Stars of CCTV. The Guardian, 4 February 2006

Twenty years ago, the American novelist Paul Auster wrote a short novel that turned out to be eerily prophetic. The story was about a man – known only as Blue – who is approached by a stranger called White and asked to watch a third man, who goes under the name of Black. The job, such as it is, requires Blue to tail Black and file detailed reports to an anonymous postbox where, presumably, they will be read by White. In return, Blue is offered regular and handsome payment. Blue is about to get married – so needs the money – and he reluctantly says goodbye to his fiancee and hunkers down in a rented room across the road from Black’s apartment block. And he begins to watch.
In the following months, Blue sits in that rented room watching Black and waiting for something to happen. His prey does not seem to do much; he walks to the shops, of course, and he takes the occasional stroll around town. For the most part, however, Black just sits in his room at a table by the window and writes. The job becomes a little dull, and Blue is at a loss to decipher any rhyme or reason in Black’s actions, any meaning or insight to convey in his meticulous written reports. But the cheques from White continue to arrive by return of post, and Blue begins to be intrigued by his undercover existence, to enjoy the thrill of it. There is, he discovers, “something thrilling about not knowing what is going to happen next. It keeps you alert, he thinks, and there is no harm in that, is there? Wide awake and on your toes, taking it all in, ready for anything.”
Slowly, however, Blue’s patience wears itself out. On the verge of a breakdown, he snaps in despair and – donning a disguise to conceal his identity -confronts Black in his local bar. At first, Black claims to be a private detective who has been paid to watch a man from across the street. “He doesn’t do anything,” complains Black. “He just sits in his room all day and writes. It’s enough to drive you crazy.” Does he know you’re watching him, Blue asks. Of course he does, answers Black. That is the point. But why, asks the exasperated Blue. “Because he needs me,” replies Blue. “He needs my eye looking at him. He needs me to prove he’s alive.” At the story’s end, Blue finds out that White and Black are one and the same, that Black is a writer who is writing a story about Blue and that, like Blue, the writer needs someone to watch over him, if only to prove to himself that he is still alive.
Auster’s novel is called Ghosts. At the time it was written it was ruminated on by literary critics as an example of tricksy postmodernism, the kind of writing that loves to play around with different perspectives and pick apart the pretensions of the storyteller. When I remembered about Blue and Black, however, I was in a control room near Piccadilly Circus, watching the bank of CCTV cameras that Westminster city council uses to watch everything that happens on its patch. In this fetid room deep underground, a small team, working in shifts, continually monitor the hundred or so cameras that hover like vultures over the streets of Westminster. We are used to thinking of CCTV as grainy black and white, but the bank of cameras I saw were in digital and high-resolution colour.
According to one recent estimate, the average British citizen is seen by more than 300 different cameras from 30 different CCTV networks in a single day. Most of our public space – housing estates, thoroughfares, car parks, shops, workplaces and shopping malls – is now so pitted with cameras that Britain can claim to be the most thoroughly watched place on earth. So crucial has the job of watching become that sometimes it pays to keep an eye on the watchers as well as the watched. I was not long in Westminster’s CCTV control room before the supervisor pointed out the CCTV camera in the corner that monitors his every movement. In the middle of January, two council CCTV camera operators in Merseyside were jailed for training a CCTV camera into a woman’s home to spy on her. Jurors were shown the footage of a 25-year-old woman in the bath, using the toilet and having an argument with her boyfriend. The camera lingered, according to the generous coverage afforded the trial by the Daily Mail, while she ate a meal watching EastEnders, dressed only in a towel.
Aside from the occasional tired grumble about the growth of a surveillance state, CCTV is now so ubiquitous and so domesticated that it has ceased to be controversial. Its success in helping convict criminals, and its sterling work in capturing just about every major crime or tragedy of the past decade, seems to have earned it our grudging respect. But CCTV also serves as a fuzzy, 20th-century prototype for a world in which many of us would prefer to spend our leisure time watching each other than doing anything else. Quietly, in the course of the last decade, many of us have quit watching the box in the corner of the room and disappeared off to the other room to fiddle around with gadgets through which we can watch each other instead. Watching one another – through web cameras, mobile phones, or portable CCTV equipment – is a different way of frittering away our leisure time. It can claim to be more social than television – we can use cameras to keep in touch with friends on the other side of the world, or the baby sleeping upstairs, or to check on the weather in our favourite city. But it is also more private, because most of us are alone when we do it.
