Seeing Like a Capitalist:
Histories of Commercial Surveillance in America
A Conference at the Hagley Museum and Library
Wilmington, Delaware, November 8-9, 2018
The history of surveillance is often associated with the history of the state. However, commercial organizations in the United States – from insurance companies to audience rating firms and database marketers, to corporate personnel and auditing departments – also exercise power over citizens through systems of identification, classification, and monitoring. The history of commercial surveillance thus intersects with key issues concerning the history of privacy, information, social sorting and discrimination, and technologies of discipline and control.
For a conference sponsored by the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society on November 8-9, 2018, we invite proposals that explore the history of commercial surveillance in the United States, from settlement to the present. These (non-state) surveillance activities might be found in a variety of business settings and industries, involve a range of formal or informal practices, and might be directed at customers, media audiences, borrowers, consumer markets, employees, or labor. The long history of commercial surveillance serves to illuminate the precursors, continuities, and logic of today’s “surveillance capitalism.”
We are interested in original, empirically-grounded unpublished essays that consider one or more of the following questions:
- How have commercial surveillance systems contributed to the production of knowledge about individuals or populations? To what extent have private-sector classification systems shaped categories of identity and social status in the United States?
- In what ways have commercial surveillance systems contributed to understandings of gender and race in the United States? How have these understandings been formalized or institutionalized?
- How does the development of commercial surveillance fit into broader social, political, or economic efforts to discipline behavior or control risk?
- To what extent have commercial surveillance systems overlapped – or collaborated – with state surveillance systems, such as law enforcement, social services, or statistical data gathering?
- What legal issues have attended the history of commercial surveillance? How have commercial surveillance practices been regulated, particularly with regard to discrimination and privacy?
- To what extent have distinctions between work and leisure been blurred by commercial surveillance?
- How does the history of commercial surveillance help contextualize the development of big data and predictive analytics in our own time? What underlying structures, norms, or business objectives can be discerned?
- What technologies have been developed, and for what specific purposes, to facilitate commercial surveillance?
Sarah E. Igo (Vanderbilt University) will open the conference with a keynote address on the evening of November 8. She will discuss her new book, The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America, to be published by Harvard University Press in May 2018.
If you are interested in proposing a paper, please submit proposals of no more than 500 words and a one-page C.V. to Carol Lockman at email@example.com by May 1, 2018. We welcome submissions from historians as well as ethnographically oriented social scientists. Presenters will receive lodging in the conference hotel and up to $500 to cover their travel costs.
This conference was initiated by Josh Lauer (University of New Hampshire), and he is joined on the program committee by Roger Horowitz (Hagley Museum and Library) and Ken Lipartito (Florida International University).