Don’t Look Now

Even as we speak, the Surveillance Camera Players are out there somewhere, in the subway system beneath Times Square, performing snippets of George Orwell’s 1984, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, or Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. This troupe of puckish performers strikes with guerrilla theater wherever cameras lurk, using sandwich boards for subtitles, because the players play to an audience that can’t hear anything—security guards who would otherwise be nodding off attheir video screens, stupefied by the monotonous behavior of ordinary citizens.

The Surveillance Camera Players have been entertaining Big Brothers in New York City since 1996. So far as I know, no one else outside the security Establishment itself has ever worried about the mental health of our night watchmen, or done anything about it, either. But I am not here to discuss the motives of these roustabouts. I am here to wonder where I belong, on which side of the camera. Am I a Player or a Watchman?

The question forced itself on me the other Monday night, while I sat as usual with my remote control, looking down at the screen as if from an elephant or a zeppelin on a branded discourse of slogans, jingles, ogles, and grunts, an IV feed of lewd data—a world in which all participants had been turned into exhibitionists or voyeurs. As I waited for Bill Clinton to show up at the Democratic convention, I had a hard time finding a mass distraction. On one channel, the Mets in Montreal were already five runs behind. On another, as if to discourage us from ever again pledging a penny to public television, Sarah Brightman warbled Andrew Lloyd Webber. So I found myself watching some more of The Grid on TNT, a timely drama in which Homeland Security plays peekaboo with terrorists. I was watching the Watchmen watch the rest of us, and a lot of good it didn’t do them.

“Onscreen, surveillance falls short; in life, the cameras see it all.”

In The Grid, Julianna Margulies, a federal agent in Washington, possesses the finest technology. With her network of spyware—from thumbprinting, retinal scanning, and face-recognition to snapshooting space satellites—she can see through the walls like Superman, or up the anus of anybody she doesn’t like. Nevertheless, guys with funny names, dark complexions, and sand in their carburetors keep hitting their targets, then disappearing off her radar.

Poor, put-upon Margulies is not alone. Cameras, once merely the tools that captured television, have become ever more absurdly the central players within the drama. Count the hours spent by surveillance director James Caan on Las Vegas and counterterrorists Jennifer Garner and Kiefer Sutherland on Alias and 24, processing so many lurid images on so many video terminals from so many perverted camera angles that, by comparison, Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon looks like a knothole in the left-field fence.

Still, almost every week, various baddies steal Jimmy blind and threaten to bring down plague. Why is it that so many TV camera eyes peer in the wrong direction—even on HBO’s Oz, a maximum-security prison designed for minimum privacy? It’s a dramatic trope that goes all the way back to 1967’s The Prisoner, now in reruns Friday nights on BBC America, in which Patrick McGoohan outsmarted one of the first-ever total-surveillance situations, a Kafka-esque village populated by kidnapped intelligence agents and their watchful wardens keeping track on spy screens. Nonetheless, McGoohan brought down this all-seeing castle as if it were blind.

But this is merely a fantasy of escape. Onscreen, surveillance falls endlessly short; in life, the cameras see it all. They know everything about us: from CCD police cams to FBI wiretapping; from Internet snooping with its carnivore software programs, to E-ZPasses, MetroCards, GPS chips, nannycams, and pet scans. They follow us home from the library via a radio-frequency identification tag. They have compiled a dossier from HMOs, credit-card companies, employers who drug-test our blood. As Donald Barthelme once explained in a short story about the rulers of the city: “We have rots, blights and rusts capable of attacking the enemy’s alphabet,” not to mention “real-time online computer-controlled wish evaporation.”

If I thought it would do any good, I’d urge the Surveillance Camera Players to stage a remedial read-in of the Patriot Act. But we seem to have traded in our privacy, that secret garden, for the promise of airtime. Whether we watch a screen or perform for one, no time is left for another sort of reflection: serious thought. Or maybe we have just decided that with so many cameras out there, they might as well do our living for us, too; having TiVo’d, we’ll catch up later on ourselves, at a more convenient time.

Don’t Look Now