Ryan Brower

Professor Heidi Cooley

MART 595 Surveillance

5 December 2014


                The illusion of total freedom in public places is very prominent; when people go out shopping, to eat, or anything else they believe that they are making choices completely of their own volition but this is not the case. People are controlled in public, passively of course, through the use of signs. This is not as menacing as it sounds it is still a phenomenon that goes unnoticed. We assume that we have the power to choose to do whatever we want, but in reality we are influenced by things like advertisements, opening and closing times of stores, traffic signs and of course cameras, which are pointed out by signs such as ‘camera #X’ and ‘this area monitored by security cameras’. We are ‘told’ where to go, when we can go, and what we can do once we get there, and we obey these signs as if they were actual figures of authority. Were we to disobey these signs, in all probability, nothing would actively affect us. We wouldn’t be taken to jail for ignoring a ‘do not cross’ sign and we wouldn’t be confronted if we were to stand on the grass marked ‘do not stand on the grass’, however people still obey these markers with the same respect as that of a police officer, at least on most occasions. That’s the real purpose of this article; signs used as a passive form of control in our “society of control” (Sloop and Gunn, 245) and the way people react to them, both consciously and unconsciously. Signs have become such an integral part of public life that people usually obey them without consciously noticing them to the point that most signs intentions can be recognized without even being read. They’ve been branded into our subconscious as an extension of authority though they hold no real power. Evidence of social conformity and disobedience has been gathered mostly through observations taken during a public outing with Professor Heidi Cooley’s Surveillance class. Students took a brief walk around the market district of Columbia, South Carolina, in an effort to witness ordinary civilians behaviors in a public setting. After careful study of pivotal moments after the walk around Columbia, I have categorized signs based on their uses.

                Signs first major use is that of understanding social protocol. This can be broken down into many subcategories that are more specific, but more on that later. Basically, signs give people a set of guidelines telling them what is socially appropriate to do out in public. Otherwise, the general public would not be able to function properly, people would not know where was off limits, when and where one could park, when things were open. In order to ensure the general population knew their limits in public spaces, signs were put up, as the only alternative would be to have city workers on every street corner explaining to people where was off limits and where they could park, and this clearly is not feasible or practical. Sloop and Gunn talk about how the world has shifted to a “society of control” in Publicized Privacy, and while most of their arguments are centered on media in relation to mobile devices there is still a relation to the usage of signs to direct the population with “cultural control of actively undisciplined behavior.” (Sloop and Gunn 252) Signs are recognizably related to control and governmental institutions but it is also recognized that no direct consequences will come from disobeying them.

As stated previously, signs are treated with the same respect as authority figures (at least on most occasions) but blatantly disobeying them holds very little consequences. Signs only have as much power as we give them, and cannot react in the same way as a police officer, a judge or an actual figure of the law. While on our walk I noticed a sign on the front of a glass building which read ‘Please use revolving door’ posted in between a revolving door and a regular door. Just as I finished reading I watched a man in a suit walk through the regular door ignoring the sign completely. Very soon after (I was walking at a fast pace, so this second person was right at the first’s heels) another person followed suit. This is because the first person had shattered the signs authority; he had proven that the sign had no power because no consequence came from entering the building from an entrance other than the revolving door, and once that power was disproven others could safely disregard the sign without worry. Sometimes this trend does not always take place as easily. In this case, no consequences were shown and it was demonstrated that it was safe to use the regular door; this ‘rule’ truly did not matter, but in more serious situations signs are followed much more strictly. While taking our walk, there came a point when our group had to cross a street. The electronic crosswalk sign (perhaps the most obvious example of signs used as a form of control; it literally tells you when you can and cannot walk) was counting down, telling us how long we had left to cross the street before the traffic would come, and it was rapidly approaching zero, however, Professor Cooley began walking across regardless, which was considered bold by the rest of the group as we all decided to stay on the opposite side, not willing to take the risk. While the professor did show us the lack of power that the sign held (even if she had unintentionally) the consequence of disobeying it was very prominent in the form of oncoming traffic.

Signs are used as tools of information. They let people know where to go when they can go there and how long they can stay. There are some obvious ones that are quite helpful, such as ‘No Smoking’ signs which designate areas where smoking is not allowed, and there are parking meter signs which tell drivers when it is okay to park there and then there are more specific signs. While on the walk around Columbia one of the first signs that I noticed were the ‘Public Entrance’ signs attached to the steps of the Grissette Building. They were posted on every available wall making sure to clearly direct tourists to the public entrance, a tactic that makes me think that they’ve had a problem in the past with people trying to get in through the main entrances. Signs are also used informatively outside of businesses, telling people when they open and close and occasionally restaurants will have signs out front with their prices listed on them. While walking through the city I noticed on the door to a small Atlanta Bread Company that they had an opening time listed but not a closing time, and instantly got the sense that there have probably been many people who had showed up after the restaurant had closed, not knowing that it was passed closing time. This is a ridiculous notion, but this is still a prime example of an informational sign’s usefulness, or in this case it’s lack of usefulness. I also question the relevance of some of these informational signs; it seems some of the more obvious signs are also a little pointless. Does one really need a sign to explain how to use a crosswalk?

