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)

Behind the cameras

While the vast majority of those monitoring CCTV screens are probably decent people who stick within the legal and ethical guidelines (such as they are), it is worth remembering that pervasive surveillance offers unprecedented opportunities to perverts, stalkers and sex offenders. This is not just secret cameras set up by weirdo voyeurs, it is the people who work with CCTV. This was noted by Clive Norris and collaborators back in the 1990s in Britain in their work on control rooms when they reported on operators making private tapes of women they saw in the street. Yesterday, The Daily Telegraph reported on a case in the US, where two FBI agents spied on girls changing for a charity fashion show for the underprivileged. They have been charged with criminal violation of privacy, which I am glad to see is a crime in the US. But, don’t forget that behind the cameras, if there is anyone these days, is a human being and that human being has as many flaws and secret desires as anyone else.

The rise of personal surveillance

Personal surveillance is only going to get harder to regulate as things like ‘smart dust’ and micro-UAVs come down in price and are more easily available…

CBS News in the USA is reporting on the rise of stalking and in particular the use of more powerful, smaller and cheaper surveillance devices: embedded hidden cameras, GPS trackers and so on. They discuss in particular the case of Michael Strahan, a sportsman who seems to be obsessed with keeping watch on family and friends. But the bigger pictures is that stalking is something that apparently affects around 3.4 million US citizens. That’s more than one in a hundred, an astonishing figure if it’s anywhere near ‘right’.

Stalking and personal surveillance are an integral part of the culture of any state in which order in ensured through surveillance. We are creating unhealthy societies in which personal relationships between people are increasingly characterised by the same fear and distrust as states have of their people.

Smart Dust chips (Dust Networks)
Smart Dust chips (Dust Networks)

ravenThis is only going to get harder to regulate as things like ‘smart dust’ and micro-UAVs come down in price and are more easily available. And already surveillance equipment like head-mounted cameras for cyclists, is marketed as ‘toys’… regulation is only half the answer. The other half has to be in working out how to shift away from this mistrustful, fearful, risk-obsessed culture. Part of this has to be down to government: the more that surveillance is part of every solution they come up with to any problem, the worse the social malaise will become.