It's a well-known statistical fact that in Britain, one out of four people is no more than twenty feet from a rat who captures them on camera 247 times a day, or something. This week sees the start of the three-part series Who's Watching You? [Monday, BBC2], which looks at the consequences of the CCTV society, and asks the usual questions vis-à-vis "is it worth putting everyone on videotape for the sake of catching the occasional ram-raider, when it takes away our right to privacy?". But this rather misses the point: the problem with trapping the entire nation inside a lens isn't that it's an offence against our personal dignity (most CCTV footage that ends up in court and / or on ITV4 involves people taking their shirts off outside pubs and then trying to punch buses, so "dignity" is the wrong word to use in this context), but that it changes the way we behave.
An example. Some years ago, when I was still in my twenties and far more hormonal than I am today, I had to house-sit for the family who lived in the flat upstairs. The young man of the family was of the type who covers his walls with posters of robotic pin-up girls manufactured by the FHM Naked Replicant Corporation, so it occurred to me that - despite his clear dislike of actual flesh-and-blood women with no sweat-glands or stretch-marks - he must surely have a proper porn-stash hidden somewhere in his bedroom. Being a boy, I knew where boys hide such things, and therefore had a good root around. Which is, incidentally, the best possible argument against ever lending your keys to anything male. But while I was knocking on the loose floorboards and testing the spaces behind the drawers, it occurred to me: is this a safe thing to do? The owners of the flat were reasonably inclined to keep up with the Joneses, and even in those days, a lot of posh pads had teeny little CCTV systems of their own. The flat below me certainly did (but then, it was owned by a former officer of the US military, so he was probably just watching for insurgents). What if these people caught me on tape, looting their son's room? Obviously, all young heterosexual men know that raiding another young heterosexual man's territory for porn is a perfectly normal tribal rite, or at least it was in the days before widespread internet availability. But how would his parents react if they checked the recordings and saw me doing a full CSI on the place?
Now, I was taught by my mother that you may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. And from my own experience, I've learned that embarrassment always outweighs indignation in the English psyche. Ergo, I devised a way to (as it were) cover myself: I stripped naked in the middle of their lounge, then ran from room to room, performing a variety of mock-South American dance moves and occasionally reclining on the furnishings like a Rubenesque model with man-lumps. Wherever I went, I poked my nose (amongst other things) into any cabinets or crevices I came across, occasionally beating my chest and performing a jiggly Maori war-ritual when I found something of interest.
At the time, this struck me as perfectly logical. True, when the family-members returned from their holiday, they'd still see me rifling through a young man's personal effects. But the shock of this would be as nothing compared to what followed. Indeed, I would've bet money that if they did witness by behaviour, then they'd be too embarrassed to even mention it. Just consider: if you had video footage of a house-sitter committing what looked like burglary, then you'd almost certainly remonstrate with the culprit. But if you then saw him doing the naked lambada while bellowing a Polynesian battle-chant at a table-lamp, then you probably wouldn't want to risk mentioning it. (Of course, it's perfectly safe to commit porn-crime if there are no cameras around. Filch a copy of Big Ones Monthly from a teenager's bedroom, and on discovering the theft, he'll simply assume that his parents found and confiscated it. He won't mention it, and he'll assume that they don't want to mention it either. This is what makes the burglary of filth such a perfect crime, at least in a non-surveillance state. Again, the digital revolution has made this sort of criminal enterprise seem rather unnecessary. But what else were we supposed to do? Buy it from shops…?)
Since the family moved house shortly thereafter - and let's assume no causal connection - I never found out whether they really did have cameras in their home, any more than I actually found porn. So it was a wasted effort all round. The point is that the mere suspicion of surveillance caused me to perform actions which would normally be outside my repertoire. And though this may be a rather perverse example, it's in no way exceptional. We all know that adolescent boys are far more likely to commit acts of violence when they're with friends, simply because the presence of their peers will compel them to behave in more extreme, extroverted ways; likewise, someone in a crowd is more likely to react to an emotionally-charged event (whether it's a Nazi rally or the death of a leading Royal, the principle's the same) than s/he would at home. Individuals can be intelligent, but the more spectators there are, the stupider we become. The mere existence of a viewer can turn us into idiots.
Then again, I'm not saying anything you didn't already know. We recall the video-footage, briefly on-line in 2007, which depicted a young man pissing on the face of a dying heart-attack victim while shouting 'this is YouTube material!'. We're all aware that CCTV in shopping centres doesn't stop teen-gangs attacking passers-by, it just gives them a chance to feel they've achieved something when they turn up on Crimewatch. We also note that as TV has begun to respond to an age in which anyone can make TV, it's become increasingly vicious and increasingly likely to rouse the mob, which may explain why Britain's Got Talent is currently the nation's highest-rated programme. This is the real problem with having cameras everywhere. It's not a question of inalienable human rights, it's just the fact that without some sense of privacy, we spend all our time trying to impress everyone and / or trying to cover up our mistakes. And some of the most terrible events in human history have been caused by people trying to impress everyone and / or trying to cover up their mistakes.
This is why I'm now a virtual hermit. Not just because everybody knows I'm the sort of person who dances naked on their furniture while they're not looking.