Theorizing the Surveillance Society: Bodies of Data and “Data Bodies” in the 1970s

Theorizing the Surveillance Society: Bodies of Data and “Data Bodies” in the 1970s

Sarah Igo

In the 1970s, citizens in the United States first mobilized around what they had known, in low-grade fashion, since at least the 1930s: that many agencies, public and private, were collecting information about them. New suspicions attended the mundane data-gathering operations of agencies like the Internal Revenue Service and Census Bureau, while hidden monitoring devices, vast warehouses of private information, and menacing bureaucracies loop through the cultural and political texts of the period. Films like "The Parallax View" and "Three Days of the Condor" took the perspective of lone men, an investigative reporter or a CIA employee, trapped in the labyrinthine plots of shadowy but powerful organizations. Citizens would find themselves ensnared in less dramatic but no less worrisome conspiracies against their ability to act undetected: closed-circuit television, magnetic stripe technology, and endless paper trails. Much of this anxiety would crystallize in the specter of the “databank,” a term defined by New Scientist and Science Journal in 1971 as a “generalized collection of data not linked to one set of . . . questions.”

The sense that computers, or something equally nonhuman such as a “record-keeping systems,” were the most dangerous violators of individual freedom was a striking feature of the post-Watergate period. Here, the personalization of the computer mirrored the depersonalization of individual identity once confined in databases and bureaucratic categories—the observable fact that, in many settings, a credit history or medical file spoke more convincingly than the physical person it represented. The problem was not just how little individuals knew about their own files but also how utterly unrecognizable one’s own bureaucratic identity could be. Faster computers, larger bureaucracies, and expanding databanks, I argue, generated novel claims and claimants for the protection of personal information. They also shaped a distinctive understanding of postindustrial society as a “surveillance society,” which made the scrutiny of populations its basic feature and depended on the collection of personal data for its very operation. This was a vision of society—and a vision of power—that bore little resemblance to the legalistic, individual rights-based notions of just a decade earlier. It implied, among other things, that concepts of personal privacy might need reformulating for a new era.