Watching me watching them watching you - Page 2
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 3: Webs of Power
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Andrew O'Hagan
A MAN CALLED ROBERT McALISTER MET ME AT THE DOOR of the Trocadero. He was easy-going, 35, with alert blue eyes and wearing smart-casual clothes: grey shirt, black trousers and black shoes. We walked past the blare of the accessories shops and down an escalator into the bowels of the place. The corridors under the street were grey and manky: cages lined the walls and were stuffed with old window-display materials – a dusty gorilla, a pair of giant spectacled eyes like those of Dr T.J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby – and McAlister walked in front with the bearing of someone smartly leading the way towards the nerve centre of modernity. As we approached the door of the CCTV operations centre for the City of Westminster, he turned to me. "You see that," he said, pointing up at the corner. "We are camera'd at every point. Out here ..." He opened the door with a code. "And in here, too. Please sign in."
There was a camera watching me as I signed the book and I paused to notice the pristine condition of the carpets. "It's a case of them watching me watching them watching you," McAlister said with a laugh. The command centre was very dark so the screens showed up better: they stared out at you, some on single monitors, others enlarged, or split-screen, with three young men sitting at a generous console. In his office, McAlister had the same control facilities as they did. "Not because I want to sit here in a black polo-neck stroking my cat," he said, "but because it allows me to do more."
There are 91 street cameras in the Westminster area, transmitting live around the clock. "Everything we're recording is digital," he said. "You can cut, splice and pixilate evidential-quality material here in the edit suite. The importance of this method is that we have an audit trail: you can prove the veracity of the images we've downloaded. The quality of the material for court has been terrific. And what we've produced has helped us in our work with the Home Office, the police from beat officers to anti-terrorism, customs and the media."
"The material on the system self-erases after 31 days," McAlister said. The room we spoke in had a police radio crackling in the background. I could hear a woman talking about a burglary in Belgravia. "There's no way of saying how a sequence of events will take place now," he said, "but sometimes we'll see something in advance of the police and then guide them to the culprits, or else keep track of them. We're totally joined – it all depends on who sees what first. And if the police fax us a report saying, say, ‘stolen car, Regent's Street, last Monday between 2 and 4am', we can plug those details in and go straight to the archive material and see what happened."
I asked one of his colleagues to show me. He requested a date and a location from me. I said: "12 September 2003. Shaftesbury Avenue at the corner of Windmill Street, 8pm." The screen was suddenly filled with very sharp moving images of the street I mentioned at the specified date and time. The trees are beginning to lose their bloom. People are eating in the restaurants. At 8.02, two girls come walking up Denman Street; one is wearing white jeans and a black denim jacket. The camera turns: there are crowds around the caricaturists outside the NatWest bank. At 8.05, a No. 38 bus passes on its way to Clapton Pond, and people come and go through the doors of McDonald's. Their faces are entirely clear. I can see a couple in one of the restaurants: the man lifts the saltcellar and the girl examines a plate of what might be spaghetti.
"Policing of the May Day protests was co-ordinated from here," said McAlister. "There was a police command post linked to Scotland Yard. The anti-war protest was the same. This last year we've had more protests than usual – the Countryside Alliance thing. It's a public safety issue, but there's always going to be some people out looking for aggro." McAlister looked over my shoulder at the bank of flickering screens. "We want to use it as a management tool," he said, "rather than a Big Brother surveillance thing. Some people in CCTV just use it for crime prevention, but we see it as a lifestyle issue: aggressive begging, drunks, littering, urination in a public place, fly-postering. Leicester Square used to have the worst anti-social behaviour in London and lots of cowboy operations, but crime is down this year by 60 per cent. It is now the lowest in the area."
McAlister used to be in the Coldstream Guards. He was a soldier for five years, serving in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, before moving into what he calls the "security industries". He worked with a government department taking care of security for special events and before that worked for the Burtons Group and was head of security for Tower Records. He joined Westminster City Council last year. "Our job is to help the police to build up an intelligence picture," he said. "Before they even walk out there" – he points to the screens – "they know the type of operation, the faces, the people involved."
As McAlister spoke, he was bouncing a sharpened pencil against the surface of the desk, a Union Jack pencil. I asked him if the presence of cameras didn't just cause crime to be displaced. Didn't people just go to places where there were no cameras? "Yes," he said, "but we're beginning to cover the blind spots. We have four mobile units. When we think that is happening, we try to further light those streets where displacement occurs."
