Rant: Smile, You're on the Telescreen

Universal surveillance meets universal exhibitionism.


Reality TV has many lessons to teach us, but there is one it reiterates with a frequency even parrots can't match: If you want people to behave badly, stick a camera in their faces.

It doesn't matter if they're stranded on a South Pacific island or huddled in the back of a police car; there's something about the intrusive, unblinking gaze of a Sony Betacam that makes people feel invisible, beyond censure.

Apparently our legislators and law enforcement officials have little time to watch Survivor or Cops. They still operate under the notion that surveillance acts as a deterrent. In that enclave of unchecked liberal permissiveness known to the world as San Francisco, for example, the police commission just approved a plan to bolster the city's current network of 33 public surveillance cameras with 20 more mechanical eyes.

In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley has promised to transform his city from a barely scrutinized sanctuary of privacy—there are only 200 police-operated cameras in service there now—into a virtual panopticon. "By 2016, I'll make you a bet. We'll have [cameras] on almost every block," he crowed to reporters in October.

In other words, if a criminal attacks you in 2016, it will be a much more theatrical experience than it is now. Your assailant will flash his tits at you and eat live cockroaches on command before engaging in a teary, drunken monologue about how much he misses his kids and just wants to go home.

But other than that, who knows? Surveillance cameras certainly lead to more surveillance cameras, but do they lead to less crime? In England there are now approximately 5 million public and private surveillance cameras, a fact that has turned every resident of the country's capital into surrogate Madonnas and Prince Henrys. "The average Londoner going about his or her business may be monitored by 300 [surveillance] cam-eras a day," Brendan O'Neill reports in an October issue of the New Statesman. The national surveillance state, it seems, is a pretty democratic place.

Some English cameras verbally reprimand offenders who litter. Others, O'Neill writes, will soon have the ability to "recognise whether people are walking suspiciously or strangely, and alert a human operator." Theoretically, this should make it harder for messy, crippled muggers to do their jobs, but what kind of impact have they had on crime rates so far? In 2005 the U.K.'s Home Office underwrote a study of 14 surveillance systems and found that only one of them had a significant deterrent effect.

Still, the symbolic utility of surveillance cameras is unimpeachable. Install hundreds of deliberately conspicuous cameras—many of Chicago's are topped with flashing blue lights—and you have a highly visible, all-purpose metaphor that you can apply to the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, and the never-ending struggle against public nose picking. So get ready for your close-up. New York is installing surveillance cameras on 450 buses. Houston's police chief believes apartment complexes should be required to install cameras. Mayor Daley believes the same thing about Chicago's bars.

Will a backlash materialize? Or has the recreational surveillance of reality TV and the Internet inured us
to such intrusions? When the government starts watching us, well, at least we'll have more viewers, right? Except for cranks like Lindsay Lohan, even our most privileged citizens long for the sort of relentless scrutiny that was once reserved for maximum-security lockdown units. If a celebrity marriage doesn't warrant its own MTV series, does it really exist?

So perhaps it's best to oppose the post-9/11 surveillance boom on grounds of government waste rather than privacy. With millions of Internet exhibitionists and cell-phone camera snoops collectively functioning as an open-source Big Brother, how much need is there for the government's electronic eyes? Wouldn't it be cheaper simply to lock up the seven people who've never starred in The Real World or established a MySpace account and let the rest of us police ourselves?

Greg Beato is a writer based in San Francisco.