Collectively, the social sciences contribute to a greater understanding of the dynamics of social life, as well as explanations for the workings of societies in general. Yet they are often not given due credit for this role and much writing has been devoted to why this should be the case. At the same time, we are living in an age in which the role of science in society is being re-evaluated. This has led to both a defence of science as the disinterested pursuit of knowledge and an attack on science as nothing more than an institutionalized assertion of faith with no greater claim to validity than mythology and folklore. These debates tend to generate more heat than light.
In the meantime the social sciences, in order to remain vibrant and relevant, will reflect the changing nature of these public debates. In so doing they provide mirrors upon which we can gaze in order to understand not only what we have been and what we are now, but to inform possibilities about what we might become. This is not simply about understanding the reasons people give for their actions in terms of the contexts in which they act and analysing the relations of cause and effect in the social, political and economic spheres, but also concerns the hopes, wishes and aspirations that people, in their different cultural ways, hold.
In any society that claims to have democratic aspirations, these hopes and wishes are not for the social scientist to prescribe. For this to happen it would mean that the social sciences were able to predict human behaviour with certainty. One theory and one method, applicable to all times and places, would be required for this purpose. The physical sciences do not live up to such stringent criteria, whilst the conditions in societies which provided for this outcome, were it even possible, would be intolerable. Why? Because a necessary condition of human freedom is the ability to have acted otherwise and thus to imagine and practice different ways of organizing societies and living together.
It does not follow from the above that social scientists do not have a valued role to play, as is often assumed in ideological attacks upon their place and function within society. After all, in focusing upon what we have been and what we are now, what we might become is inevitably illuminated: the retrospective and prospective become fused. Therefore, whilst it may not be the province of the social scientist to predict our futures, they are, given not only their understandings and explanations, but equal positions as citizens, entitled to engage in public debates concerning future prospects.
This new international series was devised with this general ethos in mind. It seeks to offer students of the sciences, at all levels, a forum in which ideas and topics of interest are interrogated in terms of their importance for understanding key social issues. This is achieved through a connection between style, structure and content that aims to be both illuminating and challenging in terms of its evaluation of those issues, as well as representing an original contribution to the subject under discussion.
Given this underlying philosophy, the series contains books on topics that are driven by substantive interests. This is not simply a reactive endeavour in terms of reflecting dominant social and political pre-occupations, it is also pro-active in terms of an examination of issues which relate to and inform the dynamics of social life and the structures of society that are often not part of public discourse. Thus, what is distinctive about this series is an interrogation of the assumed characteristics of our current epoch in relation to its consequences for the organization of society and social life, as well as its appropriate mode of study.
Each contribution contains, for the purposes of general orientation, as opposed to rigid structure, three parts. First, an interrogation of the topic that is conducted in a manner that renders explicit core assumptions surrounding the issues and/or an examination of the consequences of historical trends for contemporary social practices. Second, a section which aims to 'bring alive' ideas and practices by considering the ways in which they directly inform the dynamics of social relations. A third section then moves on to make an original contribution to the topic. This encompasses possible future forms and content, likely directions for the study of the phenomena in question, or an original analysis of the topic itself. Of course, it might be a combination of all three.
David Lyon's Surveillance Society: Monitoring Everyday Life reflects this ethos. There is no doubt that our lives are now subject to ever-greater means of surveillance that takes a variety of forms. Closed circuit television is a routine feature of shopping centres and appears not only within banks, but also the shops themselves. It is often portrayed as being in the 'interests' of staff and customer comfort and security and to call attention to such justifications, or even to question the motivations that underlie their presence, may be castigated as indicative of the act of a guilty mind.
Those who question these developments, according to ideas of protecting the human right to privacy, may themselves be open to the criticism that it is the very presence of such instruments of surveillance that ensures such rights in the first place! In the face of such important issues and the spread of these practices, clarity of thinking about their modes of operation, rationale for implementation and consequences for human actions and society as a whole, is often in short supply and even absent. Who better, then, to fill this gap than one of the leading scholars in this area who has dedicated many years to the study of these developments?
One way in which these transformations affect our everyday lives is via changes in our interactions. That great observer of everyday life - Erving Goffman- spoke of places in which two persons interacted in situations of physical co-presence. Now, however, emails, faxes and mobile phones have transformed, with varying consequences our perception of each other and ourselves. Matters relating to time and space alter in the process and bodies 'disappear' from view. This, in turn, creates new opportunities for surveillance of routine activities with global flows of personal data playing their role in the coordination and control of human activities. The divisions between the public and private aspects of our lives then become blurred as the forms in which knowledge about persons is transformed.
These changes in knowledge may be considered by employing and adding to, a distinction used by Bertrand Russell. Here we can speak of a transition from knowledge enabled through acquaintance in the physical presence of others, to that obtained by description as mediated through new technologies. Workplaces have changed and so the boundaries between the private individual and public organizational person have begun to break down or even evaporate. In a global age, these modes of surveillance move across boundaries and track movements of people via, for example, their use of airline tickets and their purchase using credit cards. Classificatory schemas are then used for commercial purposes that enable profiles of consumers to be built up and targeted for marketing purposes. Similarly, it is possible to track, via such techniques as 'clickstream monitoring' and 'collaborative filtering', the preferences of those who use the Internet in order to exploit the resultant data for marketing purposes.
Important issues concerning the classificatory power of these technologies in relation to human rights then arise through such question as who owns such data and are there any limits to its uses for state and commercial purposes? This, in turn, raises questions about the scope and limits to human privacy. David Lyon illuminates such matters in a practical manner and achieves this by addressing them in relation to the growth of the surveillance society. In so doing, he does not succumb to the ethnocentric, gendered and individualistic forms of thought that so often inform these debates.
To more fully comprehend these issues we need to understand how these new technologies have evolved, for what reasons and with what effects? Here David Lyon provides us with a fascinating and illuminating account that does not simply view these technologies as determining, nor as mere additions to the social fabric of societies. Instead they interact and are weaved together in ways that are contradictory and which may depend upon the prediction of human behaviour which, itself, is problematic. They can also produce unintended consequences: for example, the use of genetic screening by employers to determine the susceptibility of employees to disease can lead people to avoid such tests. As a result, effective medical intervention in the name of prevention or amelioration may be considerably diminished. Surveillance, in this sense, is two-edged in that it can provide benefits, whilst also preventing people from realizing their ambitions.
David Lyon discusses these issues in ways that draw upon a variety of examples to illustrate his points and the themes that underpin the book itself. There is no doubt that we are only just beginning to realize the potential consequences of the growth in new technologies. A more participatory debate is required in the face of these changes in terms of their implications for how we lead our lives and who holds and exploits the knowledge that is generated as a result. Without doubt, this book is a major contribution to that process.
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