Surveillance in a Digital Age

drawing of cameraIn the last few years, most of us — even instinctive technophobes like me — have become practised in the dark art of surveillance. When I’m going to meet a stranger at dinner, I’ll routinely feed her name to Google and LexisNexis to find out who she is and what she’s been up to lately. If you know the person’s street address, you can spy on her house with Google Earth, and inspect the state of her roof and how she keeps her garden. A slight tilt of camera angle, and you’d be able to see into her sock drawer and monitor the bottles in her liquor cabinet.

Jonathan Raban, We Have Mutated Into a Surveillance Society and Must share the Blame The Guardian, May 20, 2006

If Raban — author of the new novel Surveillance — is right, we’re becoming a nation of Nosey Parkers, following the example of a government who listens in our phone calls and reads our email, and a private sector whose surveillance cameras track our comings and goings. And thanks to technology we’ve come a long way since the days when we crouched in the bushes to spy on our neighbors and cupped our ears to the wall to hear what they were up to.

Spying, snooping, and surveilling has long been with us not only in life, but also in art. From Shakespeare’s Pyramus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Jimmy Stewart’s housebound photographer in Rear Window, voyeurs have been useful in advancing the action. What has changed is that surveillance is no longer a mere plot device — it has become a subject unto itself.

Little has been made of surveillance films like Cache, The Lives of Others, and Breach. Each is well worth a serious discussion. Angles might include the times that nurture these films’ considerations; their divergent treatments of cultural and political secrecy; and the effects of slow, insidious, and unrelenting surveillance. What are these films telling us?

Patsyb, from Pitch a Show, February 19, 2007

Patsyb raised an intersting point. Art like surveillance attempts to go beneath the surface to question what is true — we’ll be spending this hour looking at our surveilled society thorugh the artist’s eye.

surveillance camera

Where have you seen the artists’ take on our watchdog world? What artistic works of the past best captured sureveillence in the 21st century? Can we use the fact that we are being surveilled to our own advantage? Does our ability to surveill one another change our sense of trust? Does a transparent world make us more honest or is it pushing our darker side deeper underground? Have you ever found yourself using the internet to uncover truths about your neighbors and friends?

Jonathan Raban

Author (of many things, but most recently), Surveillance and My Holy War: Dispatches from the Home Front

Hasan Elahi

Interdisciplinary artist, Assistant Professor, Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University

Bill Brown

Co-founder and Director, Surveillance Camera Players

Gary T. Marx

Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Extra Credit Reading

Jonathan Raban, We have mutated into a surveillance society – and must share the blame, The Guardian, May 20, 2006: “Since September 11, CCTV cameras, magnetometers, BioWatch air-sniffers, razor wire, concrete fortifications and all the rest of the machinery of state security and surveillance have become so much a part of the furniture of life in the US that we barely notice them.”

Andrew Hultkrans, Here’s Looking at You, Kid: Surveillance in the Cinema, Stim, date unknown: “Since its birth, but most explicitly since the 1950s, the cinema has played with surveillance, voyeurism, and the power of the gaze . . .”

John W. Dean, George W. Bush as the New Richard M. Nixon: Both Wiretapped Illegally, and Impeachably, FindLaw, December 30, 2005: “Reports have suggested that NSA is “data mining” literally millions of calls . . . In sum, this is big-time, Big Brother electronic surveillance.”

Gary T. Marx, Electric Eye in the Sky: Some Reflections on the New Surveillance and Popular Culture, Computers, Surveillance & Privacy, 1996: “Surveillance themes are pervasive in popular culture, although we often do not think of them as such. Consider, for example, the familiar song ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.’ The words to this religious panopticon song are well known — Santa ‘knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.'”

Stephen Soldz, Total surveillance state takes giant leap in Britain, Information Clearinghouse, December 30, 2005: “From 2006 Britain will be the first country where every journey by every car will be monitored.”

Erich W. Schienke and Bill Brown, Streets into Stages: an interview with Surveillance Camera Players’ Bill Brown, Surveillance & Society, 2003: “[The SCP Players are] frank truth-sayers who gently and humorously remind us that the rampant growth of public surveillance . . . is something we should be uneasy with and feel nauseated about.”

Stephanie Rosenbloom, I Spy; Doesn’t Everyone?, The New York Times, September 7, 2006: “Digital technology has made uncovering secrets such a painless, antiseptic process that the boundary delineating what is permissible in a relationship appears to be shifting.”

