The Irony of Surveillance Cameras in George Orwell Square

“Orwellian debate” is an oxymoron, but that appears to be what we’re having.

Tourists go to George Orwell Square in Barcelona all the time, hoping to relive that spooked/sanctimonious feeling they felt when they first read 1984 as an angry teenager. They’re often disappointed by the fact that the square has nothing to do with Orwell. He probably passed by… once... maybe… sometime between signing up to fight a war against fascism and getting shot in the neck.

“They laid me down again while somebody fetched a stretcher. As soon as I knew that the bullet had gone clean through my neck I took it for granted that I was done for. … I thought of the man who had shot me — wondered what he was like, whether he was a Spaniard or a foreigner, whether he knew he had got me, and so forth. I could not feel any resentment against him. I reflected that as he was a Fascist I would have killed him if I could, but that if he had been taken prisoner and brought before me at this moment I would merely have congratulated him on his good shooting. It may be, though, that if you were really dying your thoughts would be quite different.”

— George Orwell, Homage to Catalunya

The city of Barcelona was tasked with choosing any old square with which to honor the British man on the 60th anniversary of his volunteering to fight for the Republic during the Spanish Civil War. They ended up going with a square that was quickly becoming known as “La Plaça Tripi” a reference both to the surrealist (or trippy) statue by Leandre Christòfol placed in the center of the plaza and to the accessibility of drugs in the area.

I suppose you could argue that this name change was the first semi-nefarious instance of Orwellian shenanigans to go down in this plaza. Orwell hated doublespeaklanguage that deliberately obscured, disguised, distorted, or reversed the meaning of words. Particularly when it was for the purpose of instilling authoritarian rule. Think, a “Department of Defense” that invades countries, or saying “servicing the target” when you mean “bombing people”. I dunno, guys. Does this apply?

“There are no drugs here,” says a potentially tyrannical Barcelona city board. “Only a reverence for honorable military service, literature, and art.”

…Maybe. I don’t think George is rolling in his grave quite yet.

I’ve been hearing the term “Orwellian” used an awful lot lately.

“Cancel Culture is Orwellian!” says a wealthy politician getting pushed out of office for groping multiple women. “Getting kicked off of Twitter is Orwellian!” says a disgraced president who used his tweets to incite a violent coup on the American Government while they were in session to confirm his democratically-elected successor. “Also, anti-fascists are terrorists!” he adds, like an idiot.

I can give these guys the benefit of the doubt that they did, indeed, read 1984 all the way to the end at some point in their lives. Repressed people and gangsters both genuinely get a kick out of those excessive, weirdly homoerotic torture chapters at the end. This means they’re well-aware that facing relatively mild consequences for their extremely harmful behavior is not the same thing as finding themselves naked and strapped to a table with a cage of rats on their head for the crime of questioning their reality.

What we have here is a case of chronic false equivalence. And some not-so-subtle attempts to imply they read a book one time.

It seems “Orwellian” is a term we can put in the same category as “Socialist” and “inconceivable” in that the definition changes depending on who has misused the term and whether that usage stuck. I’m personally of the opinion that it’s one of the most misused terms in history, and that would make Orwell roll in his grave.

“Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.”

George Orwell, 1984

I didn’t come here to discuss the blatantly obvious abuse of the term, though. I came to have a fun debate with myself about one very particular ethical gray area — the CCTV cameras installed in George Orwell Square.

Let’s get the most unfortunate factor of this whole story out of the way.

George Orwell Square is the very first public plaza in which the city of Barcelona decided to place surveillance cameras. A hell of a faux pas on the city’s part, without question. An Orwellian mistake, you could say, if you wanted to keep throwing that word around willy-nilly. The optics aren’t great, as there are some who point to any and all surveillance cameras and call them unethical and a sign of the end-times.

Kevin Macnish, on the other hand, author of The Ethics of Surveillance, has a refreshingly nuanced view on the topic. In an interview with Routledge publishing company, he discussed three factors that come into play when determining whether an act of surveillance is ethical:

1. Security vs. Voyeurism

“First, security is generally seen as a good thing. Voyeurism is generally seen as a bad thing. Although, if you’re talking about the game show, Big Brother, then voyeurism isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so it’s not always straightforward.”

