Battle in Print: Surveillance society - protection from ourselves?

Karl Sharro, 9 October 2006

It’s been said before, I am aware, but Orwell was immensely prescient. 1984 has come and gone, leaving behind an entrenched legacy of surveillance made even more powerful by the advancements in monitoring technology in recent years. Query the phrase ‘eye in the sky’ in your search engine of choice, and instead of a biblical reference or even the Alan Parsons Project 1982 hit single, you are referred first to surveillance camera manufacturers. Meanwhile, the unblinking eyes of CCTV cameras keep a constant watch on every street in London, and it seems that the rest of the nation is catching up fast.

What is so vexing is that nobody seems to give a damn. How could it be that in the few decades since Orwell wrote his novel our aversion to being monitored has given way to such apathy? Even as life starts to imitate art too closely for comfort, we still seem to be more amused than threatened. Middlesbrough Council has recently equipped seven CCTV cameras with a ‘sound facility’. One could almost imagine the local council reading Orwell’s text without any irony and using it as a manual instead, looking for inspiration on how to best monitor the proles. A press release informs us that this ‘sound facility’‘allows operatives to give advice or intervene in incidents as they happen’. Advice? I picture a man standing in front of one of these devices: ‘I think my wife is cheating on me…’

Having survived the tumult of the past two centuries without deigning to equip its policemen with anything more threatening than a truncheon, it seems that the British ruling class may finally be losing its hitherto vaunted self-composure. When everywhere else in Europe revolutions raged, Britain quelled its own malcontents with ease, sometimes choosing mockery as its weapon of choice. Where else could the act of attempting to blow up the parliament be re-enacted merrily with fireworks?

There is, however, more to the story. It is true that those in power today are overreacting to the antics of drunks on Saturday nights. But one cannot help but notice that ‘society’ on its part is also failing to counteract these intrusive advances by the state. Fear and mistrust among individuals play their part, making it seem more reasonable to trust the constant gaze of a benevolent authority rather than one’s fellow citizens. Much has been said about the collapse of social bonds and the decline of the capacity for self-organisation in recent decades, and this certainly plays a part in the lack of resistance to state surveillance.

Ironically, the spread of CCTV and other forms of surveillance has been partially supported by ideas whose original inspiration was quite different. In her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the late American writer Jane Jacobs advocated a grassroots, neighbourhood-based approach to safety and security. Jacobs coined the phrase ‘eyes on the street’ to describe how a sense of ‘natural’ ownership of a street ensures safety for both residents and strangers. Jacobs was no friend of bureaucracies. In the words of the Canadian critic Robert Fulford, Jacobs ‘came down firmly on the side of spontaneous inventiveness of individuals, as against abstract plans imposed by governments and corporations’.

Fast forward to our present time. Jacobs’ ‘eyes on the street’ have been mechanised, like so many other aspects of modern life. She has also become the patron saint of the pseudo-vigilante groups that go under the softer sounding ‘neighbourhood watch programmes’. More worryingly, she is regularly quoted by criminologists and ‘security consultants’ (professional paranoids, really) to justify measures that represent the exact opposite of what she wanted to avoid – that is, the institutionalisation of surveillance.

Misinterpretation aside, I do not wish to absolve Jacobs of her responsibility for the state of surveillance we are in today. Whether the ‘eyes on the street’ are those of local residents or faceless CCTV operatives, I can’t help but think that a certain inclination towards voyeurism must propel these folk to this career choice; the initial assumption in both cases is one of suspicion towards others. For a city or a society to be possible there must be a measure of trust in strangers. The assumption that people will transgress when unobserved betrays a miserabalist view of society.

There are, of course, circumstances under which the normal rules of social life are suspended. But such instances are the exception, not the rule. This scenario came to pass during the war in Lebabnon, where I was born and lived for most of my life. In response to the threat of car bombs in particular, suspicion towards strangers and ‘irregular behaviour’ was heightened. Different neighbourhoods closed down on themselves, becoming almost self-sufficient units when it came to policing and security. Beirut, a previously cosmopolitan city, fragmented into a series of ‘villages’. Security imposed a heavy toll on the urban character of the city that, arguably, it is still trying to recover a decade and a half after the 1975-1990 war.