Banksy, Banksy Pool on Flickr, especially his comment on surveillance. (via rahbuhbuh)

Super Vision, Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, December 10, 2006 – April 19, 2007: “Today’s vision breaks wide open the possibilities for human knowledge and experience, but as the insidious web cam in Albert Oehlen’s painting Dose and the chaotic energy of works by Julie Mehretu and Jeff Koons show us, the effects can also be threatening.” (via rahbuhbuh)


Balance and Power: Performance and Surveillance in Video Art, The Rose Art Museum of Brandeis University, September 21 – December 17, 2006: ” In these days of both terrorism and Reality TV, Balance and Power: Performance and Surveillance in Video Art explores the complex relationship between voluntary acting for the camera and involuntary taping by a camera on the part of power systems that have an interest in the movement of citizens.”

Surveillance Camera Players, 1984, YouTube, October 12, 2006:


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  • herbert browne

    At what point does pure surveillance morph into a “control” pattern? I mean, if it’s important to watch, well, why? Is it pure entertainment? Is it because, to the watcher, there’s a sense of incipient threat? A good friend- a light-show and poster-wizard from the 60s, made me a custom bumper sticker a few years ago (responding to something I had blurted out) that read “One Nation, under Guard…” With the Homeland Security tattooed upon our body politic, with passports required to visit Canada (well, to get home, again, really), with your shoes off waiting to board (will it be transit, next?), there are some of us who mutter “overkill”. Hopefully, the surveillance microphones are still a few years out… ^..^

  • rahbuhbuh

    Graffiti artist Banky’s take on surveillance in his own UK, a much more watched country:

    He also installed fake security cameras with plastic ravens perched atop, either nesting or eating bits of the cable. Sorry that I can’t find any images.

    The most recent anecdote worth mentioning is not art related, but traditional surveillance mixing rather roundaboutly with self publicizing on Three local Brighton teens jumped a man on the Orange line. One was caught then described his friends whom escaped. Security camera footage was used in conjunction with photos from the thief’s profile to identify the other teens before driving over and arresting them. The damning photos showed the braggarts flashing gang signs to boot. Morons.

  • Lumière

    ///Have you ever found yourself using the internet to uncover truths about your neighbors and friends?\\\

    No, they are my friends.

    I know most everyone along the five-mile route that I jog around my neighborhood – we occasionally meet in the street and dish the dirt on each other. That is all that is required in my hood.

    Creepy show – hey, did Nixon start this !

  • rahbuhbuh

    If there’s time to call up the new Boston ICA before the show, their current exhibit “Super Vision” fits right in.

    Artists playing with our expanded vision (either microscopic enhanced via technology, dimensional, camera influenced, etc…). Much of the work questioned our relationship to surveillance, either mimicking the grain of satellite photos in paint or odd video installations from Tony Oursler.

    Downloadable audio commentary here:

  • Lumière

    //….traditional surveillance mixing rather roundaboutly with self publicizing on\\\\

    Long story, but I was looking for some very specific info about a place and stumbled onto a woman’s blog on the net

    She had her entire life posted since she graduated from college in 2001. Everything in a daily diary format: what she ate, what she watched, what she listened to that day.

    Photos of each day so you knew the weather that day – photos of parties, photos of her friends – all with text.


    Seems some love being surveilled…

  • Tom B

    Isn’t surveillance just another aspect of the human desire to know, and the ability — in an information-based society — to obtain knowledge? People are insatiably curious, and we are moving past ‘All The News That’s Fit To Print’ to simply, ‘All The News’. In the 1950s you wouldn’t see babies being born on television… you do now. In the 1960s you wouldn’t see documentaries about rape… now you do. And we could all add example after example of what was once ‘never discussed in polite company’ now being discussed in company which doesn’t care about ‘polite’. We are no longer just insatiable devourers of goods and services (the so-called Consumer Society), but increasingly of words and images. And along with this, we see an ever rising desire among people ‘to be famous’ (e.g. Big Brother or American Idol). The flip side of voyeurism is exhibitionism, and it should surprise no one that the flood of information has now begun to overflow the banks of traditional rivers. Expect more snooping… it is the wave of the present, and foreshadows the tsunami of the future.

  • Lumière

    What you have is an attempt to fill the emptiness of existence with more emptiness: superficiality, sensationalism and exhibitionism…..our culture is becoming totally pornographic.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Don’t put your eyeball out with this.

  • Lumière

    OMG, I don’t want that cookie on my computer !

  • Bobo

    Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, the Panopticon from Discipline and Punish… The 1950s and early 60s seemed to be a time when the art world was thinking a lot about surveillance, and what it does to people on either side of the lens. But what does art have to say about it nowadays. Or is it just too common place? Maybe people were thinking about it 50 years ago because it seemed so new and scary, but I think the shock value has disappeared. Speaking for my generation (y), I think we’ve been raised to expect that someone knows everything we do. It’s only a matter of time until we all get busted for something.