— Kevin Macnish

In Orwell’s 1984, devices called telescreens, equipped with microphones and cameras, are installed in everyone’s homes. People are under the impression that they can turn these telescreens off for a half-hour at a time when they really want some privacy for things like cry fests and practicing celebrity impressions, probably. It’s considered frowned-upon and suspicious if done too much, but legal.

Spoiler alert — That’s a big ol’ lie. Big Brother is watching and listening at all times. These screens are monitored by the “thought police”, who can tell when a person is guilty of questioning authority just by picking up on a shifty glance, the rate of your heartbeat, or listening to you talk in your sleep.

Back in our world, 2021, Plaça de George Orwell is in the Gothic district, the oldest and most frequented by tourists district in Barcelona. It’s also a residential neighborhood. There’s a small play area for kids and the surrounding buildings consist of shops and restaurants on the ground floor, with apartments and private balconies on the ascending floors. It’s all pretty standard and European.

In Spain, a plaza is considered “everyone’s living room”. I’ve noticed that some people here don’t even bother to do much decorating of the interior of their flats and I’m told it’s because they don’t spend a lot of time there. Or, at least, they didn’t before the pandemic.

So if we can all agree that putting cameras in the home is a step too far, does that extend to a public plaza? What about when they’re on their balconies? What sort of information can you get from a person by having cameras constantly trained on their home exterior and public living room? Is this a price they pay for living in a city? Do they feel safer with the cameras there?

I’m gonna go ahead and use the pandemic as my excuse to not go out and find the answers to these questions. We’re just contemplating major ethical dilemmas at home right now. For fun. In our sweats. Because we’re bored.

2. Proportionality

“Disproportionate surveillance feels… it just feels wrong. And we frequently criticize people when it seems like the surveillance has become disproportionate.”

— Kevin Macnish

I have no clue how often these cameras are on or where exactly they’re trained, but I know that the usage of CCTV cameras has extended beyond Plaça de George Orwell and into many other areas of the city since they were first placed there in 2001.

That’s right. They were placed the same year 9/11 happened in the U.S. The same year a lot of people’s privacy went gladly out the window in favor of heightened security. And a nearby area did have a terrorist attack the year I moved to the city. I was a couple of blocks away when a man drove a van into pedestrians on La Rambla, killing 13 people and injuring 130.

Just this week, cameras placed around massage parlors in Atlanta caught the terrorist who murdered 8 people in a racially-motivated and misogynistic attack. Cameras definitely help with those investigations, so would we say that even just the potential of a terrorist attack is worth the loss of privacy? Maybe it depends on the frequency. The U.S. has certainly been seeing a hell of a lot more of these attacks than Spain has.

The far more usual threat to George Orwell Square is outlined in an article in El Periódico:

“The steps in this plaza have been a nightmare for the neighborhood, acting as a stand and meeting point, not only for youthful excesses linked to the bottle, but also for groups of nomads who spend the night there. Fights, drugs and dirt have been a constant in the area (…) the central sculpture of Leandre Cristòfol, more than once has acted as a urinal, despite the fact that just a few meters away there is a public toilet that’s never served its original mission.”

Here’s where things get sticky (ew, sorry). There are two possible purposes for these cameras and their proportionality, I think, depends on whether these two purposes are met:

  1. To be a deterrent
  2. To catch the bad guys

So. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we take terrorism out of the equation. (Doesn’t that sound nice?) Are cameras a deterrent to rowdiness and debauchery? A University of Leicester report from 2005 showed that “camera surveillance decreased vehicle theft from parking garages but did little to deter shoplifting or other activities in city streets and open areas.” Many similar studies, as long as they weren’t funded by a security company, show similar results.

