Fifty years ago, and today

(Posted by Jeff Porten)

I am doing my best impression today of a highly ambulatory decapitated chicken in preparation for my trip to MacWorld starting tomorrow, so abbreviated remarks follow about what’s on my mind, with permission from the Speaker to revise and extend them for the Record at a later date.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a wholly remarkable document, The Russell-Einstein Manifesto. It begins, “We are speaking on this occasion, not as members of this or that nation, continent, or creed, but as human beings, members of the species Man, whose continued existence is in doubt.” It led to the founding of the Pugwash Conferences, which along with its co-founder Joseph Rotblat shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.

I received an email from an activist friend earlier this week who asked me, somewhat tongue in cheek, if I was still trying to save the world. I responded in the affirmative, but in reality I can’t say such things. On the other hand, Rotblat is a man who I believe truly has. Fifty years on, he is still pursuing this work, and his work is not over.

Moving on to current events, one begins to wonder about the value of keeping the population under constant surveillance (if one does not already) when considering that London has the most police cameras per capita in the world, and under the lenses of these cameras a terrorist attack was successfully completed. Had that happened in the US, I have little doubt that the response would be a panicked clamor for more cameras, more government tracking, and greater restrictions on “dangerous” movements, speech, and activity. But reports from London indicate a calm that is entirely in contrast to our own hysteria (and in keeping with their historical mien). It will be interesting to see whether the attack brings upon a redoubled pursuit of illusory safety, or if people will ask somewhat more loudly why the millions of law-abiding are watched when the criminals are not deterred.

More to come.

11 Comments on “Fifty years ago, and today”

  1. I entirely agree with Jeff regarding the monitoring connundrum in contrast between London and just about anywhere here in the good ol’ US o’ A. We’d immediately slap a Patriot Browser on our cities if some part of our grid got wiped in a standard street-entry bomb drop. I remember living in Burlington, VT (we moved to San Francisco last summer one year ago as of tomorrow) where the City (pun intended) installed a surveilance camera on an intersection near the University of Vermont campus. “For what purpose?” civil libertarians and the like asked. “Monitoring,” we were cryptically told. Not that anything happened there, but I’m led to ponder why every grocery store in the world can have a crackin’ good system for monitoring shoplifting and oodles of undercover cops usually trolling the aisles. Yet we’re still hearing that we’ve got “hard work” to do in securing our transportation systems. Complete and utter horse-hockey. Still, great point, Jeff. Rock on.

  2. interesting. i mentioned paul virilio in my wombat post as a joke, but he has a lot to say about surveillance society. in one of his books (unfortunately, i forget which) he calls the surveillance video camera modern illumination. “illumination” here means to make visible.

    the electric light changed the speed and reach of our society by illuminating the cityscape to the extent of our physical reach. now surveillance video cameras have illuminated, or made visible, the entire globe to an extent far beyond our physical reach. “real time” has replaced “real space” and our bodies have therefore ceased to limit our scope and reach. the speed of light has become a real limitation, long before we are able to create technology that can actually help our physical selves to achieve near lightspeed. this is all technopositive. on the negative end, our impact on the physical world in terms of the damage we do need have no basis in our own physical strength, speed, or fitness.

    all of this is the point of the surveillance society, not our ability to catch criminals or terrorists. governments use the terrorism or crime argument (or in burlington, they don’t even bother) to justify erecting surveillance structures. but that’s not what they’re there for. surveillance is no more, and no less, than an extension of the city’s electric light grid. real time surveillance removes the darkness of privacy in the same way that electric light removed the darkness of night time.

    or put another way, both light grids and surveillance grids are a vast, cybernetic extension of the government body, which includes the bodies and minds of its executives and legislators and bureaucrats and functionaries. the physical bodies of the people who make up “the government” are extended by telephones and blackberries (ears), computers and internet-linked databases (minds), city-owned vehicles (bodies, especially legs) and surveillance systems (eyes).

    so yes, i think the brits are less susceptible to government-sponsored hysteria than we yanks are. however, they, too, have hold of the wrong end of the stick. surveillance stays, sucka.

  3. I, for one, happen to appreciate the use of video surveillance in public spaces. To those who would criticize such devices, ask yourself this: if, instead of a surveillance camera, it was a police officer standing on that street corner, would you be more or less concerned about your privacy?

    I’m guessing that most people wouldn’t mind a police presence on the streets – rather than seeing some ominous, Orwellian plot they would be comforted by it. One might assume that the objection is due, then, to the impersonal nature of the camera (I would expect a similar reaction if the police officers wore some type of helmet that hid their faces, a la Star Wars stormtroopers). In both cases the police are watching you – the difference is how they are doing it.

    In my opinion, the use of surveillance cameras is pragmatic. Remote monitoring allows for a more efficient use of police manpower, requiring fewer cops on shift at any given time. Some real-life statistics have shown a dramatic reduction in crime where cameras are present – similar to the drops experienced with beefed-up patrols in the area, but without the cost.