  • The film “Minority Report” showed an interesting take on the surveillance future.

    I agree with Lumiere that we live in an increasingly pornographic society. I was laughing with a friend the other day about how we see groups of people and invariably one or even all of them are looking at their cell phones/pda’s and communicating with someone who is not there. Our fear of intimacy is nurtured by deviced that allows us constant virtual contact. Why connect directly with a person and risk actually feeling their energies blend with yours when you can maintain a monopoly on your energy space via the buffer provided by technological connections? You’ll always be the celebrity in your life if you don’t let anyone else in.

    We are really so afraid of each other. Or, perhaps, we’re afraid that, in the end, we are only virtual.

  • I live in a small town where its still easier to “ask around” if you want the scoop on someone. In a small town a certain level of transparency comes with the territory. I think it does keep people honest but its different from surveillance because its a two-way street.

    Surveillance is much more sneaky and creepy. You don’t know who is spying on you. You just know they are. Imaginations can go wild! Megalomaniac paranioa can set in until you start to believe that attractive CIA agents are watching your every move. Your life becomes a play that you perform for the “watchers”.

    I think art out of the past that might best represent Surveillance World would be Michelangelo’s fantastic renaissance altar piece Last Judgment or Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights both are from the perspective of an all-seeing eye. In the Michelangelo it is a judging (and condeming) eye that is pervasive. In the Bosch every wierd little thing that the people who watch you constantly are finding out about you is nakedly represented.

  • rahbuhbuh – thanks for pointing out that exhibit –

  • I just started reading Raban’s book, the new hardback, Surveillance surreptitiously during slow moments at the bookstore where I work. I started it when I was bored and wanted something that would really grab my attention. I read the first page of a number of other books before I opened Surveillance and got grabbed. I’m looking forward to this show.

  • rc21

    This is one subject where true conservatives and true liberals can find some common ground. I think many see surveillance,especially by the govt as not such a great thing.

    The debate starts when we try and decide which type of surveillance is justified and necesary.

  • mynocturama

    The link to Patsyb’s pitch in the header is faulty.

  • hey peggysue, I like your post about transparency versus surveillance. One is about being loved and embraced even with all your quirks and imperfections, the other is about being feared and condemned for all your quirks and imperfections.

    And, yes, rc21, I think both conservatives and liberals don’t like government in our faces. Funny, though, I’ve often thought about the real difference between the two camps as being about whether the governmental budget goes to the military or social services. In my mind, as soon as you choose the military, you choose an antogonistic view of life. You spend a lot of money training people to identify and kill the enemy. You build your industrial complex to support that. So many people become dependent upon the idea that there is an enemy that they need an enemy. The more difficult it becomes to find one, the more need you have for surveillance to help you find it.

  • Chelsea

    Mynocturama–thank you! I’ve fixed the link.

  • Lumière

    People once lived communally – not much privacy there.

    Then cities were built and anonymity could be possible – not necessarily more privacy. One could see what you were doing or how you dressed but they didn’t know who you were – you were anonymous.

    Then the web came along and anonymity increased – not only do we not know who you are, but we can’t see you. (If you post a pic -we have no way to know it is you.) As anonymous posters, we can post our innermost thoughts in a very public space. Perhaps privacy is unnecessary when anonymity increases.

    Back to the woman who posted her entire life since college on-line: You could say, she has neither privacy or anonymity. I think what she is saying is that neither of those things matter.

    Does anyone think they are being surveilled?

    I’m sure that I am not under surveillance.


    wiki stuff:

    “anonymity” of that element refers to the property of that element of not being identifiable within this set. If it is not identifiable, then the element is said to be “anonymous”.

    ….often means that the personal identity, or personally identifiable information of that person is not known.

    Privacy is the ability of an individual or group to keep their lives and personal affairs out of public view, or to control the flow of information about themselves. Privacy is sometimes related to anonymity although it is often most highly valued by people who are publicly known. Privacy can be seen as an aspect of security—one in which trade-offs between the interests of one group and another can become particularly clear.

  • rc21

    allison, I hear what your saying and am not in total disagreement. It would be nice if we could draw down the military, and put some of that money back in the taxpayers pockets. But the simple truth is we do have enemies and have had them for several decades. In the 40’s it was the Germans, Italians, and Japanese. It was the military that saved the world from tyrany. From 1946 through the 80’s it was Communism spearheaded by Russia. The military played a large part in defeating Russia. Although thankfully a mainly nonviolent war did the trick.

