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Keeping an eye on the prize

Queen’s University researcher David Lyon has earned the prestigious Molson Prize for decades of work in surveillance studies.

Queen’s University researcher and Canadian leader in surveillance studies David Lyon has earned the 2020 Canada Council for the Arts Molson PrizeThe Prize, which recognizes individuals who have distinguished themselves by their outstanding achievements, is awarded to two people annually, one in the arts and the other in social sciences and humanities. The prizes are intended to encourage ongoing contributions to Canada's cultural and intellectual heritage 

First awarded in 1964, Queen’s University researchers have received four Molson Prizes, including, most recently, John McGarry (Political Studies) in 2016. The other three are John Deutsch (Economics, 1973), Donald Akenson (History, 1996) and Thomas Courchene (Economics, 1999). Dr. Lyon also joins the likes of Marshall McLuhan, Ian Hacking, Charles Taylor and Janice Gross Stein as previous winners. 

The illustrious list of previous prize-winners includes several whom I hold in very high esteem and from whom I have learned much,” says Dr. Lyon (Sociology), the Director of the Queen’s University Surveillance Studies Centre. I was thrilled to get the call, of course, but immediately started thinking of all those with whom I work – colleagues, PhD students and postdocs – not to mention family, to whom I owe so much for inspiration and support. So, the Molson Prize is a gift – it’s grace. And I’m deeply grateful. 

Dr. Lyon’s early work focused on historical sociology of secularization, but the 1980s hype about a microelectronics revolution and the information society started to redefine his career path. 

Working on a book about this, it dawned on me that some of the most portentous issues seemed to be underplayed  surveillance being the one that really struck me hardest. Why? Because all of us were rapidly being pulled into contexts in which our ordinary lives were under scrutiny in new ways. Soon I was working with a group called REGIS  Research and Ethics Group in Informatics and Society  and teaching a course on Information Technology and Society for the UK’s Open University that obliged me to dig deeper into both the social and the technical issues as they touch on our very humanness. 

Two of Dr. Lyon’s most influential books, The Electronic Eye and Surveillance Society, are generally regarded as two of the most significant tomes when it comes to surveillance studies, and the The Culture of Surveillance is quickly becoming a standard. The three books pull together important sociotechnical research findings in a readable style and in ways that highlight the impact of surveillance on everyday social relationships – how we are “socially sorted” – and on our hopes for fairness and freedom. 

I suppose I’m a pioneer because, learning from others, I made vital connections at an opportune moment,” he says. “And if I’m a leader it’s because I believe in the primacy of relationships in practice as well as in theory; we depend on each other in profound ways. I respect and, yes, love those with whom I work. 

Along with the Molson Prize, Dr. Lyon has been honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Sociological Association (2007), as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (2008), with an Honorary doctorate from the Università Della Svizzera Italiana (2016) and the International Surveillance Studies Network Distinguished Contribution Award in Aarhus, Denmark (2018). 

With the field of surveillance always evolving and changing, Dr. Lyon says he will continue his important work and is looking to join forces with researchers in many disciplines from around the world. 

“The great joy of the past two decades has been collaborative research on surveillance; working together in an increasingly international team. My hope is to see this furthered, consolidated and maybe to see a similar song played in a different key. Surveillance Studies is multi-disciplinary, including computing, but we also need to become more fully interdisciplinary, working with colleagues in software engineering, data science and analytics. 

We also have to widen and deepen our international understanding, especially as distinctive surveillance systems now originate a long way from Silicon Valley – think China and India, among others. If I can continue to be part of this – while leaving plenty of time for family – I’ll be delighted. And I shall persist in pressing for change at the most basic level – asking first what in surveillance will foster human flourishing – rather than starting with supposed technological, political or economic priorities. 

For more information about the Molson Prize, visit the website.