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[whitespace] Illustration Surveillance Superstars!

By Annalee Newitz

MY BRAIN is still exploding from a little blurb I read in some online rag about the latest data gathered by John Zogby, a pollster who runs Zogby International -- apparently, according to his data, 80 percent of Americans favor allowing video surveillance in public places. Do you realize what this means? U.S. citizens like video surveillance more than they like their president. Today, surveillance is more popular than Bush was in the polls when he took office.

How could this come to pass? Sure, we've had some terrorism lately, but video surveillance in public places would hardly have prevented it. Terrorists, in case you hadn't guessed, rarely plan their attacks in public. Why are 80 percent of Americans ready to have all their movements, their lives, committed to tape and watched?

For one thing, this startling statistic about video surveillance is part of a trend toward greater acceptance of surveillance in general, since Zogby's poll also revealed that Americans are more enamored of all kinds of privacy violations than ever before: 67 percent favor the use of roadblock searches of vehicles, and the same percent don't mind having their mail searched. A little over half of the people polled were also of the opinion that telephone conversations should be monitored.

But I keep coming back to that incredibly high number of people who don't mind being covertly captured on video in public. What exactly constitutes a "public place," I wonder? Are bathrooms public? Your boss's office? The front porch of your house? I'm willing to bet that under certain circumstances, all of these places can be defined as public.

And I have a theory about why people don't mind cameras peeping at them as they take a dump, or make out with their date when she drops them off in front of the house. It's not because we want to catch terrorists, although of course that would be nice. It's because we watch reality television. If surveillance is everywhere, then anybody can be a reality TV star!

Surely you see the dangerous and seductive connection between reality TV and video surveillance. These days, people become stars by letting cameras follow them to desert islands where they stab their fellow citizens in the back. Or they make tons of money by showing a little skin in Florida's infamous "voyeur dorm" on the net. Cameras follow couples on dates in my all-time favorite trainwreck of a reality TV show, Blind Date. And in what could be considered the ur-reality show of this era, MTV's Real World, cameras spy on every aspect of people's personal lives.

What today's Survivor junkies have probably forgotten, though, is that reality TV first became popular in the early 1990s with a little FOX network show known as Cops. In other words, reality TV has its roots in law enforcement. We're just getting back to the basics, here. Maybe these surveillance cameras that everyone seems to want could usher in all-new genres of reality TV, harking back to our Cops roots, but adding the zest of Survivor or Temptation Island.

Wouldn't it make life more glamorous, more fun, if at any minute we might become stars in a surveillance camera drama? States with laws against sodomy could start late-night cable shows devoted to "sodomy busts." And don't forget all the funny antics you could capture on video just by creatively editing footage filmed at your local welfare office. It's not like unemployed people care if you make fun of them! And hell, if they do care, they can't afford to sue.

Yup, there's just nothing better than becoming an overnight surveillance superstar.

My other new theory has to do with why nobody seems to mind being searched at the airport, or in roadside blockades. I think metal detectors are going to become a new sexual fetish. This first occurred to me when, as I got searched for the third time on my airline trip from San Francisco to Saskatchewan, I noticed one of my fellow searchees looking surprisingly eager. As the airport official ran his metal detector over her chest and between her legs, her smile widened. At each "beep," she shivered with what looked like ecstasy. Ah, the thrill of being caught, the joy of intense physical attention from somebody in uniform--the porn movie plot here is practically writing itself.

You know, we really need to look at the positive side of surveillance. I mean, being watched and searched are just plain sexy. Plus, don't forget, the more we install video surveillance in public places, the more likely it is that you could be a star!

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who wants to be a star!

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From the December 27, 2001-January 2, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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