I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me

Contributed by Justin Smith Student at University of South Carolina
June 26, 2011
smithjua's picture
Part of the Cluster:

I See You--Columbia, SC (2011)

I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me

My observation site was located in the Vista of Columbia, SC.  The Vista is a historic area of downtown Columbia filled with shops, restaurants, and bars.  My observation took place mainly at the corner of Lincoln St. and Gervais St.  I spent the majority of my time sitting outside a Starbucks on the corner and surveying the entire Lincoln intersection.  There were times when I walked up and down the street but ultimately ended back at the Starbucks intersection.  From this location, I could observe the north and south of Lincoln Street as well as both cameras I decided to examine.

I chose to observe two cameras that were located on top of opposite street lights (refer to picture below) at the intersection of Lincoln Street and Gervais St.  The reason I chose these two cameras was because of the constant traffic at this location.  The few other cameras in the area weren’t positioned near any type of commotion.  I believe the two cameras were positioned to see not only the intersection, but the entirety of Lincoln Street.  Due to the lack of other cameras in the area, I think these two were placed to make up for lost surveillance.

I gathered a lot from my observations.  I’m not going to say that people weren’t aware of the cameras, because they were positioned quite obviously; but I just don’t think they cared that much.  There were times when someone would spot the camera at the last minute and hit their breaks thinking that would save them from being caught speeding.  This could be because it was midday and people were rushing to get lunch before returning to work.  Within fifteen minutes of arriving at the location, I witnessed someone drive through a red light, and a few more instances of the same throughout the day.  The cameras didn’t seem to hinder people too much.  I did witness many police cars patrolling the area though; and when they were around, time seemed to slow down because people would drive slower and obey street signs, lights, etc…After they spotted the police, they continued down the road at a steady pace. 

This brings to our attention Richard Grusin’s remarks about the anticipation of security.  Implicitly we know we’re being watched and/or recorded.  This is anticipation—but very subtle.  It is anticipation as Richard Grusin describes it.  Anticipation works on the premise that “data can be generated” (142) so that dots can be connected about various events.  Because we know this, we feel the safety of predictability.  But in moments when it’s made visible [police cars] we snap to attention with a sort of surprise.  When people are confronted with the fact of security, subtle anticipation turns to awareness. 

Whether people were walking or driving, they were always on the move.  Majority of the people walking went straight to Starbucks and then left.  There weren’t a whole lot of people lingering, it was just constant movement.  I would say that the people walking were less aware of the cameras than the people driving.  Many people throughout the day were crossing the streets where they saw fit.  The crosswalks were rarely used.  The first thought that develops when you spot the two cameras, is that they were placed on top of the stop lights to make drivers cautious of their actions.  But this may be a tactic to deceive people.  The cameras may not be paying attention to the car traffic at all; they may be surveying the pedestrians and businesses up and down Lincoln Street.  I consider this quite likely.

Gervais Street is an extremely busy street: it leads further into the city and alongside the statehouse; but the cameras weren’t surveying this street.  They were monitoring the activity along Lincoln Street (or lack there of). There are a few attractions that are located among this street:  The Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center and two bars called Wild Hare and Bull Market tavern.  The bars are a potential goldmine for surveillance enthusiasts, or to put it more simply, police.  They attract young adults come nighttime with their weekly drink specials and huge crowds.  This also makes it a targeted area for potential criminal and other deviant or illicit activity.  As people leave the bars intoxicated, they could be inclined to drive or fall victim to accident or harm, both of which would be observed by these two cameras. The same situation occurs when the convention center has events.  The street becomes flooded with traffic.  Crowds are messy; and the cameras provide a means to keep an “eye” on the situation.  I believe the cameras were strategically placed here for these purposes.

