A Skinny Take: One nation under CCTV

Blog by R. J. Gallagher | 26 Jan 2010
  • One Nation Under CCTV

In 1921 Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote a book in which he envisaged a country dominated by buildings and streets made only from glass; the reasons for this of course being pragmatic – if everything is glass, then nothing can be hidden.  Similar to Foucault’s concept of panopticism, the authorities in Zamyatin’s novel believe that discipline (or conformity) can be achieved through the total surveillance of the population; the logic being that if you are being watched all the time, then you will behave differently – you won’t break the rules and if you do, you’ll be caught red handed.

The vision is terrifying – the prospect of being watched all day, every day by an invisible pair of eyes; never knowing who is watching or when – but in reality, it is a vision that is hardly a million miles from where we are today, for the UK now has an estimated 4.8 million CCTV cameras; more per head than anywhere else in the world.

“We’ve got cameras everywhere” said a man working in a CCTV control room somewhere in London, "we can pretty much see everything.”  But everything is clearly not enough, as plans were unveiled last week to put unmanned ‘spy-drones’ that will fly 20,000 feet high in the sky – invisible to civilians on the ground – in action across the UK in time for the 2012 Olympics.

The cost of the drones, which has yet to be announced, will come from public funds – yet in the true spirit of dystopian fiction, as the paying public we will have no choice in the matter; the government will simply sign off a large cheque in our name (to BAE systems) and we will be expected to embrace the fact that invisible drones are soaring somewhere above our heads 24 hours a day watching our every move –‘protecting us’ from those wicked and twisted beasts, who, reveling somewhere under the radar, are committing such heinous acts of evil as ‘fly-posting’ and ‘anti-social driving’ at any given moment in the dark corners of neighborhoods nationwide.

Yet as studies and statistics have repeatedly shown, CCTV rarely has an impact on cutting crime; and with regards solving crime the meager figure of 3% is quoted for 2008. The problem with CCTV is that it does nothing to prevent that causes of crime – the poverty, the prohibition, the drug addiction – but it is still presented as the solution. 

The question can only be, after the drones – what next?  As we march blindly towards the realization of Zamyatin’s nightmare, perhaps we should take the time, while we can, to gather rocks – big rocks.

Because when the glass walls begin to go up, someone needs to be there to smash them.


See more of Ryan's work at http://www.rjgallagher.co.uk/