Surveillance doesn’t work if I don’t give a crap

The anthropology blogosphere has been quieter than usual lately, mostly because most English-language anthrobloggers are American and quite a few of them are attending the American Anthropological Association’s conference taking place right now in San Jose. But that just leaves more room for us non-Americans. I was saving this post for when I finally moved hosts, but seeing as how it might not be before Wednesday, when this issue of The Coast becomes out of date, I thought I should post this now instead while I’m waiting for my rice to cook (yes I cook rice at 3:30 in the morning, I want it ready for when I get up).

Anyway, I was reading The Coast, Halifax’s alternative newsweekly (Canadian home of Dan Savage’s column) when I came across an interesting claim made in the current editorial. Halifax right now is obsessed over crime, at least as far as the local news is concerned. I think it’s partly a case of a manufactured moral panic (is there any other kind?), though it seems to be true that violent crime has been increasing. Regardless of whether or not the statistics say what people claim (I suspect it’s not so black and white), it’s true that people experience the world anecdotally, not through a judicious weighing of the evidence at hand. Constructed truths (again, are there any other kind?) have a reality of their own for the people who experience them, regardless of what a mythical neutral observer might see.

Now then, in the editorial I mentioned, it’s claimed that visible and public video surveillance hasn’t been shown to decrease crime rates. I don’t know if the data bears out this assertion, I’ll have to check the sociological literature later. But instead of preventing crimes by their presence, video surveillance cameras just help to solve them after the fact.. That touches upon what I said before, when I theorized that constant surveillance might make the surveilled upon uncaring of who’s watching them. If someone could always be watching, does it matter if you stab someone on the street or in a dark alley? Certainly not very 1984-ish. In fact, it sounds rather more grim.

Of course, there are other things to consider. The idea of surveillance as deterrence I think rests on the assumption that humans are more rational than they really are. Who acts after a careful assessment of the costs and benefits of action? People, I think, use more emotion when making decisions than suggested by the criminal justice system’s orthodox view of human behaviour.

Or it might be that people are actually more rational than given credit for. Violence against others is an extraordinary act, and if one is moved to actually commit violence, then perhaps it wouldn’t matter if one is being watched by others. Once you’ve decided violence is called for, then it might be so necessary to you that even the abstract threat of punishment is worth it. Put simply, perhaps by the time one has decided that violence against others is worthwhile, then at the same time one has also decided that the risks from using violence are acceptable.

I know, weak. I need to develop that more. There’s another thing to consider as well. Video surveillance as it’s conceived of takes the camera to be a proxy for the human gaze. The hope is that a publicly visible surveillance camera be seen as a human being in absentia, that the surveilled upon might experience the same disciplining effect that the direct gaze of others can do. However, perhaps video cameras are too difficult to anthropomorphize into a human being. Perhaps they’re too different from a person to have the threat of the gaze of others be anything more than an abstraction. In that case, what is to be done? Perhaps surveillance cameras should be installed in mannequins so that the gaze of others be felt more directly. You could even put a police uniform on the mannequins to make things abundantly clear. Or, to make it interesting, perhaps surveillance cameras should be installed in gargoyle statues. What gaze can be more terrifying than that of a leering monster made of stone? Isn’t the essential purpose of surveillance the production of fear in the surveilled?

I think it would be an interesting experiment, and even if it’s a bust, then you have interesting urban art to attract tourists with. A win-win situation! Actually, probably the simplest thing to do is install better lighting on public streets since it’s been shown to have a significant impact on crime rates, but I think gargoyles are better anyway. If I ever become mayor of a city that demands concrete measures against crime, I may actually implement The Gargoyle Initiative. And just to bring the whole thing back to panopticon, what if on a random basis, police officers dressed in gargoyle costumes should take the place of the surveillance statues? Think about it, an entire city whose residents are terrified that the statues around them might be alive. It would be the world’s greatest performance art piece. After all, what’s the use of power when it’s not absolute?

I’m posting this as a message of warning to the world. Don’t ever let me get any power, because I’ll be sure to enjoy it too much. There you go, now you’ve all had fair notice. Don’t come crying to me when you’re all forced to listen to broadcasts of my karaoke renditions of sappy love songs a la Nero.

It’s
the way you love me,
It’s
a feeling like thi-is.
It’s
centrifugal motion,
It’s
perpetual bli-is.
It’s the way you love me, baybee!
This kiss, this bli-is!
Subliminal!

Clap or you’ll be shot.

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