Bull Market and Wild Hare

Convention Center
 

During my time observing Lincoln St., I began to realize how Michel Foucault’s Panopticism exists in our everyday lives, even if it’s in the most subtle of ways.  The essential idea behind Foucault’s Panopticism is the methodical controlling of human behavior through restrained and frequently unknown means.  The two cameras on the stop lights suggest this same theory.  Gervais Street appears to be surveyed and because of that, drivers on this street might act accordingly.  Much like how in the movie Red Road (2006), the main antagonist, Clyde Henderson, is being surveyed constantly (he is a parolee) but is never certain of when he is being surveyed.  Henderson is trying to go straight which shows a sign of his awareness of being watched.  Because of this, we never really see Clyde misbehave on the surveillance cameras.  

The two cameras I was observing were actually positioned to see north and south of Lincoln Street, covering the bars and the convention center, and other curious areas.  The cameras seem to be controlling both streets with very little application.  This strategy compliments Foucault’s theory by reinforcing the uncertainty of being watched and therefore effortlessly influencing public behavior. 

The concept behind modern Panopticism provides some social stability: it prevents the idea of malicious conduct from actualizing.  Everyday we are subject to observation; but it is a necessary evil.  Should the thought of offensive behavior surface in us, the thought of being caught will supersede it.

  

Bibliography:

Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism.” Discipline and PunishL The Birth of the Prison. 1977. Trans. Alan Sheridan.  New York: Vintage Books, 1979. 200-228. Print.

Grusin, Richard A. "The Anticipation of Security." Premediation: Affect and Mediality after 9/11. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 142. Print.

Red Road. By Andrea Arnold. Dir. Andrea Arnold. Perf. Kate Dickie and Tony Curran. Verve Pictures, 2006. DVD.

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Comments

cooleyh's picture
Response from
Heidi Rae Cooley

June 28, 2011

Re: I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me

What do you mean by "social stability"? How might the authors we've read help you define this?

bmr729's picture
Response from
Brett Robertson

June 27, 2011

Re: I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me

You talked about a lot of pedestrians that were in a hurry not being aware of the cameras around them. However the drivers and and vehicle operators were very aware. I think that it's cause of the threat of violation of the law, essentially, breaking the law. I think you hit it on the head with how you backed up this thought as well. You would think that the people walking would be more aware of the cameras, being that they are really close to the actual lens facing them. 

morgan.todd's picture
Response from
Morgan Todd

June 27, 2011

Re: I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me

You talk about people anticipating security, and being at ease because of this.  This again backs up the functioning of risk management, because of the tension between the prevalence of security and the anticipation of security of which we're unaware.

johnryanbailey's picture
Response from
Ryan Bailey

June 27, 2011

Re: I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me

  

I like the connection you make about the anticipation of security (we know we’re being watched and/or recorded) with the cameras over the lights. We all know we’re being recorded someway or another and in this case the majority of drivers speed, but we still take that chance with a police car that could always be around the corner. In this instance the cameras in the daytime may not scare anyone that is local, however someone that is visiting may look at the camera and believe it serves it’s purpose every single time someone speeds through there. We anticipate police enforcing the speed limit so it’s safe to say we feel the safety of predictability.

Aaron McKissick's picture
Response from
Aaron McKissick

June 27, 2011

Re: I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me

First off, I like your use of the word "surveillance enthusiast". It is interesting that you point out the camera not only monitors the cars passing by, but the entire area. Although, most probably do think these cameras are strictly for automobiles, considering the amount of traffic and pedestrians, your observations seem to be correct.

  

goodee's picture
Response from
Elizabeth Good

June 27, 2011

Re: I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me

I think you make a good point about the Panoptic principal, but I remember you mentioning that no one really paid attention to the cameras and still drove recklessly. I wonder what remedy there is for those cameras being practically invisible to the people they’re supposed to help control. But yes, I do agree with you, that if the public realized those cameras were there they would “prevent the idea of malicious conduct from actualizing”, like speeding, for example.

goodee's picture
Response from
Elizabeth Good

June 26, 2011

Re: I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me

This isn't at all an intelligent response to your post, but…. I came this close to using that as my title!

smithjua's picture
Response from
Justin Smith

June 27, 2011

Re: I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me

I can't read the Title without singing the song in my head at least 50 times