Dead Men Left

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Piers and the Panopticon

On balance, Piers Morgan is probably a Good Thing. No, really: his editorship of the Mirror, until the bloody silliness with those photographs, was managing to drag the title back towards something like the newspaper it used to be: a critical, leftish, intelligent tabloid. (This isn't a point to be stretched too far, obviously; even at the height of its anti-war drive, the Mirror remained caught up with the same lazy journalism and contempt for its readers that drives the British newspaper market.)

Morgan's article for the Observer on youth crime, apart from once again demonstrating Tower Hamlets really does have it all, had a few startling statistics:

We are CCTV-mad in this country. I discovered in the course of filming this programme that Britain has 20 per cent of the world's CCTV cameras. Yes, 20 per cent. There are more cameras in Basingstoke than in New York City, where they are banned from places like the subway on civil liberty grounds.

The average Briton will be picked up by 300 cameras a day, creating a pervading sense of paranoia...

...which reminded me of IPPR wonk William Davies writing on OpenDemocracy the other day about the "age of surveillence" being a "new dotcom boom". Davies' thesis is that the ludicrous over-expansion of information technology in the 1990s created, in short order, the networked technology needed to maintain a very thorough system of monitoring and control:

But having been drawn into the digital age by the allure of its newness – just like any “early adopters” – we may now be settling down into a surveillance society where privacy is at best conditional, and contingency is monitored and dealt with. Historians may one day reflect on the bizarre coincidence by which westerners exuberantly flooded their societies with digital technology for very little reason whatsoever, just in time for it to be put to use as part of the largest international policing programme ever.

(Worth reading the whole thing.) Now, I'm not too bothered about either a system of continual electronic monitoring, whether dispersed in private security firms or centralised into the state, for the reasons approximately given here: continual and sophisticated spying generate too much information to process. I remember being told, during the course of a trial - not mine, he adds - that although a large number of CCTV cameras covered the area around the crime-scene, there was "too much footage" for the police to do anything useful with it. Newham council, down the road from Tower Hamlets, used to boast about both the extent of its CCTV coverage and the sophisticated face recognition system it was wired up to. The system didn't work.

What might be a little more alarming the possibility of combining the technology with dedicated human monitors. However, as (the inevitable) George Orwell indicated, to establish the organisations on the scale needed would require a fundamental transformation of society. Unless the proposed "anti-terror" legislation is more thoroughgoing than any of us suspect, that's not yet on the horizon.

Reassuring, no? I'm off to collect my ID card forthwith.