i'm walking down a painfully idylllic suburban street. Up ahead there's a police cruiser, with a cop outside, leaning on it casually - a little too casually. His gaze is fixed on me as I walk along relaxedly - maybe a little too relaxedly. I straighten up. Or maybe I should hunch over. I walk slower with larger steps, then quicker with smaller steps. Maybe I should toss in a yawn. Yeah, look at me, I'm not tense, I'm yawning. He's still looking. I adjust the brim of my hat, panic and then smile at him. Shit! Why did I do that? I look ahead and walk. I've done nothing. Maybe he just liked my hat.
The fact is not having actually done something wrong is not necessarily a prerequisite for not feeling guilty about it. But people aren't policing their thoughts like they used to, and those who benefit from anxiety have to put a modern spin on an old idea.
That concept was first developed by early social reformer Jeremy Bentham, who called it the panopticon. His vision was of a prison where all prisoners were continually visible to a central tower, but no prisoners could see the tower, so it wouldn't matter if they were being watched or not, because they had to assume they were, causing them eventually to police themselves.
It's an idea that lives on. With the recent spate of shootings and the Toronto Sun obligingly conjuring up a "gang time bomb," police chief Fantino is taking another whack at expanding video surveillance in the city, hoping to replace the ambiguous stare of the cop on the corner with the unfeeling gaze of a camera on a signpost.
While you can try to engage the police, all you can really do to reason with a camera is gesticulate wildly, which is sure to arouse even more suspicion - especially if the camera's hooked up to new software that is supposed to identify "suspicious" movements.
That's what Bill Brown has learned. He's a member of New York's Surveillance Camera Players, a group that puts on shows for surveillance cameras and whose members are a cross between popular educators, guerrilla actors and tour guides.
"It started off as a prank," Brown recounts. "Originally we thought we were performing for the watchers. Then the group became popular. Now it's hard to tell who the audience is." There's a similar blur between participants and observers, since their plays - which include Waiting For Godot, skits on surveillance culture and simply holding up signs saying "mind your own business" - invariably attract the attention of security.
The jurisdiction with the most cameras is the UK, which has served as an inspiration for many North American cities. The argument is that increased surveillance saves officers the need to interact with the people they police, but unfortunately no one can say for sure if crime actually goes down. A 2002 British study, Crime Prevention Effects Of Closed Circuit Television, pointed out that in some areas crime decreased initially with cameras and then climbed again. Oddly, in some regions, the crime rate actually went up.
The problem all critics point to is that surveillance expands the divide between the laws being enforced and the humanity of those enforcing them. When staring at a screen, a guard is not just responding to someone else's orders, but someone else's perspective and something else's eyes.
All this is of great concern to Phil Campbell of the Toronto law firm Lockyear and Campbell. "Again and again you see the substitution of technology for human contact," he says. "The economic logic isn't hard to understand. But the human cost is still unexplored."
He does have some general predictions, however. "Think of the whistleblower meeting on a park bench - there is a public benefit in that. Think of the cloud that could be put over any actions, whether legitimate or semi-legitimate or that need protection." These actions could be protests, such as the ones against the recent wars "justified" by 9/11. The surveillance blight (an estimated 6 million cameras in the U.S. alone by 2008) promptly used the same justification to turn its compound eye on the protest movement.
And while skeptics say that cameras simply move crime out of commercial zones into often already crime-ridden residential areas, Campbell believes that earlier attempts at state omniscience failed because there wasn't enough paranoia and the technology was lacking. In light of the face-recognition software on the market and the relative ease with which cameras can be networked, he feels it's only a matter of time. "As surveillance gets more effective as a limit on freedom, it will get more effective as a limit on crime," he states. "It just will."
Brown is not nearly as awed by the tech. "And smart bombs go off target and destroy the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade," he says dryly. "People will sue police forces for wrongful prosecution. Police won't like being replaced by cameras. Eventually people will realize this isn't cost-effective."
I'm always aghast at people's ability to obey shiny things above their heads. Our image-saturated society doesn't help - the electronic eyes must surely rely on our strange relationship with the machine. The truth is, cameras may not be effective at stopping crime (as Brown points out, "Someone walked right by a bank of cameras and shot a New York City councillor"), but they're quite good at keeping us afraid. And while I've never been mugged by gangs (only unaffiliated thugs), I have been mugged by police officers and assaulted by security guards.
Which leads me to my modest proposal: counter-surveillance. All individuals employed in monitoring surveillance feeds must agree to have cameras pointed at them, to be watched for any indiscretions by elected community wardens, who in turn would have to be watched to make sure they are fulfilling their mandate, and so on. That way, no one would have any time to commit crimes because we'd all be too busy being afraid of each other. Is that the way the chief wants it?
Fantino says that the city is under siege. Reality: Total crime is down in 10 of 16 divisions, with violent crime down 4.8 per cent overall from in 2002 from 2001. According to StatsCan, Toronto has one of the lowest crimes rates among major Canadian cities. Fantino says that homicides from shootings are up 70 per cent so far this year. Reality: There've been six fewer shooting deaths to date in 2003 than in 2002 (12 shot to death so far; 18 by this time last year). Fantino says that police face a disturbing increase in hostility from the public. Reality: The last three years have seen a decline in assaults with a weapon or causing bodily harm against police, down from 102 incidents in 2000 to 91 in 2002. Fantino says that black leaders are not addressing violence in their community. Reality: The four divisions with predominately black neighbourhoods have all experienced a decrease in total criminal code offences in 2002 from 2001.