Surveillance or Persuasion through Observation

Arranging to Persuade:  Surveillance or Persuasion through Observation
Katherine Bertolucci, Isis Information Services

Isis Information Services

Katherine Bertolucci

B. J. Fogg’s Principle of Surveillance:  Applying computing technology to observe others’ behavior increases the likelihood of achieving a desired outcome.

A few hours after the attempted assassination of Arizona Congressional Representative Gabrielle Giffords (Dem.), her fellow Arizonan, Representative Jeff Flake (Rep.), said in a local radio interview, “What you see on the cable shows, sometimes, is a lot of bickering back and forth but I have to say that’s more in front of the cameras.  Behind the cameras, there’s not as much vitriol.”  We behave differently when we know we are being watched.

B. J. Fogg describes overt surveillance as a persuasive tool for changing behavior in Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do.  Whenever you contact a call center, you are informed that the conversation might be recorded.  Obviously the person on the other end knows this too.  Knowledge of the taping is an encouragement for the employee to remain polite.

Examples of persuasive surveillance in Fogg’s book include a sensor that knows if restaurant workers wash their hands in the bathroom.  Another type of sensor can be installed in a car enabling parents to monitor their teenager’s driving.  In both cases the sensors encourage behavior change because recipients know they are being watched.  Fogg emphasizes that persuasive surveillance must be overt.  If a subject doesn’t know about the surveillance, there is no opportunity for behavior change.

In this series, we are looking at how Fogg’s persuasive technologies are used in information arrangement, with names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a specific example.  I do not see instances of surveillance in information arrangement.  Obviously people use the arrangements to find what they are looking for, but serving the best interests of clients is not an example of surveillance.

There is however an element of surveillance at The Wall.  The chronological arrangement of names by date of casualty reunites Vietnam Vets with their dead comrades.  It brings together those who served at the same time.  A Vet can go to one place on The Wall, see the names of friends who died, and relive his time with them.

This experience is so powerful that, when The Wall opened, visitors immediately began leaving mementos on the ground in front of the panels.  These include a decorated Harley Davidson motorcycle, personal messages, boots, parts of uniforms, insignia patches, and medals.  The only Medal of Honor to be returned was left at The Wall as a protest against American actions in Central America by Army Chaplain Angelo (Charles) James Liteky who carried 20 wounded soldiers to safety during a battle.

Thousands of these items are collected every year, at least twice a day, by the National Park Service and maintained in perpetuity as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection.  Knowledge of this collection encourages people to give their memories a physical form.  The Park Service’s practice of collecting is a surveillance that changes behavior.  If you leave something at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, it becomes part of our historic record.  Those who leave items know that future generations will see a remembrance illuminating the life of an American who served in Vietnam.

Illustration used with permission from Microsoft.