If Orwell could only see London now

Ben Wolford

LONDON — For the first time in my life, I had the feeling I was being watched. I knew I was being watched, actually.

I visited the Tate Modern art museum in London a couple weekends ago and was enjoying a Mark Rothko painting. He’s pretty abstract, I know. But I like his philosophy, and he’s less over the top than some of the other “art” on display.

(My friend jokingly told me he lost his wallet in Tate Modern, and when he went back to look for it a crowd had formed around it taking pictures.)

Anyway, Rothko’s work makes nice cell phone backgrounds, so I snapped a picture, being careful to turn off the flash and to make sure the room attendant wasn’t looking.

Ten seconds later, the room attendant tapped me on the shoulder. “You may not take pictures in the gallery, even on mobiles. There are security cameras all around this place, and they saw you.”

They must not have seen the crowd around the wallet.

I was impressed. Someone was watching me and radioed the guy in the corner before I could even leave the room.

For the rest of the weekend, I became more aware of closed-circuit television cameras, CCTV they call it, on light posts, sides of buildings — every public place. It’s creepy.

I was doing some research for class last week and stumbled upon a journal article about the Panopticon, an invention of the British empiricist Jeremy Bentham. It’s a type of prison that asserts total power over the prisoners because everything they do might be watched, but they can’t ever see their observer.

I was surprised to run across the Panopticon again while researching for this column. A story a year ago in The Guardian explored the British surveillance methods and alluded to it.

That Guardian story also mentioned that the United Kingdom “has more cameras per citizen than anywhere else.” And what I didn’t realize as I milled around Piccadilly Circus with my camera and drank a Heineken in the streets of Chinatown is that people are actually watching the feed.

“On separate screens,” reports The Guardian, “a mother walked a pushchair in Belgravia, a chef emerged from a Chinatown basement clutching bin liners and a cyclist tapped the window of a Burger King restaurant.”

An American study-abroad student dodged traffic, trying to read his Tube map.

And apparently those cameras can zoom in on a face from 250 feet to identify a person. Despite this, one official The Guardian interviewed said police only solve about 3 percent of crimes with CCTV.

Toward the end of my visit, I was descending a London Underground escalator and a voice came on the public address speakers. “There is absolutely no smoking in the subway. If you are smoking a cigarette right now, put it out immediately.”

I’m almost certain someone was spotted by CCTV because that’s not a typical announcement. And as much as I hate cigarette smoke, the reality of the incident was a bit alarming: A faceless voice of authority echoed down from above with commands.

I almost fully believed I’d hear another announcement: “There is absolutely no reading in London. If you are reading a book right now, incinerate it immediately.”

Ben Wolford is a junior newspaper journalism major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected]