Love of Surveillance: The Illusion of Safety

A recent Pew poll has been released concerning opinions of technological and social changes and how positively people view the different changes. Surprisingly high on the list was the increase in surveillance and security, with 58% of those polled viewing it as a positive change. That was a higher positive than for iPhones and Blackberrys, genetic testing, social networking sites, blogs and reality TV, which of course are other technological creations that are wildly popular among many segments of the population.

A Photograph of a Surveillance Room at a State...

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So why the positive assessment of this change? Author Julian Sanchez suspects that it may be more of a vote of confidence than a specific opinion; that many people polled simply hope that the increase positively correlates with a safer environment rather than a rational response. Despite studies in San Francisco and London indicating that increased surveillance has little positive effect on reducing crime, many people are either unaware of these studies or would rather cling to the illusion of safety. San Francisco completed a five year study of surveillance cameras and found that petty theft was somewhat reduced (up to 23%) while there was no effect on violent crime. Cameras, if failing in a preventative measure, can only be used in a retrospective manner to try to give authorities a clue as to the perpetrators ID. Does this fact make us feel better, that even if we are violently attacked, at least we may one day learn who was responsible and hopefully have them brought to justice? Perhaps it cuts down on the unknown and boosts the perceived potential for justice. Perhaps, but it seems pretty thin.

What is more interesting to question is why a society in which many voters value freedom and are wary of too much government control would support increased surveillance measures, especially with no tangible results. Even London, with the most dense surveillance network on the face of the Earth, was victim of a bombing on the Tube. The cameras did not deter the perpetrators, nor identify who they were. But still more cameras are added under the auspices of increased safety.

Well, and perhaps in the end that is the point, the illusion or hope of increased safety; the cultural fairytale that we are safer than before, even if in less control. With a fast-paced world seeming ever more chaotic, maybe these cameras serve as a symbol that someone, somewhere, is still in control.

For more insight into this phenomenon, see David Murakami Wood’s blog.

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