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Helmet cams – self-protection or surveillance?

November 21, 2009

I am a cyclist, and for a while now I have been thinking about the increasing numbers of my fellow cyclists in the UK who are filming their everyday rides to work, and often posting the results online on sites like youtube. This has become more obvious as something particular since i have moved to Canada where very few cyclists seem to do this. There are more and more discussions on online cycling forums and even dedicated areas for swapping videos, tips and camera stories. This practice seems to have started amongst mountain-bikers and other extreme sports enthusiasts, but the use of handlebar or helmet-mounted cameras on ordinary commuting rides has a very different purpose. For most it appears to originate in a desire for self-protection. Cyclists are more aware than most of bad driving and how vulnerable you can feel when people cocooned in large mobile chunks of metal and glass are doing stupid things around you at high speed.

But as a surveillance studies specialist as well as a cyclist, I have more mixed feelings. We’ve been studying the way in which surveillance has come to be perhaps the primary way in which the state organises itself, and how crucial it as become to capital, to the organisation of labour and materials. We have also identified the way in which increasingly ubiquitous surveillance affects social relations, how it is implicated both as a reaction to, and as a driver of, the decline of social assurance, of trust. We’ve talked about the dehumanising effects of surveillance: the loss of dignity, privacy, of how memory and the mollifying effects of forgetting are replaced by constant recording. We have predicted the decreasing size and cost of surveillance devices, of their growing mobility, independence and even ‘democratization’ (or at least wider spread), and seen those predictions happen at even greater speed than most had anticipated.

The surveillance society has spawned reactions: there has been anti-surveillance (smashing of cameras, protests, mapping of paths of least surveillance etc.), situationalism and play, there has been ‘sousveillance’ with activists turning the gaze back on the watchers, and there has been guerilla and vigilante surveillance, with groups citizens using the increasingly cheap surveillance equipment for their own personal and political ends from the Texas Minutemen watching the US border for illegal immigrants to my cyclist friends.

My real concern, I suppose, is whether the use of surveillance by ordinary people is some kind of empowering self-protection, or whether it is simply another step further into a surveillance society. The answer, I think, is that it is both. Certainly the cyclists don’t see it as the latter, but people, even the most intelligent, rarely see themselves as part of a trend that many would regard as negative. Some do recognise the connection but have no problem with it. The same ‘nothing to hide. nothing to fear’ rhetoric is trotted out, but usually by people who are too naive to understand the implications of what they are saying, too self-centered to realise that it isn’t just about them, or too boring to be able to even imagine what they might ever do anything interesting enough to come to the attention of anyone watching. The use of helmet cams does however, have an in inherent and implied politics: it does make it very difficult to construct any coherent politics of state CCTV if you are yourself involved in surveillance on an everyday basis. How can you complain about the number of cameras in your high street, when you make videos of drivers who have annoyed you and put them online?

I’ll be posting more about this as I think of it.

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