Monday, November 03, 2003

>> Watching the watchers watching the watched

So, for reasons I'll skip, I was taking photos on the way to work on the morning. I'd seen the target of my lens yesterday, a sign for a public toilet by Brighton Pavilion that had been happily adorned by the local police with one of the many "SMILE - You're on CCTV" posters that have popped up over the last few months. The juxtaposition mirrored the piss-take poster that sits in my bathroom from a hacker conference 2 years ago that reads "This public facility is monitored by CCTV for safety reasons", reflecting it in almost mocking glory. After taking the photo, I looked to the right, to the entrance to the gentlemen's, when I saw that they'd also placed one above the entrance...

Having already passed some other new signs a few moments before, hung round the neck of lamp-posts like flightful dissidents burdened with a concrete necklace, and having spent my walk so far looking at the world from a greyscale perspective, the impact of all this struck me, even though I knew it was there. The parody in my own toilet has become truth, only with a smiley face, and darker resonances as I can only imagine who placed the it there, uder watchful eye of the local camera. How far will it go? How deep has it gone already?

As I took the photo of the gents' doorway a few seconds after waiting for a solitary walker to disappear inside, I found myself nervous, somehow apprehensive about my own actions. I didn't want to stand there all day, nor did I want to ruin the shot. It was my last on the film. And yet, as a I walked away, I wondered about it, about how just taking a photo made me feel, and if that was the case, then what were the underlying feelings that we picked up just walking past, or into, such monitored spaces? How do we react when we know, or think we know, that we are being watched? Does my pulse usually go up, even if I'm not carrying my own powers of coutner-surveillance?

Brighton has a history of liberalness, of not being afraid to be oneself and to do as one likes, with a certain level of both respect and tolerance. I fear this is, in some terms, at odds with the inst(a/i)llation of panoptic paranoia, the sweeping aside of a culture bounded by its understanding rather than its inhibitions, replaced by one of constant nervousness and self-doubt. A place in which we are afraid to act irresponsibly is also one in which we fear acting differently, for perhaps we may lose control, or cross an unknown boundary, and with it we lose out alternativeness. We become simple lab mice, watched to see how we behave, and punished when the experiment warrants so that we evolve to conform to rigid standards.

As a city, we need trust. We need for those with the power to trust us, but more than that, we need to be able to trust ourselves, to allow ourselves the freedoms we savour, but to accept responsiblity for our own actions. We cannot expect our attitudes to change solely through the threat of capture, the only thing that we can expect from that is the fading of our own expression.

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