With data storage costs plummeting, clearing out old hard disks has become as popular as clearing out the office used to be, and as likely to offer blasts from the past which are strangely eye-opening today. Pouring the contents of a vintage 32 GB drive (the most popular microSD card now holds as much) into a brand new terabyte drive, I found a copy of Crazy Frog floating past on the data stream. The pathbreaking CGI animation of an anatomically correct frog riding an invisible motorcycle was created by Swedish actor and playwright Erik Wernquist in 1997 and developed for the next decade. A remix of the song Axel F and the video accompanying it reached the top of the charts in Europe, Turkey, Australia and New Zealand. Too bad the Crazy Frog wave never reached India.
Now, the remixed music of that video about the frog, billed as “The Most annoying Thing in the World”, led one to search for the original, Axel Foley’s theme song in Beverly Hills Cop (1984). Took only a moment to find a stream of the film (please don’t ask how), and the comforting pleasure of gazing upon gags which one had watched dozens of times when the film appeared in the Eighties. And a couple of moments more to find something missing, like a phantom limb: cameras. Axel cruises Beverly Hills unobserved on his mission to find the killer of a hoodlum friend. Unobserved, except by some hapless policemen whose car he immobilises with a “banana in the tailpipe”. He picks locks, enters and leaves premises, sells cigarettes illegally and generally carries on, with no one the wiser. The only cameras in the entire movie are on a black and white surveillance system in the home of arch-villain Steven Berkoff, entertainment cinema’s Rutger Hauer. Everything else depends on human eyes.
If Beverly Hills Cop were to be remade today, after the global boom in CCTV systems, one suspects that the action would not hinge on Axel’s ability to shake off pursuers. The fulcrum would be his ability to disable or fool security cameras. A subset would be the arms race in progress between facial recognition software makers and people who don’t like facial recognition. All sorts of stratagems are used, including projecting infrared into cameras and covering the subject’s face with Elastoplast couture.
Apart from the CCTV, the webcam has been changing ways of seeing since the late Nineties. People used it to show weather, traffic, the insides of their homes and their very souls in real time. The adult industry greedily monetised it. And, for a while, a cubicle in a toilet in Copenhagen’s airport featured the dreaded pottycam. It live-streamed images while you did your stuff.
Strangely, while it has captivated the hacker community, the camera, the pivot of the duel between the observer and the observed, has not been the stuff of dystopian science fiction. Yes, we know that Winston Smith had to sit in a particular seat in his home in the year 1984, and at a particular angle, to make sure that Big Brother could not see that he was writing a subversive diary. But Smith’s battle of wits was with the system, the overarching architecture ofsurveillance, and not its tools.
That’s how it has been for almost all of science fiction on the surveillance state — Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921, a possible inspiration for 1984), Blue Thunder (which appeared a year before Beverly Hills Cop), Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (1977), and, the Minority Report (2002). The political machinery is the enemy, not the instrument that is its seeing eye. These are all digital expressions of the 18th century panopticon, the theoretical jail designed so that a centrally located jailer can see directly into every cell.
This is deep stuff, really not the domain of popular fiction, which would hinge on the relatively simpler challenge of fooling the camera. One looks forward to fiction and cinema dedicated to diddling the device, perhaps with counter-devices which project users’ background ahead of them, making them invisible to the camera. Or, and one is sure that this has been done before, perhaps in real life, hacking the camera’s cables to make it see a permanently peaceful scene, though the lens might be looking at something altogether different.