About Torin Monahan, Ph.D.: Torin Monahan is Professor in the Department of Communication at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), where he also serves as Faculty Affiliate at the Center for Media Law and Policy. An influential voice in surveillance studies, science and technology studies, and critical / cultural research in communication, Dr. Monahan has published more than 50 essays and book chapters, including publications in Cultural Studies, Communication and Critical / Cultural Studies, Qualitative Research, and Cities.
Dr. Monahan is author of the books Crisis Vision: Race and the Cultural Production of Surveillance, SuperVision: An Introduction to the Surveillance Society, Surveillance in the Time of Insecurity, which received the Surveillance Studies Book Prize from the Surveillance Studies Network, and Globalization, Technological Change, and Public Education. In addition to his prolific research career, Dr. Monahan is an accomplished editor. He has been Co-Editor-in-Chief of Surveillance & Society since 2017, and previously served as Co-Director of the Surveillance Studies Network. He is also editor or coeditor of a number of collected volumes, including Surveillance Studies: A Reader and Schools Under Surveillance: Cultures of Control in Public Education.
Dr. Monahan’s research has been funded by a number of competitive grants. Most recently, the National Science Foundation funded Dr. Monahan’s project, “Grounding Digital Platforms: Socio-Spatial Mediation of Technological Change,” and his current collaboration with Dr. Jill Fisher, “Partnering Through It: Building a Research Base for Dual-Career Academics.” Dr. Monahan earned his Ph.D. and M.S. in Science and Technology Studies from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as well as an M.A. and B.A. in English from California State University, Northridge.
Prior to joining the faculty at UNC, Dr. Monahan was Associate Professor in the Department of Human and Organizational Development at Vanderbilt University and Assistant Professor in the School of Justice and Social Inquiry at Arizona State University.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in science and technology studies and communication studies, and begin to apply perspectives in these fields to examine surveillance as a technological form of social control that reproduces and exaggerates inequities pertaining to race, gender, and class?
[Dr. Torin Monahan] I became interested in science and technology studies [STS] because I was looking for a field where I could grapple with the issues of, at that point, environmental sustainability and technological change. I was in an English program at the time that I felt was a little bit too constricting for that. I was lucky to be able to find an interdisciplinary field that could really take the guardrails off and let me explore all the interests that I had. The difficulty became how to rein that in and do something feasible.
Communication is something I came to much later. I was drawn to it because of how porous and multidisciplinary communication can be as a field. I already had a number of colleagues who worked in communication, like Shoshana Magnet, Mark Andrejevic, and Oscar Gandy. These were people I was in conversation with anyway and who, when I was given the opportunity to join a communication department, made it seem like a fairly easy transition for me.
That was my shift from STS to communication. Along the way, surveillance studies became my main academic home. That began because of a topical interest in surveillance. I was interested in resistance and what artists and activists were doing back in the early 2000s. I gravitated to this nascent field of surveillance studies, and I stayed because of the feeling of a real, nourishing community that it provided.
As a rule, people in surveillance studies are not judgmental. They are not trying to knock you down. The people are genuinely curious about what you are interested in and finding ways to help you accomplish it. To be honest, I have not seen that in a lot of other more established fields. Feeling like I have an intellectual home of that sort has made me want to maintain that, and I have over the past almost two decades.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For those of our readers who may be less familiar with this area of study, would you briefly introduce us to surveillance studies and its relationship to perspectives in communication and science and technology studies?
[Dr. Torin Monahan] I will try [laughs]. Surveillance studies is an orientation that is focused on issues of power in society, especially issues of power and domination and the kind of inequalities that are enacted through technological systems or through institutional apparatuses. If one is interested in issues of power, it seems like a pretty natural set of concepts and literatures to apply to that inquiry.
I would say, with some notable exceptions, the field was organized primarily in its early days around sociology and criminology and focused especially on institutions, whether they be the police, or bureaucratic government institutions that are amassing data on populations, or workplaces that are doing similar things for purposes of efficiency or control.
Surveillance studies had an institutional and more sociological orientation at the outset. Over the past 20 years or so, it has expanded radically into many other fields in the social sciences and humanities, ranging from geography and communication to literature and the arts. Each of these areas brings a different set of interests to the question of surveillance and society, yet they are ultimately complementary. Some people are more interested in privacy, other people might be more interested in racialized policing, and others might be interested in conspiracy theories and disinformation, yet they all hang together pretty well because there is that overarching interest in issues of power and domination.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Would you speak to some of the key ways that technologies and practices of surveillance reflect and intensify oppressive racialized and gendered power relations that you have identified in your research — for example, the application of surveillance to the management of marginalized populations you critique in “Regulating Belonging: Surveillance, Inequality, and the Cultural Production of Abjection,” or to the anti-Black surveillance you attend to in more recent works, including your new book Crisis Vision: Race and the Cultural Production of Surveillance?
