April 23, 2008

Are We Being Watched Right Now?

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Early one morning I decided to go for a subway ride. It was a big subway stop, nestled underground, but when I walked down the stairs to the turnstiles, there was nobody else around. I have seen this sort of thing before, in films like that Spanish one, Open Your Eyes, and, as I recall, the protagonist had been transplanted into some sort of “lucid dream state.” I tried taking flight by jumping from one of the turnstiles and fluttering my arms, but when I fell to the ground I realized I was not dreaming after all. “Sir,” said a deep voice that seemed to come from the ceiling. “Exit the station.” “I just want to take the train,” I yelled back at nothing in particular, but the voice just said, “Exit the station or we will call the police.” What could I do? I left.
I mentioned this to somebody the other day and he/she informed me that most public areas are monitored by hidden surveillance cameras, equipped with public address systems. I had been spotted by one of these cameras that morning, my friend told me, and it was assumed that I was up to no good, planning to defecate in the privacy of that empty station or to graffiti one of the cars.
This was all true, as it turned out. People are surveilled many times every day as they go about their business (real business, not number two). In England, so I’ve heard, the average bloke is videotaped hundreds of times per day, and there’s a camera for every 14 people.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about all this surveillance. Sometimes I am compelled to do things in public that I wouldn’t want other folks seeing. In the winter my nose gets all dry and boogery, for instance. But my friend was more optimistic about the whole thing. “Everybody wants to be on camera these days,” I was informed.
This was true as well. Reality television is all the rage, and I began to wonder if these two things — the surveillance and the TV — might somehow be connected. There are an incredible number of reality television programs, and everybody seems to want to get a piece of that action. We all do so many absurd things every day, and I suppose it makes sense to want to share a little slice of that absurdity with the rest of the world. When something is on television, we know that somebody’s putting some money behind the operation, and this makes the behavior seem somewhat valid or worthwhile. When I see a reality television star using his or her roommate’s bath towel because he or she has run out of toilet paper again, I commiserate. And I feel less bad about myself the next time I must stoop to such behavior because I’ve seen it on television. At least someone else — whoever was financing that fine program — feels that this is acceptable behavior. And of value to other people, even, or else why would it be on TV?
Perhaps everybody else was aware of all the cameras planted around our banks and parks long before I was, because sometimes people I see seem aware they are being taped. Perhaps when somebody goes strutting confidently about, or does an impromptu cartwheel across the sidewalk or a sick ollie off the library railing, it is really for the benefit of the security officer monitoring the recording of that surveillance camera planted stealthily behind the stoplight. Perhaps we are all our own reality television stars, putting on a never-ending show.
This would make be feel better in a way. Everything I see now, like that dog chasing those squirrels up that tree and the squirrel dislodging an acorn in its panic, plopping the dog on the head, makes me feel extra good. Because I know somebody else, in some distant, concrete bunker, is enjoying the same show. Who knows how all these ridiculous things that happen every day get transmitted to such bunkers. Perhaps the beam of information sending out these perpetual images transmits to outer space, and one day, many years from now, outer space aliens will enjoy this same mishap with the acorn, green-laugh-slime seeping from their laugh holes, indicating that they are laughing.
So keep this in mind, I say. Know that somebody out there is keeping an eye on you, watching your every move, laughing and crying right alongside you. Next time you step out of the house, put your shoes on the wrong feet, paint your face gaudy colors or wear your underpants on the outside with no shirt at all, know this: it’s your job to a put on a show. You’re on TV out there somewhere.