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2006, But Has 1984 Finally Arrived?

Nate Kavanagh | 19.09.2006 14:31 | Repression | London

Watched, recorded, numbered, catalouged, and your whereabouts always known. Voices of authority bark orders at you from thin air on street corners and in town centres. The Government knows where you are, who you are, and what you are doing. A sci-fi totalitarian state from a George Orwell novel like 1984, or twenty-first century Britain? You decide.

Big Brother Is Watching You.....
Big Brother Is Watching You.....

Britain is the most watched country in the world, with around 25,000,000 surveillance cameras: one for every two citizens. A further 20,000,000 are planned over the next ten years. On average every British citizen can be caught on CCTV around 300 times a day. These statistics coincide with the news that trials are being held in Middlesbrough where seven cameras in the town centre have been added facilities, which allows operators to bark orders at those involved in anti-social behaviour. Officials claim that the trials are the latest move in crime prevention to make the streets of Britain safe for law-abiding citizens. But are these moves by the Government and local councils a seriously effective method to reduce street crime, or merely one of increasing state attacks on our personal space and civil liberties? With the advent of the Terrorist Bill and the planned introduction of the proposed I.D. cards which will hold a fine of up to £2.500 upon failure to produce, there is understandably mixed emotions on the streets of England. I went out on to the streets of London to ask the general public their reactions to the news.
Lily Kyte from Camden Town, aged 21, aired her approval for the moves – “I would feel a lot safer walking down the street at night around here with the knowledge that someone is watching. Camden can be a dangerous place, and it would give me peace of mind to know that someone can intervene if anything were to happen, even if it is just a voice from a camera”.
David Mathers from Montreal in Canada, aged 25, however expressed concern. “It is a bit weird thinking I can’t go anywhere without Big Brother looking over my shoulder at all times and telling me what to do. It seems a blatant attack on my personal rights and civil liberties. We’re supposed to live in a free country, not one of fear and repression. It really is like something straight out of a George Orwell novel”.
Mark Smith from Highgate, aged 41, added – “I do feel kind of awkward walking down the street being constantly watched, recorded, and my whereabouts constantly known. But I suppose I can understand how it makes people, especially young women and the elderly, feel safer”.
It seemed after a day of street interviews that most of the public were greeting the move to mixed reactions. Many from run down areas throughout England expressed an understanding for the need of increased security on our streets, yet they did also express a subtle acknowledgement of the invasion of privacy and attempted disintegration of civil liberties the New Labour Government especially, has been aiming at under false pretences of fear and security. Only time will tell as to whether the British public will continue to accept this State encroachment into their lives, and surrender their liberty, in the name of protection, or eventually take a stand and say enough is enough. After all, as many in history have pointed out, does making the individual behave through fear of reprisals really work in the long term, in comparison to sorting out the problems that make individuals misbehave in the first place?

Nate Kavanagh
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Panopticon - internalised subjugation

19.09.2006 20:35

I've listened to many of the arguments for and against the prevalence of CCTV on the streets of the UK, and what they essentially boil down to are these points:
* aids and abets the sense of security among the population (reduces fear of crime)
* can be useful in successful prosecution of some offences as a form of evidence
* may prevent some crimes from taking place

* very intrusive into the ordinary lives of citizens
* subjects everyone to indiscriminate scrutiny and tracking
* is wide open for potential abuse
* provides an illusion of security that is actually false as intervention will only happen post-event
* is a diversion for money that should be directed toward other needs
* contributes to a remote, technologically-dependent society
* are not particularly effective despite the hype

I am aware of some research undertaken by Crime Concern that noted street lighting having the same deterrent effect as CCTV without the added vulnerability of CCTV to pre-planned facial concealment, a tactic which immediately nullifies any prosecutorial advantage that CCTV might have. Given that CCTV - insofar as it is used for crime-related matters - is of dubious use as evidence in court (specific standards of facial clarity have to be attained before it can be used), as well as is something that can only be used retro-actively or post-offence, the argument that it helps one feel safer is somewhat strange. One is likely to already be raped or beaten up before the police arrive on the scene and if the CCTV image is not of sufficient standard to be used in court and if the assailant was using facial obstruction (scarf, balaclava, mask, hood, etc.) then the sole benefit of CCTV is that someone in the control room is able to put through a dispatch call on the victim's behalf. So the CCTV as crime-fighting/deterrent tool is a bit of a red herring really.

However, for whatever reason, both the US and the UK maintain that reducing the fear of crime is an important target, even though for an indicator of performance it is one fraught with difficulties, on the basis that fear of crime is really only a measure of anxiety. On 9/11 it is almost a certainty, for example, that the average American's anxiety levels went through the roof, and yet the overwhelming majority were not under threat, and certainly not from crime. Measure this as a fear of crime indicator and the government's performance would have been in the pits, even though crime and terrorism are unrelated, despite what Herr Reid would have the public swallow. CCTV does not really address this generalised and diffused anxiety either, but merely makes a pretence of doing so (actually, a bit like most of neo-Labour's policies and strategies, come to think of it!!). The focus on public reassurance is to be blunt, crap. The public are unlikely to be reassured substantially by cameras on a pole that bark out orders, but are otherwise literally and figuratively far removed from the event space of the crime. If anything, as several UK studies have shown, there is a tipping point where too much police presence makes the public anxious because they are afraid something big is happening and that they themselves need to remain vigilant (i.e. become anxious).

So ... if we accept the foregoing, we must ask the more probing question that if CCTV is not effective in public reassurance (which, when people start to think the issue through is generally the consequence), is not a decent or robust deterrent, and is not great for later prosecution of offenders, then the only function that is left over as having any real bearing on the huge UK investment in CCTV is that it provides a veneer of crime fighting strategies to meet government targets and various performance indicators, but beyond that has little direct and substantive benefit.

