Everyone is Watching You

Reality TV has been decried as death of American culture, entertainment for our most base and unflattering instincts, and one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. At the onset of the Reality TV era there was no lack of color when writers aimed to describe the medium's potential effects on our society. Despite this valiantly verbose effort, it is now difficult to find someone who, when pressed, won't admit to liking at least one or two Reality programs. Over time, even the medium's loudest detractors just got used to it.

But what no one has called Reality TV yet, to my knowledge, is a critical part of the mass indoctrination of society into a culture of constant surveillance. This thought came to me as I was reading about a new art installation/publicity stunt/marketing campaign/reality show from HBO that "illustrates the underlying truth that sometimes the most revealing stories are the ones you weren't meant to see." Via images projected onto the walls of a Lower East Side apartment building in Manhattan, passersby can look into the private homes inside, watching as the inhabitants move about their "daily lives". It's yet another evolution of the Reality TV form, this time taking down yet another wall: the one provided by the explanation that what we are watching is merely "a show". (I have to admit: it's pretty engrossing, especially considering the total absence of dialog or any form of explanation for what one is watching.)

Our defenses are being broken down, slowly. As our culture becomes increasingly comfortable with Reality TV that moves more and more toward presenting actual reality as a form of entertainment, we are being lulled into a false sense of security with the surveillance of our own lives. Manhattan provides another perfect example thanks to the Institute for Applied Autonomy's iSee project, which has mapped all of the CCTV cameras in the city (as well as several others.) In a recent interview with WorldChanging.com, an IAA representative (members are anonymous) had this to say: "It's true that many people are comfortable with surveillance of public space, especially when confronted with the usual choice between privacy and security. With iSee, we tried to subvert (or at least complicate) this binary." The resultant maps certainly achieve this: seeing the shockingly large range of the streets under constant surveillance, one wonders whether these cameras, "put up by individual building owners [with] their data...increasingly managed by third-party private companies" (IAA again), provide security or eliminate it entirely.

Privacy, after all, is commonly equated with security. But in an urban environment, when we are surrounded by so many other people, our expectation of privacy is lowered. In a densely populated place, safety replaces privacy as the central focus of security efforts. So in the city, we are especially vulnerable to surveillance efforts -- and the thwarting of the London carbombings by the large network of CCTV cameras in the West End only increases this vulnerability. I left the question of how to deal with increasing surveillance open at the end of last week's post on digital urbanism. Now, I'd like to look at some possible answers.

Perhaps the most disturbing piece of tech news I've read lately comes from Smart Mobs, where the authors highlight efforts by Cornell University researchers who are injecting microfluidic sensors into unborn insects. "Of course, when they grow," Smart Mobs exposits, "these insects still carry the sensors. And if this works, they'll be used for monitoring and security surveillance." Apparently, this is something that the US Military has been working on for a while now (not in conjunction with Cornell). And with the promised advancement of nanotechnology over the coming years, it's not hard to imagine a future in which every airborne insect is a "bug" in more than just a literal sense. In 1984, George Orwell (hard not to mention him when writing about surveillance) described a world in which people were perceived to be under constant surveillance. In Orwell's imagined future, even the threat of being watched by the walls was enough to keep the masses in line. And a world in which even the insects can't be trusted is a world in which subversion is next to impossible.

In what is certainly most representative of the present situation [of the ideas discussed in this post], blogger Glenn Weiss offers up a less dire, if not exactly inspiring idea on his blog, Aesthetic Grounds. Weiss describes a Parisian film festival that highlights films made with and for cell phones and marvels at how some of these mini-films reclaim the device that has bound everyone so closely by providing the viewer with a moment of quiet immersion: a sort of imagined privacy. "Is this the future?" Weiss wonders. "Even with some private territory in an apartment, will only mental privacy survive in the megacities? When the cell phone provides an avenue for almost anyone to enter your space, are these short mental moments of isolation the new reality of intimacy?

Perhaps the most upbeat perspective on the future of surveillance is in one of last Friday's Weekend Reading topics: Harvey Feldspar's [fictional] Geoblog, from Wired. In it, author Bruce Sterling imagines the life of a so-called geoblogger in the near future (2017, to be exact). Feldspar is voluntarily monitored at all times thanks to his constant blogging and a GPS tracker installed in his Moleskine-sized computer/phone/everythingelse, the Sensicast-Tranzeo 3000. This futuristic jet-setter shows us one way of dealing with increasing surveillance: embrace it. Learn to control the system before it controls you.

As surveillance becomes ever-more pervasive, people will determine how to deal with it on an individual -- or even local basis. Perhaps paranoid subdivisions filled with houses featuring lead-lined walls and airtight mirrored slat windows will spring up in and around cities. Or maybe features like Helio's Buddy Beacon (which seems so disturbingly invasive right now) will become the norm, with everyone being able to find everyone else, and some innate desire for privacy will force us to form some kind of new social honor code. To paraphrase that famous line: when everyone is a watcher, who's watching the watchers? Everyone.

So is mass surveillance a good thing? A bad thing? The most probable answer is that it is neither. Like Reality TV, it's just another thing we'll have to get used to.

(Photo from Flickr user Semi-detached.)

HBO's "Voyeur" Projected On NYC Building (CitySkip)

Interview With the Institute for Applied Autonomy (WorldChanging.com)

iSee (IAA)

The hunt for the London Terroristsm (The Independent)

Autonomous insect cyborg sentinels (Smart Mobs)

The New Cell Phone Privacy in the City (Aesthetic Grounds)

Dispatches From the Hyperlocal Future (Wired)

Helio Buddy Beacon

1 comment:

tonydetroit said...

There is a point I think where too much is too much. Watching everyone (or telling everyone they are watched) in such a fashion I think will limit the creativity, innovation and reflection that has allowed for this nation to see its greatest leaders evolve from. It will be a trigger for more conform, less of an ability to "petition the Government for a redress of grievances"...

oh wait... that might just be the point of that many cameras and microfluidic bugs flying around.

Perception will indeed become reality.