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Cultures of Surveillance: an interdisciplinary conference

By Frances-Catherine Quevenco, on 10 October 2011

Cultures of Surveillance is an interdisciplinary conference that was held at UCL from 29 September until 1 October addressing topics concerning security and surveillance. Speakers from multiple disciplines gathered to discuss security, safety, law and even CSI. Yes, the TV series. The title of the conference did nothing less than describe what it indeed was – an interdisciplinary conference. I found it incredibly exciting that we would be given the opportunity to approach the topic of surveillance from a variety of different angles, an opportunity that was particularly exemplified by the ‘Justice under Surveillance’ talk.

This lecture involved speakers Charlotte Brunsdon, a professor of film and television studies at the University of Warwick, Linda Mulcahy, a law professor at LSE, Leslie Moran, a law professor at Birkbeck College and Barbara Villez, a professor of Legal Languages and Cultures at Université Paris 8.

Brunsdon began the talk by approaching the topic of surveillance from a film point of view. How do we distinguish surveillance from ‘just looking’? Brunsdon believes that film theory could offer an answer. She showed several clips from crime dramas and asked the audience when we felt a shift in tone. There was indeed a sudden change – feeling that we shifted from observers to surveillance, but how? The long shots, Brunsdon claims, changes how we look and this is what “makes surveillance”.

Mulcahy on the other hand, approached the subject from a legal point of view. She claims that the law focuses too much on text and not enough on context. Not enough focus has been put on the actual space of trials. Mulcahy took us through a journey of the changing layouts of courts – from Westminster Hall in 1797 where people could walk through the courts, through the segmented Maidstone Sessions House in the late 18th Century, to the present day court. She illustrated how laywers, defendants, and spectators no longer have to share space and how furniture created barriers and segregated the different groups. If you are interested in reading more on the subject, read Linda Mulcahy’s Legal Architecture: Justice, Due Process and the Place of Law.

Moran added to the talk by addressing the visual image of the judge in the media and postulated that the depiction in the media of the judiciary is changing to showing judges in casual attire. Lastly, Villez ended the talk with the issue of telephone camera footage used to catch ‘security gone wrong’. She claims that many of these videos are an attempt to seize back power and challenge authority. The availability of these films and the capability of making them has changed through YouTube and the improved filming quality of phones such as the iPhone. The question that remains open is how these impact authority and democracy.

Another talk that specifically caught my attention was one of the keynote lectures held by Simon A. Cole on ‘The CSI Effect’. The CSI effect is a ‘crisis’ on the public understanding of science – it postulates that shows such as CSI pollute jury pools by creating a bias in favour of forensic evidence. Also, in spite of the many available forensic analysis methods available, only nuclear DNA analysis has been rigorously shown to demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual/source consistently and with a high degree of certainty. There thus exists a fear of juries acquitting because of the absence of forensic evidence that may not even be relevant to the case.

This, Cole highlighted, is an example of a deficit approach to public understanding of science – the lay audience has a deficit in knowledge and must be given information to fill this deficit. Cole elaborated by illustrating the reality versus fiction debate and asking whether requiring the public to distinguish the framing between the two is too stark. He concluded that the programme is assembled from elements of both fact and fiction which the audience should recognise. But concerns about the CSI effect exist. Even the US National Institute of Justice dedicated a website to it.

In conclusion, the conference tied in a variety of viewpoints from law, film, architecture and other disciplines to address the topic of surveillance. Although I have only been able to offer a taster of the conference in this blog, the experience was nothing less than educational and inspirational. Attending such an interdisciplinary conference stimulates and probes one to think outside of one’s field. This in turn may lead to more interesting and ground-breaking collaborations between multiple disciplines. We’ll have to wait until the next conference to find out.

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