A Positive Externality of Surveillance

I’ve been skimming the first chapter of Randall Collins’s Violence: A Micro-Sociological Inquiry, and came across this interesting perspective on an unexpected benefit of a high-surveillance society:

Violence as it actually becomes visible in real-life situations is about the intertwining of human emotions of fear, anger, and excitement, in ways that run right against the conventional morality of normal situations. It is just this shocking and unexpected quality of violence, as it actually appears in the cold eye of the camera, that gives a clue to the emotional dynamics at the center of a micro-situational theory of violence.

We live in an era in which our ability to see what happens in real-life situations is far greater than ever before. . . .The video revolution has made available much more information about what happens in violent situations than ever before.


Technologies of recording real-life conflict are useful for a series of reasons: they can provide us details that we otherwise wouldn’t see at all, that we were not prepared to look at, or did not know were there; they can give us a more analytical stance, more detached from the everyday perceptual gestalts and the clichés of conventional language for talking about violence.

Collins’s observations here remind me of a recent discussion in my admin class on the inevitably value-laden nature of most verbal characterizations of situations. We discussed the simple statement “Jack pushed John.” The key word here–push–carries with it all manner of charged associations. The types of images that can spring to mind from such a description are diverse. Perhaps only a video of the event can “tell the truth.”

On the other hand, co-blogger Dave Hoffman has argued that, even in video evidence, “we all see what we want to see; behavioral biases like attribution and availability lead to individualized view of events.”

But Collins has an answer to that claim as well:

It is not literally true that a picture is worth a thousand words. Most people will not see what is in a picture, or will see it through the most readily available visual clichés. It takes training and an analytical vocabulary to talk about what is in a picture, and to know what to look for. A picture is worth a thousand words only for those who already have internalized an adequate vocabulary. This is particularly so when we have to train ourselves to see micro-details: the movements of some facial muscles rather than others that distinguish a false smile from a spontaneous one; the movements that display fear, tension, and other emotions; the smoothness of rhythmic coordination and the hitches that indicate disattunement and conflict; the patterns in which one person or another seizes the initiative and imposes a rhythm upon others. The methods of visual and auditory recording now available open up the potential to see a vast new landscape of human interaction; but our ability to see goes in tandem with the expansion of our theories of what processes are out there to be seen.

A fascinating viewpoint on the inextricable intertwining of description and judgment.

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