The `Surveillance Society'

AuthorDavid Murakami Wood
Published date01 March 2009
Date01 March 2009
Subject MatterArticles
The ‘Surveillance Society’
Questions of History, Place and Culture
David Murakami Wood
Global Urban Research Unit (GURU), Newcastle University, UK
The concept of the ‘surveillance society’ has become a central part of the emerg-
ing transdisciplinary narrative of surveillance studies, and is now to be found as
much in criminology as in many of the other domains upon which it draws. This
piece takes on two key problems generated by contemporary use of the term
‘surveillance society’; those of its historical novelty and its general geographical
or cultural generalizability. In this article, I show that the historical development
of arguments about surveillance have created particular and changing ideas of
the ‘surveillance society’. However the contemporary period opens up questions
of geography and culture. With reference to the comparative case of Japan, I
argue both that a contextual understanding of both surveillance and ‘surveillance
society’ is crucial. While surveillance is involved with processes of globalization,
it is also not necessarily the same ‘surveillance society’ that one sees in different
places and at different scales. Surveillance is historically, spatially and culturally
Comparative Studies / Globalization / Japan / Surveillance / Surveillance Society.
It is often held that the contemporary use of the term ‘surveillance society’
originated in Gary Marx’s very deliberate attempt to characterize the ‘new
surveillance’ brought in by the digital (Marx 1985, 1988). ‘Surveillance
society’ was taken up as a term of social analysis by Oscar Gandy (1989)
and then given further substantial life mainly in the work of David Lyon
(1994, 2001). It has become a central part of the emerging transdisciplinary
Volume 6 (2): 179–194: 1477-3708
DOI: 10.1177/1477370808100545
Copyright © 2009 European Society of
Criminology and SAGE Publications
Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC
180 European Journal of Criminology 6(2)
narrative of surveillance studies (Lyon 2007), and is now to be found as
much in criminology (Norris and Armstrong 1999; Fox 2001; Wilson and
Sutton 2004; Walby 2005a; Zedner 2007) as in many of the other domains
upon which it draws.
By the early 2000s it had became part of public discourse in North
America largely through the work of the American Civil Liberties Union
(ACLU) (e.g. Stanley and Steinhardt 2003)1 and in Europe through Liberty,
Privacy International and others. In the UK, the term was thrust into
the political mainstream by the UK Information Commissioner, Richard
Thomas, who argued in an interview with The Times newspaper in 2004
that Britain was ‘sleepwalking into a surveillance society’ (Ford 2004).
Thomas’s critique, surprising for a state regulator, was taken up by the
media and campaigning organizations such as the Consumers Association
(Lace 2005), and then extended through an Information Commissioner’s
Officer (IOC)-commissioned report written by, among others, David Lyon,
for the Surveillance Studies Network. This Report on the Surveillance
Society (Murakami Wood et al. 2006) provided an opportunity to take
stock of the contemporary state of surveillance, and as it was distributed in
seven languages, has strengthened the increasing hold this term has across
Europe. The term has even come in for substantial criticism from the Home
Affairs Committee of the UK House of Commons (2008), whose report on
surveillance rejected the contention that Britons were already living in a
‘surveillance society’.
In academic, media and politics, worldwide there is now regular talk
of the ‘surveillance society’ as a point of critique. To take just one small
example that occurred as I was writing this article: in Japan in mid-2008
kanshi shakai’ (‘surveillance society’) was scrawled in protest on a vandalized
automated drinks machine that had a police camera installed.2 ‘Surveillance
society’ would appear to be becoming as ubiquitous as surveillance itself.
As with many such ideas however, ‘surveillance society’ can appear
to be somewhat monolithic. In popular media, it is often used as a direct
replace ment or synonym for the older more totalitarian notions of ‘the
security state’ or Orwellian references to ‘Big Brother’ and in academia for
often simplistic and misapplied versions of Foucault’s (1975) interpretation
of Bentham’s Panopticon. That is not the fault of the originators, however
it does bring up several issues regarding the work that a concept does
1 ACLU now even has a ‘surveillance society clock’ in the manner of the old nuclear annihilation
clock, with the hands at five minutes to midnight as I write this piece! One might suggest that
perhaps their clock is a little slow …
2 This incident has been widely reported in Japan. For a brief English-language explanation
with embedded Japanese television news report, see this blog:

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