[Dr. Torin Monahan] Surveillance impinges unequally upon populations through several mechanisms. One would be social sorting, where the outcomes of surveillance systems are different for different people; for example, different consumers might get different targeted ads.
A more pernicious mechanism is differential surveillance, where surveillance techniques apply to some populations but are not experienced at all by others. We can see this in some of the things I have written about, like refugee screening systems, the surveillance of people on welfare, or police surveillance of minoritized communities. In these examples, the deployment of surveillance becomes a type of institutional or structural violence that creates categories that can be acted upon to police or dehumanize populations.
The other element of this dynamic is how differential surveillance is made invisible to those it is not being exerted upon. If you are relatively affluent and privileged, you may be completely unaware that these systems are being implemented and are sorting populations in these ways. Privilege has a lot to do with it, but this invisibility is also driven by how these systems get coded into algorithmic structures. We may be unaware of how a website, or a credit scoring system, or a probation scoring system, makes decisions because of the very nature of the technological “black boxing” that occurs with these systems [e.g., many algorithms are proprietary and, as such, are difficult to scrutinize by researchers or the public].
[MastersinCommunications.com] When asking how algorithms or big data techniques encode cultural biases, how do you read their politics if you cannot get into that “black box?”
[Dr. Torin Monahan] From a science and technology studies perspective, we try to get into the black box. There are ways to do that. First, you can look at the disparate outcomes and reverse engineer what might be happening behind the scenes to yield those results. Secondly, you could try to structure “living experiments” to test these systems and see what kind of results they produce.
One example that I am working on conceptualizing is a collaboration with Saba Eskandarian, a computer scientist at UNC. This is not a live project yet, but we are strategizing ways to study automatic price discrimination that occurs through algorithmic systems used by corporations. Whether it is Best Buy, Walmart, or Amazon, depending on who you are, your IP address, and your zip code, you may get an entirely different price than the person in the next zip code over.
We are planning on building a model to test as many possibilities as we can to see if we can map what we hypothesize will be racialized forms of price discrimination. Can we empirically generate evidence of that? Up until now, there is lots of anecdotal evidence where people have seen this in action, but we do not really know as a society the extent of these practices. What is interesting about it to me is how insidious these practices are, so much so that often the companies do not even know what is occurring because the technologies driving these decisions are black boxed for them as well.
If you have these machine learning or AI applications, leadership at these organizations may be completely unaware of the discrimination that they are engaged in. In some instances where it has come to light, they have been mortified to find out and do what they can to remedy it. Those are some ways to try to get at what is inside the black box empirically, not just conceptually.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In your latest book Crisis Vision, you turn to examine the potential of “critical surveillance art” as a mode of political resistance within the destructive cultural formation you call “crisis vision.” Would you introduce us to “crisis vision” as a cultural formation that produces and is supported by regimes of racialized visibility?
[Dr. Torin Monahan] What I am trying to do with the concept of crisis vision moves beyond universal explanatory frameworks for surveillance that still build heavily upon the formation of the panopticon. The popularity of the panopticon as a metaphor for modern surveillance allowed us to imagine that we are all in different ways subjected to a gaze that elicits our compulsory, and in many respects voluntary, self-discipline or submission to social control.
[The panopticon is a design for a prison by Jeremy Bentham where a central prison tower looked out onto prison cells surrounding it, but its occupants were not visible to the prisoners. In Foucault’s famous critique of the panopticon, he discusses how, because the prisoners could not know whether they were being watched by a guard, they would begin to surveil themselves, internalizing the discipline of the prison guard.]
I wanted to move beyond that and really try to delve into what we have been talking about today, which are the differential and the racializing effects of surveillance. These are not predicated upon a universal model but instead, I argue, on an empirical model of what is actually happening in society. With the concept of “crisis vision,” I look at how amplified differences have become the norm in society and how that encourages the scapegoating of others, especially minoritized groups, as responsible for the insecurities of our time. That, in turn, encourages a more intensive kind of surveillance to either monitor and police or to expel and exclude these groups.
One component of crisis vision, then, is that it builds upon amplified differences. The second major component of crisis vision is situating us along a racialized continuum of threat. Regardless of what our positionality is, we are enjoined to see ourselves on this continuum. On one end, we might see ourselves as being of relatively little threat and thereby excepted from scrutiny and deserving of the rewards associated with what we might wrongly perceive to be our station. On the other end of the continuum, we have punitive and violent acts, as with the racialized policing of minoritized communities.
