Spycam City

The Surveillance Society: Part One

Ever since then, the power of the watcher over the watched has been a focal point of thinking about social control. The philosopher Michel Foucault regarded the panoptic force as an organizing feature of complex societies. Surveillance, Foucault concluded, is the modern way of achieving social coherence--but at a heavy cost to individuality. Spycams are the latest incarnation of this impulse. Welcome to the New Improved Panopticon. Twenty-five years ago, Mayor John V. Lindsay installed cameras in Times Square. But he took them down after 18 months because they only led to 10 arrests--causing The New York Times to call this experiment "the longest-running flop on the Great White Way." No such ridicule has greeted Giuliani's far more ambitious surveillance plans and his cheeky assertion that "you don't have an expectation of privacy in public spaces."

It's a brave new world, but very different from the ones imagined by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Nineteen Eighty Four taught us to be alert to the black-booted tyrant. The Truman Show updates this Orwellian model as the saga of an ordinary man whose life is controlled by an omniscient "creator," a TV producer who orders the 5000 cameras surrounding his star to zoom in or pull back for the perfect shot.

As inheritors of Orwell's vision, we are unable to grasp the soft tyranny of today's surveillance society, where authority is so diffuse it's discreet. There is no Big Brother in Spycam City. Only thousands of watchers--a ragtag army as likely to include your neighbor as your boss or the police. In 1998, anybody could be watching you.

Additional reporting: Emily Wax. Research: Michael Kolber


This is the first of a three-part series.

Read part one: Spycam City.
Read part two: Spycam Chic.
Read part three: Spy Commerce.

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