However, what it does do, as the first commentator has alluded to, is help to create a surveillance society. As Foucault argued compellingly, Bentham's model of the idealised jail, the Panopticon, was (theoretically) effective because the prisoners began to internalise their own subjugation, began to control themselves because they never knew when the guards were watching them, since they were continuously exposed to surveillance while the watchers remained invisible to the prisoners. Internalised subjugation is a pernicious and creeping form of self-surveillance. It goes hand-in-hand with the discourses on "reality" TV (now, there's an oxymoron!) that propose the subject of living as object of observation or voyeurism. We all become objects for each other, subjected to the fixating and controlling gaze of the diffuse and omnipresent "other", who is really our self projected as the watcher. Our own self-consciousness is, in effect, transcended to become the other watching us from outside of ourself. I'll stop at this point before getting caught up in the intoxicating vertigo of phenomenology and post-structuralism; however the point is that we become watchers of ourselves as-if-from outside. And this is part of the subtle rot that surveillance societies bring forth: the one becomes her/his own gaoler assuming that somewhere, somehow s/he is perpetually under someone else's gaze: one becomes an object of scrutiny, even to one's own self.

When this is coupled with the degree of power (again, borrowing from Foucault, where he argued that power is constitutive, and that power/knowledge constitutes the world in certain forms, giving way to established discourses that fashion what one can say/think/do and who can say/think/do it and when) that CCTV and other surveillance technologies give to the state, the impecability of the state becomes paramount, such that the state must always exercise the highest ethical restraint and resistance to abuses to be worthy of such powers bestowed upon it by these technologies of surveillance. As we sadly know however, the state is simply not up to such high standards of impecability ... and, to be fair, it is highly unlikely that anyone of us would be up to such exacting standards. However, be this as it may, the neo-Labour (and the Tories before them) have certainly demonstrated that they traffic in the currency of spin over substance, lies of expediency over ethics of difficult strategic honesty. Hence, when we couple the degree of constitutive power/knowledge CCTV gives to those in power over the ordinary lives of ordinary people with the base dishonesty of the regime, we should be afraid. Very afraid.

This government, and probably very few governmental bodies, have demonstrated themselves worthy of such power, of such privilege to lord over such huge and bottomless amounts of information about its citizens, and consequently, until such time as they *do* prove themselves honourable and up to the exacting standards of being able to do so, we as citizens should be dubious of their claims that only those with something to hide resist surveillance. Rather, let us turn the tables on them and pose the obvious statement that it is the government which does not trust its citizens that seeks to expose them to 24/7 surveillance. Why should the people trust a government which has plainly and demonstrably lied to its citizenry when the citizens have yet to be identified as acting in anything but good faith and tolerance for the excesses and bad judgements of the government. When we can trust our government then maybe they will earn our endorsement for ID cards. But until that time, the government is suspect and must be called to demonstrate its trustworthiness. It is they who warrant closer scrutiny and surveillance, as it is they who are accountable to us, and not we to them. And therein lies the basic but undeniable distinction. The people are under no obligation, ethically, politically, legally, or otherwise, to the government, but they - the elected officials with whom we have entrusted the leadership and guardianship of our national and personal interests - are accountable to us. That is the pivotal distinction upon which fulcrum the argument of a surveillance society pivots: it is not we who should be under surveillance, but rather they, they who claim to rule and lead, they with whom our trust rests to be honourable.

But, as is already too obvious, it is the state which controls the directionality of the automated gaze. This provides them with an unfair and skewed advantage: we are already prisoners within the model of control described so eloquently by Bentham's architectural design for high efficiency prisons. It is not all that surprising that whenever a new methodology for control and restraint are to be introduced it will be done so under the broader rubric of being for our own good, or for the protection of children (as in the proposed regulation of the Internet due to protection from child porn, etc). In fact, these are merely such statistically insignificant factors over-emphasised to make a point, and we all swallow this blindly, believing yet again that the government is looking out for our best interests we do not notice the subtle shift into a police state we have agreed to becoming subjugated to. They gaze upon us as de facto prisoners - guilty without charge - while they lie and deceive, murder and exploit without concern. We are under surveillance for wrongs that a small percentage *might* do, while they run around scott-free, perpetrating mass murder, even genocide, establishing a war zone and making us increasingly vulnerable to legitimate retaliatory attacks. They are the ones who should be watched, monitored, controlled, for it is Blair and Bush (as easy examples) who are the (war) criminals and who should be arrested for murder, for conspiracy to commit genocide, for supporting, aiding and abetting terrorism. The fact that it is we who are under surveillance is itself a travesty of justice that needs correcting. Urgently.

We survive in a surveillance society, as if in a huge prison. Are we already prisoners? To what do we owe being under such intense surveillance? Do we not owe it to ourselves and those who follow us to stand up against such intrusion, such two-faced sanctimoniousness that posits us as de facto criminals, while the real criminals get away and get to put us under subjugated self-control, fostering docility, acquiescence and quiet servitude to the established order. Who are they to do so, and on what grounds do we let them continue with such restraining infringements on our rights to exist in freedom and anonymity that exceeds the sapn of any given political party's restrictive and dictatorial onslaught? Again, it is they who should be under surveillance, for it is they who serve us ... not the other way around!

dr jeckyl does not hyde


Display the following 4 comments

  1. Big Brother!! — savage
  2. big picture more like — bert
  3. nice comment — anarchoteapot
  4. ten years — Surveillance Camera Players