Surveilling Alone

Essay by Christine Rosen: “When Jane Jacobs, author of the 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, outlined the qualities of successful neighborhoods, she included “eyes on the street,” or, as she described this, the “eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street,” including shopkeepers and residents going about their daily routines. Not every neighborhood enjoyed the benefit of this informal sense of community, of course, but it was widely seen to be desirable. What Jacobs understood is that the combined impact of many local people practicing normal levels of awareness in their neighborhoods on any given day is surprisingly effective for community-building, with the added benefit of building trust and deterring crime.

Jacobs’s championing of these “natural proprietors of the street” was a response to a mid-century concern that aggressive city planning would eradicate the vibrant experience of neighborhoods like her own, the Village in New York City. Jacobs famously took on “master planner” Robert Moses after he proposed building an expressway through Lower Manhattan, a scheme that, had it succeeded, would have destroyed Washington Square Park and the Village, and turned neighborhoods around SoHo into highway underpasses. For Jacobs and her fellow citizen activists, the efficiency of the proposed highway was not enough to justify eliminating bustling sidewalks and streets, where people played a crucial role in maintaining the health and order of their communities.

Today, a different form of efficient design is eliminating “eyes on the street” — by replacing them with technological ones. The proliferation of neighborhood surveillance technologies such as Ring cameras and digital neighborhood-watch platforms and apps such as Nextdoor and Citizen have freed us from the constraints of having to be physically present to monitor our homes and streets. Jacobs’s “eyes on the street” are now cameras on many homes, and the everyday interactions between neighbors and strangers are now a network of cameras and platforms that promise to put “neighborhood security in your hands,” as the Ring Neighbors app puts it.

Inside our homes, we monitor ourselves and our family members with equal zeal, making use of video baby monitors, GPS-tracking software for children’s smartphones (or for covert surveillance by a suspicious spouse), and “smart” speakers that are always listening and often recording when they shouldn’t. A new generation of domestic robots, such as Amazon’s Astro, combines several of these features into a roving service-machine always at your beck and call around the house and ever watchful of its security when you are away…(More)”.

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