Our Surveillance Society, the Hawthorne Effect, and Community

I had a tingly moment the other day under the El. A woman, hunched over, was coming into the store I was leaving. I held the door open for her as she shuffled past me mumbling something. I felt an eerie sensation like I was being observed and recorded, like my reaction was part of an experiment as if some twisted Hawthorne Effect cloud was hovering around me. It could be due to the fact that Liberty Choice has video cameras rolling. It also could be a sort of “cough” due to the illness of our burgeoning surveillance society. What kind of medicine is there for such a sickness? What can speak to the fear, the anxiety, or the indifference to a lack of any privacy?

I remember when Candid Camera had a resurgence in the mid 80s, Folgers Crystals was surprise swapped in America’s finest restaurants, and watched live as Chris Farley lost his mind because he unknowingly drank decaf. To me it was so novel, so clever. Could you get people’s authentic surprise to viewers not connected to the situation? How fun it would be to be part of such pranks! My friend Elisabeth got a bunch of us to make a few skits pranking The Pizza Guy in hilarious ways that Jimmy Kimmel may have made famous.

With a growing movement of civilian-led solutions using surveillance like the recent Phila hate crime and this week’s release of footage in Carlesha’s abduction, it seems good to use the technology available to try to solve crimes directly – or even to hold the occasional mirror up to the US about prejudices. ABC ran this 12min story about a white guy, a black guy, and a pretty girl trying to steal a bike. Youtubers Simple Misfits, in less than 2 minutes, show how people in L.A. reacted to a white dude or black dude attempting to break into a car (spoiler alert: the car is owned by the black dude). What path to healing can point out problems and model solutions? 

Should we set limits for technology that are based on how tools have been used well or try to find out more about the abuse and power to use these same tools for evil? How often do we behave like we are part of some experiment or like the camera is rolling –  where it’s basically impossible to act natural. The Hawthorne Effect describes how people act in response to observers when they are part of an experiment, sort of similar to camera awareness or the bystander effect. I think generally people act better when they know another is watching. Like while riding my bike, I ride faster if I notice a stranger coming up from behind. People driving often speed up when you go to pass them. When it’s people and robots watching through cameras, I think it’s a little different. Doesn’t the constant stress or fear of the possibility/likelihood of being watched and listened to eventually frazzle or fatigue us?

I like it that force by police officers drops by 60% and citizen complaints dropped by ten times in one year in Rialto, CA when cops wore cameras. But still…isn’t it kind of freaky to record everything? Can’t it make us less human to know that on some level we are being recorded all the time? I’ve talked to a bunch of people that think God is some kind of cosmic eye waiting for them to screw up so the Great Arbiter in the Sky can swiftly deal out punishment. Yikes.

In this kind of moment, it’s even more important to get to know Christ’s compassion for us. I think it helps us be more human, and truly natural (as in our true selves) when we know Jesus is in our midst and suffers with us. I would rather spying had clear boundaries and we had more privacy, drones did not scout and destroy, and the Google robot recording device did not roam the streets even if it does make my GPS app work better.

The bigger reason why people think we need more surveillance is because they don’t have community. No one will (or can?) hold another accountable for their actions unless they are recorded and can be prosecuted. Wouldn’t it be better if we knew the people who came into our stores, who lived on our block, or had relations with other nations full of mutual respect? Jesus offers this kind of community with himself, others, and all of creation. I’m compelled in the face of nefarious infringement, recording, and snooping to try to walk in that Way.