Even though Delhi Government’s decision to install CCTV cameras in school classrooms has generated an interesting debate, it is important to see beyond the classrooms, and reflect more intensely on the meaning of living in a society that normalises and sanctifies surveillance. As an ideology that seeks to become hegemonic, the practice of surveillance justifies itself through the discourse of “safety”, “security” and “transparency”. And, possibly, we have accepted it.
Hence, we no longer feel humiliated or insulted when at airports and railway stations we allow the security guards and cops to objectify us with a gaze of doubt, and touch every part of our body. In fact, we demand more and more surveillance. From shops to schools, from housing societies to office corridors, and from the living rooms to the elevators in high rise buildings — the all-pervading presence of CCTV cameras proves one thing: We love to be controlled, observed, normalised and disciplined. Even if the likes of George Orwell and Michel Foucault express their anxiety over these technologies of surveillance, most of us seem to be quite happy with it.
For me, this “escape from freedom”, to use social psychologist Erich Fromm’s vocabulary, is most dangerous. To begin with, let us see the way we have begun to define ourselves in an age that otherwise boasts of progress and development. Everyone, we are induced to think, is a potential suspect — a criminal, a terrorist, a suicide bomber, a rapist, a murderer. Trust is naive and idiotic. Doubt everybody. Scrutinise everybody. Not only that, we have also begun to believe that we are inherently irresponsible. That given an opportunity, we would escape from our responsibilities and hence we must allow ourselves to be perpetually monitored, observed and disciplined. In other words, we are incapable of living responsibly, peacefully and freely. And then, a terrorist attack somewhere, a young girl’s suicide in the washroom of a school, or a psychopath insulting the dignity of a woman in his office cubicle: The recurrence of ugliness shatters our confidence, and convinces us further that surveillance is good and desirable. Big Boss must control us for our own safety.
Well, it is always possible to say that the world we live in is not full of saints and noble souls. Instead, the darker side of the human condition — brute instincts, crude temptations, lust, greed, and naked will to power — haunts us. Hence, as is believed by many, social order means social control through a meticulously designed machinery of observation, documentation, classification and the cycles of discipline and punishment. Yes, modern technology has given yet another meaning to these disciplinary practices. From Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon to the CCTV camera — the process of surveillance has become more refined and subtle.
However, this faith in surveillance, I would argue, is problematic for three reasons. First, there is no ground to believe that surveillance — the visual act of identifying the criminal — necessarily leads to the elimination of criminality. There is no empirical proof. Instead, we see more violence, more blasts, more destruction. The reason is that instead of working on the roots of our wounded consciousness — say, the gross inequality that an asymmetrical global order with aggressive techno-capitalism generates, the violence perpetuated by the rich and the privileged through the politico-economic power they hold, and the stimulant culture industry promoting a pornographic mindset — the establishment remains preoccupied with mere symptoms. Yes, the camera can capture the last moment of the suicide bomber; but it cannot comprehend why he chose to play with death in such a strange fashion.
Second, with techno-hallucination — a superstition prevailing in modern times — we begin to believe that technology can solve everything. Take, for instance, the engagement between the teacher and the taught in a classroom. We need to recruit and sensitise teachers who love the vocation and make the culture of learning dialogic and participatory. We need a classroom of not more than 20 students for a meaningful interaction. Only then is it possible to have a truly life-affirming engagement between the teacher and the student; creative learning, responsible freedom and self-discipline would evolve automatically. But then, instead of working on these deeply cultural/psychic and pedagogic issues, techno-managers and bureaucrats would think that the eyes of the CCTV camera would invariably bring good teaching and good behaviour. This is nothing but a sort of false consciousness perpetuated through the arrogance of power.
And third, the normalisation of surveillance destroys what is needed for any civilisation to sustain itself — the possibility of human interaction filled with the spirit of trust and care, a pedagogy that reconciles freedom and inner discipline, and a higher ideal to strive for. The tragedy is that, today, we have the latest technologies of surveillance; but from inside we are deserted, empty and spiritually impoverished. “Love thy neighour”, spoke Jesus. Today the cops ask us to suspect everybody. Who knows, as my suspicious/cynical self begins to ask, my neighbour can prove to be a “Pakistani agent”?
Every child, Kahlil Gibran might have thought, is a possibility. No, school principals and parents do not think so; they trust the CCTV camera. Yes, as fear, doubt and suspicion become normal, and negate all higher ideals, we lose the possibility of a critically nuanced, aesthetically enriched and spiritually elevated human communication.
With obsessive doubt, we become lonely. We lose our sanity. Our spirit dies as the technologies of surveillance triumph.
The writer is professor of sociology at JNU