What is really at stake here is that, regardless of our position on the spectrum, our culture is producing this segmented and divided society, and, to the extent that that is true, it motivates surveillance to police those categories. Throughout the book, I try to unpack this and to interpret it through different artistic examples, but in a nutshell, that is what this formation of “crisis vision” is representing.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Crisis Vision engages with critical surveillance art, not as self-evidently subversive to crisis vision, but as “political performances” that participate in the broader cultural discourses surrounding surveillance and provide “artistic frames” for engaging surveillance. Are there particular artists or works you would highlight from the book that best represent the critical potential of these frames, or, on the other hand, reveal their limits?
[Dr. Torin Monahan] Let me take just one step back to say that the way that I am engaging with artists and these artistic frames is not so much to interpret and critique what they are doing, although I do that, but it is also to gain greater perspective on our own assumptions and our own constraints in dealing with the problems of surveillance and especially racialized surveillance in society.
Whether you are an artist, or an activist, or an academic, I think the frames that I develop in the book can help you understand what our impulse reactions might be to those problems, so that we can more reflexively interrogate our assumptions and find different ways forward. That is the orientation.
That being said, then, some of the artists I discuss do a great job at helping us think outside of our usual conceptual categories — artists like Dread Scott, Dries Depoorter, and Hank Willis Thomas, whose work Raise Up appears on the cover of the book. These are works that deal with racial oppression more explicitly and try to carve out or document where communities come together to oppose that oppression or to ensure survival in spite of that oppression. They either operate in that register, or they are calling attention to our collective complicity in this racializing regime, so that they foster introspection or maybe community building or other forms of intervention. I think those are the works that point a path forward for us.
The others, which I am not going to name, might be the ones that focus more on individual privacy infringements and offer ways to avoid or interrupt those systems. They present more of an individualistic frame as opposed to a collective one. That, too, is true of a lot of our responses to surveillance more broadly, even in policy circles, where we contend with the individual violation and have a great deal of difficulty seeing the collective.
The first set of artists recognize the racializing movement of crisis, which is a move of erasure that positions especially non-white bodies as what Hortense Spillers might call “flesh” or non-subjects. At the same time, erasure can provide opportunities for persistence, survival, or community building for those who have to live under those conditions. This is how I theorize opacity, drawing on Édouard Glissant’s work. It’s not so much about being obscure or being hidden, but it is about a way to form community, to foster survival, and to resist these systems that would try to reduce you to singular elements that could be manipulated and acted upon. For these reasons, opacity is not at all about privacy in my interpretation of it.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Are there important ways in which the concept of crisis vision marks a development or shift from the cultural formation of “insecurity” you attend to in your previous book Surveillance in the Time of Insecurity?
[Dr. Torin Monahan] Not consciously so, but subconsciously, yes. Surveillance in the Time of Insecurity was a critique of how neoliberalism finds expression in state security and surveillance practices. It was dealing with questions of whether individuals should take responsibility for their own security and how the state could transgress through partnerships with private companies.
Within the cultural formation I call crisis vision, I think a lot of that is still true, but at the same time there has been such an erosion of confidence and trust in state institutions because of public health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, with issues of policing, with issues of warfare, with the management of environmental meltdowns and climate change. On one hand, there has been such a destabilization of those state apparatuses to foment even more feelings of crisis and insecurity. On the other hand, you also have the development of conspiracy theories and the demonization of Antifa protesters or people who are embracing public health mandates like mask requirements.
There is an uncertainty about the grounds of knowledge production and truth construction. The very means of adjudicating truth claims is eroded in this time when what might present as fact is disputable depending on one’s positionality. That is more of an epistemological crisis or an ontological crisis that we find ourselves within as well. It is not just the external forces that we can measure, but it is more the cultural norms and mythologies that are also at play.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In recent publications, you have attended to the consequentiality of the COVID-19 pandemic for surveillance studies and argued that COVID-19 has worked to intensify and normalize practices of surveillance, in part by valorizing transparency to systems of tracking and regulation. Would you discuss how COVID-19 has further normalized practices of surveillance and, more specifically, your argument in “Reckoning with COVID, Racial Violence, and the Perilous Pursuit of Transparency” that decolonizing surveillance studies is necessary to critically respond to this normalization?
[Dr. Torin Monahan] I would say that surveillance cannot be the solution to surveillance. That is my shorthand explanation. We tend to have this impulse to illuminate problems in our society: to just shed a light on them as if that illumination process will activate change, lead to correction, or solve problems.
I try to explode that perception for a few reasons, both in the book and in the articles that you reference. One is that empirically it just does not seem to be true. The more evidence that we have of abuses or wrongdoing does not lead to correction. In fact, a lot of times it just leads to a normalization, acknowledgement, and codification of that wrongdoing.
Second, it also feeds into this impulse that counter-surveillance can somehow be a corrective to surveillance. What that ignores, in my reading of it, is that if surveillance is always about issues of domination and control, then it is an unethical power dynamic to begin with. Turning the tables, while it might make activists or progressives feel good in the moment, does not change the system by which we try to govern others.
