To Be Seen, Or Not To Be Seen: A Study of Blackberrys in the Context of Organizational Surveillance

Publication Type:

Conference Paper


24th European Group for Organizational Studies (EGOS) Colloquium, Amsterdam (2008)


Described as an invaluable asset by some and an addictive invasion by others, the BlackBerry (or CrackBerry) has taken a firm hold on the workplace and is having a significant impact on the corporate environment. Much of the current debate focuses on the addictive, invasive nature of this technology versus the efficiencies of increases connectivity and mobility. There is no doubt that the constant connectivity enabled by the BlackBerry is the aspect most valued by organizations, suggesting that the surveillance aspects of the BlackBerry are worthy of attention as a source of interesting insights into the nature of organizations. This research draws on the work of Mann, Nolan and Wellman (2003) who identified the concept of sousveillance to account for the impact of mobile technology on the panoptic view of technology. Their work identifies that users deploy mobile technology to create a two-way vision, or reflection, to manipulate the impression that the organization has of their activities. Evidence collected from two large Australian financial services firms is used to explore sousveillance through the exploration of the way BlackBerrys are used.The research literature on surveillance in organizations has tended to assume that the view is one way: i.e. the organization is viewing the activities of its employees to make judgments on productivity, manage and modify behavior, and exercise elements of control and power. Scholars have used Foucault’s (1977) concept of the panoptican to illustrate the influence of technology to monitor, record and constantly observe the activities of employees. With the growth of mobile technologies this theoretical framework becomes more alluring as we are able to increasingly communicate, connect and monitor activity in real time. However, a series of recent case studies on the impact of BlackBerrys on the workplace reveals that this one-way panoptic view is too limiting and that the technology may be providing a reflective window through which the employee is able to manipulate the view that the organization sees. Thus a two-way view is created and the notion of sousveillance ( or under view) provides us with more valuable insights. Evidence from our study of two large Australian financial service firms suggests that the use of BlackBerrys provides interesting insights into this two-way view. The BlackBerry enables the firm to be constantly connected to the user anywhere and at anytime. Email and internet access is integrated with the mobile phone creating a single tool that connects the user to the organization, customers and suppliers thus changing the expectations of response times and user availability. Interviews and ethnographic observations in two large, global financial services firms indicate that while some users feel that the BlackBerry has blurred the boundaries between work and personal space, others use the technology more proactively to manage their work to fit with personal requirements or to enhance their personal image with their management and their customers. This would indicate some parallels with the Gary Marx’s (2003) proposal that it is possible to resist surveillance through interference that blocks or distorts views or information. It would appear that the BlackBerry is not always intruding on personal space but rather is being deployed as a personal space protector as users take advantage of the mobility of the technology to disguise their location and activity. Thus the user may appear to be working ie: responding to email, phone calls and accessing files while actually engaged in personal leisure activities. In addition to disguising the user’s location and activities there is significant evidence to suggest that the users in the organizations studied deployed their Blackberrys to create an impression that they were constantly “on the job” and thus enhanced their reputation as diligent employees. This was particularly evident in the context of the two global organizations studied where Australian employees were often operating across timezones. The intense competition for position and promotion meant that BlackBerrys were used to generate email response anytime, anywhere, giving the impression that the user was constantly at work.Thus this paper challenges the traditional view of the panoptican in the context of mobile technology and suggests that users deploy an additional reflective lens which ensures that they have some control over their activities. We find that the sousveillance perspective offers useful insights into the subject of organizational surveillance.References: Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish, trans. A. Sheridan. New York: Vintage.Mann, Nolan and Wellman (2003) “Sousveillance: Inventing and using wearable computing devices for data collection in surveillance environments”, Surveillance and Society 1 (3), pp331-355Marx, G. (2003) A Tack in the shoe: neutralizing and resisting the new surveillance. Journal of Social Issues 59(1).