    Plus, you get a recording of both the situation and the police response to it. Think of those videos you see of how badly people were driving while intoxicated – pretty hard to dispute that kind of evidence in court. It also makes it much easier to identify a suspect, leading to a better chance of convicting the right person.

    And if you’re still worried about Big Brother, just remember – the camera may be watching you, but it’s watching them too. You’re less likely to be mistreated by the police when they know they’re being watched.

  4. David Brin’s “The Transparent Society” discussed a lot of these issues. He would agree with John H that video cameras on street corners are a good thing, as long as the public has access to them as well. Brin distrusts the consolidation of surveillance, pointing to ‘who’ll watch the watcher’ problems. By giving the public access to the data, you end up with better monitoring of misuse of power, and the added bonus that the people looking for misuses are also likely to spot crimes being commited, and bring them to light. He says it much better than I can, and I recommend the book, though the end gets a bit repetitive.

  5. In response to your question, John H, I would feel better about police on every disputed corner than a camera. I say this not because of the impersonal nature of the surveillance, but for more practical reasons: a police officer will likely notice when something untoward is happening. Unless he’s already been told to keep an eye on me in particular, he’s unlikely to remember seeing me if queried at random. Cameras never forget, and could be used to backtrace my movements. So it’s really the relative permanence of the information gathered by those cameras that offends me.

  6. The problem with cameras is that it’s not a cop on the corner. The cameras are watched by cops who sit at a bank of hundreds of monitors; as one might expect, this sort of desk duty is shunned by those with experience and is usually handed to the rookies. The rookies in turn have joysticks to control the cameras, and they do what you’d expect bored 22-year-olds to do — they point the cameras at the hot women walking down the street.

    The result is that being under the camera does not deter crime — and you’ll find that studies to the contrary were largely funded by the camera companies. What it does do is provide a record for crimes committed in good light by criminals who wear distinguishing clothing — in other words, it allows for the capture of stupid criminals. The UK has not seen a drop in crime since the cameras were installed.

    More details on this when I have time, but in the meantime, feel free to check out the website of Privacy International , where I’ll be getting my source material.

  7. OK, here’s a thought:

    The cameras aren’t there to deter crime. The cameras are there to help figure out who committed the crime and bring them to justice. Bringing them to justice deters crime.

    Remember Timothy McVeigh? He was convicted largely because an ATM security camera across the street from the Federal Building picked up his van in the background.

    One problem: Bringing them to justice doesn’t deter crime. Heck, the friggin’ death penalty doesn’t deter crime. Still, anyone out there want to argue that we stop prosecuting criminals because we have no evidence that doing so deters future crimes? I didn’t think so…

  8. Hey gang… if you would police yourselves… as gentlewomen and gentlemen… there would be no need for all the above… verbiage, waste of time, the whole lot. Didn’t you ever learn what some dude said some years ago in the middle of nowhere? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you…” Easy as pie… yet it seems, no one knows anymore how to pass it out. STB

  9. I can (and do) consciously treat others the way I would like to be treated. But I also realize it only makes a difference when everyone (or at least, most everyone) follows it, and sadly our society is nowhere close to that.

    I like the idea of making surveillance feeds available to the public, for the reasons mentioned earlier.

    As for the statistics that crime drops (or doesn’t) I wasn’t talking about published surveys – I was referring to the real-life experience here in Chicago recently. Last year, Chicago started installing cameras in high-crime areas, and guess what? On those streets where the cameras are being used, drug dealers and prostitutes have all but disappeared. Does that mean they have been put out of business? No. But they aren’t doing it out in the open on those streets anymore. That is at least a start.

    Britain may not have seen a drop in crime, but I would ask whether it has allowed them to lower the number of police on patrol. I suspect the answer is yes, which would mean the cameras have had some impact (if only that the crime rate did not go up with fewer officers on the job). I don’t know if this has happened – if I get the chance I will look into this.

    Using the argument that the cameras didn’t stop the terrorists from committing their acts is only valid if you can show that they wouldn’t have committed the act with a real police officer on the scene. I don’t think you can totally convince me of that. The 9/11 terrorists didn’t care that they had to go through security before getting on the planes – they still found a way to get what they needed to hijack the planes. By the same token, the London terrorists could have carried their bombs in everyday backpacks right past policemen, and chances are they did – they had no way to know if they would encounter police officers on their way to their targets, and they probably didn’t care either. The only argument you could make is that a cop on the scene might have noticed something and been there to take action, which would not be the case with a camera.

    I know that cameras are seen as a violation of privacy, but what level of privacy do you expect in public places? If you think that you’re not being videotaped already while walking down the street, you’re sorely mistaken. Just take a look up at the buildings as you walk down the street – you might be alarmed to see just how many cameras are already pointed at you. As Brian pointed out, they used the camera from an ATM across the street to track down Timothy McVeigh.

  10. Another thought to chew on: the amount of crime prevented by video cameras (or by policemen, for that matter) is absolutely unknowable. There are a thousand factors that go into how much crime happens in a given week/month/year. Since there’s no control group, anyone who tells you how much crime didn’t happen is just blowing smoke…

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