Friday, September 24, 2010

Modern ways of surveillance -a controversial character

Lynndie England holding a leash attached to a prisoner
To be honest, I was not shocked when watching Errol Morris's documentary Standard Operating Procedure. It is another example of exposing how dirty can human nature get when put in some "proper" circumstances like being a prison guard in Abu Ghraib prison. It's not hard to find an example to prove the heinous nature of human being. Just like the Hello Kitty murder in Hongkong in 1999. A bunch of young guys brutally killed a night club hostess after severely tortured her for 3 months. The case was exposed after the police found out a human head in a hello kitty doll. Unlike the case of Abu Ghraib, the hello kitty murder did not have any photo evidence at all. Compared to which, the exposed photos in the case of Abu Ghraib became the hero. However, do the photos actually prove anything that actually happened at all? In one of the pictures released on the internet we can see Pvt. Lynndie holding a leash attached to a prisoner collapsed on the floor, known to the guards as "Gus." Purely judging from this picture, it is not hard to make the assumption that the woman in the picture put the leash on the prisoner and was eager to show it off in front of the camera. In fact, the reality is completely different from our assumption,  it was actually done by the sergeant Charles Graner when Lynnndie walked by, he asked her to hold the leash and stand in front of the camera. This picture was actually cropped. The photo evidence did show people the truth that the prisoners in Abu Ghraib was tortured, but it can never tell people the actually story, in face, it is people's own perception that is telling them the story. This made this type of surveillance really controversial. It shows you what happened, but it dose not tell you the specificity of the story. And photos can be easily manipulated for different purpose like this, which is that the sergeant does not want to show up in the picture.
Surveillance camera in Chinese classroom
While playing a hero in modern society, surveillance also has its evil nature which can mislead people. The idea of panopticon has a positive purpose, to better manage and control the prisoners. It makes people to contain themselves when under the surveillance, however, when used with the abnormal purpose, it actually leads to the problem of courtesy and respect. In lots of Chinese high schools, the classrooms are installed with surveillance cameras. It is desinged to keep an eye on the students when they are taking exams, as the digital operator of my high school, I was cognizant  of the fact that those cameras were never used at most of the time. So it shares the same purpose of the panopticon. The students actually do not know whether they are being watched or not, so every body tries to behave themselves when there is no proctor around. It is a smart idea, however personally I don't think the schools actually respect the students by installing this kind of surveillance equipment. While serving the purpose of a proctor, the surveillance camera actually put everybody in the suspect of a cheater. This is actually a huge insult; it is comparing the students to the prisoners. Who would feel comfortable taking exams in a room like this in school? Who would even feel comfortable digging their noses when knowing someone could possiblly be watching them? All I can say is this is too extreme.

Surveillance media can be easily manipulated and misread, which is why I do not trust it at all. It was the misleading of the image that give the military specialist Sabrina Harman a felony sentence because she raised her thumb up in front of a dead body in one of the photos in the case of Abu Ghraib, however in fact she was just trying to document everything and to expose the disgusting behavior of those American soldiers. Sergeant Charles Graner cropped himself out of the picture to let people think it was Lynndie England who put the leash on the prisoner. Other forms of surveillance are also morally controversial. The surveillance cameras in Chinese high schools basically insinuate that those students are just like prisoners or thieves. However, surveillance media still reveals the truth and secrets to the public helping us to uncover those ugly deeds done by some people in every corner of the world.

All in all, in my opinion, modern ways of surveillance is fundamentally controversial. the only neutral scenario is when it is used for entertainment purpose, just like the film We Live In Public. To volunteeringly expose one's own life to the public is nothing harmful, at least compared to the insulting cameras in Chinese high schools.


  1. You comparison to surveillance in schools is a very interesting change from a POW prison, mainly to the point that those two things in incomparable. In a school system the outcome is a positive one, less cheating, and in a prison environment it was abuse.

  2. The comparison of the Abu Ghraib situation with that of the security cameras in school systems is valid, concerning the type of impact the surveillance has on those subject to it. I agree, in the schools the presence of the cameras make the students feel like guilty culprits, as if they are suspect of doing something wrong. At Abu Ghraib, on the other hand, the surveillance they were under due to the cameras did not sink in - they were not aware enough of it, and how it could potentially incriminate them as part of the actions they recorded. The relationship is not direct, but both of these are issues of surveillance. A stronger parallel could be drawn between the school students and Josh Harris' project "We Live in Public", where he underwent a similar sort of constant surveillance. But I absolutely agree that surveillance can and will change people's actions.

  3. That schools are designed at all like prisons is most distressing indeed.

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