s reasonable for someone else to collect all this information about you. Many feel trapped but can’t resist: They still think the benefits outweigh the negatives but seem to think it would be better if it wasn’t like this. Many seem to sympathise with the resistance to the negative sides of digitalisation, but most people think that the resistance won’t pay off – that it’s unrealistic.

Most organisations don’t collect data for the purpose of reselling it; on the contrary, most have some kind of product or service they provide to the user. In most cases, organisations want to protect personal data, but of course, there are disturbing cases. I personally thought that the first chapter (“Being played in everyday life”, by Maude Bonenfant, Alexandra Dumont, & Laura Iseut Lafrance St-Martin) is very interesting, since it shows how the videogaming industry’s entire business model is based on collecting as much personal data as possible, for instance, through free mobile games, and then selling it to others – something that is particularly problematic because the users are often very young.

SS: This makes you wonder how the next generation will be affected by growing up in a surveillance culture, right?

SG: I think perhaps the focus is mainly on the more obvious risks – that someone can get a hold of pictures of them in the shower or doing something stupid – but there are indirect risks that are perhaps harder for us to identify.

Surveillance in democratic vs undemocratic system

SS: Do you think it’s easier to see risks with surveillance in undemocratic systems like China, while we tend to rationalise and see surveillance as legitimate in our own system?

LS: Yes, but at the same time, China and Sweden are two completely different systems, and I think it’s important to point out that there is a difference between government surveillance in a dictatorship or autocracy and surveillance in a democratic system. One of our ambitions with the book is to contribute to understanding how surveillance culture is handled in the high-trust Nordic countries, but of course, it would be extremely interesting to compare this with other countries and systems. Also interesting is how multinational corporations operate at the supranational level, where they fly under the radar and aren’t held accountable in the same way as a national state. In the past, state surveillance was the bigger threat, but now we see how other entities rise in power and influence. And it feels like we’re only seen the beginning of this…

Sara: Well, perhaps that’s the perfect cliffhanger to end this interview, right? We don’t know what will happen in the future, but we know that a lot of things are happening right now, both in the Nordic region and at the EU level. I think this research anthology, Everyday Life in the Culture of Surveillance, offers many interesting perspectives that call for discussion and reflection about how our ordinary lives are affected by living in a surveillance culture. Thank you for this interesting conversation and I’m looking forward to seeing the result of your next project. 

Read individual chapters or download the full book Open Access

Everyday Life in the Culture of Surveillance

The research anthology Everyday Life in the Culture of Surveillance includes contributions from researchers from different fields and traditions who use a variety of disciplinary and theoretical frameworks, discussing and shedding light on the complexity of contemporary surveillance and problematising power relations between the many actors involved in the development and performance of surveillance culture in the Nordic countries. The anthology is a result of the research project “iAccept: Soft surveillance – between acceptance and resistance”, funded by Stiftelsen Marcus and Amalia Wallenbergs Minnesfond. The editors of the anthology are all project members and based at Umeå University: Lars Samuelsson, docent in philosophy; Coppélie Cocq, professor of Sámi studies with a focus on digital humanities; Stefan Gelfgren, docent in sociology of religion; and Jesper Enbom, lecturer in media studies.
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