One of the many ways we identify ourselves is as a member of a city, state, or country. This context brings certain benefits, rights, and responsibilities. People in your community have practices and understandings about what it means to be a member, including beliefs about behaviors that might result in someone being ejected from that community.
A couple of years ago, Forbes.com published Cory Doctorow’s Snitchtown essay. In it Doctorow explored what makes a community and how video surveillance violates a loosely understood “social contract” without returning significant social benefits. From Doctorow’s essay:
The key to living in a city and peacefully co-existing as a social animal in tight quarters is to set a delicate balance of seeing and not seeing. You take care not to step on the heels of the woman in front of you on the way out of the subway, and you might take passing note of her most excellent handbag. But you don’t make eye contact and exchange a nod. Or even if you do, you make sure that it’s as fleeting as it can be.
The irony of security cameras is that they watch, but nobody cares that they’re looking. Junkies don’t worry about CCTVs. Crazed rapists and other purveyors of sudden, senseless violence aren’t deterred. I was mugged twice on my old block in San Francisco by the crack dealers on my corner, within sight of two CCTVs and a police station. My rental car was robbed by a junkie in a Gastown garage in Vancouver in sight of a CCTV.
The irony, as Doctorow points out, is that “When you watch everyone, you watch no one.” This is a classic case of missing the forest for the trees. We have millions of eyes, but with them we can not see.
Emma Byrne published a photoessay on her blog (direct to the PDF) to illustrate Doctorow’s essay. Byrne notes that her photographs include “some of the 4.2 million CCTV cameras currently estimated to be active in Britain.” Yow!
Coaching moment: Do you have cameras in your neighborhood? Look around, I bet you do. Surveillance cameras act as silent and ever-vigilant recordings of our every public move. They don’t come with any indication of why they’re there, or who’s watching.
Have you ever walked to the other side of a street, or taken another path through a store, so as not to be in the middle of the camera? Have you ever noticed a camera then quickly responded by looking down or away? Worn sunglasses and a hat so as not to be as easily recognized? Or does the surveillance make you feel safe? Why?
Note that you may not have anything to hide. You may have done nothing wrong in public. That’s not the question. For most people the surveillance just feels illegitimate, creepy and wrong.