Are we today in the West living in such extreme times that would justify suspending the norms of a civilised society? The answer is an unequivocal ‘No’. Politicians routinely deploy the threat of terrorism as a justification for more surveillance and more intrusion. But when closely scrutinised this justification falls apart. It has already been pointed out that, statistically speaking, the risk of terrorism is still very low, particularly when compared with earlier periods such as the IRA campaigns.

Recent acts of terrorism have had more of a symbolic impact than they actually warrant, although the threat is still very real. But if we consider the response we find that there is more emphasis on being in a state of readiness than on how attacks can actually be thwarted. Since the anti-US attacks of September 2001, we have been constantly reminded by public agencies of the need to be ‘vigilant’. This vigilance rarely takes a specific form. It seems to be intended more as a state of being that we should internalise without necessarily knowing how we should act.

One of the few instances in which a specific action is prescribed is the case of unattended baggage – everyone knows that they are meant to inform the authorities. A comedian recently joked that in fact the threats in the London Tube did not come from ‘unattended baggage’ but instead from baggage that was quite closely attended! Vigilance is not something than falls under responsible citizenship. Instead, vigilance is an invitation for us to share the surveillance load with the state. What we are asked to do, in fact, is be constantly suspicious of our fellow citizens on the assumption that it is better to be safe than sorry. This is a far more sinister proposition than the proliferation of CCTV cameras, which are somewhat easier to oppose. When we are actively encouraged to spy on each other a far more important aspect of social interaction is threatened.

Sadly, it seems that we are more than willing to collaborate in the surveillance of our fellow citizens, and not only when it comes to terrorism. For example, the sex offenders registration law in America, known as Megan’s law, allows the publishing of information about sex offenders once they are released, including their addresses and personal information. Residents groups sometimes take it upon themselves to distribute this information in the neighbourhood, a process that was satirised in an episode of the sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm. What is apparent is that our willingness to engage in such surveillance acts is on the rise.

This willingness seems to be driven by a very casual attitude towards the privacy of others. Consider one of the most common phrases mindlessly repeated in the context of the debate about surveillance: ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about’. This sentiment betrays a worrying attitude toward public and social interaction. The assumption is that what we choose to reveal or conceal about ourselves is determined by whether these aspects of our personality are criminal or immoral. The fact that what we conceal may be a personal choice about how we conduct ourselves in public is simply not considered. The value of the freedom to choose to whom we reveal certain aspects of ourselves is lost.

We now live in a condition under which disclosure has become a constant demand, and one that we can do little to resist (indeed, we have little inclination to do so). Consider how intrusive television has become, and to what extent people are willing to expose themselves fully to its inquisitive gaze. In parallel, Google has acquired the capacity to expose our secrets to anyone who’s interested in a process that we have no control over. In speech, we are requested to ‘keep it real’ and to ‘be ourselves’.

But there is a confusion here between the act of disclosure and the fact of authenticity. What is revealed is automatically assumed to be authentic. But when we have to reveal all where is the space for authenticity? What is apparent from all of these examples is that the notion of the self is being stripped bare. Our public self is manifested through what we choose to keep latent and what we choose to make apparent. Today we are requested to bare all. Under this condition, state surveillance appears less threatening and intrusive, for we have already accepted the need to bare ourselves. In this context the request for privacy invites suspicion.

In an article in the New Statesman, Brendan O’Neill (2.10.2006) visits a subterranean CCTV control centre in central London and observes how surveillance is conducted. He makes several important points against the logic of surveillance, the most overlooked of which is the parallel between voyeuristic popular culture and the lack of public resistance to being placed under surveillance. It is certainly true that voyeurism is becoming an aspect of how we relate to each other, vouched for by the popularity of reality TV shows and the like. Voyeuristic tendencies alone, however, only justify why we would look into the lives of others, not why we would choose to submit to that inquisition ourselves. For that we have to look to disclosure.

What is so insidious about the logic of surveillance today, then, is that it doesn’t emanate from the top-down. It has also pervaded much of society from the bottom-up, mediating the ways in which we choose to interact with each other. It seems to me that any potential opposition to surveillance needs to be both political and cultural in nature. It is important to resist the proliferation of CCTV cameras, both silent and speaking. But it is even more important for us to rediscover the meaning and value of society.

Karl Sharro is an architect, Future Cities Project

 References

Watching you, watching me, Brendan O’Neill, New Statesman, 2 October 2006

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