16 September 2013

Banality, Normalisation and CCTV

'The Banality of Security: The Curious Case of Surveillance Cameras' by Benjamin Goold, Ian Loader and Angélica Thumala in (2013) British Journal of Criminology takes a walk on the wild side with Mr Latour and Mr Debord,  asking -
Why do certain security goods become banal (while others do not)? Under what conditions does banality occur and with what effects? In this paper, we answer these questions by examining the story of closed circuit television cameras (CCTV) in Britain. We consider the lessons to be learned from CCTV’s rapid — but puzzling — transformation from novelty to ubiquity, and what the banal properties of CCTV tell us about the social meanings of surveillance and security. We begin by revisiting and reinterpreting the historical process through which camera surveillance has diffused across the British landscape, focusing on the key developments that encoded CCTV in certain dominant meanings (around its effectiveness, for example) and pulled the cultural rug out from under alternative or oppositional discourses. Drawing upon interviews with those who produce and consume CCTV, we tease out and discuss the family of meanings that can lead one justifiably to describe CCTV as a banal good. We then examine some frontiers of this process and consider whether novel forms of camera surveillance (such as domestic CCTV systems) may press up against the limits of banality in ways that risk unsettling security practices whose social value and utility have come to be taken for granted. In conclusion, we reflect on some wider implications of banal security and its limits.
The authors conclude
Two overarching purposes have informed the writing of this article. In the first place, the paper is intended as a contribution to the development of what, following Bruno Latour (1992a), we can call a symmetrical sociology of security. By attending fully to the role of things in determining ‘our behavior and identity’ (Miller 2010: 51), we hope to bring taken-for-granted aspects of security—notably the ‘industrial market’ for security technology (Brodeur 2010: 304)—more fully under the scholarly and public gaze.19 In so doing, we want to expand further the horizons of theoretical and empirical enquiry into private security, the bulk of which still addresses itself to and gets most animated by those elements of the industry—uniformed guards—who look and feel like police officers, a point made recently by Jean-Paul Brodeur (2010: 140). We have done so by focusing on one of the mundane objects that is mobilized in security practices and analysing the part this object plays in the ordering of everyday experience. Our wider point is that, if objects are ‘congealed social relations’ (Neyland 2010), we can learn a great deal about social life from the study of security objects or objects that have been securitized—in the present case (surveillance) cameras.
Second, and more importantly, we have used the case of CCTV to introduce and illustrate the idea of banal security. Today, any mobilization of the concept of banality inescapably takes place in the long shadow cast by Hannah Arendt’s (1963) analysis of the ‘banality of evil’, the phrase she controversially coined to describe the unthinking, rule-following, normality of the acts committed by Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. The idea of banality has also made sporadic appearances in the critical theory of consumerist society, where it is typically deployed to depict the ‘meaninglessness and insignificance’ of modern consumer culture (Seigworth 2000: 231). Guy Debord, for example, used the term ‘banalisation’ to describe ‘the accumulation of commodities produced in mass for the abstract space of the market’—a process which he thought had ‘destroy[ed] the autonomy and quality of places’ (Debord 1967: Chapter 7, s. 165). In America, Baudrillard wrote in similar terms about the ‘desert-like banality of a metropolis’ (Baudrillard 1988: 102). What these analyses share in common is the deployment of what we might call a pejorative concept of banality, one that expressly or implicitly intimates a critical relation to and judgment upon the process, acts or objects being described as banal (cf. Hilton 2008).
