Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Apparently, the CCTV doesn’t lie. What appears on the CCTV screen is accepted as visually accurate, even true. It seems to be the latest truth-telling device which TV networks have been using to expose the petty and heinous crimes committed by the poor. The TV image is manipulated in the news editing room, the internet broadcast might turn out to be a hoax, but the CCTV is regarded as the reality TV which faithfully records the Real.

The benefits of installing CCTV are easy to notice which probably explain the current obsession of authorities to prettify public places with surveillance cameras and the willingness of residential and business owners to connect their CCTV recording with the police network. To prevent crimes and quickly identify culprits, more and more people are summoning the power of the God-like eyes of the CCTV.

Bombarded with tabloid news that agitate emotions and overwhelmed with social problems that seem to be beyond their grasp, can we blame the public if they quickly embrace the comforting albeit illusory appeal of the CCTV? If fear is fed to the masses on a daily basis, crime deterrence measures like installing CCTVs will readily appear to be rational.

According to Herbert Marcuse, we live at a time when “technological controls appear to be the very embodiment of Reason for the benefit of all social groups and interests.” Jurgen Habermas added that “technology seems to institute more pleasant forms of social control and social cohesion.”

The first keyword to consider is control.

Elsewhere, the industry which perfected the art and science of installing CCTVs is legalized gambling. The objective is not exactly to protect the welfare of casino players but to ensure that gambling money is not lost. The cameras are placed everywhere to detect if dealers are stealing and if players are cheating. People work and play inside a casino with the knowledge that cameras are watching and recording their every move. They may not feel violated by the presence of the ubiquitous CCTV but their behavior is conditioned from the moment they entered the casino building. They might soon ignore the cameras after being seduced by the dazzling entertainment in the gaming area but their unconscious is aware that something or someone is constantly looking for a trace of evil deed.

The CCTVization of society is the application of casino surveillance technologies into a larger setting. The first victim is privacy. The loss of privacy. The killing of anonymity. The denial of the right of every person to be left alone, undetected and unknown. The precious private space is suddenly invaded by hidden and visible robotic eyes.

Perhaps, inevitably but tragically, the meaning of public space is also redefined by the rise of the CCTV phenomenon. The public space is supposed to embody the power of the uninhibited collective, the sacred space where the nameless can bravely assert their art, their love, and their politics. But today, it has degenerated into a danger zone because it is already infested with traffic and weather cameras which alternately perform national security and police functions. The public space today is actually where you reveal your identity to state authorities.

Furthermore, mainstream uses of CCTV are biased against the poor. What TV networks are willing to broadcast are CCTV recordings of crimes against property. Mysteriously, there are no available CCTV videos of high crimes in high society. Is it because CCTV screens proliferate in low income areas where residents are thought to be less concerned about privacy issues? Besides, the poor may not have enough money to sue the networks for violating their private domain. But the CCTV can do more than capture the inane habits of the masa. For example, expose the plunder, corruption, smuggling, and other serious crimes of the rich and powerful.

Interestingly, CCTV becomes more newsworthy if it documents the funny, absurd, and scandalous. Did man invent it to witness our foibles and follies? Maybe in the future it will have a better sociological use other than to confirm everyday that traffic in Edsa is heavy. Maybe this technology has more useful applications other than crime prevention, traffic monitoring, weather tracking, and surveillance of the poor.

To uncritically accept the rationality of the CCTV is to yield to the authority of Big Brother. CCTV cameras are not neutral machines since they are operated somewhere by highly skilled specialists who are not democratically accountable to the electorate. The god with all-powerful multiple eyes might be a small but secret unit of the bureaucracy whose mission is to identify the terrorist, criminal, and subversive in a crowded intersection. The magic and duplicity of the CCTV is to condemn every person in the flat screen as potential law breakers. In the eyes of the CCTV gods who do not lovingly watch over us, we are not persons with past, present and future but merely realtime subjects, targets, and anonymous dots. Treacherous because we are instantly judged by powerful others through the cold calculating lens of the CCTV.

There could be undercover units collecting CCTV data about us but we may be unaware of it. Who decides when to air the CCTV recording? What happens to the archived videos? Who has the universal key to access the various CCTV channels?

The long term effect of an omnipresent CCTV in society is not limited to the mainstreaming of a surveillance culture. More dangerously, it could make citizens more passive in the public sphere. The next generation will probably grow up having internalized the threat that Big Brother is everywhere, watching our every action.

But the evils of CCTV are difficult to establish. The second keyword to consider is pleasure. Who cares about privacy when social networking sites have distorted its value? Why complain against surveillance when ‘self-surveillance’ is a popular internet habit? When ordinary people voluntarily set-up webcams and CCTV monitors, what state reprisal is there to fear?

The problem, therefore, is not merely the over reliance on technologies to solve social problems. The deeper issue is the satisfaction that people derive from fantasizing the job of Big Brother.

Related articles:

Thermal scanning and politics
Mysterious objects
Balikbayan box

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