What did the police think at first about CCTV coming in?
"They were absolutely bloody petrified. Many of them were used to the bobby-on-the-beat mentality, policemen roaming an area and finding what they found, so the Met were frightened at first at the idea of too much information flooding in. But we encouraged what we call ‘graded response': you shouldn't have policemen's time taken up arresting urinators or people doing graffiti. Westminster has hired enforcement teams to deal with that kind of offence, ‘city guardians', like the 15 we have in Leicester Square, security guys trained by the police, and that lets the police get on with tackling more serious crime."Though British television is now showing itself to be in love with programs that use CCTV footage, McAlister says he most often denies access. "All this stuff is data-protected," he said, "and it's not meant for the purposes of entertainment. When it comes to all this, people being watched or whatever, I'd be more worried about people taking pictures with mobile phones. That stuff is not data-protected and everybody's at it – you see them taking pictures of people in the street, kids on the Tube, whatever, and those pictures are going God knows where. Everybody's doing it."
I SAT IN FRONT OF ONE OF THE SCREENS BESIDE McAlister's colleague Nigel. In front of us were images of people going about their daily business: parking cars, walking dogs, standing in line, talking into phones, holding hands, spitting, running, standing still and looking at the sky. Nigel followed some with the camera and zoomed in on others: a young man leaving a café in Old Compton Street and crossing the road holding a letter; an elderly lady who seemed to be talking to herself in Rupert Street. I wanted to see the street market and asked Nigel to go to Berwick Street. All the barrows were loaded with produce.
"How far in can you go?"
He smiled, pulled on the joystick, and in seconds he had zoomed in on a stall selling oranges and plums. The seller had a cigarette dangling from his lips; you could see the colour of his eyes and the dimples on the oranges.
"What if you see through people's windows?" I asked. McAlister instructed his colleague to spin round a camera on Greek Street. On the screen, the camera turned and was suddenly looking into someone's front room, except it didn't look, because a kind of pixilated protection gauze was covering the windows: a "privacy zone", McAlister warned.
This thought turned in my head for a while. A privacy zone: somewhere designated as being outside the professional interest of the watchers, a part of London – a room, a corner, a blind spot – whose existence was not sworn to by round-the-clock electronic witnesses. I asked McAlister if he thought people lived differently in the streets now that there was so much watching. "I'm not sure, to be honest," he said. "Maybe some people. Maybe they feel safer than they actually are, or vice versa."
I came out of the Westminster surveillance bunker into the brightness of the afternoon. Crossing Leicester Square, I looked up and saw one of the cameras dressed up as a Victorian streetlamp, and the sign below testifying to the fact that we were being filmed. I looked up at the camera and blushed with paranoia. I lit a cigarette on the pavement and thought: "They'll be saying, ‘So he smokes, then'." I was almost at the corner of Northumberland Avenue before I decided they might have lost interest in me. It was a difficult thing to conjure with: not many years ago, I wondered at how easy it was for certain people to go missing and here I was wondering what it might take for a person to be truly lost from view. It seemed a hazardous evolution, to have swapped one kind of personal erasure for another.
AN ATMOSPHER OF WATCHING (AND BEING WATCHED) is now chief among the spirits of the age, and this is no longer a factor only in the minds of security firms, government agencies or witnesses standing in the streets: it is increasingly a matter for every element in a living democracy, in which all good citizens are expected to regard it as a great duty of freedom to carry a personal torch in opposition to the threatening dark, wherever that may be deemed to exist.
America's new Department of Homeland Security is now fully abreast of what this might mean: not Orwell's Big Brother, the outmoded model whereby the state watches its citizens, but US HomeGuard, something both discrete and infinite, where citizens will watch other citizens on the internet to ensure that the state's enemies, the unwatching, are captured before they can act. It is a neo-Hobbesian view of how finally to check what is nastiest and most brutish in a world where men with box-cutters can change everything: a leviathan of eyes, a sovereignty of the watchful, a notion of power that is kept in place not merely by the collective will of the people but by the people's careful and unremitting observation of the forces that could undermine it. This is the new model: one that can both guarantee and indeed constitute the security of governments against the terroristic instincts of the ungovernable; a leviathan that becomes a panopticon, a single, all-seeing eye, understood at last to be a manifestation of the populist gaze.
