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You’re being watched…ladies (and gents)

| Senior Forum Editor

At any given point during the day, someone might be watching you. In a straight-up “1984” way. Not just that hottie in Whispers Cafe, but some random person drinking Mountain Dew as his glazed eyes take in every movement of your nubile limbs. I mean, the gazer could just as easily be a Selena Gomez look-alike, but how likely is that? Unfortunately, this isn’t just the setup for a half-baked totalitarian allegory. The new webcam in Whispers, a very-low-resolution camera that gives the viewer a live video feed of Whispers, can easily be accessed online through the Wash. U. libraries website. The latest addition to Wash. U.’s amazing surveillance system is supposed to show you how crowded Whispers is because that might influence how likely you are to go there. It’s mostly just weird, if not unexpected; in the age of Twitter, Facebook and Skype, we’re all constantly watching each other. I suppose it’s natural that the University has decided to jump on board; it’s just chosen a very bizarre way to do it, and I’m not really sure what message the University is trying to send, apart from “we’re technologically hip” and “the Panopticon is real, so watch your back.” At any rate, the future is here, and it’s kind of grainy.

These live feeds can be distinguished from the security cameras already installed on campus in that they are available to the general public and serve very little, if any, real purpose other than voyeuristic impulse. The other live video feeds on Wash. U.’s website, cheerfully titled “Live View From [Popular Campus area],” are less grainy than the Whispers camera. However, the people who show up on the feed are tiny, so it’s pretty much impossible to tell who they are—though you can tell basic facts about clothes and hair color. Our classmates move stiffly past Graham Chapel (I can’t tell if this is the fault of WUFI or the video quality in general). It’s a little bizarre that Wash. U. seems to think this will attract prospective students; these “live views” are cheerfully juxtaposed with campus tour information.

I have several beefs with the Whispers camera in particular. First of all, there is no shot of the line area. How am I supposed to know when to get my soy non-fat mocha? Second of all, the video quality is really poor—so poor that is it unclear what is a person and what is a chair, and therefore it’s impossible to tell if Whispers is actually crowded. Eventually, though, the video quality will have to get better if the University doesn’t want to simply embarrass itself, and the creepiness factor will be rapidly dialed up.

These cameras obviously fill some sort of perceived need to know what’s going on all the time, everywhere. We all have a fascination with up-to-date information whether it be national news or what the people we follow on Twitter ate for breakfast. This culture of surveillance isn’t all Orwellian. Actually, it’s basically neutral in itself: its specific instances of surveillance aren’t positive or negative but a muddy combination of the two. Recently, the Boston bombings case was solved, in part, by surveillance, but also complicated by it. The sub-Reddit thread “Findthebostonbombers” shared pictures and identities of suspects, the vast majority of whom had nothing to do with the bombings. Now, Wash. U.‘s adorable little live feeds are essentially boring and decorative, technological embellishment for its own sake. At least for now, they’re just a reinforcement of what we already know—that we have a need to see and observe constantly. It’s hard to imagine how much more information we can all take in.