                Signs can be used as tools for communication as well. I’ve noticed on many occasions, not only on our walk through Columbia but on many streets in many cities, lines and single words spray painted onto the sidewalk, accompanied by arrows and circles. While I’m not entirely sure what these symbols and words mean, I’d imagine that they are for construction, or city management, and have been put there for the use of other city workers reference when they arrive on the scene. I also noticed that grates on the street are labeled as either ‘sewage’ or ‘electrical’ which are used to help workers again correctly identify which grate is used for which job without having to go through the hassle of opening both. Similarly I noticed large grey boxes nailed to the sidewalk with the word ‘electrical’ etched across the side, even though it was obviously an electrical box. This is less related to public control, however is still relevant to this topic; these communications are displayed in a public setting with the goal of directing certain people, so it would be appropriate to say that these are still examples of signs being used as instructions for people in a public setting even if it’s more for the use of function.

                Advertisements are a very obvious, though in some sense unnoticed, way that signs influence the public. Advertisements have become very commonplace, with large billboards on stretches of highway, posters stuck on building walls, and television commercials which deliver the signs to you, that they usually aren’t paid very much attention to, however they are a very effective tool. Advertisements are designed to attract our attention and convince us that we want what they’re selling. Though I didn’t see too many mainstream advertisements on our walk (large companies typically post advertisements in places with higher street traffic, or closer to their restaurants) there were large signs hung up at intervals that said ‘Shop Columbia’. This is used to play to the sense of pride of shopping locally, reminding people as they walk around the city that they should be giving their money to the city and not to the big budget chain restaurants and retail shops.

                Perhaps the most relevant of these signs to this class would be the signs directed at cameras. Every so often we would see boxes holding a number of cameras pointed in various directions accompanied by a sign that read ‘Camera Unit # (insert number)’ making it obvious that the public was being watched not only at that moment but most likely wherever they went. This, coupled with the sparse ‘This area under security’ signs gave the feeling of little to no privacy while in the city once you noticed them, when in reality shouldn’t be that surprising; these people are in a public, not private, space, they are constantly being watched for purposes of safety and function and “full time technological surveillance of the public is the norm” (Slobogin 80). Signs are used to direct people because without such the result, while it would not necessarily be chaos, would definitely be less convenient.


Works Cited

Slobogin, Christopher. Privacy at Risk the New Government Surveillance and the Fourth Amendment. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2007. Print.

Sloop, John M., and Joshua Gunn. "Status Control: An Admonition Concerning the Publicized Privacy of Social Networking." The Communication Review 13.4 (2010): 289-308. Web. 1 Dec. 2014.


The two are very similar, but the basis of their distinction can be broken down into this; informational signs more retain to places that the public is more likely to use (i.e. restaurants displaying opening times) while communicative signs are there for governmental efficiency and public safety. In my article I use a sign on an electrical box as an example; casual pedestrians are not as likely to read this as they are an advertisement as the electrical box does not pertain to them directly, but the sign is put up for their safety. 

How do you feel about different signs have different consequences? So a sign that says use the other door is different than a stop sign. One really doesn’t matter and the other you can get a ticket/fine if you break that rule. Does that start to make the stop sign more inconsequential if we have all these signs that have no follow up? 

I think that it would depend on the potential danger of the outcome of disobeying the sign. Disobeying the 'use other door sign' doesn't have the potential to cause any actual damage, but Stop signs are put up for reasons of safety and traffic regulation, and obviously have the potential to cause injury if not used correctly.

Traffic signs are not heavilly included in this article because I believe that they fall into their own separate category; they are far more heavilly enforced than other signs as police officers are actively searching for people who are disobeying them, and the public knows this, so I don't feel that the undermining of less important signs diminishes their power. 

I wouldn't necessarily say that we'd need either more or less, I'd say that they would be put where appropriate. Signs have no real downside and are effective for the most part of giving instructions, regardless of whether those instructions are followed, so having less signs wouldn't really make sense, and I believe that by strategically placing signs where and when most needed helps to utilize their effectiveness, so more signs would be unnecessary. It would make more sense to say that signs will be placed where needed; were a business to suddenly deem the front of their building a 'no smoking zone' a 'no smoking' sign would be put up accordingly, and with the revitalizaiton of the city, it's likely that more signs will be popping up. 

You mention that the consequences for disobeying signs is fairly nonexistent. Would you consider signs to be more like suggestions versus rules/laws? Also, what do you think enforces the authority that the signs are supposed to have?

I'm not sure 'nonexistent' would be the right way to describe the consequences, just 'less likely'. I would not condone public disobedience, however, were someone to disobey something like a parking meter, it would be about timing. If this person could dodge the meter maid, they would successfully park for free without getting a ticket. This being said I do think that signs (the govermentally instituted ones) are definitely laws rather than merely suggestions, people are just more likely to break them because of the lack of visible authority. In spite of this, though, people treat signs as an extension of the government; someone had to physically put that sign there with the intent to enforce that rule. This is where our ideas of discipline in relation to signs come from. 

Do you think that if there was a harsher form of punishment for disobeying signs, people would take them more seriously? Perhaps ticketing from CPD for jay walking or failing to pick up after your dog?

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