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Nothing to hide, nothing to fear: welcome to the panopticon

Patrick West observes the advance of the surveillance society

While some achieve television celebrity, most have screen prominence thrust upon them. In one day, an average Londoner will be recorded by more than 300 cameras. The purpose of such an enterprise is not to assemble the montage for 'Walk! Take a bus! Tie up shoelaces!' or such 'real-life' jollity for the masses. Rather, it is representative of the relentless programme of close-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance in Britain, which has raised the Screen to the position of ultimate cultural signifier of the twenty-first century. The Screen, whether it be the television or the computer, once there to merely entertain us, now helps to enslave us.

In the past 10 years, £1 billion has been spent on establishing a national system of CCTV surveillance. There are more than a million CCTV cameras in operation in Britain today, the highest per capita in the world - and still rising, thanks to new government initiatives. The new commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, John Stevens, has expressed his desire to up this number significantly, while the Home Office has already initiated a five-year plan to establish the world's biggest road and vehicle surveillance system, which, when finished, will be able to track the movements of all vehicles in the country. The system will be able to identify stolen vehicles, those with no tax or insurance, and car owners who are 'of interest' to the government.

The surveillance society has been embraced by the public. To many CCTV is seen as a necessary evil in a fragmented and morally vacuous society. We have not so much been taken over by Big Brother; rather we have made the state Big Father, a benign, paternal figure who will protect us from our own violent infantilism.

Figures appear to back up CCTV's supporters. Since the introduction of the Automatic Number Plate Reader in February 1997, there have been over 500 arrests of felonious drivers. Uncle Jack Straw tells us that CCTV has helped to cut thefts from retailers throughout the county, while pickpocketing incidents in London's Oxford Street fell by 50 percent in six weeks after cameras were installed. And who could forget the last image of Jill Dando in Dixons in Hammersmith, which, we were told, would be instrumental in finding her killer?

It is customary for critics of the surveillance society to invoke the spectre of George Orwell's Big Brother from Nineteen Eighty-Four - the all-seeing, all-knowing state mechanism from which there can be no hiding. Yet the dictum that kept Winston Smith servile - 'There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment' - has historical precedence in the prison-reforming plans of eighteenth-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham.

In 1791 Bentham published his ideas for a new type of penitentiary establishment. A semi-circular building containing prison cells would all face an 'inspection lodge' in the centre. The prisoners, through a carefully designed system of lighting and wooden blinds, were not able to see the guards at any time, though the prison guards could view the incarcerated whenever they pleased. The panopticon - 'all-seeing eye' - made sure the prisoners never knew they were being watched, and thus started to regulate their own behaviour in accordance to the wishes of their masters.

Bentham's enthusiasm for the project was almost Blairite: 'Morals reformed - health preserved - industry were, upon a rock - the Gordian knot of the Poor Laws not cut, but untied - all by a simple idea in architecture!' The panopticon parodied the all-seeing but unseen divinity, but unlike Orwell's hated and more visible Big Brother, was far more elusive and thus induced people to surrender utterly any resistance to the system.

The CCTV society so welcomed by Britons heralds the fulfilment of the Benthamite project. In its 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' principle, CCTV is quintessentially New Labour, working on the premise that we are all potential criminals, and that there should be no real distinction between the private and public spheres. What's more, when not serving to foster an atmosphere of paranoia and personal insecurity, CCTV, in the way it is operated, is socially divisive. Males are more likely to be monitored than females, and black males especially, feeding on stereotypes - and while prosecuting only this segment of society, perpetuating them.

Atomised, docile bodies who fear everybody and everything do not make for happy citizens, while the culture of fear, voyeurism and spying is buttressed by newer techniques of surveillance. Apart from having cameras in cinemas, changing rooms, pubs and even police helmets (or as was recently suggested, orbiting the Earth to monitor drivers' speeds) the unseen boss may or may not be taping our telephone calls, emails, our website hits and even the key strokes we make on our keyboards. In America 40 percent of companies routinely record employees' phone calls, something that is becoming increasingly frequent in Britain - a country where Croydon mothers can now spy on their childminders via the internet.

Unlike Orwell's centralised 'telescreen' complex, today's surveillance may not all be in the hands of the government, though the panopitcal effect is the same: discipline yourself in accordance with an all-seeing eye, or risk being punished for your 'antisocial behaviour' (Straw's words, not mine). Naturally, like the infantile sinners we are, we will be told all these measures are for our own good, though whether good intentions bear good results is a moot point. This does not, following from Bentham, give the government licence to behave like God and erect a society along the lines of an eighteenth-century prison.

Patrick West writes for the Times

Reproduced from LM issue 127, February 2000



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