The Null Device
A piece on the social impact of Britain's CCTV system,
''Imagine a situation where you've got an elderly relative who lives on the other side of the city,'' Marshall says. ''You ring her up, there's no answer on the telephone, you think she collapsed -- so you go to the Internet and you look at the camera in the lounge and you see that she's making a cup of tea and she's taken her hearing aid out or something.''
Norris also found that operators, in addition to focusing on attractive young women, tend to focus on young men, especially those with dark skin. And those young men know they are being watched: CCTV is far less popular among black men than among British men as a whole. In Hull and elsewhere, rather than eliminating prejudicial surveillance and racial profiling, CCTV surveillance has tended to amplify it.
The cameras are also a powerful inducement toward social conformity for citizens who can't be sure whether they are being watched. ''I am gay and I might want to kiss my boyfriend in Victoria Square at 2 in the morning,'' a supporter of the cameras in Hull told me. ''I would not kiss my boyfriend now. I am aware that it has altered the way I might behave. Something like that might be regarded as an offense against public decency. This isn't San Francisco.'' Nevertheless, the man insisted that the benefits of the cameras outweighed the costs, because ''thousands of people feel safer.''
In many ways, the closed-circuit television cameras have only exaggerated the qualities of the British national character that Orwell identified in his less famous book: the acceptance of social hierarchy combined with the gentleness that leads people to wait in orderly lines at taxi stands; a deference to authority combined with an appealing tolerance of hypocrisy. These English qualities have their charms, but they are not American qualities.