Last Sunday my wife Chako and I were at the birthday party of Mel Dominguez, the partner of InterAksyon’s Infotek editor Jing Garcia. We were seated at the journalists’ table with Jing; Chako and I were talking to Lifestyle editor Francine Marquez, and her husband, Peter. Fellow Infotek columnist Alora Uy-Guerrero and tech reporter JM Tuazon were off talking between themselves, when Alora suddenly faced the rest of the table, holding out her phone. Video, she said, of the Tulfo debacle had just hit the net.
Electrified, we watched the footage of a small crowd swarming on Ramon Tulfo. The footage playing out in her hand somehow seemed simultaneously immediate and unreal. Jing suddenly blurted out that this was “like Big Brother, only different!” The phrase lit up my head like it was a match in a Bulacan warehouse. Big Brother, yes. The footage was proof that Big Brother was indeed watching; We lived in a sea of surveillance, just like the protagonists of 1984, George Orwell’s science-fiction classic. And yes, our world was very, very different from Orwell’s fictional one. I was suddenly conscious that it was now 28 years past 1984, and while governments all over the world continue in their attempts to increase the information they have on their citizens and territories, the technology of surveillance had somehow escaped from their laboratories and run out into the world, where it had mated with the internet. Their union had produced an emergent cultural conflagration and we were all of us smack in the middle of it with no turning back. The images crawling on Alora’s phone were the product of surveillance itself gone viral.
Regardless of who started what, it seems that Tulfo, Santiago, and Barreto all seem to agree that the altercation stemmed from a conflict over Tulfo’s recording of Barreto. It occurs to me now that that we may have reached a period when it might be literally impossible to shut down coverage by confronting the cameraman. And this is as true for any one of us shmoes as it is for Barretto, or Santiago, or Tulfo, or any other celebrity.
We are now all potentially both papparazzi and the subjects of papparazzi attention. We live inside a media powder keg where fighting coverage is like fighting the hydra. Or, as David Bowie put it, like putting out a fire out with gasoline. This is what all the American movie stars were trying to tell us, except that we were all too busy looking up their skirts or gloating over their mugshots: It’s like putting out a fire with gasoline.
In the dystopia described in 1984, the citizens of Oceania are monitored via cameras installed in their television sets. The cameras feed directly to offices of the central government, an intrusive, omnipresent, near-omnipotent institution personified and referred to as Big Brother. The crucial detail is that the surveillance is conducted by a single, unified, central intelligence. Big Brother is a megalithic institution whose surveillance is a means to a clear-cut and singleminded goal of controlling the citizens of Oceania by systematically shrinking their ability to exercise or even to imagine free will.
However benign it would like to imagine itself to be, the bald truth of the matter is that no government is immune to the attractions of surveillance. All of them like it, all of them wish they had more of it. Governments like their territories legible. The French government is committed to boosting the number of cameras installed in Paris from 300 to some 1200 units. Our own DILG issued a memorandum in February 22 of this year, addressed to
ALL PROVINCIAL GOVERNORS, CITY MAYORS, MUNICIPAL MAYORS, PRESIDING OFFICERS OF THE SANGGUNIANG PANLALAWIGAN, SANGGUNIANG PANLUNSOD, SANGGUNIANG BAYAN, PUNONG BARANGAYS, REGIONAL GOVERNOR OF THE ARMM AND DILG DIRECTORS,
who are encouraged “to avail of closed-circuit television technology, CCTV for brevity, in support of peace and order initiatives and of public safety objectives.”
However, a police-sponsored estimate in the UK (famed for possessing the highest number of camera-to-person ratio in the world) has recently throw an interesting light on surveillance. The survey notes that an extrapolation of the CCTV cameras counted in England’s Cheshire county puts the number of CCTV cameras in the UK at some 1.85 million cameras. However, the same survey notes that of the 12,333 cameras counted in the survey, only 504 cameras were installed by the government. This means that 1,829, ie a whopping ninety-six percent of the CCTV cameras in Cheshire county, were privately owned. Ninety-six percent of closed-circuit surveillance in the UK takes place outside the government’s labs.
And so it seems that no-one is immune to the attractions of surveillance. Admit it: Times are tense. None of us really feels safe. There’s that girl who was attacked inside a college building in UP. All those jeepney holdups on Commonwealth. Everyone of us in Manila probably stands at no more than two degrees of seperation from a person – probably even several persons — who have died violently. It’s understandable that people would want to increase order and decrease crime. Closed-circuit cameras help them believe they’re doing that, but it is far from clear how effectively they realize these goals.
This BBC article reports that an internal police report estimated that in 2008, only one crime was solved for every one thousand cameras installed in London, nor is this the only study that casts doubt on the efficacy of CCTV systems. For myself, what little experience I have in filmmaking inclines me to credit the BBC article. I personally find it easy to believe that however thoughtfully they are placed, unattended cameras are probably going to be zoomed too far, shooting in the wrong place, shooting at the wrong angle, shooting in bad light and very possibly doing all four exactly when something crucial happens. Murphy’s law is only a slightly paranoid exaggeration of the nature of probability. It’s just not in the odds that an unmanned camera will be looking where and how you need it to be looking. The absence of CCTV footage of the Tulfo broughaha only confirms this.
However, the footage on Alora’s phone didn’t come from an unmanned camera. The footage was shot by another person who, alarmed by the fracas in his vicinity, responded just as Tulfo did: by recording it on his phone. That phone and its owner was, just like Tulfo and his phone, — just like you and your phone — part of something that I want to call the swarm: the sporadic, flaneur/bystander/usisero-driven system of mobile, manned, dynamic and cellular surveillance that is the emergent byproduct of consumer lifestyle technology.
The swarm, which I think is one of the most visible and scandalous features of our era, conducts what is almost the negative image of Orwell’s vision of surveillance. Not only is it conducted by private individuals, it is not collected for a specific purpose and often immediately made public.
Confronting swarm coverage only attracts more of its attention, the consequence of which is to increase and even improve coverage. The cameras of the swarm don’t hang from ceilings or perch on lampposts. The swarm swarms: its cameras move, frame and chase, and they move, frame and chase all the more doggedly as the swarm’s interest is inflamed.
There’s no way out. Not unless video leaves our phones; and I suspect that the psychological rewards the net showers on the authors of pictures of puppies and bootleg concert videos will keep cameras in our pockets for a long time to come. Until then, the swarm will continue to share the street with us like a second species, waiting for someone to break the skin of normality and give it a reason to snap some of its little eyes open. Walking on the street in 2012 is second by second to court and defy the risk of its attentions. Remember this when you walk out of the house: It’s a jungle out there.
Tad studied Zoology in the University of Hiroshima, and graduated with a degree in Philosophy from the University of the Philippines. He was a founding member of the seminal sound art band The Children of Cathode Ray and is a leading media artist who uses sound, video, programming and electronics in the creation of his films and installations, which have been exhibited in numerous local and international festivals and galleries. Email Tad at firstname.lastname@example.org.