A Culture of Pornography and the Surveillance Society

The student newspaper here at Queen’s carried a disturbing story this week – a hidden camera disguised in a towel hook was found in a women’s washroom*. Apparently a search was carried out and nothing else was found. I would be very surprised if this was something unique and isolated. Voyeuristic footage is a staple of both private perversion and Internet pornography, and I suspect that this is much more common than we realise. I remember at my old university in the UK a private landlord being prosecuted for having virtually his whole house, which he rented out to female students, wired up like this. Cameras are now so small (and getting smaller), and readily available disguised from shops that deal in equipment (largely intended for industrial espionage and spying on nannies, spouses etc.) and can of course now be wirelessly connected, so could be almost anywhere and everywhere.

We’re also immersed in a culture of pornography: it is what spurred the immense growth of the Internet in the 90s (a subject that remains to be given a proper historical analysis), and it is changing the nature of sexuality, especially in teen boys, in ways we’re only just beginning to understand. I’d hesitate to make any sweeping generalizations, but it would seem that if one puts together the kind of normalization of pornographic understandings of bodies, desire and sex with the rape culture alleged to pertain at Queen’s (as the same paper detailed the week before) and a surveillance society, you end up with not the hopes of an empowering exhibitionism put forward by more utopian feminist thinkers on surveillance like Hille Koskela, but something infinitely more seedy and alienated.

Perhaps if Nineteen Eighty-Four was written today, then O’Brien’s answer to Winston Smith on what the future would look like would not be “a boot stamping on a human head, forever” but “a man masturbating over a mobile phone, forever”. I’m not sure which is worse…

*As a note, the newspaper described it as a ‘co-ed’ washroom, a term so archaic, it made me wonder how much of the culture that engenders such behaviour is down to the continued underlying patriarchal belief that women being in education on an equal footing with men is still unusual, provocative and somehow so exciting to men that they cannot control themselves. And of course ‘co-eds’ is exactly how online porn sites that publish this kind of voyeuristic footage would describe the unwitting participants.

(Thanks to Aliya Kassam for the story)

Cameras against Corruption

One of the things that was intriguing me about the recent meteorite strikes in Russia was how come there was so much video footage available from inside cars. And not surprisingly some other surveillance researchers were thinking the same thing, and it was Gemma Galdon Clavell who provided the answer: apparently many Russians have dashboard-mounted cameras largely as a form of protection against corrupt cops and officials as well as scammers pretending to be cops and officials and worse.

This article from Radio Free Europe explains at least some of this.

Update: I should warn people not to watch the video links from that piece unless you want to see actual nasty accident footage. It’s not pleasant at all.

Eye See You

An interesting health story carried by the BBC today made me think, as usual, of the other possible surveillance implications. The story is about a new implant that has been developed to aid people with certain kinds of visual disorders. Effectively a digital processor deals with signals passing into the eye and communicates with the brain. This may indeed be a breakthrough for those people, but what it also made me think is how this might be adapted to turn a person into a covert ‘walking camera’: the unit is powered by a battery worn externally by the ear, and this could look like a hearing aid or a music player etc. The wireless connection required to send these internal signals elsewhere is (relatively speaking) no big deal…

This would be a step beyond (or away from) the open and visible eye-cameras employed by Eyetap’s Steve Mann or more recently Rob Spence, who lost an eye and replaced it with an eyeball camera.

Helmet cams – self-protection or surveillance?

I am a cyclist, and for a while now I have been thinking about the increasing numbers of my fellow cyclists in the UK who are filming their everyday rides to work, and often posting the results online on sites like youtube. This has become more obvious as something particular since i have moved to Canada where very few cyclists seem to do this. There are more and more discussions on online cycling forums and even dedicated areas for swapping videos, tips and camera stories. This practice seems to have started amongst mountain-bikers and other extreme sports enthusiasts, but the use of handlebar or helmet-mounted cameras on ordinary commuting rides has a very different purpose. For most it appears to originate in a desire for self-protection. Cyclists are more aware than most of bad driving and how vulnerable you can feel when people cocooned in large mobile chunks of metal and glass are doing stupid things around you at high speed.

But as a surveillance studies specialist as well as a cyclist, I have more mixed feelings. We’ve been studying the way in which surveillance has come to be perhaps the primary way in which the state organises itself, and how crucial it as become to capital, to the organisation of labour and materials. We have also identified the way in which increasingly ubiquitous surveillance affects social relations, how it is implicated both as a reaction to, and as a driver of, the decline of social assurance, of trust. We’ve talked about the dehumanising effects of surveillance: the loss of dignity, privacy, of how memory and the mollifying effects of forgetting are replaced by constant recording. We have predicted the decreasing size and cost of surveillance devices, of their growing mobility, independence and even ‘democratization’ (or at least wider spread), and seen those predictions happen at even greater speed than most had anticipated.