    If you have any question about todays enemy than I’m sorry I can not help you. It seems fairly obvious to many that muslim extemism is the enemy of the free world and the US inparticular.

    I have always looked at the military as an unfortunate reality, and a necessity.

  • Peggy Sue @ work

    Thanks Allison – another thought… So many people are in prison these days. I was just hearing about massive immigant detention camps in Texas that sound ghastly. What I remember thinking about during my own brief icarceration (for tree hugging) was that while you had absolutly no privacy in jail you were also completly isolated. So, again there is the difference between living with open transparency or being watched by others without seeing them. The prison state seems geared toward a survaillance model – it separates, isolates and polarizes, whereas an open society where people are mutually transparent and honest with each other unifies.

    There is also paranoia as self-flattery (which is not to say we aren’t being watched). When I was working at the Earth First! Journal in Missoula one day one of my fellow editors started covering up the windows. I asked him what he was doing. It all seemed very cloak & dagger. He explained that he had information that we were being watched by FBI. At first it made me feel kind of important but pretty soon I decided that if someone really wanted to watch me draw painstakingly detailed pen & ink drawings of endangered critters or type in my slow one-handed way I really didn’t care except that if they were being paid with tax dollars it was a true waste of money. I took the curtain off my window. I felt I’d rather watch the snowflakes fall in the alley than thwart a possible surveillance agent.

  • Lumière
  • Tom B

    Perhaps surveillance is not the issue we imagine it to be. If a bored man dozes on and off as he watches banks of TV screens showing thousands of people (including you and me) come and go, is it important? (Lest this image seem outlandish, imagine yourself in a Las Vegas casino plunking quarters into a balky slot machine…). Now imagine that the man watching the TV screens is an enlisted man watching banks of TV screens showing thousands of people coming and going. (And now we are in a room of the Pentagon). Still not particularly scary — at least not to me. There is a certain anonymity that one achieves simply by being a face in an enormous crowd, even though thousands of eyeballs briefly register one’s existence. I don’t think it is being surveilled that bothers us. It is having someone give us personal recognition — as when a police officer comes up and says, ‘Sir, would you come with me.’ It is the (possible) consequence of being surveilled that most folks dislike. But surveillance does not necessarily lead to detention or simple ‘disappearance’. And part of the sheer horror of much terrorism is that the violence is random. The terrorist doesn’t bother surveilling his victims; any grandma will do just as well as any infant. Their identity is irrelevant. Their only importance is as living proof of the impossibility of finding safety in anonymity. The terrorist doesn’t need to learn about his victims; as long as they die horribly enough, they serve their purpose.

  • I’m with you PeggySue. I prefer to be transparent than to be concerned about being surveilled. I find safety and comfort in transparency, percariousness and dis-ease in survellance.

    Let’s have national Curains Off Day!

  • rahbuhbuh

    Arg. A faulty connection just ate a bit to be posted. Repeated, anonymity/surveillance:

    Graphic designer Paula Scher of Pentagram did a self portrait illustration about identity theft in the mid 90s (?). Her profile was compiled of all her social security, driver’s licence, bank account, prescription, etc… numbers in an attempt just to come clean and stop worrying about it. I can’t find the image… probably in her book “Make it Bigger”

    What bothers me most is not that I am being spied upon (if i’m doing nothing wrong, why worry). However, I loathe the liberties being taken with the Patriot Act and the public’s nonchalance regarding it. The lack of quality discussion last March, before voting to reinstate it, was shocking. It’s scary if Americans are apathetic to that level of surveillance. If they wish for it, then I’ll continue to sit in my corner and just gripe more quietly and be happy that I CAN gripe without being jailed or worse.

  • Peggy Sue @ work

    “But surveillance does not necessarily lead to detention or simple ‘disappearance’. And part of the sheer horror of much terrorism is that the violence is random.”

    Actually it seems disappearances can be pretty random too like the innocent people we are now coming to find out have been “disappeared” by our own government and shipped away to be tortured. And, we are only hearing about the few Canadian or German citizens this has happened to. The surveillance people are doing a rather poor job when they round up anyone of a cetain race to be tortured and call what they are doing a “war against terror”.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    I think we should put cameras inside the walk-in refrigerators at McDonalds and Burger King. I always wondered what kinds of exotic stuff those angry career employees put into the food. Watch out for the mayonnaise – ya never know.

