Guest post by Gavin Smith, Senior Lecturer Australian National University
Closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras are a prominent, if increasingly familiar, pillar of urbanism. They symbolise the faith that spatial authorities place in technical interventions for the treatment of social problems. It has become something of a cliche to proclaim that images of our bodies are being perpetually captured on CCTV cameras, and profiled by unseen eyes, as we move through urban space. Those dwelling in metropolitan environments can expect to make contact with a CCTV camera network's field of vision several hundred times a day. And yet, the introduction of CCTV to monitor spatial contexts, is but a relatively recent innovation in public policing terms. Despite the fact that it was initially designed as a military application for deployment in theatres of war and for managing threats from without, CCTV has subsequently become a 'companion' structure encasing the theatres of civil society; a valorised technology for managing problem and risky groups from within.
Notwithstanding the intensity of physical engagement we now experience with camera systems - on the streets, in workplaces, in transportation systems, in commercial premises, in school playgrounds, in hospitals, in prisons - the majority of us are blissfully unaware of CCTV's lofty presence, or its projection of a disembodied glassy stare. We don't really notice CCTV, but it certainly notices us. It makes us visible, as we make it unvisible; as we get distracted by daily routines and market stimuli, and as we background what appear to be inanimate or irrelevant objects from our sensory registers. The pro-CCTV mantras of 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear', 'CCTV protects good people from bad ones', and 'cameras watch them not us', have undoubtedly been successfully internalised and consolidated. Even in a context where international criminological research studies consistently question the value and effectiveness of such crime control 'solutions', there is still an appetite for camera systems on the part of ruling authorities and ruled communities. They still win votes and they still make certain segments of the public feel safer.
But in what form are we perceived and construed by those whose job it is to systematically watch social life unfold from afar? And how does graphic exposure to the orderly and disorderly dimensions of social relations impact on the perspectives and senses of self-identity that are formulated by CCTV camera operators in the course of their viewing work? In other words, what types of gaze are projected by those with a responsibility to safeguard the social order, and how is the reflection construed and processed? It is these substantive questions that form the empirical and theoretical basis of my recent book, Opening the Black Box: The Work of Watching, a project that was largely compiled during a visit to the Oxford Centre for Criminology in 2013 as a Research Associate.
My book comprises a fine-grained ethnography of CCTV camera operation in the UK. It excavates the social relations and meanings entwining the technology's everyday usage. It takes the reader on a journey from living beneath the camera, to working behind its glassy lens. It explicates the contextual experiences and practices of camera operators as they source and profile mediated street spectacles. These workers are paid to scan monitor screens in the search for disorderly vistas, visualising stimuli according to its perceived riskiness and/or allurement. However, the projection of this gaze can draw an unsettling reflection. It can mean enduring behavioural extremities as an impotent witness. It can also entail making spontaneous decisions that can determine the course of justice.
As such, Opening the Black Box contemplates the seductive and traumatic dimensions of monitoring telemediated ‘riskscapes’ through the prism of camera circuitry. It explains the nation's love affair with CCTV cameras and the political economic conditions - and paradigm - that proved amenable, conducive and responsive to CCTV's rapid (and spectacular) introduction (Chapter 2). It regards the genealogy of a local camera scheme that was initiated in the 1990s to cleanse the streets of impurities by a group of virile neoliberal urban technicians (Chapter 3). It probes the positioning of camera operators as ‘vicarious’ custodians of a precarious social order and analyses their subjective experiences; in terms of how meaningful relations are formed with the persons and spaces they indirectly contact (Chapter 4 & 5). But the negative orientation of the gaze, the constant search for danger, means that camera operators recurrently confront suffering. And this exposure to distress is mediated by the experience of physical and structural impotence. A relation that necessitates artful means of coping. Thus, the book ultimately reveals the work of watching to be an ambiguous practice – as much about managing external disturbances on the street as managing internal disruptions in the self.
The book is available for discounted purchase here with the following code: FLR40