The great CCTV debate

There are people who spout the "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" attitude towards the pervasive intrusion of CCTV into our lives. We all know that this individualistic, naive and sanctimonious ideology will drive us head first into the Orwellian state to which the current administration seems committed. But for all the arguments of personal intrusion, there is a more malignant significance of cameras towards society, and it's one of ineffective substitution.

Our streets are becoming increasingly dependent on CCTV as the sole means of crime "prevention". Their original intention was to be used as evidence in the law courts to support the judiciary – and not as the prime means for law enforcement. There are many aspects to CCTV that are damaging and counter productive, but in particular they alienate the general public, good and bad alike, from the tangible presence of authority. Having an authority in the public domain reminds people that they are accountable for their actions. This could be a simple as having a conductor on a bus, but we've done away with them in order to save money. It could be having a supervisor in a train station until the last train leaves, but we've done away with them also – to save money. Or perhaps the good old bobby-on-the-beat, but we don't really have those either, because we're trying to save money.

So what is the cost of saving all this money? An environment where people no longer feel protected by the system of authority and where kids/hoodies/drunks/idiots/vandals are empowered to assume ownership of these public spaces – all because the boundaries have been removed. Cameras do not provide boundaries. They provide an intrusive and antagonistic presence that people do not respect or trust.

And what of the perpetrators? Part of growing up involves the discovery of freedom away from the confines of the home, and that requires young people to explore for themselves what it is actually like to exist in a sociological framework. They need to discover both the opportunities and the limits of this new existence outside the very parental boundaries that they are starting to challenge. And as they are unsure, they are shy. Place them under "observation" and they will naturally want to hide and conceal; enter the fearful hoodie. But they still need control and authority to guide them through this emerging phase in their life. Cameras do not provide this. So left unchecked they seek boundaries with increasingly extreme behaviour. It is then left to the adult public to enforce these boundaries; but they are all too often afraid of the consequences, as had been mercilessly exploited by the media after a recent spate of stabbings in London by gangs of youths. The exacerbation of fear only sells papers which to hide behind. To make matters worse, these reluctant boundary enforcers don't get effective support from the authorities, should they need it, so the cycle is perpetuated.

What you end up with is a runaway youth culture blindly chasing terrified adults. It would be good if sometimes the adults were able to stop dead in their tracks and challenge the pursuers. But no, we are being told to rely on cost-effective and ineffective CCTVs instead.

Cameras do have a place in the modern urban landscape, but only as a tool that supports an age-old tradition of social education, and is certainly no replacement. Social progress is achieved by harmonising the duality of traditions with innovation, its about time the Whitehall bean-counters got off their comfy chairs and took a good look around.

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