Windows into the Soul: Surveillance and Society in an Age of High Technology

By on June 29th, 2017 in Book Reviews, Magazine Articles, Privacy & Security

By Gary T. Marx, University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Reviewed by Donna L. Halper

It goes without saying that we live in an information society. Thanks to the Internet and new technologies, we are able to quickly find the most up-to-date information, whether we are accessing the work of scholars or seeking suggestions about the best new restaurants. As media ecologist Marshall McLuhan predicted, our devices have become extensions of ourselves: we are always connected, which allows us to text or tweet as often as we wish, and makes it easy to search for answers to whatever questions we might have.

But this easy availability of so much information comes with trade-offs – we have to give up some of our privacy in order to access it. For example, most websites track the people who visit and what their purpose is (what articles they read, what items they buy, and what they share with their friends on social media). Many popular apps on our phones want to know our location. In fact, most businesses, especially those with a major online presence, are eager to find out more about who uses their products and services. Surveillance techniques used to be mainly associated with secretive governmental agencies like the FBI or CIA; but these days the Internet has contributed to making surveillance far more pervasive, and far easier to accomplish than ever before.

In his new book, Windows into the Soul: Surveillance and Society in an Age of High Technology, sociologist Gary T. Marx addresses whether we have not only become an information society but also a surveillance society. Marx has great familiarity, and an ongoing interest, in this topic. He explains that his research into the history of surveillance was partly inspired by his growing up during the Cold War and the era of McCarthyism, as well as by observing such abuses of power as what President Nixon did during Watergate. By the 1970s, Marx was teaching and writing about surveillance and social control, at a time when few academics were studying the topic.

A professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Marx is the author of the 1988 book Undercover: Police Surveillance in America. He states that one of his goals in writing Windows into the Soul is to “…advance understanding of the social and ethical aspects of personal information control and discovery… to understand how individuals and organizations present themselves through the control and release of personal information, and how others respond to this.” As a sociologist, he also seeks to “help define the fragmented field of surveillance studies and contribute to the broader field of the sociology of information.”

Where Undercover focused mainly on the techniques used by law enforcement, Windows into the Soul is far more expansive: in our Internet age, it is not just the police, nor even the government, who seek out more data about more people. In thoroughly addressing surveillance techniques past and present, Marx avoids being polemical; he explains that he did not write this book to argue that surveillance is in and of itself something good, nor for that matter, something bad. He states that he is “Neither Technophobe nor Technophile (323),” and he sees himself as an “honest broker” in facilitating discussions between the various interest groups—including those who feel that surveillance is nearly always wrong, and those who feel that under some circumstances, it is necessary.

In that regard, Marx observes that it is usually the context, (including how the surveillance is conducted and under what circumstances), that influences the public’s attitudes about it. He speaks about discourses which present surveillance as the opposite of privacy, allowing for the former to be framed negatively and the latter positively. This perception is undoubtedly affected by news stories, such as one about AIDS patients whose personal data was accessed and sold. But Marx points out that it is often surveillance techniques that find the culprits who compromise private records, or protect systems from attempts at hacking into them.

In Undercover, Marx discussed the more overt means of surveillance, such as spying on criminal enterprises or wire-tapping suspects to build a case against them. But Windows into the Soul looks at the many subtle ways that new technologies are being used to extract our personal information, sometimes for purposes we might consider relatively benign (such as the websites that use cookies to learn more about our shopping preferences), and sometimes for purposes that are more nefarious (such as hackers determined to commit identity theft). He discusses secret government programs like those enacted after 9/11, that monitored phone calls made to certain foreign countries considered hotbeds of terrorism. And he examines how accessing, collecting, and controlling data is no longer coercive. The new surveillance is “soft, unobtrusive, and manipulative, rather than directly forceful.” This softer surveillance is often so subtly that people are unaware it is occurring, such as when “sensors and cameras are hidden in everyday objects, (like) the proverbial nanny cam in the teddy bear.”

Marx also explores the public’s often-contradictory attitudes towards who should and should not be able to access their data. For example, people say they want to be safe (whether from criminals or from terrorists), and after 9/11, there was little resistance to expanding government surveillance under the Patriot Act. But on the other hand, people also say they value their privacy and they want to limit how much of their data the government can see.

In addition to observing that attitudes about government surveillance tend to change depending on whether or not there is a crisis, Marx also observes that sometimes the public has overly high expectation of what technology can do. For example, on TV shows, technology is always the magic answer that helps the good guys to locate the evil-doers. But in real life, for every successful apprehension of a criminal, there are times when the bad guys still manage to get away. Marx notes that it took ten years to locate Osama Bin Laden, and it was thanks in large part to human intelligence, rather than technology. The book provides a thoughtful discussion about the ethics of surveillance, as well as the balancing act governments and corporations maintain (with greater or lesser degrees of success) between protecting people’s personal data and being able to access it under certain circumstances. How those circumstances should be defined, and by whom, is another topic still being debated – while this book went to press before the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s emails, this issue is certainly germane to his central point. It is understandable that work-related emails of government officials should be public record; but should a political figure, whether a president or a secretary of state, be expected to hand over personal emails between family members that may have nothing to do with their government duties? Marx acknowledges that we may have entered an “era of suspicion,” where many believe that vital information is being concealed from them. But what are the rules regarding how much secrecy is necessary versus how much is detrimental to the public’s right to know?

I do have several small complaints about this otherwise thorough and insightful book. One is that at times, the style of Windows into the Soul varies greatly. Some chapters read like a textbook, complete with quotes from scholars like Erving Goffman and Michel Foucault, end-of-chapter lists of terms, and reminders of the significant concepts that chapter contained. (This makes it quite useful for students, since Marx does cover a great amount in each chapter, and the opportunity to review terminology is always useful.) But other chapters read almost like extended blog posts, complete with clever puns and references to popular culture – lyrics from classic rock songs; lines from TV shows and movies; reprints of New Yorker cartoons… there are even quotes from the Bible, Shakespeare, and folk tales. Marx also likes to quote long passages from writers who satirize coercive work environments, such as a fictional employee handbook for a company that claims to support and respect its employees while continuously monitoring and scrutinizing everything they do on the job; or a speech by the pseudonymous “Rocky Bottoms” on the “wonders of modern surveillance.” While Marx is impressed with this type of satirical take on the excesses of surveillance, I am not convinced that reprinting such long digressions adds to the book, or enhances the points he is making.

But that aside, this book meets a very pressing need: it provides a thorough and fair examination of different theories about surveillance, and allows the reader to benefit from exposure to multiple perspectives. Marx knows he is dealing with a complex and constantly changing subject, and he does not try to offer simplistic solutions. Rather, his approach in writing Windows into the Soul is to encourage further conversation and further research. This is definitely a book that both academics and non-academics will want to discuss.


Donna L. Halper is an Associate Professor of Communication at Lesley University, Cambridge MA.