“SOUSVEILLANCE” was an idea coined by Canadian engineering professor Steve Mann to describe a kind of “surveillance from below,” where a camera might be in the hands of an informal actor or private citizen, rather than perched high up on a pole keeping a watchful eye for the state. It was liberating and even utopian in its ideal, promising a sort of inverse surveillance where the masses might watch the powerful. The advent of smartphones seemed to be the great technological leap that would make it all possible—and, indeed, the way smartphone footage has been used to shame the powerful, including police, soldiers, government officials, and abusive authority figures, vindicates the potential for sousveillance. But the fact remained that the camera could be pointed anywhere. And more often than not, it’s aimed horizontally, rather than up at those in power.
The singularity of the traditional service economy and the digital one collapsed into sousveillance capitalism recently with the advent of a viral TikTok trend: users leaving notes for Amazon delivery drivers asking them to dance for Ring cameras, then posting the results as Toks.
Think of this as a subset of Shoshana Zuboff’s “surveillance capitalism,” which emphasizes the role of information-as-resource—monitoring, analysis, marketing, data aggregation—in our current phase of capitalism. To speak of “sousveillance capitalism” is to place the emphasis on the method of extraction, rather like thinking about the difference between mining and factory production. They’re both part of the same system, but they require somewhat distinct analytical tools.