  • Peggy Sue @ work

    I don’t worry about being watched but I did have an eerie experiance when I was refused enty into Canada (pre 9-11) and it suddenly dawned on me that they had actually been expecting me. That was creepy. I knew then that my phone was tapped. I’m not a terrorist. I’m just a non-violent hippie tree-hugger. Of course these days tree-huggers are concidered the biggest domestic terror threat. Well that word “terrosist” gets thrown around VERY loosly. Peace activists are under surveillance because, ya know, if you don’t support Bush then you must be a terrorist. Its bullshit.

  • Peggy Sue @ work

    Godzilla – they are just snffing the gas out of the whipped cream.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    One time they showed a guy on television in a restaurant urinating into a coffee bin before breakfast and serving it to customers. They suspected something and that’s why they set up a camera. So was it good or bad to have him watched? Who knows how long he would have gotten away with it? Only God knows what he or others in the food industry bring from home to put into our food.

  • Lumière

    Surveillance is also a act of intimidation – you wont do it if they are watching.

    The other side of the coin: if they are watching, you can’t be falsely accused.

    Movie: The Anderson Tapes

    “Watchable but curiously muffled thriller in which Connery masterminds a plan to rob an entire apartment block, unaware that everybody involved is under surveillance by somebody or other.”

  • Ben

    In his own words, Jeremy Bentham described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” I wonder what he would have concocted with miniature cameras and the internet.

    That’s a great story GVB – it reminds me a line in the song Anarchy Burger (Hold the Government) by the Vandals.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    My protection against eaves eavesdropping Cone of silence

  • Michael Apodaca

    For me, the real problem is that we are setting up infrastructures and institutions that could be used against us. Some high school flunky watching me check out my groceries is not immediately threatening, but is it hard to imagine a situation where this could be potentially harmful? In our failing democracy, these technologies simply make population control more efficient and also more likely.

  • Sir Otto

    It seems we’ve all forgotten people burned alive with jet fuel and jumping off the top of the trade center to avoid the flames.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    When will we be monitoring each automobile? Basic vector/location information (speed, direction), who is driving the vehicle, etc. If the technical hurdles can be scaled, why not?

  • Lumière

    Specious argument –

    The problem is you don’t know how many were deterred by the camera. You only know the failures – so the failure rate appears 100%

  • cwf

    I’m listening now to jonathan raben on WGBH boston. He made a long comment about his daughter’s comfort about the openness of the web and her use of My Space, He must have his head in the sand. Many adolescents have no real idea that they are in a public forum.

    A number of my daughter’s prep school friends had pictures of themselves posted on My Space sent to their respective schools because the photos were of them comsuming alcohol. In one instance, a student had to resign a prefect’s position at the school.

    Jonathan should check out My Space. Kids put their names, first and last, their addresses and their phone numbers, in addition to their school names. It is not difficult to track down specific students, if one is so inclined. These kids may use and enjoy the public forum, but they don’t fully understand the lack of privacy. Putting things on the web are exactly like publishing them in a newspaper to which everyone subscribes.

  • Lumière

    ////When will we be monitoring each automobile? Basic vector/location information (speed, direction), who is driving the vehicle, etc. If the technical hurdles can be scaled, why not?\\\

    Under skin chip is where we are going…

  • OliverCranglesParrot
  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Under skin chip is where we are going… or RFID ubiquity?

  • Peggy Sue @ work

    “It seems we’ve all forgotten people burned alive with jet fuel and jumping off the top of the trade center to avoid the flames.”

    I doubt that. We are not allowed to forget. I’m not sure what your point is exactly but if you mean that if only we would remember that particular act of canage we’d all be gung ho to live in a police state. Respectfully, I just don’t think so.

  • Lumière


    Ok, now we all have chips, next step:

    low number chip – the kind that says: handle with care, I’m special !

  • JohnnyM

    Knowing I’ve done nothing wrong, and don’t plan to, I would consider this more of a non-issue if I thought I were gauranteed due process through which suspicions could be rebuked.

  • Sir Otto

    If you had polled everyone on the site on Sept 12, 2001, you can bet they would have voted for a police state. Rounding up Arabs, not Irishmen, which would have been wrong. That “particular act of carnage”, I prefer savagery, seems to have lost it’s edge of horror with time. The plan to protect ourselves has been diluted. We need a hard, firm protection plan which, no doubt, will offend some people.

  • babu

    Chips under the skin signal the end of free will as we know it.

    Haven’t heard the show yet here in Seatle…

  • Jonathan Raban

    “CWF” says I have my head in the sand. No I don’t. Of course a lot of MySpace users, adults as well as children, are laying themselves open to sexual predators, burglars, fraudsters, &c, &c. But smart users, of whom my daughter is one, don’t. She doesn’t display her second name, her address, even her city. She has a page accessible only to her named friends, and has vowed that if she finds foreign intruders on her page, she’ll close it down, pronto.

