If you pay attention carefully, you’ll realize that the word sousveillance is a reversal of a more familiar word, surveillance. Surveillance is a term originating in the French language which uses the prefix, sur, meaning above. Veillance, the main body of the word means to watch. Therefore, the meaning of surveillance is to “watch over.” We see it used primarily in cop mysteries, where two haggard detectives are sitting in an aging undercover police car eating greasy food and drinking cheap coffee to stay awake as they stare at an apartment where a suspected criminal is lodged. There are other more refined scenes of surveillance, but when I hear the word this is the one that pops into my memory.
Sousveillance, however uses a different prefix, the term sous, also French. It means under as in the French phrase, “sous le table” which means “under the table.” You don’t have to be a student of French, therefore, to put it all together and understand that sousveillance means “watch under.” That term doesn’t make a lot of sense, so you have to apply the context to come to the understanding that sousveillance refers to some kind of clandestine observation.
A prominent coffee shop in Providence, for instance, discovered this week that one of the employees had lodged a camera in a secret place in a rest room to observe people in various stages of undress. Highly illegal. Morally reprehensible. A sad stain on a respected enterprise. It could be said that the employee was engaged in sousveillance, taking the word to its most negative meaning in the various definitions found in the dictionary. It’s not usually that messy a word.
A more meaningful way of defining the word sousveillance is that found in the title bar above. Surveillance occurs when officials (of one kind or another) are observing ordinary people who may be engaged in something of a criminal nature. Sousveillance, however, occurs when ordinary citizens turn things around and keep vigilance over the government. Sometimes it is out of paranoia, but in recent times it is more commonly a reference to citizens keeping due diligence over government officials or agencies in the absence of necessary oversight or regulation. Try Wall Street, for example.
It has been made clear over the past several years that those “in charge” of the economy of the United States have been acting in ways which have undermined the citizens of this country, bringing on the economic disaster we are now experiencing … “we” being those who are not benefiting from huge profits and economic gifts which result from economic practices which have been skewed in favor of the banks, corporations, and officials we were supposed to be able to trust with our money. While small businesses collapse, homes go into default, people are unemployed in incomprehensible numbers, and bankruptcies multiply like rabbits, the financial institutions have experienced economic successes beyond most peoples’ imaginations.
Every day the results of sousveillance are published in newspapers, heard on radio and television, and are now experienced up close and personal by people in the Occupy Wall Street movement which places ordinary citizens on the streets in front of the home offices of the alleged perpetrators. Electronic media methods have exposed truths that nobody wants to hear. Whistle-blowers (a word to appear in this blog soon) from within the money institutions have divulged practices which are combinations of illegal, immoral, and clever.
The antidote to sousveillance would be surveillance by authorized agencies which could be trusted to seek out and report the truth. Such regulation, however, requires the approval of the U.S. Congress, and there is a reluctance on the part of Members of Congress to authorize such supervision. We hear the comment on a daily basis that the protests against Wall Street and the bankers has no articulated focus. Maybe that’s it: the authorization of regulation with the authority and the will to prosecute. The first step was taken by the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, but the Republicans in Congress refuse to even approve the naming of a Director for the Bureau, thus hog-tying the ability of the Government to take actions which would bring the financial industry into compliance. The tail continues to wag the dog.
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