Surveillance vs. sousveillance. Implications of social control

At the moment I conduct the finishing touches of a text on Syria and the role of citizen-journalism and online-video broadcasting through mobile communications. Leaving the detailed description and analysis to the forthcoming publication, I am struggling to decide whether or not to enter, hence adding to the publication, a discussion on surveillance vs. sousveillance; the attempt for social control by governments vs. citizens use of same technology to observe and control its governments (from a grassroots perspective). The neologism of sousveillance was coined by Steve Mann, a pion­eer in wearable computing at the University of Toronto. In the 1990’s he rigged a head-mounted camera to broadcast images online and found that it was great for documenting everyday mal­feasance, like electrical-code violations. He also discovered that it made security guards uneasy. They’d ask him to remove the camera and when he refused they’d escort him away or simply tackle him.


The perhaps most famous example of this feature could be when Los Angeles resident Ge­orge Holliday videotaped police officers assaulting Rodney King in 1991, after being stopped for a traf­fic violation. From the voyeuristic images a debate on police brutality emerged and the officers were put on trial. The example manifests an unplanned sousveillance, opposite to in for example the Arab Spring abd Syria in which the strategic use of capturing regimes’ abuse of its populations. In this latter case the technology is primarily used by citizens through a conscious implementation in real time often with specific purposes.


But the purpo­ses aside, the current society being balanced between sur- and sousveillance technology is no longer a uto­pian vision but an implemented reality. Since the attempts from regimes in Egypt, Syria and other Arab countries to control the technology and integrate the same technology that has empowered citizens to resist and mobilize protests in their own operations, contemporary society must be conside­red technocratic in the sense that control and strategic use of technology during these circumstan­ces is extremely important feature for stakeholders on both sides. The struggle over informat­ion control has been going on for a long time but currently we are witnessing how contex­tual power balances have been evened out, much due to the technological design and innovation sup­porting democracy, citizens and free speech.


The implications of this feature is often described as liberating, fair and democratic. However when analytically proceeding towards the long-term macro sociological implications, the perspective becomes more troubling. The social control of surveillance by goverments over citizens, mainly illustrated in totalitarian regimes, has thoughout history resulted in a sense of fear. Jeremy Bentham’s (1838) historical consideration of the ‘panopticon’ and a social system where the monitoring and observation made people aware of the fact that they might be monitored, although didn’t know. This impact was found, according to Michel Foucault in writings from the 1980’s, to implicate that the mo­nitoring through both symbolic and pragmatic use of the panopticon within a specific social context (such as a prison) could influence people to think and act in a certain way based on the fear that they could be monitored, thus given rise to opportunities for social control. The panopticon was part of the industrial revolution that embraced a need for industrial monitoring where owners and other people in power could monitor public places just prisons and factories.


So given this sense of fear, isn’t it also natural to consider the risks/desperation/actions of governments when the situation is no longer one-, but two-way monitoring? It is this particular consequence I find highly interesting in this matter: what are the implications of governing when sousveillance features, the alteration of social control, spreads? To my knowledge this is by far a question that is largely unanswered. We are starting to see attempts from goverments to resume control, to resume former domination and legimitizing it through rhetorics of “safety” and “security”. But in order to grasp a deeper macro-perspective on this recent development, the stated question should be regarded in several intellectual levels/disciplines as well as in processes of engineering, production, distribution and use of technology.

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And as I write this I realize that would be a case of double standards if not to emphasize this in my text. Hence, back to work.


If anyone know of vital references to this overall theme, feel free to share your thoughts with me at

Me, myself and my job as an academic

The combination of using this blog for strictly professional writing with a more personal narrative, I sense can be useful for me. Besides, several people have asked me to write some posts about myself for a change.

Hence, some ramblings of unstructured thoughts….

The other day I discussed the matter of belonging and identity within the academy with a former colleague. The costs and benefits of being an academic when still very young and unexperienced. We worked together for a few years but have now ended up in separate directions of life. Either way, our discussion made me think about the professional self, the sacrifices and benefits that comes with working in research, writing and teaching – devoting most part of your life to this. I went into this profession after I finished my undergraduate studies in which my advisor and professor encouraged me to apply for a doctoral. My interest in writing, in science and social debates suited well in the context I was in at the time and I applied for a position and was offered it. At the age of 24.

First time I was set to teach at the university was at the sociology department, scheduled to give a lecture to an international master class in a subject far from my original interest and discipline. The nerv-wracking experience of entering a class-room full of students my age or older, I still recall. But I told myself that if I can do this, I will never have to be nervous about doing it again. And I managed. Trusted myself to jump out the cliff, interact with the students, discussing without a prepared script, take questions about a difficult subject hence forcing me to think fast and communicate answers. After three hours I had a true will of getting back into the lecture hall. Even got a round of applause afterwards since I honestly revealed that this was my first lecture (at the end, of course).

Since then over ten years have passed; ten years of teaching extensively on all levels. When thinking about it I realize that no semester during these years excluded teaching: it became an important contribution for me in order to develop line of thoughts, forcing me to reflect on issues I otherwise wouldn’t. It was a deliberate choice to teach continously during my time as a doctoral candidate since I found the experience useful in my own intellectual journey towards finishing the thesis.