    This is like 1910, when fatal motor accidents were happening at a vast rate per-automobile-on-the-road, because every highway was filled with Mr Toads (Wind In The Willows) who had no idea how to drive. Understanding the hazards of a new and revolutionary technology takes a long while, and we’re still in the infancy of a technology just as revolutionary, and probably more so, than that of the private car.

    My point was that the line between the public and the private realms are shifting fast, and that it is more important to understand that than merely to protest it, a la Bill Brown.

    Yes, we could recover the level of privacy we all enjoyed as a matter of course circa 1990. That solution is easy: tear your phone out by the roots, take your computer to the dump, tear up your credit card, sell off your car–and live like a Mennonite or an Amish, driving a horse and buggy through the 21st century. I’m not planning to do that. Nor, probably, are you.

    In 1974, Richard Sennett published a terrific book titled “The Fall of Public Man”, charting the increasing obsession with privacy–and narcissism–since the 18th century. Well, the narcissism hasn’t stopped, but I think our era might be titled “The Alarmingly Accelerated Rise of Public Man.”

    It’s not–as I tried to suggest on the program–just spycams that are important here: it’s the irresistible fingertip technology of checking-out, checking-up, authenticating, available now to everyone at one click of the mouse. We could, like the Luddites, just concentrate on smashing the machines: I believe it’s more constructive to understand their consequences for all our everyday lives.

    To PeggySue: I very much you stay “grabbed” by Surveillance.

    Best to all, Jonathan Raban

  • herbert browne

    As a luddite who did pull the wires off the house (& live without the AC for 12 years after), I “discovered” the world that peggysue mentioned- the transparency of intimate community. It’s the image of the self-powered, atomized, “self-realized individual” (shopper) that’s driving a great deal of the curiosity & the technological developments that satisfy the urge to “know by clicking”… something- ie being in control (eg “I got the remote!”). The satisfied (or merely stimulated) curiosity is certainly worth striving after, since Truths will turn up by going there… if I believe in anything, it’s the value of curiosity. But that’s a faculty that requires training… which is where the value of community comes in. One thing about the “rugged individual” paradigm is that it’s bred & fed by a preoccupation with competition. Our culture is Way over the top in this particular proclivity- small towns, big towns, the countryside- it doesn’t matter. Competition is great- but when “it’s the ONLY thing” (to paraphrase Vince Lombardi), without grounding, without balance, we’re in trouble- because curiosity will be channeled into “self-serving-ness” (or what Mr. Raban referred to as “narcissism”). We lose by devaluing, dismissing, or even deriding Cooperation- in a number of ways and venues. However, ultimately it’s Cooperation that builds communities; and Competition that fills prisons (when combined with the eternal pitch of “Having = Being” aka “go shopping- & everything will be alright)… ^..^

  • Leif

    Anyone with an internet connection is wired for surveillance. Visiting blogs, discussions and photo sites allows us to see more intimately into the lives of others, in ways which depend entirely upon our motivation. As an artist I’ve kept the U.S. invasion of Iraq under surveillance…by regularly viewing the photos and commentary posted by soldiers and others. As a consequence I’ve learned to appreciate Iraqis as individual people and as families, savor some of the epithets of the armed forces (toward the subject citizens and toward U.S. leaders) and more generally get the “non-newsworthy” tone of the occupation. I put it all together by downloading the more telling images as screen-savers; so when the computer is on I have cycling visual reminders of what a particular political decision is creating.

  • You may want to check out the folks at the Electronic Privacy Information Center ( They focus on all forms of digital surveillance, both online and offline, and have been leading the charge on a lot of e-privacy issues.

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  • Jonathan Raban

    An afterthought: we need to treat the word “surveillance” with care, and be alert to its many nuances. In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” Jane Jacobs pointed out the value of a limited degree of surveillance. The safest streets are the ones with other people on them–potential witnesses, and, if you’re very lucky, rescuers. Surveillance ain’t all bad. The CCTV camera in the bank or the 7-11 serves a justified deterrent purpose, and so does the video monitor of the front doorstep in an apartment block. Search engines like Google are a wonderful boon when used properly. Adam spied on Eve and Eve on Adam. The limitless capacity of databases and the increasing ingenuity of dataminers are taking surveillance to unprecedented levels, and of course we need to control it with data protection acts of the kind that the European Union has passed, but which Britain stubbornly refuses to comply with. But surveillance per se is not to blame; it’s a useful tool, but dangerously easily adapted to immoral and illegal uses, whether by governments or individuals. To go back to the car analogy in my earlier post, it’s like handing over a fleet of Aston-Martins and Lotus Elises to a bunch of preteens…oh, the carnage! the carnage!

