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I knew it.  It’s less than a year since video surveillance cameras were installed in the vestibule of my building, and already they’re causing trouble.  Instead of being used to catch bad guys, they’re igniting brushfires. Whereas before everyday skirmishes would die a natural death out of sight out of mind, now that every move is being recorded, nothing slips off the radar.

Check the video has become the new battle cry.

“Bob (not his real name) is always on a coffee break. He’s off the door more than he’s on, and even when he’s there, he’s on his cell jabbering away, not paying any attention to us. Think I’m making it up?” I overheard Mrs. X yelling at the super. “Look at the tapes.”

“Danny must sneak ten cigarettes a shift,” Mr. Y was complaining to a fellow resident.  “If he wants to kill himself, that’s one thing, but you can smell the smoke all the way into the lobby.”

“I never saw him smoking.”

“Look at the tapes.”

It’s a two-way street.

“Mr. Y is harassing me,” I saw the weekend doorman pull aside a woman from my floor late one night. “I don’t know what I ever did to him, but whatever  it is I didn’t mean to do it, and now every time he passes he gives me menacing looks and grunts and it’s really getting to me.”

“I know Mr. Y and I’m sure he wouldn’t do anything like that,” she took an us against them stance.

“The tapes don’t lie.”.

That’s why I think we should take a page from “Surveillance” – that display of video monitors installed by the filmmaker Ernie Gehr in Madison Square Park, set to be removed by week’s end.  There amidst people chowing down on Shake Shack burgers and fries are four flat-screened monitors recording your every move.

At least that’s what you think as you stare mesmerized, waiting for your face to appear, with a mix of trepidation and amusement, till you realize it’s a fakeout. That’s not your image being flashed on screen, or those of anyone around you, but twenty minute loops of anonymous strangers in the same setting eating burgers, drinking shakes, and doing all the things the real you are.

Once everyone figures out they’re not the ones being recorded, no one pays attention, the monitors just blend in like urban camouflage with their natural surroundings, and everyone goes back to business as usual.

A wakeup call warning how immune we’ve become to surveillance? Perhaps, but also a potential way to resolve the problems unleashed by the real cameras in my building, and those in lots of others.

Instead of discarding those pre-recorded videos of strangers on the street,  they should be installed in buildings all over the city to act as a deterrent to would-be intruders, the way those “Beware Dog” signs keep burglars at bay. And since they’re not recording real staff or residents, they won’t become the flash point in battles between them so the Pandora’s box opened by those surveillance videos will be closed and everyone in the building will go back to normal — or as normal as things were before.

For more on the exhibit:

Ernie Gehr: Surveillance

Digital Playground inMadison Square Park Going Soon

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