I finished and received my PhD at the age of 29, after working over five years on it. The book itself perhaps wasn’t the most important contribution to the intellectual field, however I would lie if I said I wasn’t proud of what I achieved.

Life in general during these years was tough with sudden changes, pitfalls and some acts of desperation. I stayed by myself most of the time, focusing on work partly, or mainly, as a mean to discard other aspects of life. It soon formed people’s view of me as hard working and ambitious (since I often stayed at office until late hours). But this was more a result of my own insecurity rather than a natural gift of being good at what I do. I pushed several of my friends away in the sense that I sometimes feared social life. I felt more sure of myself as a professional rather than as an individual in the private life. And of course my choices in these matters formed my identity to others, even if I never really accepted the signifiers of their opinion of me.

The life within research and academy is in my opinion, hard but rewarding. It’s competative, prestigious and hierarchical but at the same time extremely fun, stimulating and exciting. It would be fair to say that my interest in my work, my eager to learn and develop as a professional and individual, often has saved me during the last ten years of my life. But the price has been high. I have made mistakes and these days I do my best to correct, learn and look forward. Cause I know that some day, all the hard work, the nights of no sleep, the lack of true vacation for over four years, will pay off. And when I recently applied for and was offered a firm position as a senior lecturer at my university, it felt like a first step towards feeling proud of myself again. But I still have a long way to go before there is balance between the way I see myself as a professional and the way I consider my personal self.

Constant battle.

The lost generation – background reflections on the Arab Spring

Even if my research interest is mainly on media, communication and technologies, it is necessary to try and grasp some socio-political development and contemporary Zeitgeists in order to understand the role of media in present societies. In particular, since my present research is focused on the Middle East and North Africa Region (MENA) I believe enough time has passed to reflect upon the emergence and unfolding chain of events in what is now labelled the Arab Spring. So, here I offer some personal thoughts on the subject.


Few people with a sense of dignity and credibility can argue that the events starting in Tunisia in december 2010 and continued over the region, was an expected development. On the contrary it was a rapid development that swept former definitions of governing and citizenship away and replaced the with hopes and dreams of a new and better future.

However during the last decade there were signs of coming change, especially evident in the series of Arab Human Development Reports which already in 2002 started marking major transformations within the Arab public sphere. They declared serious structural and financial breakdowns i several states, democratic deficit, violations of human rights and so forth. The reports continously showed an increased distrust towards goverments, lack of legitimacy and proof of extremist oppositional movements operating across national borders. During the last ten years the UN has backed the reports and demanded reformations in the MENA contries, almost threatening with serious sanctions. During the same period of time several protests carried out by labour unions and political affiliations, also increased through the region, especially in Egypt and Tunisia.

The demographic transformation, the growth of population during the last decades and the major percentage of young people in the MENA-countries, was an additional factor as well. As an effect of educational reforms since early 2000’s, the level of education among a younger generation has substantially increased, hence provided capital to resist and challenge the ideological structure. In combination with a very high unemployment rate, this development embraced a critical mass of young educated people, frustrated and equipped.

I believe it is fair to say that this generation to a great extent had lost much hope of a better future when the Arab Spring began. This lack of hope and trust had much to do with extensive corruption and bribing-traditions among government, especially in the MENA-region. This debilitating system of corruption has taken several decades to be internalized and finally establish itself on the societal body, making it natural for each member of society to adopt it. In a society where everybody steal from each other, the sense of insecurity and unsafety spreads, the sense of belonging disappears and solidarity/empathy diminishes. In turn this may foster passivity, negativism and intolerance – which to me emerges as the most important explanatory model yet.

Finally the ICT development and transformations in the media landscape. I strongly believe that the democratization of the MENA region is closely related to the democratization of the media. The technological development in relation to mentioned psychological and educational transformations is of high importance to understand. For example, the rise of educational reforms did not only contribute to political (and religious) radicalization, but above all increased peoples’ knowledge and awareness of social injustice and the outside world (west). Hence, expectations of material standards (including media technology) spread and in the long run also hopes of an end to the corrupt system of governing. The former made the latter seem more possible.

With the emergence of satellite-tv (the birth and expansion of Al-Jazeera) as well as Internet communications during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the structure of the Arab public sphere changed. Al-Jazeera combined arab-nationalistic, liberal islamistic and economic neo-liberalistic views of the world. In comparison with traditional (and state censored) channels, they were also more diversified and had a different tone of language. The most important contribution was perhaps that new satellite-channels scrutinized government systems and exposed the handling of opposition movements, the wide-spread corruption, the indifference to fight poverty etcetera. Bare in mind that this media revolution started at a time when political islam emerged as a significant challenger to the authoritarian regimes, and by letting different voices connected to political islam take place in the new (mediated) public sphere, the public became aware of things within the political spectra that hadn’t been visible before.

