My local paper, the Daily Progress, ran a story today about a proposal to install 30 security cameras on the Downtown Mall. I think there's a wrong way to do this, and a right way. I'll explain why the wrong way is wrong, and suggest a scheme that could lead to a right (or better) way.
Psychology of surveillance
Surveillance cameras have a profound affect upon the psychology of both the watchers and the watched.
- Surveillance implies that we need to be watched, that we are all "potentially bad people".
- When we are expected to behave poorly, we don't feel the need to be on our best behavior -- someone else is doing the enforcement, someone else has taken the power.
- When I am away from home, I behave like a responsible adult. But when I am at home under the watchful eye of my parents, I behave more like a child. I am, in a way, expected to do so.
- This effect is easy to see in prisons. Even well-behaved inmates eventually fall into the mindset of "social contract apathy." In a way, security cameras may produce institutionalization of the public.
- Watching someone through a security camera immediately imbues the subject with an air of dangerousness and crime. (Next time you see footage of CCTV on the television, pay attention to your assumptions about the shadowy, grainy figure moving about on-screen.)
- Prison guards, given power and anonymity, invariably grow to hate and fear the inmates, to the point of brutality. (Some famous psychological studies on this topic have had very disturbing results, indicating that power+anonymity leads to wanton brutality and hatred, even in otherwise normal people.)
- Cameras create a (greater) divide between the watchers and the watched, in terms of rights, privileges, and power.
- When someone else gains power and implicitly or explicitly distrusts you, you distrust, fear, and hate them.
- This increasing mutual distrust between civilians and authorities leads to oppositional behaviors among the civilians.
- The police, who are supposed to be our protectors, become our prison guards, whether they intend to or not.
Level the playing field
Imagine that Charlottesville.org provided real-time streaming video from each camera, and every camera had a little sign next to it saying "Watch from here! http://cam.cville.org/22". In effect, the cameras could be "marketed" as a tool for the people.
- By watching the mall-cams, citizens 1) invest time in the Mall and 2) feel greater connection to it, both of which increase the feeling of "ownership" and responsibility.
- When you give people trust, they return the favor, and will work with you. They feel a greater sense of responsibility.
- The Mall becomes a stage, not a prison. The world can watch! (The mere presence of webcams implies an audience. No one actually needs to be watching for the effect to occur.)
- Rather than giving extra power to the authorities, everyone is given the same tool.
Do it anyway
It's not like we have to get permission to do this. The cameras will be wireless, and there is little to no encryption on standard CCTV wireless signals -- existing equipment for VCR-to-DVD transcoding can do the necessary number crunching. But cooperation would be more in the spirit of what I have suggested.
This is by no means a finished proposal. I want to hear your thoughts as well.