The surveillance society has spawned reactions: there has been anti-surveillance (smashing of cameras, protests, mapping of paths of least surveillance etc.), situationalism and play, there has been ‘sousveillance’ with activists turning the gaze back on the watchers, and there has been guerilla and vigilante surveillance, with groups citizens using the increasingly cheap surveillance equipment for their own personal and political ends from the Texas Minutemen watching the US border for illegal immigrants to my cyclist friends.

My real concern, I suppose, is whether the use of surveillance by ordinary people is some kind of empowering self-protection, or whether it is simply another step further into a surveillance society. The answer, I think, is that it is both. Certainly the cyclists don’t see it as the latter, but people, even the most intelligent, rarely see themselves as part of a trend that many would regard as negative. Some do recognise the connection but have no problem with it. The same ‘nothing to hide. nothing to fear’ rhetoric is trotted out, but usually by people who are too naive to understand the implications of what they are saying, too self-centered to realise that it isn’t just about them, or too boring to be able to even imagine what they might ever do anything interesting enough to come to the attention of anyone watching. The use of helmet cams does however, have an in inherent and implied politics: it does make it very difficult to construct any coherent politics of state CCTV if you are yourself involved in surveillance on an everyday basis. How can you complain about the number of cameras in your high street, when you make videos of drivers who have annoyed you and put them online?

I’ll be posting more about this as I think of it.

Towards Open-Circuit Television

The era of Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) surveillance may be coming to an end. Surprised? Unfortunately, this does not mean that we are likely to see less surveillance, and cameras being torn down any time soon – quite the contrary. Instead a number of developments are pointing the way to the emergence of more Open-Circuit Television (OCTV) surveillance. These developments include technological ones, like wireless networking, the move to store data via ‘cloud’ computing, participatory locative computing technologies like CityWare, and the increasing affordability and availability of personal surveillance devices (for example, these plug and play mini-cameras unveiled at DemoFall 09). However they also include changes in the way that video surveillance is monitored and by whom.

Back in 2007, a pilot scheme in Shoreditch in London, which enabled residents to watch CCTV cameras on a special TV channel, was canned. However the project had proved to be incredibly popular amongst residents. Now The Daily Telegraph reports that an entrepreneur in Devon, Tony Morgan has set up a company, Internet Eyes, which is marketing what is calls an ‘event notification system’. They plan to broadcast surveillance footage from paying customers on the Internet, with the idea that the public will work as monitors. They won’t just be doing this for nothing however: the whole thing is set up like a game, where ‘players’ gain points for spotting suspected crimes (three if it is an actual crime) and lost points for false alarms. To back this up, there are monthly prizes (paid for out of the subscriptions of the organisations whose cameras are being monitored) of up to 1000 GBP (about $1600 US). Their website claims that a provisional launch is scheduled for November.

Mark Andrejevic has been arguing, most recently in iSpy, that those who watch Reality TV are engaging in a form of labour, now we see the idea transferred directly to video surveillance in ‘real reality’ (a phrase which will make Bill Bogard laugh, at least – he’s been arguing that simulation and surveillance are increasingly interconnected, for years). This idea might seem absurd, indeed ‘unreal’ but it is an unsurprising outcome of the culture of voyeurism that has been engendered by that combination of ever-present CCTV on the streets and Reality TV shows that came together so neatly in Britain from the early 1990s. It certainly raises a shudder too, at the thought of idiots and racists with time on their hands using this kind of things to reinforce prejudices and create trouble.

But is it really so bad? At the moment, UK residents are asked to trust in the ‘professionalism’ of an almost entirely self-regulating private security industry or the police. Neither have a particularly good record on race-relations for a start. Why is it intrinsically worse, if there are to be cameras at all (which I am certainly not arguing that there should be) to have cameras that are entirely open to public scrutiny? Is this any different from watching public webcams? Wouldn’t it actually be an improvement if this went further? If say, the CCTV cameras in police stations were open to public view? Would it make others, including the powerful, more accountable like a kind of institutionalised sousveillance?

In Ken Macleod‘s recent novel, The Execution Channel, the title refers to an anonymous but pervasive broadcast that shows the insides of torture chambers and prison cells, which functions as a device of moral conscience (at least for literary purposes) but also a Ballardian commentary on the pervasive blandness of what used to be the most outrageous atrocity. Accountability is in the end as far from this project as it is from Internet Eyes. Set up like a game, it will be treated like a game. It strips out any consequence or content from reality and leaves just the surfaces. What is ‘seen’ is simply the most superficial – and seen by the most suspicious. Participatory internet surveillance is Unreality TV. In any case, I don’t think it will either be successful in terms of crime-control (other such participatory surveillance schemes, like that on the Texas-Mexico border, have so-far proved to be failures) or useful in social terms, and may also be illegal without significant safeguards and controls anyway.

And there is nothing to stop multiple people signing up with multiple aliases and just messing the system up… not that I’d suggest anything like that, of course.

(Thank-you to Aaron Martin for badgering me with multiple posts pointing in this direction! Sometimes it just takes a little time to think about what is going on here…)