smile, you're on camera
Updated: Feb 28, 2020
Seventy thousand eyes to watch you doing nothing: on the bizarre world of webcams and CCTV, by staff writer Samuel Gee.
It’s not paranoia if they’re actually watching you. My favorites are the store loss-prevention cameras, the ones with fuzzy screens and a little sign that says “Smile! You’re on camera!,” which make me feel like my errands are criminally important, or the ones that say "MONITORING IN PROGRESS," which makes me feel like my errands are the subject of some vast science experiment. It’s odd to watch the small, misty version of myself sort through spiral notebooks. In this world I’m a tired shopper who needs some school supplies. In the CCTV world I’m a bleary-eyed potential shoplifter. It would be easy to slip a notebook into my backpack. I don’t, and I won’t, but I could, and that’s why the camera’s there.
Webcams pierce holes in our tight circle of ethical obligation. The webcam viewer either watches people as pixel-insects and becomes a dehumanizing voyeur, or tries to connect with them and winces under the fresh moral heft of a few more bodies.
The average American appears on camera 50 to 70 times per day. Granted, there’s probably no one observing them, unless they do something deeply, deeply messed up, like walking down the street. Many states give the FBI access to driver’s license photos. Facebook owns our birthdays, our weddings, and our deaths. Mass surveillance permeates our lives. Every time I step outside, every time I walk through my town, I’m caught on dozens of cameras. Surveillance cameras clustered on street corners and telephone poles. ATM cameras mounted above the screen. It makes me uneasy to think about all the images of myself floating around on databases. It makes me feel strange – icky, almost – to think that my government trusts me to pilot a four-door death machine, or allows me to buy an assault rifle, but doesn’t trust me enough to walk down the street unsupervised, or to vaguepost about my day without someone listening in. Both my store and government assume I’m a potential criminal. They have my face. They probably have yours, too.
We’ve come to accept mass surveillance as a joke. Webcams turn this joke in on itself by allowing the observed to become the observer. Webcam aggregate sites, with names like webcamtaxi, opentopia, earthcam, and hdontap curate hundreds of live feeds from cameras across the world. An open browser tab becomes a virtual window. Users can watch Dublin pubgoers spilling onto a street corner, birds bickering over seeds in upstate New York, brown bears scooping salmon out of an Alaskan waterfall, bullet trains sighing through Sendai. Other cams focus more on human life – I like the one outside the Temple Bar in Dublin, where pubgoers teeter into the street with foamy glasses of beer in
gyroscopically steady hands. Yellow light washes over the crowd. People clump in the pub’s open doorways below a red neon sign to hear trad music. Everyone outside looks dunked in gold.
Are these webcams an invasion of privacy? Maybe. Probably. It’s one thing to know I’m being watched by the cars at the red light when I cross the street. It’s another to know someone could be watching me from Oregon. On the other hand, what would they watch me do? If someone got hold of the security cameras in my dorm, what would they see? An internet century ago (roughly a decade), the Russian website Insecam published a catalog of 70,000+ unsecured webcams online. The hacker behind Inescam said they designed the site to draw attention to internet security. (Hacking is a strong word for Inescam. They just found a bunch of security cameras with the default password settings still on.) Forty thousand cameras, always on, always recording, makes Inescam the world’s largest reality-curation machine. Daisy Jones wrote that most of Inescam is nothing happening all the time. Turns out that most of reality is staggeringly boring. Face-meltingly boring. Most of this (imagine me, an uncoordinated 6’3” white guy, wobbling my hands around) is just the air we move through. The parts that aren’t the air just sit there. Not that looking at the air itself can’t be fun. Weathercams look at the sky all day. There’s something calming about watching a cloud purl and stretch before breaking into rain. They make everything, all the time, into window weather – weather that’s nice to look at, but unpleasant to experience.
A few people turned their lives into the opposite side of the window. RealLifeCam offers several apartments with webcams in every room. (The residents know they’re being recorded. In exchange, I’m guessing that the site pays them.) Two or three webcams per apartment are free. For $19.95 per month, you can peek into any room, any time, from anywhere. RealLifeCams shows a blueprint of the apartment, complete with each camera’s location and field of vision, just to show you what you could be missing. The page’s bottom shows blurred-out thumbnails from the premium cams. Most of the screenshots feature naked women. The site isn’t specifically pornographic. It just broadcasts whatever happens in the apartment. Occasionally, it’s sex. Occasionally, the apartment’s residents will make dinner in the kitchen. Their hairless cat might bat a toy under the sofa of another apartment. Yesterday I watched a man play Let’s Dance on his Knect for twenty minutes. The apartment will probably be empty if you tune in.
Like Jones said. Most of everything is nothing happening all the time.
Or take Jennicam, an experiment from the dinosaur days of the web. In the late 90s, Jennifer Ringley switched on a webcam in her Dickinson College dorm room. She never turned it off. The internet watched her do her makeup, study for tests, have sex, nightmares, drinks. She slept with the lights on so the camera could watch. Jennicam broadcasted for seven years. Today she’s gone from the internet – she’s mentioned in interviews that she doesn’t have any social media profiles – but stills from her lifecast still float around early art blogs and news archives. David Letterman interviewed her. The Washington Post and New York Magazine published articles attacking and defending her livestream. She dropped off the Internet in the early 2000s. She says she’s happy.
Jennicam gained notoriety because the camera was always on. Sensationalists fixated on the sex and the handful of times Jennifer talked to the viewer. The webcam still broadcasted nothing most of the time. This is one of those tiny, soul-rotting truths that settles in while I ride the bus to the grocery store, while I wait in line to use the self-checkout machine. This is most of life. This has been most of life. This will continue to be most of life.
It’s hard to trust anything that increases the amount of available reality. It’s hard to trust anything that duplicates what’s already wild and uncharted. Webcams expand the universe of obligation beyond our own micro-climates.
There’s a boring, tedious way of thinking about these webcams, where they become electronic reproductions of reality – how they flatten everything out into pixels, into hexcode palettes, how they sift the life from beaches and mountains and bays into grainy half-representations of the real thing. Which, like, sure. It’s hard to trust anything that increases the amount of available reality. It’s hard to trust anything that duplicates what’s already wild and uncharted. Webcams expand the universe of obligation beyond our own micro-climates. I feel responsible, in some direct sense, for everyone on the bus to the grocery store. I would rather they not break an ankle, fall off a cliff, and die. Now I have to consider all these drunken Dubliners, who may slip on a cobblestone, break their ankle, and die, and before I didn’t even know they existed. Webcams pierce holes in our tight circle of ethical obligation. The webcam viewer either watches people as pixel-insects and becomes a dehumanizing voyeur, or tries to connect with them and winces under the fresh moral heft of a few more bodies.
There aren't any easy ways out. Our concrete jumble, studded with cameras, wobbles on stems and leaves. When the ecological supports give way, and future anthropologists comb through our hard drives, they'll find thousands of hours of early 21st century life. Too bad most of it is boring. Thank god most of it is still around.
Samuel Gee attends the University of North Carolina.