“Eye in the sky” (and on the streets)

I had already been making efforts to look for surveillance cameras and speed cameras at intersections and in the subway, cell towers, dishes, analog TV antennae, and various mystery boxes on telephone poles. Until Verizon convinced me to switch from copper to FIOS a couple of years ago (very grudgingly, and only after resisting for years and then deploying the “executive carpet bomb” complaint technique on Verizon officials – it works, btw) it was in my personal interest to be informed about POTS service in the city,  and in particular the contents of two green-gray junction boxes on my street. After the switch, I began to look more carefully at where FIOS cables in the area were coming and going.

But Networks of New York—and this course in general—has made me much more observant of the wireless and wired infrastructural environment, both in the city and in the countryside, where cables and lines are easier to notice (I also keep an eye out for lightning rods on old barns). This morning on the bus I began to pick out a number of wireless surveillance devices that Burrington includes in her field guide: the flat square antennae that enable street and traffic surveillance cameras to talk to each other; microwave antennae; and some unremarkable-looking antennae bolted to streetlamps that didn’t seem to be connected to any other device. So apparently Myrtle Avenue is abuzz with data exchange at all times. But it’s a conversation that none of us can eavesdrop on—at least, not without the right tools.

What seemed before to be a basic, rather linear setup of cameras and transmitters at intersections now feels like a  cloud of surveillance that I move through, at all times, except maybe (I hope) when I am inside my apartment sleeping. Still, it’s easy to tune out because it’s not very visible and doesn’t interfere with my daily activities. A quarter mile away, however, that’s not the case. For the past couple of years, portable towers with floodlights and cameras set up on the grounds of a large NYCHA complex by the NYPD make their presence very well-known at night. Generators emit a continuous rumble and the light undoubtedly intrudes into the rooms of surrounding apartments. The towers were put there presumably because the area had experienced some persistent low-level crime—and occasionally, shootings. But they seem to have substituted the limited one-way communication capacity of machines for any human presence, whether of police or security guards, or anyone who could connect with the community, and facilitate interpersonal networks.

Now, it’s reasonable to assume that many residents would gladly trade the intrusion of the light towers for a safer environment. But sometimes when I pass these towers I try to imagine what it’s like to live every day under the eye of normalized police surveillance: the visibility is surely as much, or more, of a deterrent as the lights and cameras themselves. (And yet, by now these familiar structures might as well be permanent neighborhood fixtures.) I also try to imagine what it’s like to live in an environment where personal safety is often at risk—that’s also an intrusion. And, I think about the difference between subjecting people to pervasive but low-visibility surveillance versus that which is localized but meant to be noticed and to encourage certain behaviors in response. Is one mode more insidious overall? Does one have more potential to erode public trust in legal and municipal institutions?

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