Ok, so what about catching pee-bandits in the act? To be honest, I highly doubt anyone is bothering to watch those pee-tapes and chase these guys down. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s somebody’s whole job and they’re very good at what they do. Maybe their pride and joy is catching a guy mid-stream, slapping a ticket on his tushy, and disappearing back into the night like Batman.

Theft is a more serious issue in the area, what with the abundance of distracted tourists, but pickpocketers definitely aren’t being caught. I know this because, when my phone was stolen, a bored clerk at the police station gave me some paperwork to fill out (from a stack) and told me straight-up there wasn’t going to be an investigation. I went and filled mine out by the other eight people who’d had their phones stolen, all of us hoping an official report would at least make someone at our respective service provider stores take pity.

I’d argue that the proportionality of the surveillance depends on its effectiveness at preventing whatever harm it’s set up to stop. That seems fair, right? If it’s not effective, the surveillance is disproportionate.

3. Discrimination

“Thirdly, there’s the idea that surveillance should be discriminating. It should clearly discriminate between people who are, in some way, liable for surveillance because they have done something or they are suspected of doing something which would justify surveillance vs. people who haven’t done anything at all. Monitoring them just for the sake of it.”

— Kevin Macnish

This made me think of two things:

  1. Did the neighborhood residents of Plaça de George Orwell ask to be surveilled or did the city officials decide on it?
  2. As a society, why do we only surveil “petty” crime? Why not white-collar crime? I mean, I know the answer to this, I just… want to point out that it’s messed up.

If the neighborhood got sick of all the noise and drunkenness and theft outside their doors, came together to try and figure out a solution, and decided, on their own terms, that surveillance was the way, that would be one thing. If the city decided to place the cameras without the consent of the neighborhood, that would be another, don’t you think?

How discriminating are these cameras? Are they for the safety of the residents or are they monitoring the very people they’re meant to protect? (These are all questions we can and should ask of the police too, but that’s a whole other article. That’s a series of books, actually.)

“When I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.”

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

As for discriminating between which types of crime “deserve” or “require” surveillance, I wrote an article a few months back about how the theft or withholding of employee wages on the part of managers and CEO’s in America is a multi-billion dollar annual crime being committed in way too many fortune-500 companies, as well as in major swaths of the farming, restaurant, and hospitality industries.

And yet the cameras are pointed at poor people. Make that make sense.

And don’t say “terrorism”, because I care far more about finding the roots of that sort of hatred in order to prevent it from happening in the first place than I do about continuing to have to find these guys after the fact. It’s like the dumbest game of wack-a-mole ever where the moles have machine guns, unresolved trauma, untreated health issues, and a lifetime of being told that their problems are the fault of anyone who doesn’t look like them, so people keep dying en masse while we appeal to the manufacturer to please stop building such unnecessarily violent games.

I’ve asked too many questions to have possibly found a definitive answer here, but I feel like I understand George Orwell better than I ever have. There’s a reason schools in Catalonia teach 1984 and Homage to Catalunya in tandem. (When I snoop my Catalonian friends’ bookshelves, I always see both books there.) The stories complement each other.

How can we possibly understand a hypothetical exploration of a potential future if we don’t understand our past? How can we possibly understand a writer’s intended meaning without understanding his values?

Before I moved to Spain, I hadn’t even heard of Homage. We skimmed through Animal Farm in high school and I read 1984 when I was hired to write the official study guide for it for a kids’ educational website. I don’t recall the Spanish Civil War ever even coming up in my Arizona public school curriculum. And that’s a damn shame because it feels so relevant today:

“I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragon, one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory, it was perfect equality, and even in practice, it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilized life — snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. — had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master.”

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

So are the cameras in George Orwell Square Orwellian? I think I lean on the side of “Yes, and…” It’s more complicated than that. You can’t sum up Orwell in a single word. Strange that the man’s name has come to mean the antithesis of what he himself believed in and fought for, huh? Strange how a debate about cameras in George Orwell Square can end up being so much more than a debate about cameras in George Orwell Square.

Who’s really pissing on his memory, do you think?

Katlyn writes about history, travel, and culture… with some snark.

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