Tuesday, 12 April 2016

I've got my eye on you

I read a while ago that CCTV simply displaces crime into areas without CCTV (another way the sharp-elbowed move on their problems), that the presence of CCTV discourages people from intervening to help, and that most CCTV isn't monitored anyway. It's not much use in discouraging the world-altering crimes either, like pension mis-selling, LIBOR fiddling and tax evasion. And yet the UK is the world leader in surveillance: estimates are hard to come by but there are getting on for 750,000 in London alone: one for every 10 Londoners.

So I decided that I'd spend a week photographing every CCTV camera I spot on my divagations: the flâneur or flâneuse doesn't get much time alone these days. Here are the cameras covering my 3/4 mile walk from home to work: the vast majority are in the last 200 yards from the boundary of the university to my office. Apologies for the quality: I used my ageing phone for convenience. Anyone care to bet how many I'll see in a week?

On an anonymous corner near the park

Office block

Hotel car park


By the ring road

Edge of the university

Car park by the university

University entrance

A breeding pair of cameras in the corridor outside the library

In the quad

In the quad again 
Another in the quad

Yet another in the quad

Another one in the quad

And another one in the quad

In my building's entrance

By the lift, floor 2. 
I make that 18 cameras in an 11 minute walk, 14 of them owned by the university. Do I feel safer? Not really. I already felt safe because crime is low (and falling), lead pipes have been replaced throughout the city, and I tend to assume that my students and colleagues are unlikely to rob or beat me (though the campus was extremely dodgy during the theory wars. I hear that the French department used to wield chaussettes loaded with billiard balls.

I joke, but I really hate surveillance culture, particularly this distanced electronic version. It assumes that without the Panopticon, we would rapidly descend into the bad sort of anarchy, that we deserve to be watched, but that we don't deserve the presence of actual human security. One of the things my management has done recently is open up the electronic security barriers during the day, so that anyone can walk in. It's caused considerable disquiet, but I support it: we're part of the community and should be radically open. I'd love to adopt the American custom of 'auditing', in which everyone can come to lectures: the privilege of being a registered student is in the assessment and conferment of a qualification.

If you treat people like the enemy, such as building high-security gated communities, those inside actually develop deeper fears while those outside resent their exclusion. You can read Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on this: he says that the Fall began when the rich stopped providing public services (out of altruism or simple fear of the mob) and started building higher walls and hiring more goons to protect their obscene luxuries. Anyone walking around Mayfair or Chelsea will know what he means. You can also read JG Ballard's later novels about the effects of voluntarily ghettoising yourself: in Millennium People, Super-Cannes and Cocaine Nights the bourgeoisie attempt to seal themselves of in consumerist utopian bubbles, and rapidly degenerate. He knows whereof he speaks: he spent time in a Japanese concentration camp as a child.

You're very welcome to join in: count the ones you see and post your photos on Twitter with the hashtag #cctvweek.


Phil said...

Blimey, they take 'security' seriously at your place! I'd call it security theatre, except that it's so inobtrusive - if it's theatre, it's theatre with no audience. I'll do likewise the next time I head in to work.

Jason D Jawando said...

This is largely subjective, but Wolverhampton University seems particularly wary of 'outsiders'. Birmingham, Manchester, York and even Oxford all seem a lot more accessible to the casual visitor.

Jake said...

I've always had mixed feelings about those cameras. On private property like office buildings or shops I can see the point to it, because crime might be going down but it's not at zero yet. And as attached as we are to the notion of the bobby on the beat in this country, that really was security theatre; two blokes watching a couple of dozen cameras with a hotline to the local police just works better for less money.

At the same time, though, this government's idea of Anti-Social Behaviour and mine really don't line up very closely. I don't like the thought of the ways these cameras could be misused as a tool for suppressing dissent, and I don't like the feeling that we're sliding downwards into becoming the kind of country where that's a real possibility.