The final limitation I think of is one that we have already referred to here: if we cannot even agree on the grounds for truth claims, then the illumination of one infraction or another is subject to critique, subject to interpretation, subject to debate, and it is not going to have the catalyzing effect that people might hope.
The specific piece you reference is really me trying to push back on some trends that I see in the field of surveillance studies — trends of gesturing toward these politics of exclusion and gesturing toward racial inequality, gender disparities, or other forms of inequality without putting much behind it. My argument here is that, while inclusion of more voices and diversifying the field are necessary goals both for surveillance studies and for communication and other fields as well, ultimately that is insufficient. It is insufficient if we do not also change our mode of questioning or inquiry — the ways we define the problems that are worthy of study.
Whether we have more diverse voices or not, I think all of us are complicit in the existing system of knowledge production and its exclusions. A way to begin to move forward or move beyond that would be to ask ourselves the difficult questions of whether our research projects are moving toward racial justice, environmental justice, or the other goals we are committed to, or whether we expect that other people are going to do that work for us. If we do not reorient our own inquiry in those ways, then the overall system remains intact and its norms are insulated.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You recently began a collaborative, three-year project called “Partnering Through It” with Dr. Jill Fisher in the Department of Social Medicine at UNC, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Would you tell us about this initiative, which aims to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in guiding Research One universities to adopt partner- and family-friendly policies? Why are family and partner policies so important to addressing racial and gendered inequities in universities, among other issues?
[Dr. Torin Monahan] This is a really exciting project for me, so I am glad that you have chosen to ask about it. We are doing three big things with this project. One is a nationwide survey of academics to gauge their perceptions of partner hire issues in academia — whether or not they have academic partners themselves — to get a sense of the overall culture and its problems. We want to understand how these perceptions intersect with the casualization and adjunctification of the academic workforce and understand possible frictions between these problems.
The second component of the project is gathering the partner and spousal hire policies of all Research One universities in the country to build a repository and make those readily available for academic couples and others on the job market. This will also produce a set of data that we can then code and analyze to see patterns among these policies and identify best practices.
The third component is going to leverage the findings of the first two steps to build an online scorecard of the partner-friendly status of Research One universities in the United States. This is intended to be both a resource for academic couples who are trying to determine where they should apply — what universities might be more accommodating — and also an agitation for universities to do better. If universities do not like their rankings on our final scorecard, we will have recommendations for how they could improve that. The project will be an intervention that encourages increased humanization of academic institutions.
To your questions about how it aims to correct some of the disparities in academia, especially as they pertain to gender and race, more than a third of academics are in dual-career relationships with other academics. It is a sizable portion. Of those, women are more likely to be partnered with other academics than men are. When there is resistance to partner and spousal hiring at universities, it will statistically affect women more than it will affect men, which means that their research careers could be stymied or they may fall out of the academic workforce. There is a phrase to describe this: “the leaky pipeline.” Academic professionals and policymakers agonize over these issues, and yet they do not have robust responses to them.
The other outcome of this problem for equity issues is that women end up being twice as likely to accept adjunct, lectureship, or non-tenure stream positions than men do in the academy. This applies to women of color as well. The science, technology, engineering, and math departments are especially atrocious at achieving gender and racial balance with their faculty. If the goal is to try to increase diversity in universities, then finding ways to not just accommodate but to also support academic couples is really essential for us to begin to solve some of these issues of representation.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give to students who are interested in surveillance studies, critical perspectives in media and science and technology studies, or the other topics we have discussed today who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?
[Dr. Torin Monahan] I would ask yourselves whether academia is really right for you given the things that we have been talking about in the last few minutes. The job market is precarious. The expectations for your mobility are pretty high with respect to where you might have to move to get a position. Additionally, it can be a grueling profession. Ask yourself if pursuing scholarship, conducting research, and finding answers to questions really drives you. If the answer is yes, and you are willing to live apart from your extended family, or live in states that might not culturally or politically work for you, or live in other countries, and you can accept precarity, then maybe grad school is right for you.
If so, then fields like communication or surveillance studies are especially good. In communication, in particular, the job prospects are fairly strong compared to most other fields. It is also a relatively flexible field that allows you to develop, to expand your interests, and to move in new directions without being penalized because you are not adhering to the strictures of the discipline. I find that liberating.
I recognize that I’m speaking from a position of privilege because things have worked out for me in such a way that I can conceptualize new projects and go and do them. But even if that were not true, the field as a whole is really supportive of a wide range of projects. Provided you take your work seriously and you build connections with others, you could do almost anything you wanted to do in communication.
Thank you, Dr. Monahan, for sharing your insights on science and technology studies, surveillance studies, the cultural politics of critical surveillance art, and more!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.