  • Lumière

    ///…surveillance per se is not to blame; it’s a useful tool, but dangerously easily adapted to immoral and illegal uses….\\\\

    herbert browne, at the top of the thread, Says:

    ///….surveillance morph into a “control” pattern…\\\

    legal or illegal / moral or immoral it is about control, no?

  • Sutter

    Jonathan, I was actually expecting you to mention Jacobs last night. I agree entirely with the distinction you draw in your most recent message (last night you seemed to be wavering a bit on this topic, but perhaps I was just missing the nuance). I suspect that readers my age and younger (I’m about 35) don’t see any problem in the culture of Googling prospective mates and so forth: I Google myself regularly to see what others will find if they do so, and I recognize that one must be careful about what one does. That type of “surveillance” is not, I think, too problematic for many people, because it is what we are accustomed to. On the other hand, state and corporate authorities have tremendous power to sift through and correlate data when they want to, and this power poses dangers to privacy and the liberty that privacy protects. I don’t care that somebody sees me entering a car, and then someone else sees me arriving at a store, and that someone knows I purchased a certain book, and that someone else knows I attended a particular meeting. But when one entity can link these all together, that’s when I become concerned.

    What this says, I think, is that surveillance is a means employed by those who might be dangerous rather than an inherent danger itself. That doesn’t mean we should disregard surveillance itself — like guns and nuclear weapons, it may well be better to limit access to the tools, because we can’t guarantee that only good actors will weild them. But it does put a premium on differentiating the varieties of surveillance likely to give rise to problems from those that may be useful and socially beneficial tools, and on figuring out ways to cabin the ability of bad actors to use those beneficial tools for evil purposes. If and when surveillance leads to tyranny (however mild), the fault, as always, will have been neither in our stars nor in our tools, but in ourselves.

  • antimatter

    Please note this book by Arthur C. Clarke, Light of Other Days, which explains a time when remote viewing allows the ultimate surveillance..and the public adapts..from those who need privacy to those who ignore the surveillance totally and make love knowing others are seeing them.

  • I’d have to disagree with the guest who said that cameras do not act as a deterent, that they simply document wrong doings. On today’s BBC Radio NewsPod there was a report about corruption in Mexico City’s parking enforcement/towing. The city charged nearly all of their drivers with taking bribes, and replaced every one of them with new drivers, and installed cameras atop all of their tow trucks, which provide a live feed. Since this action bribery has plumeted and the number of cars towed has doubled.

  • Sutter

    I too found the claim that surveillance had no deterrence effect because it only acts “post hoc” claim to be very odd. The theory of deterrence is that knowledge that one is more likely to be caught will change one’s behavior ex ante. Thus, deterrence always relies on actions that only “clean up the mess,” in the hope of convincing people to make fewer messes. This isn’t to say that we should accept any degree of surveillance, but the argument that there is no deterrence value seems deeply flawed.

  • Jonathan Raban

    Here’s the link to a fascinating story that appeared in the Washington Post, about the daily tracking of an ordinary DC realtor:

    If the link doesn’t work, go to Washington Post and enter “tracking of Kitty Bernard” into Search. It came to my attention because Michael Dirda quoted it in his review of my book in the New York Review of Books. I just read it this morning.

  • hurley

    Henry Stimson: “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.” I try not to google people I know or might know on the technologically prelapsarian grounds that I wouldn’t want anyone to do it to me. But I have, and always feel worse for it. Sennet’s equation of privacy with narcissism, in Raban’s approximate formulation, might be justified in the context of the 18th century, and in purely personal terms, but the personal is now the political, to repeat a dread phrase, insofar as a personal opinion publicly stated (as many are here) can have a haunting afterlife. Let’s all say something genuinely provocative, shall we? I’ll begin. George Bush should be impeached, etc. Must leave it there, knock on the door, etc.

  • Jonathan Raban

    Sorry to keep on cropping up like a bad penny on this blog, but an important point should have been made last night, re Bill Brown’s very dubious assertion that spycams have only a post-hoc, and therefore useless, value. He cited the case of the London bombers on July 7 2005 (I was in London that day.) What he conveniently neglected to mention was that, two weeks later, another gang of would-be jihadists tried to pull off the same trick, but their rucksack bombs failed to detonate: tapes from CCTV cameras, tracking their separate journeys, were instrumental in their rapid arrests. Had it not been for the cameras, those guys might well have gone home, and followed their bomb-making recipe with more successful–and appalling–results. I kick myself for not saying this on the program last night.

