Monday, September 24, 2012 1:53 PM
Dear Daniel Mayes:
I’ve just been reading your excellent article “Are We Heading Towards A Big-Brother World?” regarding the use (or over-use?) of Closed Circuit TV (CCTV) camera systems in modern cities.
By and large I must agree that this is a ‘balancing act’ issue, with security and surveillance on the one side and an invasion of personal privacy on the other. But there is a larger issue being overlooked here. The once-a-decade National Census (an attempt to get an accurate-as-possible head-count of all US citizens) is written into our Constitution. It, along with voting (another data-sampling activity) are both minimal attempts at determining some information of the people’s presence and wishes with regard to ‘self-governing’.
Self-governing is an ideal that cannot be realized—even working towards an exact head-count is an attempt to determine how many people are in which location, so that their congressman can represent them in numbers proportional to the number of people in the state, for example. But no tabulation can count all the people in the United States at one instant of time—even if we had the manpower and resources to physically count every person in the country, people would be born, people would die, in the time it takes to tally the numbers, they will have already changed. So the ideal of self-governing, of a government that responds to every want and need of every single citizen is, like all ideals, something that can only be imagined.
In the voting process, we encounter ‘hanging chads’, voter suppression, voter turnout (especially ‘voter turn-out’–there are only 20% or 30%, at best, of eligible voters participating in any election). So this, too, is an ideal that we should not hold our breath, waiting for its realization in reality. Fortunately, we have mathematics.
Sociology is the study of humans as groups–the smaller the sample, the less accurate the results–and even in large-sample studies, the results cannot be expected to predict the behavior of a single individual. But as a group, humans are incredibly predictable–and whenever huge samples of data-sets are available, they can predict with uncanny certainty the percentage of the group that will go this way, the percent that will go that way, and how many are left undecided and standing pat.
When polls first came into everyday use, in the 1950s, most of the applications were commercial–sales and marketing jumped right on the new miracle science, and have stayed riveted to consumer-testing, market research and back-end analysis ever since. Both politicians and news outlets soon saw the inherent entertainment value of releasing survey results on current trends in the opinions, politics, and tastes of the masses.
But there were other, more sensible, uses to be had. Traffic surveys in high-traffic urban arteries allowed for more efficient design and maintenance of freeways and intersections. Foot-traffic surveys of mall-shoppers changed the designing of malls and parking lots. Supermarkets use their inventory turn-over to determine future shelf-stock purchases. Lawyers use medical-symptom-mapping to prove high-risk ‘cancer cells’ located near places of pollution. The list goes on.
Many are the benefits to business and commerce—but even so, the individual also benefits from some sociological data-sampling. In a world of terrorism, radiation, and bio-safety concerns, a data-set of every pedestrian within a particular ten-block-radius might hold vital clues to emerging threats or illegal activities. But it can also aid in the search for a lost child or pet (if the pet doesn’t already have a sub-dermal LoJack device), or rescue operations during a natural disaster.
Many people seem to think that only ‘bad-guys’ require surveillance—when the truth is that, as we become a faster-moving society using synthetic signposts to organize the flow of us, the provisioning of us, the educating of our children and the protecting of our weakest, we need to keep tabs on what’s happening. Is blanket coverage of CCTV cameras the right method for collecting this data? Perhaps not. But, is there a built-in need for record-keeping in our high-tech, high-speed global village? I’m afraid so.