Residents of the Panopticon

What's it like to live inside the panopticon -- to actually live in a world where privacy is essentially a lost cause? I think we'll get it back, ultimately, but most likely in a form we wouldn't recognize.

Right now, though, it's as though forty years of thinking in urbanism had just never happened, as though Jane Jacobs had never so clearly and cogently illustrated that loiterers (of the right sort) can actually make the neighborhood safer by putting "eyes on the street" -- providing ready witnesses to any bad acts in the neighborhood. The best enforcement of civil behavior in any civil society is always the opinions of your family, friends and neighbors, after all. Even thugs usually care what the little old lady next door thinks of them.

We'll happily toss all that away given half a chance, if we can find something that speaks to our need for an 'emotional solution-design.'

Which ahead of the point, a little; the following is courtesy Threat Level, who also point to a BBC article about talking surveillance cameras in Britain. These "one-way voice intercoms" [sic] provide an ongoing commentary on resident behavior:

.... As Robinson’s 7-year-old son, Justin, was hanging outside near the window and talking with his mother, an unidentified voice boomed over Faircliff’s new intercom system.

“?‘Hey, you in the red shirt at 1432—step away from the window. This is private property. You’re under surveillance,’?” a woman’s voice said, according to Robinson.

Justin, clad in red, obeyed the order and stepped back onto the sidewalk. Robinson had heard similar commands broadcast at Faircliff in previous weeks, but she didn’t think the voice had been addressing Justin. Then her 11-year-old niece and 8-year-old nephew stepped outside.

“Then it was, ‘You in the yellow shirt, you in the white shirt—step away from the window. This is private property,’?” recalls Robinson. “It was unbelievable.”


In recent months, residents and guests alike who have violated the stringent apartment rules have been singled out over the intercoms and given orders such as “get off the steps,” “no chairs allowed in the playground area,” or, perhaps most common, “no loitering.”

Wanda Griffin, who has seen children ordered to not eat ice cream on their steps, says the hardiest residents respond to their unseen watchers with a flurry of f-bombs, which the intended targets can’t hear, and a pair of middle fingers pointed in arbitrary directions. The intercom directives have also kicked off a semantic debate at the complex: Is it possible to loiter in front of your own home, where you pay rent?

.... A favorite loudspeaker tale ... involves a recalcitrant, plump teenage girl who ignored several commands to stop loitering and get home. According to resident Deatra Brown and three other witnesses, a woman’s exasperated voice finally blurted over the speakers, “Get your fat ass off the corner!”


Seven-year-old Melvin Roberson (“boy with the red shirt”) says he and his friends rouse “the lady” when they play football and dodgeball and get too close to the apartment buildings. “They come on for nothing. They be describing your clothes and telling you not to be loitering,” says Roberson, who admits that he doesn’t know what the word “loitering” means. A few weeks ago, when the pint-size Roberson was trying to gain entry to a friend’s apartment, he was called out for hoisting himself onto a brick ledge to reach the call box; he says he’s too short to reach it otherwise.

Yvette Stephens (“You, in front of 1428”) was called out for sitting on her stoop as her laundry dried. Edna Avery (“Person standing in the doorway of 1430”) was called out for holding the door to her building open to allow two movers to bring a couch up to her unit. ....

What's the effect of this kind of life? No doubt the people who brain-farted the idea for htis kind of a system in the first place would respond at this point that they are putting eyes on the street, they're addressing "lifestyle crime" (littering, loitering, miscellaneous minor malfeasance), and that the net effect is to get, through technology, what Jacobs asked for in the 1960s.

But an honest appraisal would have to recognize that response as disingenuous. The voice is detached, judgemental, and doesn't brook response -- doesn't even afford it, since there are no pickups (that the security company is admitting to) on the cameras. It can't possibly work to provide the kind of human-scale, person-to-person interaction that happens in in the relatively messy but relatively safe neighborhoods of the real world.

It's clear that life under this regime pisses people off, at least. It breeds hostility, angst, anger, and pushes potential "offenders" to areas they believe to be outside of surveillance:

... [T]he hardiest residents respond to their unseen watchers with a flurry of f-bombs, which the intended targets can’t hear, and a pair of middle fingers pointed in arbitrary directions. The intercom directives have also kicked off a semantic debate at the complex: Is it possible to loiter in front of your own home, where you pay rent?


The surveillance has altered the way residents live and play at Faircliff, a 27-year-old housing project. On a recent Thursday afternoon, a group of about six young men have tucked themselves away in one of the complex’s few outdoor alcoves, drinking sodas and chewing sunflower seeds just beyond the bulbous black eye of the camera. They say they’re too old to hang out on the playground, and they would violate the rules of their lease if they were to sit on the apartment steps.

“We live up in this motherfucker, and we can’t even chill,” says an exasperated 17-year-old named John Joseph (previously called out as “guy in front of 1428” and “guy with the white shirt and blue jeans on”). “That’s what this motherfucker is—a jail.”

“Exactly. This place is Oak Hill,” says 18-year-old Rich Porter, referring to the District’s juvenile detention center.


No one at Faircliff knows for sure when they’re being watched or even where they’re being watched from. While some believe the monitors are on-site, the more likely scenario is that residents of different Edgewood properties are observed from the company’s Maryland offices. The company prefers to keep such things a mystery; Caruso would not disclose publicly when or where his employees are watching.

“This is an awful arrangement,” says Lillie Coney, associate director of the D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. “It will be almost impossible for there not to be charges of misuse of authorityÉ.You create that kind of power dynamic when [the speaker] is unidentified. You can hide behind the curtain and act out your aggression, whatever’s hidden in the darker part of whoever’s been given this power.”


Griffin, the Faircliff tenant, recently heard residents getting the “Bad Boys” treatment as she escorted some guests to their car after a get-together at her apartment. “That just pissed me off,” says Griffin. “That just tells me what you think of this property. My guests were like, ‘My God. Y’all are living like that up here?’ It wasn’t called for.”

.... Teenagers at Faircliff have started hanging out on the sidewalks and in the street, beyond the purview of the cameras, because they say there are few permissible places left to hang out. The stoops, for instance, are off-limits. Residents who drag lawn chairs outside, including the elderly, are told they’re violating their lease. And the new-and-improved complex came with merely two outdoor benches to accommodate more than 100 units. And while elementary-school-age children are free to roam the playground, they can’t stray far from the wood chips.

.... In the past two months, Stephens has heard the loudspeaker voices threaten to take photos of disobedient residents and hand them 30-day eviction notices. “And it’s so loud that everybody in the complex knows who they’re talking to,” says Avery.

.... More troubling, says [Charlene] Collins, is the demoralizing spectacle she witnesses from her porch. “You see these prison movies, where they give people orders out in the yard—‘Get off the steps,’ ‘Pick up that piece of paper’—and it’s exactly like that,” she says. “There’s never a ‘please’; it’s always a demand. How are these children being affected by this?”

But there's money to be made/saved, and expensive tenants next door to appease: The surveillance systems with their quasi-omniscient remote monitors are cheaper than real security guards (not to mention less likely to go native by actually getting to know people in the neighborhood). And the surveillance society can be viewed as a way of forcibly controlling the behavior of the unwashed who lived first in the neighborhoods where the new $400K condos are being built.

(Let's put away the notion, while we're at it, that $400K condos can "save" a failing neighborhood. The people who live in $400K condos are not the people who can save a neighborhood. The people who can save a neighborhood can't afford $400K condos.)

"Speaker of the House: When these cameras don’t like what they see, they let you know about it." Washington City Paper District Line


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