THE MONKEY ISLAND Tom Sykes
On Whose Watch?
Has technology and Big Brother culture created voyeuristic tendencies in the 21st-century society? TOM SYKES suggests that perhaps we’ve had them in us all along
SOMETIMES it takes a long trip away from a place to gain a better vantage point of it. While travelling (deliberately without a backpack to avoid being a cliché) in Malacca, I met a Welsh guy who, upon having been fined for speeding back in Britain, felt a powerful urge to smash up the speed camera that had captured his misdemeanour. I found this horribly ironic―the very equipment that is supposed to stop crime ends up inspiring it.
On a similar tip we have the phenomenon of ‘happy slapping’ where (mostly) young people record themselves fighting each other by mobile phone camera. Schools have been particularly affected, with one teaching union now going as far as to call for the reclassification of mobile phones as ‘offensive weapons.’ In March 2007, a 42-year-old man in the northwest of England committed suicide via webcam while using an Internet chat room. Regrettably, he was egged on by the other guests who at first thought he was play-acting. Consider this in relation to the fact that 40 per cent of the U.K. male population viewed Internet pornography in 2006 and it’s hard not to conclude that these days, human beings’ most intimate urges—to fight, to die, to sate sexual desire—are mediated by technology, especially information technology. It is as if no experience is real or meaningful unless there is a camera running or a PC purring somewhere close by.
While also in Malaysia, I watched Disturbia, a mediocre Hollywood thriller that borrows heavily from the Hitchcock classic Rear Window. One of the few interesting aspects of the film is the ending (skip this paragraph if you don’t like plot spoilers) when the protagonist Kale’s best friend covertly films Kale making out with the girl next door. Far from balking at this invasion of privacy, Kale raises a half-hearted middle finger and carries on regardless while we the audience watch through his friend’s lens. Perhaps we will all get so used to being spied on that, like Kale, we gain some thrill from it.
J.G. Ballard, in my view the greatest British author since World War II, was voicing similar sentiments 40 years ago. His provocative novel, Crash (1973), was, among other things, an allegory for the dark ways in which technology has become wedded to human essence. The clinical neutrality of his authorial voice doesn’t reach any moral conclusions about the uneasy trialectic between sex, death and cars—he creates a vision and lets us decide for ourselves what we make of it. In High Rise (1975), Ballard explored how that iconic building of post-war Britain, the tower block, might, for all its pretence of convenience and modernity, reduce its residents to savagery, like animals that have been caged up too long. More recently, Ballard said in an interview, “There’s a strange, cultural shift that I’ve been watching over the last 45 years since I came to England: the airport culture, the motorway culture, CCTV cameras, all the rest of it. People like alienation, curiously enough. They like disposability. Friendships that last half an hour. Things have changed, and one can’t help but notice.”
There are four million CCTV cameras in Britain, one for every 14 people. But they didn’t stop a major terrorist assault or a 50 per cent rise in gun crime in London, or an epidemic of alcohol-fuelled violence in our city centres partly because when the footage is reviewed by the police, faces can seldom be identified. Like Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison design, CCTV is supposed to scare the public into regulating themselves. It is no more than a talisman, and a talisman that doesn’t seem to have worked. In many institutions from universities to factories there are decoy CCTV cameras that aren’t even plugged in. There is something faintly ludicrous about a camera that lacks the capacity to record anything.
CCTV infuriates the public, like the Welshman mentioned above. And the new generation of surveillance technology has a deeply sinister tinge to it that not even the mind of Philip K. Dick could have imagined. The U.S. and U.K. governments are developing ‘Gait DNA’ which means that soon the authorities will be able to track you in a crowd of thousands just from the way you happen to walk. Using a small console that emits radio waves, experts can also detect the breathing and heart rates of people behind a thick concrete wall.
So what’s the next step for the Surveillance Society? Compulsory identity cards were very much on the agenda until November 2007 when the personal details of 25 million recipients of child welfare payments were lost by the civil service. Now the vast majority of the public don’t trust the government with any such sensitive information. Forty-nine per cent of them even hold Gordon Brown personally responsible. There is already cross-party opposition to ID cards prompted by fears that individual freedom will be eroded. The argument for centres on terrorism, but there have been countless terrorists in Europe and elsewhere who have done their terrible deeds while in possession of valid ID cards. Better to follow the advice of our erstwhile Prime Minister Tony Blair to get ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,’ but especially the causes.
Only time will tell if people will grow to accept all this, the cameras, the techno-bureaucracy, the constant expansion of the alternative reality of the Internet, or whether there will be some Luddite backlash and the silicon will be tossed onto the bonfire. Perhaps it is too late, far too late to call for some kind of balance between these extremes. We will see.
TOM SYKES was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1979, and graduated from the University of East Anglia in 2001. He is the co-editor of the travel book, No Such Thing as a Free Ride?, which was serialised in the London Times and named Observer Travel Book of the Week. He has published short fiction and articles in the U.K., U.S., Canada and Southeast Asia. His novel, The Blank Space, is published by Pendragon Press later in the year.
Reproduced from the April-June 2008 issue of Quill magazine