US HomeGuard will work like this. Every chemical installation, large factory, bridge or dam, will be surrounded by web cameras 30 metres apart. The cameras will take pictures almost continuously and these will be transmitted to the internet. An infinite horde of "lookers" will be paid to examine a selection of these pictures (whether one or one thousand) when they log on anywhere in the world: the "lookers" will not know what installation or security risk they are examining; they will see a line of fence or a stretch of gravel. Each "passed" image will be examined by other users online and a fail-safe will operate in relation to every centimetre of every site in the country. The "lookers" will themselves be observed, their skills in detecting trespasses or glitches measured against the watchful capacities of others, and a process of assessment – involving millions of worldwide "lookers" – will mean that any breaches in security can be determined instantly. The process was described in more detail by Jonathan Rauch in a recent issue of the National Journal:
These are ordinary people who enlist to screen pictures over the internet. They sign up online and can work whenever they like, for five hours or five minutes. Sitting at home or anywhere else with web access, they log onto HomeGuard's site and look at pictures, saying only whether they see a person or vehicle in the pictures that appear. Crucially, these spotters have no idea what they're seeing pictures of ... They're paid for every 100 pictures they evaluate. They can work at their own speed, but if a spotter doesn't respond to a picture after 20 seconds (perhaps she has gone to get a sandwich), the system simply e-mails that picture to another spotter. The system just needs three replies – it doesn't care from whom or from where. Americans at the airport in Bangkok could log in as spotters while waiting for their flight to Taipei.
A NEW VISION OF BELONGING IS IMPLIED BY ALL THIS; a new definition of social responsibility and selfhood, too. What can privacy mean after this, if privacy is understood to mean kissing your girlfriend outside a brasserie or questioning the authority of your boss? How does anybody go about his or her business – the business of desire, of belief, of quiet resistance, or of any mode of being that resides in privacy – if society becomes a place of deep intrusions masquerading as affirmations? What risk to selfhood is proposed by such efforts to make society impregnable? In Britain, these questions are luridly present in the carnival life of the newspapers and television channels, where the population is crowned every day and told how to be real.
It was not inevitable that the day would come when Andy Warhol would seem a social realist. But that day is here: selfhood is something the culture encourages you to construct in an echo chamber of the watchful. British television has learned all the lessons of the past 10 years; the most popular television programs are entirely Warholian and they have connected in the deepest way to the notion that celebrity is a heightened form of personal nothingness.
On Big Brother, boringness is not boring, it is merely something people put you through on their way to becoming famous: we lap up their emptiness, considering it somehow an enlargement of our own mentalities, and we repay them by voting them into further fame, the strange glory of somebodyhood. The soap opera Brookside has been moved to 11pm and is soon to be axed. Of course: Brookside used to be a program everybody loved for being a drama about fictional characters enduring the consequences of being ordinary; now Big Brother is here, now Fame Academy is here, we are in a position to do the opposite, and love the reality of ordinary people enduring the consequences of becoming celebrities. Each is descriptive of their period. Brookside was trying to do something that other soaps had failed to do: engage in a debate about Britain, seeking to examine it, and the episodes were all about trade unions, burglaries, rape and chip-pan fires; Big Brother is all about hair wax.
One afternoon, I sat on the edge of the bed and watched Alex on Big Brother eating his lunch. (That was last year: Alex didn't win but he got a modelling contract and an agony column somewhere.) He wasn't eating in an interesting way or saying anything interesting, he was just eating pasta and looking into the camera; his eyes were completely glazed over and I wondered for a second who was watching whom. When I eventually got bored and picked up the Mirror, there was a picture of Alex inside. He was being slagged off and called vacuous by some columnist, and the front page of the paper had his face on it.
Tudor England had public beheadings and Victorian London had circus freaks; India had living goddesses and Hollywood had Marilyn Monroe. What was Alex? Was he an ambitious young guy just trying to be himself and win a game show? Could you win such a game show by being yourself? Who was himself anyhow? Alex was eating his lunch, that's all. The culture that brought forth the images of Rodney King being beaten had also brought forth Alex, and we sat at home, being ourselves, just watching. When people weren't watching Alex watching himself, they were watching shows like Cops, a police show using cameras to catch criminals in the act, or The Osbournes, a show about the daily life of a famous family just being themselves. Reality, so far as TV and the tabloids are concerned, is the slow, watchable business of people being themselves becoming famous. When they stop being famous they also stop being themselves: they have no self. Game over.