(Originally published in Forbes.com, June 2007)
The 12-story Hotel Torni was the tallest building in central Helsinki during the Soviet occupation of Finland, making it a natural choice to serve as KGB headquarters. Today, it bears a plaque testifying to its checkered past, and also noting the curious fact that the Finns pulled 40 kilometers of wiretap cable out of the walls after the KGB left. The wire was solid evidence of each operative's mistrustful surveillance of his fellow agents.
The East German Stasi also engaged in rampant surveillance, using a network of snitches to assemble secret files on every resident of East Berlin. They knew who was telling subversive jokes--but missed the fact that the Wall was about to come down.
When you watch everyone, you watch no one.
This seems to have escaped the operators of the digital surveillance technologies that are taking over our cities. In the brave new world of doorbell cams, wi-fi sniffers, RFID passes, bag searches at the subway and photo lookups at office security desks, universal surveillance is seen as the universal solution to all urban ills. But the truth is that ubiquitous cameras only serve to violate the social contract that makes cities work.
The key to living in a city and peacefully co-existing as a social animal in tight quarters is to set a delicate balance of seeing and not seeing. You take care not to step on the heels of the woman in front of you on the way out of the subway, and you might take passing note of her most excellent handbag. But you don't make eye contact and exchange a nod. Or even if you do, you make sure that it's as fleeting as it can be.
Checking your mirrors is good practice even in stopped traffic, but staring and pointing at the schmuck next to you who's got his finger so far up his nostril he's in danger of lobotomizing himself is bad form--worse form than picking your nose, even.
I once asked a Japanese friend to explain why so many people on the Tokyo subway wore surgical masks. Are they extreme germophobes? Conscientious folks getting over a cold? Oh, yes, he said, yes, of course, but that's only the rubric. The real reason to wear the mask is to spare others the discomfort of seeing your facial expression, to make your face into a disengaged, unreadable blank--to spare others the discomfort of firing up their mirror neurons in order to model your mood based on your outward expression. To make it possible to see without seeing.
There is one city dweller that doesn't respect this delicate social contract: the closed-circuit television camera. Ubiquitous and demanding, CCTVs don't have any visible owners. They ... occur. They exist in the passive voice, the "mistakes were made" voice: "The camera recorded you."
They are like an emergent property of the system, of being afraid and looking for cheap answers. And they are everywhere: In London, residents are photographed more than 300 times a day.
The irony of security cameras is that they watch, but nobody cares that they're looking. Junkies don't worry about CCTVs. Crazed rapists and other purveyors of sudden, senseless violence aren't deterred. I was mugged twice on my old block in San Francisco by the crack dealers on my corner, within sight of two CCTVs and a police station. My rental car was robbed by a junkie in a Gastown garage in Vancouver in sight of a CCTV.
Three mad kids followed my friend out of the Tube in London last year and murdered him on his doorstep.
Crazy, desperate, violent people don't make rational calculus in regards to their lives. Anyone who becomes a junkie, crack dealer, or cellphone-stealing stickup artist is obviously bad at making life decisions. They're not deterred by surveillance.
Yet the cameras proliferate, and replace human eyes. The cops on my block in San Francisco stayed in their cars and let the cameras do the watching. The Tube station didn't have any human guards after dark, just a CCTV to record the fare evaders.
Now London city councils are installing new CCTVs with loudspeakers, operated by remote coppers who can lean in and make a speaker bark at you, "Citizen, pick up your litter." "Stop leering at that woman." "Move along."
Yeah, that'll work.
Every day the glass-domed cameras proliferate, and the gate-guarded mentality of the deep suburbs threatens to invade our cities. More doorbell webcams, more mailbox cams, more cams in our cars.
The city of the future is shaping up to be a neighborly Panopticon, leeched of the cosmopolitan ability to see, and not be seen, where every nose pick is noted and logged and uploaded to the Internet. You don't have anything to hide, sure, but there's a reason we close the door to the bathroom before we drop our drawers. Everyone poops, but it takes a special kind of person to want to do it in public.
The trick now is to contain the creeping cameras of the law. When the city surveils its citizens, it legitimizes our mutual surveillance--what's the difference between the cops watching your every move, or the mall owners watching you, or you doing it to the guy next door?
I'm an optimist. I think our social contracts are stronger than our technology. They're the strongest bonds we have. We don't aim telescopes through each others' windows, because only creeps do that.
But we need to reclaim the right to record our own lives as they proceed. We need to reverse decisions like the one that allowed the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority to line subway platforms with terrorism cameras, but said riders may not take snapshots in the station. We need to win back the right to photograph our human heritage in museums and galleries, and we need to beat back the snitch-cams rent-a-cops use to make our cameras stay in our pockets.
They're our cities and our institutions. And we choose the future we want to live in.
Eric von Hippel
Erik S. Raymond