Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Watching the Vast Machine

The Traveller, by John Twelve Hawks, is a thriller about the rise of CCTV monitoring. In the novel, all the CCTV and other forms of remote monitoring are combined to form the “Vast Machine” which gives a small elite the ability to monitor and so rule the world. The only defence is to live “off the grid” but this becomes increasingly difficult. The Vast Machine effectively creates a “virtual Panopticon," a reference to architect Jeremy Bentham’s speculative prison – the Panopticon – in which prisoners are always on view.

The number of CCTV cameras in the UK is not known. In 2004 Professor Clive Norris estimated that there were 4.3 million, with any individual being caught on camera 300 times per day – but as there is minimal regulation of state or private CCTV installation there is no accurate or up-to-date figure. In addition to regular CCTV, Gatso cameras pick up speeding, traffic light violations, inappropriate use of bus lanes and other driving misdemeanours while other cameras enforce congestion charge zones. Eating one’s own food at restaurant tables? Probably in the near future. And more - soon they will be picking up faces or suspicious patterns of movement. There are some interesting articles about the rise of surveillance in the UK on the SpyBlog.

However the fear of constantly being monitored – and who might have access to the data or images – is only one side of the CCTV story. I wonder if other people have driven past a Gatso camera and triggered the flash – it’s not always clear why this happens – and then heard nothing? Or, in trying to recover stolen goods, have discovered that the tapes were “lost” or “corrupted,” or worse, the premises don’t want to share their CCTV with the victim or the police – and are not legally obliged to do so. According to the BBC, about a thousand cameras are installed for every crime that is solved by CCTV. It's hard to see how all those cameras could be effectively monitored unless every one of us carried out some shifts as a security guard, recalling the plot of A Scanner Darkly in which an anonymous narcotics agent is required to set up a watch on himself.

A feature of Bentham’s original Panopticon design was that, while the prisoners would always be visible in their glass cells, the guards were always hidden in the central tower. A single guard could operate window shutters via levers to give the impression of a fully staffed watchtower – or at times there might be no guards at all and the prisoners would never know. Sometimes I get the feeling I’m not being watched…


Anonymous said...

We can continue fight this war as long as we are not apathetic.

Sci-Fi Gene said...

This poster is clearly doing his or her best to stay off the grid!