Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Polarising Effect of Surveillance

Some Baudrillard reading, in particular "The China Syndrome", brings me back to a post on the dual purpose of CCTV from over a year ago. In said post, I tried to describe the split in CCTV between a tool to intimidate people (the panopticism principle) and a tool to provide evidence. (Posiwid also noted the effects on the watchers at the time.)

Since then, the ubiquity of surveillance has increased, of course, and with it our societal "comfort" zone in having such devices "watch over us". But the effects of these same devices continue to evolve, and it's worth a note here to keep up with the trend.

In "The China Syndrome" (and, well, the entirety of Simulacra & Simulation), Baudrillard contends that the areas of what is "real" and what is "perceived" (by, in this case, monitoring devices) are now intricately confused to the point of becoming the same thing. That is, one can no longer say that "reality" is a cause to which media - TV, et al - is simply a post-event effect. On the contrary, TV can be said to "cause itself":
"it is the intrusion of TV into the reactor that seems to give rise to the nuclear incident - because TV is like its anticipation and its model in the everyday universe"
How does this apply to CCTV and surveillance in general though? First, we must remember that feedback via surveillance systems is becoming increasingly close-looped: people see themselves on screen at the same time as they do things. There is no "risk" of a watcher present, as the watcher is always present. (Indeed, the person becomes the watcher by placing themselves in such a situation - the surveillance and its feedback is merely their tool.)

So this presents an interjection that itself (i.e. the interjection, rather than the device) has 2 purposes. Firstly, as Orwell described, and as outlined in the post from May last year, it subdues.

But we cannot say that it subdues everyone equally. On the other hand, there are those who such an interjection encourages - through a cultural "rebellion" wherein "fame" and/or "notoriety" are tattoos to be treasured. This is spurred on by the association of "celebrity" with "success" via a media that continuously seeks to elevate "normal" people into "winning" positions (the onslaught of Reality TV et al).

Hence this is the point of this post: that surveillance acts as a polariser, not just a supressor. On the one hand, those that have "nothing to hide", as it were, become increasingly subdued. On the other hand (and as a result), those that are the "loose cannons", the ones that don't fit into the surveilled model of "fitting in with the crowd" are exaggerated, amplified - doubly so through both the effect of the surveillance, and against the retreating background of the increasingly quiet.

I don't know if you could call this polarisation a distillation of class or not. Probably not, but the analogy holds anyway - what surveillance does is to set two extremes in action. The beauty of the system is that you then have the evidential side of it - to effectively "commercialise": that is, mobilise as "therapy" for the subdued ones, to take home and remind themselves of who they aren't.

Of course, then it just remains a matter of logistics to "skim off" the recorded rabble, to use this "evidence" to justify the increases in youth prison rates, to confirm what a good idea stop-n-searches are, etc. Posiwid was right - the surveillors see what they want to see. Baudrillard was right - the output is the effect of the CCTV, not the other way around.

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