Our use of the term ‘banality’ is not pejorative in this sense. Rather, we have shown that the banality of security is a double-edged notion, and that analysis of it has to attend closely to both its virtues and vices. If security ‘means being able to assume that day-to-day, moment-by-moment human planning can go forward’ (Molotch 2012: 3), then part of what it means to be and feel secure is a taken-for-granted confidence in the human and non-human infrastructure that makes our personal and collective projects feasible. If part of what it means to be and feel secure is about not having to fret over or routinely monitor the arrangements that secure one’s security (Loader and Walker 2007: Chapter 6), then something akin to banality may be a constitutive feature of what security is as a basic social good. Yet, making the things that secure us banal is also to create the conditions for undermining that security. Goods that have become banal find it easier to expand in ways that can trump other societal values, not in an active and noisy political way, but through a barely detectable process of creep. By making goods banal, we fail to notice the ordering work that they do and hence neglect to ask whose interests such work serves and what alternative modes of ordering the ubiquitous, taken-for-granted good has elbowed or crowded out. If the objects that constitute a society’s security arrangements become banal, they are placed beyond inspection, reflection, contestation and debate in ways that are inimical not only to security, but also to the quality and reach of democratic governance. Camera surveillance is an apt illustration of this. By becoming banal, CCTV cameras have come to govern us, while largely effacing the question of how we might (best) govern them.
Against this backdrop, it is hard, right now, to determine what impact, if any, the reservations about novel forms of CCTV we described in the preceding section may have on the future trajectory of camera surveillance. Two broad sets of possibilities suggest themselves, however. The first is that these concerns serve as but a small stumbling block on the forward march of a security good that has long since become mundane and uncontested. We need to recall here that not dissimilar objections were raised at earlier points in CCTV’s path to ubiquity, only to be overcome or brushed aside. We might infer from this history that, as people grow accustomed to what are currently experienced as unsettling extensions of camera surveillance, it is likely that these concerns will over time dissipate, or else be banished to the margins of public debate. On this scenario, CCTV is simply too entrenched as a good with obvious benefits and non-obvious dangers for the worries raised about its latest usages to be little other than minor teething troubles. To this we might add a point we made earlier in our reconstruction of CCTV’s diffusion: namely that these extensions of surveillance are taking place within, and are of a piece with, a wider cultural context in which the capture and circulation of people’s images are becoming commonplace and unremarkable. Camera surveillance has, in short, acquired a set of social meanings that are so pervasive and stable that novel—if currently controversial extensions—of it can all too easily be brought under the umbrella of its banality.
But an alternative scenario may also be prefigured in these accounts. The possibility here is that the anxieties provoked by, and the values revealed to be at stake in, novel extensions of CCTV may represent, or be made to represent, a critical juncture in the social life of surveillance cameras. At the very least, one can point to the existence of a reservoir of cultural concerns which can be drawn upon in an effort to unsettle the stable meanings that have become attached to camera surveillance; to reopen the range of questions that CCTV’s banality has foreclosed, and to reinsert matters pertaining to the scope, uses and effects of surveillance technology into public and political discourse about crime and its regulation. One might, in this vein, treat the worries we have reported either as resources for regulation, or as raw materials for politicization. In respect of the former, these concerns allude to a set of values (notably privacy and trust) that need to be more fully incorporated within any discussion of how best to govern future uses of camera surveillance. In respect of the latter, these issues might be folded into a larger effort to create a deliberative politics of security that extends beyond the state to encompass both private security actors and the array of security technologies that govern the conduct of everyday life today—of which CCTV is a prominent case in point. This may or may not lead to a ‘politics of retraction’ of which Gavin Smith (2012) claims to have glimpsed the first sightings. That would be a matter for such a deliberative politics, not a guaranteed outcome of it. What is rather more urgent and important is to foster and sustain an intelligent and reflective public conversation about camera surveillance of the kind that has been lost sight of in the course of CCTV’s three-decade-long journey to banality.
In the absence of such a conversation, British society has tended to forget in the case of CCTV the general point that Daniel Miller makes in, and about, Stuff. ‘Commodities’, Miller writes, ‘are not inherently good or bad, but you can’t have the benefits without entailing the risk that they will oppress you’ (Miller 2010: 63). One good reason for wanting to cultivate a public dialogue about CCTV, in the face of extant political inertia and commercial interests who have little or no interest in doing so, is the following one, also supplied by Miller: ‘The good news is that awareness of this gives one an opportunity to address this contradiction ... with some potential for moderation’ (Miller 2010: 63). This, we suggest, is a lesson it would be wise, in respect of surveillance cameras, to relearn.