Up with people, down with surveillance

Mar. 01, 2014 @ 12:26 AM

I have been shaking my fist on the way to church on Sunday mornings.  I am more prone to dance in the car (much to my daughters’ embarrassment) than to shake my fist, but I admit to fist shaking at certain lights between my house and Trinity United Methodist Church. 

I am not sure when the cameras went up on the traffic lights downtown, but I only recently noticed them.  They reflect an absence of neighborliness, and I resent their presence.  Was there a debate about these, and I missed it?  I often have my nose stuck in a dusty book of theology and, when driving, I spend more time with pop music than news radio.  So I do miss things, and the cameras downtown came as an unpleasant surprise.

I do not wish them well.  This perspective may seem idiosyncratic.  After all, aren’t surveillance cameras the crucial key to solving grisly crimes on just about every BBC mystery?  And, if I don’t have anything to hide (except maybe my dorky dancing), and I stop obediently at every red light, why should I care if there are cameras up?  I think in this case technology is a poor replacement for what we need more of.  That is, community.  I’d rather have an over-abundance of busy-body, nosy neighbors watching one another’s comings and goings than cameras. 

Conflicts about people and technology are key for plotlines in much of North American literature, especially among novels set in the future.  I am teaching a class on sin in literature at a women’s prison in Raleigh, and we have been slogging through two different dystopian, future worlds written by novelist Margaret Atwood.  In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the miserable future Atwood creates is held together by a form of religious domination.  Think Chairman Mao plus John Calvin.  In this fictional but creepily plausible scenario, people are divided strictly into distinct roles, coerced through patterns of training to be isolated and alienated from one another, under the guise of unity. 

Key to the world of this particular novel is the relative absence of technology.  The form of religion used to control the masses involves a forced turn backward.  In lieu of computers, for example, well-to-do women work on needlepoint and gardening.  (Not incidentally, women are also disallowed from reading.)  The surveillance that goes on in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is principally interpersonal, not technological.  One of the warnings Atwood gives is against nostalgia for the “good old days” when things were supposedly simpler, before instant pudding and instant text messaging.  In her new dystopian trilogy, which begins with “Oryx and Crake,” Atwood turns her critical sights on technology, describing a society where people have become separated even from their own bodies through the pervasive use of visual technologies.  Under perpetual scrutiny through surveillance, people in that imagined future try to internalize the cameras, so to speak, watching others on screen and filming themselves obsessively.  In the process, they become alienated from what most of us today would think of as citizenship, neighborliness or love. 

I heard an interview on The People’s Pharmacy recently that helped me to articulate just why I care about those cameras downtown.  The author of some new-fangled book or study or something had “discovered” that surveillance cameras in medical settings help keep doctors from making mistakes.  If doctors know they are being watched, in particular by other doctors, they are supposedly more careful with their patients.  Or so the argument goes.  This just seemed nuts to me, as I listened, grumbled, and made breakfast, in part because I remember well hearing about another new-fangled study a while back that “discovered” that a great way to avoid medical error is to encourage actual people to watch out for one another.  When orderlies, nurses, and doctors communicate with one another in the care of patients, fewer practitioners make mistakes.  That study found that in settings where orderlies are encouraged to speak up when they see something awry, people fare better.  And when nurses are encouraged to correct doctors when they notice a mistake, care improves.

Basically, if people are encouraged to risk annoying one another and to speak up and out across the otherwise strict boundaries of authority in a hospital, it helps everyone do their job better.  Of course, that sort of solution requires time-consuming practices to cultivate trust and patience, in an industry that is often more focused on the clock and the monetary bottom line.  It is trickier to elicit genuine, abiding camaraderie than to put up cameras.  Here, in our own beloved “City of Medicine,” I would suggest we can do better than affix more confounded cameras around ourselves.  Durhamites are capable of harder, and better, work than that.