For the past years, surveillance occupied a very important place in our lives, becoming even a recurring theme in popular culture. The idea of surveillance has started to haunt us, being part of the mass consciousness especially through its artistic meaning developed in films such as Rear Window, The conversation or Peeping Tom.
A few decades ago, the general public saw surveillance as something fearful and undesirable that threatens our intimacy. One of the first measures introduced in the 1980s was traffic surveillance, which had the purpose of reducing traffic violations. Even this type of observation, which was clearly favourable for the general safety, has met severe resistance, being even prohibited or delayed in several countries.
But even if we fear surveillance, we need to understand that in some way or another is part of the human being. We are borne with the desire of looking at other people, notion known as scopophilia, and some of us are also borne with the desire of exposing themselves to others, notion known as exhibitionism. This tendencies are mostly associated with sexual pleasures, but they can also have different meanings.
Since its birth, cinema and television have always played with this notions, the most proeminent example of surveillance being Big Brother. This cinematic interpretations shows us the paradox of surveillance, meaning that it allows us ‘to be fascinated with our shame of watching, but in the same time the fear of being watched. ‘ Another TV series that describes the same concept is 24, but this time is based more on surveillance technologies, such as GPS tracking systems, computer hacking, satellites and CCTV and so on.
More than that, another meaning of surveillance developed especially in films, is the concept of the ‘male gaze’, which basically refers to the fact that men always gaze upon woman. In this case the men is seen as the active voyeur, while the women is seen as the passive exhibitionist. Hitchcock, for example has always been obsessed in his films of the idea of surveillance, gazing and looking. So when he was asked if the main character from the Rear Window is a snoop, he replied: ‘Sure, he’s a snooper, but aren’t we all? I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man pottering around in his room, will stay and look.’ (Truffaut, Hitchcock, & Scott, 1984, p. 216).
From the 1990’s and onwards, the idea of an overwhelming surveillance has been an ingredient in thrillers especially. Films involving imminent disasters, e.g. terrorist attacks, often bypass the question of justification, as protagonists simply must act on such threats and ‘save the world’. Saw is another film worth mentioning because it explores the idea o a serial killer who is capable to see and decide all your moves. So the victims are captured in a deadly game, having to follow various rules and objectives. The same idea is captured in Hunger games, where several boys and girls had to fight to the death while the show was on live television. The public had the power to influence the faith of the contestants.
Aside from films, social media make us into ‘regular peeping Toms’, due to our continuous need of being always online, of being seen, remarked by hundred thousands of people, that might not even know us. Even here, we can categorise people by their surveillance nature, rather if they are cautious or extroverts. Now, with just a click we can see where a person goes, with who is he/she and what is doing. Only by taking a glance on someone’s profile on Facebook for example, you can tell a lot about that particular person, where she lives, what is he/she studying, working, her music interests, favorite films, books, celebrities and so on. So basically all our moves are track-able now. To a certain extent it also made second-hand experience and passivity more acceptable.
All in all I consider that we are all becoming ‘peeping Toms’ because of our need of checking and knowing everything that surrounds us to a certain extent.