On uniqueness and being different

December 22, 2007 at 1:00 am 2 comments

Kim photo BowralYou know, I sometimes wonder if it’s just me worrying about ongoing attacks on our privacy and CCTV cameras glaring down on us. One of my friends turns glassy-eyed whenever I begin a rant on CCTV cameras and tells me to “move on” (to where I’m never sure). And Dave Snowden recently commented that he thought I was overly-worried. I respect Dave tremendously – I think the KM world would have been much duller without his intellect and passion. And the comments he received on his blog raised some extremely interesting issues for me. So I’m going to spend Xmas pondering and a future post will have a hopefully measured response. I’m particularly interested to explore Dave’s comment on CCTV being necessary “to preserve democracy”. And also to expand on my thoughts about how CCTV for me is a surface manifestation of something else going on in our society that is much deeper, more subterranean. But in the meantime…

I’ve noticed over the past few months that more and more reports and articles are appearing on the surveillance society and I’m hoping people are beginning to wake up and think “hey, enough”. So I was very pleased to come across an article entitled Uniqueness lost in Surveillance Society. Because that’s what it’s all about to me. Freedom means being able to be who you are and express who you are but freedom also implies that anonymity will be respected. With anonymity you get an open society in which citizens can move about freely in public spaces. But when a society is surveillance-saturated then you get conformity and oppression. If you look different, you get singled out for a frisk down at an airport. Clearly, I must look a bit suspicious or different because the last 4 times I’ve gone through x-ray machines at various airports, although I haven’t set them off, I’ve then been asked to step aside to have a test that would show residue on my clothes (from chemicals used to make bombs).

So this journal article makes some sensible observations. Surveillance, monitoring and eavesdropping is changing our culture, affecting people’s behaviour and altering our sense of freedom and anonymity. And the pressure to conform is becoming the norm. Why don’t we rise up and refuse to be surveilled I ask?

A few days ago, I bought something from eBay. I needed to contact the seller who hadn’t responded to my emails, so I rang the contact number given. I asked if they were Joe Blogs who was selling a camera on eBay. Instead of “no, not me”. I was met with a barrage of suspicious questions like “why are you asking?”; “who are you?”. I apologised as clearly I’d dialed the wrong number but get this: the person rings me back 15 minutes later to say they’re ringing the police because they thought my call was suspicious and I was met with a torrent of abuse. Leaving aside the very distinct possibility that this person was a whacko, I almost had to laugh at the absurdity if it wasn’t for the fact that we’re in the grip of a fear based, anxious society that makes our fellow citizens skittish.

Jeffrey Rosen is a law professor and he is quoted in the article as saying: “While there are benefits to surveillance – the sense of security, the ability to view crime scenes – the loss of autonomy represents the downside of our surveillance-heavy culture. You need a sphere of immunity from surveillance to be yourself and do things that people in a free society take for granted. Things like going to the park or to the market. The loss of such autonomy is one of the “amorphous costs of having a world where there’s no immunity from surveillance. This will transform the nature of public spaces in ways we could hardly imagine. People obviously behave differently when they’re unsure about whether they’re being observed“. Clever dude.

And what are all these surveillance cameras and security measures looking for? Anyone who is different or unique in some way. (I’m not suggesting that real terrorists aren’t caught in the net occasionally). There’s a code of conduct that is enforced on us. We don’t joke at airports about bombs. We’re being urged to be surveillants and report anything suspicious.

Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard social psychologist, refers to “anticipatory conformity” – we anticipate what we shouldn’t do and so avoid getting singled out in public like I was hauled aside at an airport recently. And the problem with this? If anticipatory conformity becomes second nature to us and we accept long security lines at airports, it makes it easier for our privacy and freedom to be impinged on. Because anticipatory conformity becomes a habit.

And if you want to understand just what little price the Australian Government places on privacy then consider the sorry case of a woman who was buying baby clothes at a Target store in Burwood NSW. She was accused of stealing a packet of razors and dragged back into the store (literally), punched and…..strip-searched…before being allowed to leave. She was never arrested or charged. The poor woman, being yelled at by a security guard who failed to identify himself, emptied her bag to show she had no packet of razors but she was still dragged off. Needless to say, she was publicly humiliated and embarrassed in front of customers and staff. This is unlawful detention at its worst in a so-called democratic society. Where were the CCTV cameras watching over this incident I ask (apparently there was a denial that surveillance equipment existed in the store). And the damages awarded to the poor woman? $85,000 including $25,000 in punitive damages.

Just another court case resolved but shouldn’t we be asking some very serious questions about a society, which allows this shocking incident to happen in the first place?


Entry filed under: Privacy, Surveillance society, Useful resources.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dave Snowden  |  December 22, 2007 at 7:08 am

    Kim, I look forward to your posts on this and the debate overall is key. I can’t resist pointing out that one of my arguments (objectivity in prosecution) is supported by your final paragraph. I would also argue that most people in London (the most heavy density of CCTV out) completely ignore them, i.e. there is no behaviour modification. Airport security on the other hand is I think excessive and ineffective. I carry two items with me whenever I travel. An alarm clock with a dense metal clock, and 150mm of a liquid I can afford to loose. Maybe one in twenty times they get picked up.

    Far more worrying for me are things like the British Government’s attempt to make us all happy by mandating CBT as the only valid therapy and teaching “happiness” in schools. Surveilance I have few problems with, social and psychological manipulation I find more dangerous. That and the primitive demonisation of terrorists, or anyone who challenges the cultural norm are the dangers of a civilized society. We need to be able to see the world through the eyes of the other, if we are to deal with it.

  • 2. Josh  |  January 2, 2008 at 1:58 am

    Once again, we’re being told that CCTV is there for our protection….and to some extent the footage has helped with criminal investigations and in bringing criminals to justice. But we all know that this footage is being used for other purposes.

    It scares me that from when I leave my home to when I get to work that I’ve been recorded for most of the time. You think you’re alone with your thoughts, reading a book, staring out the train window, day dreaming as you walk through the city.

    But you’re not alone….you’re being watched closely. It’s terrible.

    You get singled out for ‘chemical’ tests at the airports too? I do aswell….because I’m 6 foot 4 and I’ve got a huge beard – TERRORIST!!!!!! 😉



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