And the recent growth of participatory culture, the use of ICT and social media platforms has once again transformed the Arab public sphere, not least due to extensive use of influential blogging. I have several times mentioned the impact of social media during the Arab spring so I will not go there now. However in relation to my former blog post (read it here), the aspect of civic participation in information processes (i.e citizen-journalism) one can see the importance for in this case Al-Jazeera, that people used their cameras and told their stories from the ground, from the streets, from the demonstrations and from the final overcoming of authoritarian regimes. Speaking weeks after former president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, Al-Jazeera’s managing director, Wadah Khanfar, thanked the dissenting citizens of Tunisia and Egypt for serving as network reporters, proclaiming:

“The youth of the Middle East, choosing universal values from within while embracing tolerance, and diversity — they are our reporters.”

Citizen-journalism vs. or with traditional reporting

The other day I posted this video on Twitter, illustrating the importance of the online video streaming application Bambuser and its integration with traditional journalism. Since I have a chapter in a forthcoming anthology written on the subject, I thought it was interesting to see that the text me and my co-writer produced over half a year ago, is still valid and was rather right in its predictions. The development we argud for in Syria, where Bambuser is still the leading technology for activists streaming video on the ground, is now being realized. Although with a long way to go.

In the video above, the Global Video News Chief at Associated Press (AP), states some interesting insights on how AP are using user-generated content (UGC) in their operations, on more event-like pieces but above all, in areas and ongoing conflicts like Syria (where traditional reporting is hard to conduct). He argues that the most important thing for AP is to first see that the individual contributor, the person standing on the ground filming through his/her mobile, is verified as a reliable source, that the live content is authentic and claim copyrights for the content.  The difference between individual contributor and activist, doesn’t seem to matter for AP as long as they can be transparent with the contributors agenda to the public. It is clear that several traditional news companies have realized the potential (as well as the difficulties) with UGC and increasingly trying to adapt, take advantage, of this development.


Of course this integration is a long process (for ex. CNN:s extensive use of iReports during the post-election turmoil in Iran 2009) and takes time to develop into a reliable cooperation between established media companies and minor players within technological development. But few can argue against that the survivial of traditional journalism, or the ideal of a transparent and ideological scrutiny of powers, is dependent on the success in adapting operations to a civic framework in which citizens participation constitute one of the key aspects. The interview with the chief from AP here is interesting since we often tend to discuss these matters only from a citizen point of view, but here being put forward from an institutional perspective.

The emergence of citizen-journalism, its potential as a tool for resistance and mobilization, is for real starting to evoke potential. But the significance of technologies and people’s use of it, are not really possible to measure until it is related to and integrated with other sectors of society, other institutional practices (as in this case the journalistic one). And the full potential is still dependent on the mentioned integration, and one can still claim that it is mainly in times of crisis and extra-ordinary situations that citizens participation in journalistic processes is evident, just as for example this article discuss. And before established structures of journalism can be bent, challenged and adapted to new communication technologies and patterns of participation and political engagement, the information super highway is still a rather modest path of gravel.

A note on mobile news consumption

I recently participated in a national media conference gathering in which both senior researchers and doctoral candidates had the opportunity to present ongoing work and projects. My task was to act as opponent to a paper on geo-social structuration in relation to news consumption, a field I admittedly was/am not an expert in by far, however with a keen interest on the key issues. The paper was a draft for a journal submission and presented at its final stage. As well written and interesting as it was, it challenged my perception and knowledge of both the sociological base of Anthony Giddens structuration theory and its appropriation in an updated media- and communication context. I have no intention to make a deeper analysis of it here but rather mention some conclusions.


The authors presented a solid empirical base of both qualitative and quantitative empirical material and extracted results that are cross-disciplinary interesting. One of the main findings in the article was that citizens living in small-town areas, as oppose to major cities settings, are more likely to consume news that are local/regional to its nature instead of international. Former studies have indeed witnessed of similar trends however one could imagine that new patterns and dimensions of news consumption (through mobile devices, transmedia platforms, nisched and alternative news outlets, speed, competition etc.) would increase a general interest in foreign/international/cosmopolitan information. In this framework I find it particulary interesting that there is still a fundamental need for beloning, communities that are small, regional and local. This then happens at the same time as the regional press, local newspapers, are struggling for survival and experience major crisis on several levels. However, people’s interest in these issues doesn’t seem to decline. So traditional media (in this case newspapers, television, radio) need to integrate and develop the transmedia textures of operations, since not only this article but several studies over the past few years show similar results regarding use of media platforms to consume news.




The authors of the article here state that we are witnessing a paradigmatic transition as to the ways news are consumed; the spatial practice of news-consumption is changing into an increasingly amalgamated, mobile practice. You argue that you have shown that transmedia textures flourish above all within geo-social settings marked by affluent mobile lifestyles. Another conclusion is that local. vs. cosmopolitan outlooks (what type of news we tend to take interest in) follow traditional patterns which hence are reproduced – therefor there is a continuity in the midst of change. In other words, the way we consume news is changing, but what we are interested in is basically the same.


Our spatial news consumption and orientations within, is affected by urban vs small-town settings as well as education, gender and lifestyles, and I’d argue for variables such as income, technological assets, media literacy to be of importance here as well.


I believe that this connection between sociology, communication geography and media- and communication studies, is a staggering part of the intellectual field and can continue to present results of importance within the disciplines themselves.