Reality Country

Installing cameras in public locations may reduce crime in those areas. But what about when the camera isn't watching?

Truman Burbank, the star of "The Truman Show," is not aware that his tranquil neighborhood is actually a massive film set. Only at the end of the movie does he discover that his life has been a reality TV series which has run since the time he was born. Winston Smith is less lucky. The protagonist of George Orwell's "1984" lives in fear of the giant television screen installed in his home intended for two-way viewing - by the person watching at home and by the operators.

In the not-too-distant future, all of us will join these two romantic heroes. A dozen schools in Israel have been selected for an experiment on young human subjects - part of a project aimed to supervise students via security cameras.

During the next few years, 400 cameras will also be installed along Israel's roads to ensure that our feet aren't too heavy on the gas pedal. Inhabitants of north Tel Aviv's Zahala neighborhood have volunteered to keep an electronic eye on their expensive property and call the police when necessary. For years now, phone companies have been offering household surveillance of unruly children or suspicious caregivers.

The installation of new cameras to keep surveillance on the public is not surprising. Between the digital habits that include exposure and self-exposure on the one hand and the increasing aggressiveness of society on the other, video surveillance is perceived as a convenient method of monitoring and enforcement. But is such close observation the correct and only way?

News broadcasts continue to feature films capturing robberies and violence in convenience stores or caregivers battering helpless elderly people. But showing them does not prevent the next occurence. At most, the videos help lawyers obtain speedy convictions.

It is doubtful that violence can be uprooted. But it's certainly possible to explain the damage violence causes. To that end, it is necessary that a more difficult and more demanding method be chosen: a value-based education and the instilling of tools for critical thought. These are not trivial endeavors in Israeli society, which evaluates its educational institutions by means of non-academic indexes and continues to conceal a long-running conflict behind high walls of concrete.

Such a society prefers filming sinners and convicting them after the fact, as opposed to preventing their actions from the outset. The videos that convict will not make us more moral or level-headed. Instead they will set the boundaries of what will still be possible: how to hit someone without getting caught, where to break the sound barrier in your car without being filmed and how to steal without leaving any traces behind. Surveillance cameras will transform us into an insufferable society, in which legally acceptable evidence will take precedence over morals and values.

While the war on violence by means of supervision, policing and enforcement is necessary, in the long run it is liable to paralyze society. People who have become accustomed to cameras dictating behavior are likely to relinquish good judgment and free thinking. The new man, homo photographicus, could develop in one of two directions, both of them problematic.

One possibility is that proper behavior will indeed be internalized, but will be practiced only in areas that are filmed - with the knowledge that observation will lead those who are not following the rules of behavior to court, where they will be convicted and punished. Another, equally bad possibility, is that people will do anything to curry favor with the photographers - the law-enforcement authorities - and this will become the biggest reality show in the country.

In both cases, the new citizen will obey rules set down by others, wise or foolish. The new cameras are good for a quick fix, for supervision, for maintaining close control. But they are terrible for society in general, and certainly for a society that has pretensions of acting in accordance with a liberal code.