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March 31st, 2017

Paying for Our Own Surveillance

The podcast I started in 2006 has morphed into a weekly radio show on a local, subscriber-supported radio station. The station subsists on the financial support from the community, the volunteered talents of key individuals, and the rent-free use of our studio space by the owner of the building.  Without the financial support, the volunteer expertise and the rent-free space, there would be no station. Pull any element from that triad and the whole thing falls apart.

A couple of days ago, someone vandalized a public restroom in a common area of the building. I don't know why, but there was some fear that this would get pinned on the radio station and possibly threaten our rent-free status there.This started a discussion on an email list in which various players at the radio station started kicking around ideas to increase security and prevent future occurrences like this one. I've been a member of this community for a little less than a year, and I have a shaky-at-best grasp of the interpersonal dynamics at work. Someone mentioned that they'd be willing to kick in some money for a system of security cameras, and then other folks, some of whom are tenants of the building but not part of the radio station made additional pledges of support, and then the idea gained momentum. I was not a party to the discussion at first, but this morning I chimed in.

Before I entered into the conversation, I had only seen messages of support for the camera system. That seemed a little odd given that we're talking about a free-form radio station in Yankeedom. A freak-magnet like that would attract at least a few paranoids, or so I thought. How strange that the weirdos would so readily offer to open up their wallets to accelerate the proliferation of cameras in our over-surveilled but under-apprehended world. Little did I know that the conversation was taking place over two email lists; one for content creators and one for board members. I am the former and not the latter. It turns out that someone on the board members list did object to the proposed security system arguing that if there's money available for such a system, the building has other needs, like a leaky roof, that should take precedence.
My own thoughts on the matter did not rise to the level of "objection." My thought was that nobody was proposing putting cameras in the public toilet even though that's where the vandalism took place, and so there is no reason to think that cameras in other areas would deter a repeat occurrence. Makes sense, right?

I also said, and here I thought myself very clever, that we could just put up a sign that warns that anyone entering the building will be subject to "electronic surveillance" and not bother with the cameras. Why is that so clever? Because we ARE all subject to electronic surveillance, regardless of whether we go anywhere near a certain brick building on the island in Bellows Falls which is home to various artists' studios and a freaky little radio station.
We open our wallets, real and virtual, to pay for our own surveillance in the form of smartphones, tablets, navigation systems and the like. We also pay for our own surveillance with our tax dollars. Our government and the corporations that provide us with ostensibly free email, social media platforms, music, video and games devote themselves to collecting all the little flakes of digital skin that we shed all day long. They use that data to map our network of relationships. They assign us to secret tribes that we ourselves don't know we belong to. They use this information to predict how we'll vote, what we'll believe and what we will dismiss as "fake news" or "conspiracy theory."

We help them out by "tagging" ourselves and our friends in photos and thus training-up the facial recognition algorithms that will pull our faces from oceans of surveillance camera footage. We spend our time telling them what movies and TV shows we like, where we went to school, where we've worked and lived in the past. We provide them with photos of what we looked like when we were young, as well as with photos of our siblings, parents and more distant relatives. We provide them with an endless stream of photos of our pets and adorable anecdotes about their antics.

I'm really not worried that a couple of cameras at the place where I go to do my weekly radio show is going to add all that much to the total information awareness campaign that is already well established. Heck, when I get to the station, I sign a log book to document my participation there and then I announce my presence by speaking into a microphone and broadcasting my words for miles in all directions. I don't do a radio show in the hopes of keeping it on the DL. I'm not threatened by another drop of surveillance, but I'm not going to offer to help pay for it. That was probably what got me to enter into the conversation; the need to justify my own lack of financial support for the proposed self-surveillance system.

In terms of preventing vandalism or worse, the proposed system is irrelevant. Its main value is psychological. It gives the people who helped pay for it the satisfaction that they "did something." I need what little money I manage to hold onto a whole lot more than I need whatever psychological consolation shopping for security talismans can buy.

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