  • Lumière


    He used a statistical oddity to make his claim:

    The camera only catches the events that occur – it can’t catch the non-event (the deterrent) b/c nothing occurs.

    The fact that something occurred in front of the camera just means that the people were stupid.

  • herbert browne

    (from Sutter)”I too found the claim that surveillance had no deterrence effect because it only acts “post hoc” claim to be very odd. The theory of deterrence is that knowledge that one is more likely to be caught will change one’s behavior ex ante. Thus, deterrence always relies on actions that only “clean up the mess,” in the hope of convincing people to make fewer..”

    Well, then, we had better consider the “placebo effect” of those realistic fakes that have been available for several years, now… At what point do the people who “change their spots” begin to calculate the likelihood that they’ll be caught by a “live” cam? Will Ronald Reagan masks become a sort of “de riguer” until they’re outlawed? In the Western forests of the 70s the anti- spray activists occasionally tied a tree down with fishline, so that the downdraft of a ‘copter would release it- and catapult gravel into the sky- rattling the pilots. After awhile they’d simply go into forest plantations scheduled to be sprayed and tie a little fishline around, which, when spotted, required a ground crew to ascertain its potential danger to the spray crew. I imagine that one might see a thousand crumpled plastic grocery bags along a highway in Iraq- where 2 or 3 of them contained enough c4 to flip a Hummer. All of them will need to be treated with circumspection, as the emotional state of vehicle drivers & passengers will require it. Surveillance, flooded with “information”, bogs a system down… and then what? ^..^

  • Tom B

    >>> If you had polled everyone on the site on Sept 12, 2001, you can bet they would have voted for a police state. … We need a hard, firm protection plan which, no doubt, will offend some people.

  • Tom B

    —- If you had polled everyone on the site on Sept 12, 2001, you can bet they would have voted for a police state. … We need a hard, firm protection plan which, no doubt, will offend some people. — Interesting that the democratic concept (if you had polled everyone) segues into a police state (you can bet they would have voted for a police state)…. Then “we” (unspecified) need a “hard, firm protection plan”. Unfortunately, the question of who implements this plan is not specified (the Great Decider?). And obviously the poster — who presumably isn’t on a first name basis with those who control the “hard, firm protection plan” — doesn’t expect to be one of those “offended”. Presumably he/she assumes the arrow will point in some other direction. But police states don’t operate that way; they devour their own children to justify themselves, finding ever wider circles of “enemies of the state”. And we have now rediscovered one of the oldest truths in political history: the last stage of civilizational decline is democracy (rule by the panicked herd), inexorably followed by the appointment of a dictator promising (falsely) safety to the huddled, frightened sheep. (PS.. Don’t ever use back facing sharp brackets or it will cut your post off!!!)

  • Sutter

    Herbert Brown: Apologies; I don’t follow. If you are saying that deterrence can work even with some dummy cameras, etc., I agree absolutely. This is the theory behind the unmarked police car: It will catch some speeders, but more important, it will make us all unsure whether the ordinary cars behind and around us are going to pull us over. (I read an interesting article a while back proposing that it should be illegal to advertise that you are using an alarm system on your house or car, because then the thieves would never know who was and who wasn’t (the perhaps flawed assumption being that all who use such systems will otherwise make it known that they do).)

    If, on the other hand, your point is that we therefore should reduce the number of cameras, I don’t think that’s right, because the cameras are serving a purpose other than deterrence — they’re also used to collect evidence, etc. I’m not saying I support their use all over — just that the point made on the show that “post-hoc = no deterrence value” was flawed.

  • Sutter

    Given Tom B’s quotation of Sir Otto above, I’d also ask Sir Otto why September 12 is the appropriate point for making judgments. Why is my perspective on September 12 more valid than my perspective today, with 5 years’ more experience? There are a lot of things we would agree to or do in the heat of the moment at times of great anxiety that we would never do upon reflection.

  • herbert browne

    Sutter, I agree… there IS deterrence value- to a point. As cameras (including “blanks”) proliferate, though, we’re moving towards a “New” anti-authoritarian (&/or “criminal”) mindset, that begins to weigh the likelihoods of various cameras being real, & active. Actually, the “unmarked police car” is the opposite of the fake CCTV video-cam… however, you’re correct, in that it does have a similar deterrent value… ^..^

  • Sutter

    Right — the unmarked car itself is the “live” camera, which gives rise to the possibility that other cameras (other unmarked cars) may be “live” (may be the fuzz).

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  • joshgerson

    There’s a great site where you can get everything you’ll need for a top notch CCTV surveillance system.

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