Storytelling and Surveillance

I just read an interesting blog post from Richard Smith about the possibility of self-fulfilling prophecies driving the increase in urban surveillance networks. He wrote that while attending a conference on surveillance cameras, a presentation was given examining the public opinion of surveillance in 9 countries. More often than not, public polls reveal positive attitudes toward increased surveillance, despite studies in San Francisco and London that show how ineffective they actually are. And don’t forget about the Moscow police who spent 5 months watching pre-recorded footage.

Smith goes on to reference a post by Clive Thompson that questions the power of self-fulfilling prophecies in pop culture. Sociologist Robert Merton wrote an essay in 1949 on “The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.” The thesis was that “it was indeed possible to convince people of a false proposition merely by telling them that lots of other folks believe it to be true.” Merton’s own definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy was:

a false definition of the situation evoking new behavior which makes the original false conception come true.”


I think it is very interesting to consider how self-fulfilling prophecy can influence culture, including cultural views on surveillance. Given the power of storytelling in cultural transmission and well as several anthropology studies on social influence and conforming to social norms, it seem entirely possible that these mechanism could promote the popularity of surveillance, despite solid evidence against their effectiveness.

A previous post, Storytelling and the Kingdom of Fear, was about the power of stories and media to influence people’s perception of the risk of crime or murder. Since the boom in media coverage of crime, the public’s fear of crime has consistently been higher than the actual risk. The post also referenced a New York Times article about the fable vs. reality of crime in New Orleans following Hurrican Katrina. In one part, the paper interviewed dozens people including police officers, medical workers and city officials to piece together an idea of the crime. What they found was that:

Though many provided concrete, firsthand accounts, other passed along secondhand information or rumor that after multiple tellings had ossified into what became accepted as fact.”

What is more interesting is that the rumors-turned-fact influenced the emergency response; evoked a new behavior taking for truth what had been false. Back to the surveillance debate, enough rumors and secondhand information floating around describing their success, and people will begin to believe it.

An anthropological study is relevant to this discussion. The forgotten variable in conformity research: Impact of task importance on social influence, was performed by researchers to determine how task difficulty and importance could influence decisions. They found that subjects would conform more to common answers when difficulty and importance was high. This held true when confederates were used in the study to agree on inaccurate answers. When they agreed on the inaccurate answers, the other subjects were more likely to conform as well.

Surveillance and safety are very important and difficult issues. Given the evidence from these sources, it seems likely that the behavior and stories of others could influence what the popular consensus is. Despite evidence, false stories about the effectiveness of surveillance cameras can change the behavior of officials and the public.

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