Windows into the Soul: Surveillance and Society in an Age of High Technology, by Gary T. Marx

Paul Bernal on a vital and comprehensive survey of how our era of ubiquitous observation arose

August 25, 2016
Edward Snowden being interviewed Hong Kong
Now I see you: surveillance is an important subject, and has a long history, from Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon to post-Snowden analyses

Gary Marx opens Windows into the Soul by referring to Queen Elizabeth I’s declaration that she did not wish “to make windows into men’s hearts and secret thoughts”. The echoes between the 16th century, when the foundations of both the modern state and the widespread use of science and technology were being built, and today, when we are in the throes of another seismic set of changes in technology, in government and in business, are clear in this challenging, thoughtful, erudite and at times very entertaining book.

It is a work that draws on Marx’s long experience, detailed empirical research and intense scholarship, but weaves these things together without the loss of coherence of narrative that so often dogs academic work. That is not to say that it is an easy read, and its depth and density make it challenging in many ways. The coverage is breathtakingly broad and the book is a long one, supplemented by additional material on Marx’s website.

The book’s first two parts provide an extensive analysis of surveillance and of the study of surveillance – although not, as Marx points out more than once, an exhaustive one – and serve as a reminder of the importance of the subject and its long history, from before Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon to the most recent post-Snowden analyses. The book really comes to life, however, in its third part, “Culture and Contexts”, where Marx’s unusual use of fictional case studies takes centre stage. As Marx puts it, these case studies are “both docudrama and mockudrama”, employing satirical humour liberally and entirely appropriately. When Marx quotes George Orwell’s observation that “every joke is a small revolution”, he means it and applies it. His fictional corporation Dominion-Swann and parental group PISHI (Parents Insist on Surveillance Help Inc) illustrate key issues better than would any factual example – and without stretching too far beyond reality.

Windows into the Soul is awash with lists, tables and diagrams, systematically categorising, analysing and explaining the breadth, depth, nature and motivation of surveillance in our current age – and how it came about, where it is going and why it is happening. The text is peppered with apposite quotations, from Shakespeare and the Bible to Robert Frost and Woody Guthrie, and well-chosen cartoons. Marx uses these to identify and analyse trends – his investigation into what he calls the “softening” of surveillance is particularly interesting, and he addresses with detail and passion often-neglected issues such as the surveillance of children by their parents. This work is hard to better as an exploration of the current state of surveillance, as “surveillance tools continue to increase in intensity and extensity, in flexibility and adaptability, in analytical, integrative and communicative power, and in their ability to reveal the unseen and give meaning to the unrecognised”.

The book’s final chapters, looking to the future, emphasise the importance of both the subject and the book. As Marx puts it, “making surveillance (and any technology) more visible and understandable hardly guarantees a just and accountable democratic society, but it is surely a necessary condition for one”. From that perspective, Windows into the Soul is not only an important book but a necessary one.

Paul Bernal is lecturer in IT, IP and media law, University of East Anglia School of Law, and author of Internet Privacy Rights: Rights to Protect Autonomy (2014).


Windows into the Soul: Surveillance and Society in an Age of High Technology
By Gary T. Marx
University of Chicago Press, 400pp, £79.00 and £26.50
ISBN 9780226285887, 85917 and 86075 (e-book)
Published 27 June 2016

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Print headline: I spy with my all‑seeing eye...

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