This is known as “peer-to-peer” communication, and it is widely acknowledged to be driving the future of the world wide web more than anything else. Much of that communication involves nothing other than watching each other. Our sex lives, for example, are increasingly migrating to a vast virtual menagerie in which people expose themselves on web cameras either for everyone to see or for the attention of someone special – or for a paying customer. Even when we do watch television, it increasingly resembles the same model. The irony of the recent case in Merseyside is that the men involved could have found themselves much the same fare if only they had switched on the television. The TV series Big Brother is a kind of CCTV writ large in which the contestants waive any rights to privacy. In recent years, too, nuggets from CCTV footage have begun to fill up our screens, in documentaries about shoplifting, or on entertainment and crime shows. Sometimes the tangle of watchers and watched is so complex as to be a little confusing. Last week, four teenagers were jailed for beating a man to death on the South Bank in London while they recorded it all on a mobile video phone. The evening they were convicted, I was able to watch on broadcast television CCTV footage of a teenager pointing her mobile at a man whose death she was about to film.
All this might lazily be described as a culture of creeping surveillance, but what we are witnessing now is very far from the model of Big Brother envisaged by Orwell. If it is anything it is a democracy of surveillance, one in which both watcher and watched can be one and the same. A couple of days after my visit to the CCTV control room in Westminster, I was in fashionable Shoreditch in east London watching a wide-angle and full-colour view of nearby Old Street on a giant plasma screen, the dummy version of a “community camera project” that will take CCTV to a whole new dimension. Next month will see the homes of two different Shoreditch estates equipped with state-of-the art CCTV views of the communal areas of their estates. Atul Hatwal, the project manager, was at pains to tell me that this was what the residents wanted. In focus groups, he told me, most residents had mentioned crime as a justification for the project, but others admitted to a more prosaic reason for wanting to be surrounded by cameras – simple curiosity.
The Shoreditch project has already raised the hackles of some civil-liberty campaigners. The more interesting question, however, is how this culture of endless watching plays with our sense of self. What exactly do both watcher and watched get out of looking at one another? It is easier, perhaps, to imagine how they might be frustrated. For the watched, there can be no guarantee that anyone is even watching them. Likewise, for the watcher, there is no guarantee that anything will happen, that the watched will do anything interesting. Michael Haneke’s new film, Hidden, already tipped by many critics as one of the films of the year, opens with an long and entirely static shot of a camera observing a house. Anything might happen, which is why the scene supplies such suspense, but nothing does. As the film progresses, it becomes obvious that this is a film about the act of watching and waiting for something to happen, and the predicament of possibly being watched.
To the watcher, perusing unvarnished humanity on CCTV or reality television or a web camera must be a little like staring at a documentary about wildlife in the savannah, one of those in which apparently bored animals wander into the gaze of the camera, scratch themselves listlessly and then shuffle off in search of something better to do. At one of the places I used to work, the receptionist had as her screensaver a live video image of wild animals lying around in a cage in a zoo. On a different screen above her head, she was able to look at images from a bank of CCTV cameras of the whole building. Darting from one to the other, I suppose she might have discovered some similarities between the two. The potential for using all this to understand human behaviour has not been lost on corporations. Trend spotters have recently identified a new science called “virtual anthropology”, where companies pay people to find out about the their young customers by “living” among them – perusing their online photos, reading their diaries, and peering at them through their web cams.
So much for watchers, but what do those who are being watched get out of this? At first glance, they seem at a distinct disadvantage. Many of us feel safer for being visible, for sure. But beyond that, there has been little research done on the effect of a camera on those who fall routinely beneath its gaze, on the psychological implications of constant visibility. The psychologist Mark Levine, from Lancaster University, has argued that watcher and watched can never be equal. Even if you look straight at a CCTV camera, he says, it is not possible to tell whether the camera is looking at you. Besides, he says, “the gaze of the TV camera has several temporal features which are not present in other interactions. For example, the camera does not blink or look away and it keeps a constant record of what it sees.”
Being watched, however, has its psychological compensations. In his book The Naked Crowd, the American academic Jeffrey Rosen argues that being noticed or exposed can help shore up one’s identity in an age where people are less sure of who and what they are. “Confused and anxious about status in a world where status is constantly shifting,” he concludes, “we feel increasing pressure to expose details of our personal lives to strangers in order to win their trust, and we demand that they expose themselves in return in order to win our trust.” The illusion demands that people in public life play along. Witness, for example, Tony Blair’s recent “A Day in the Life” video, an informal video diary published on the web at the beginning of this year.
The new technologies for watching each other were supposed to bring us together, to help hasten the death of distance. For strangers who we don’t know on the other side of the world, they certainly do that. But for those closer to home, or with whom we might aspire to a little intimacy, they are also keeping us apart. Watching the world go by on a screen, the danger is that we fail to apprehend the real world outside – that we become ghosts in the ether, staring mutely down copper pipes at each other sometimes from only across the street, the watcher waiting for something to happen and the watched waiting to be noticed, both illuminating each other’s solitude. It is no use blaming Big Brother because, in the end, there is only us.