Joe Campbell

I never could get the hang of watching paint dry. The same goes for watching grass grow. I’m no good at that either. Mind you, I’ve only watched them directly. I haven’t tried it indirectly through web cameras linked to my computer. Maybe web camera viewing makes static images dynamic. You know, the way text messaging makes trivial remarks important.

This possibility, I suspect, motivated my municipal masters to focus web cameras on the construction of a six-lane bridge. Otherwise, why would they invite the entire world to witness an event that makes paint drying and grass growing seem like extreme haste?

Surely there are more entertaining ways of wasting time. Unless, of course, the cameras show close-ups of workers malingering by day and thieves pilfering building materials by night. Real moral and criminal offences are more entertaining to watch than the fake ones dramatized daily on TV.

Maybe the City could call the venture a reality show and include commercials to defray the costs of malingering and pilfering. Taxpayers, no doubt, would be pleased. But to match the pace of construction, the commercials would have to run in slow motion.

Oh, I realize that the birth of a bridge is unlikely to attract enough viewers to make advertising worthwhile. But the life of a city might. Surveillance cameras, public and private, capture a big slice of city life, and they’re turning up everywhere. Linked to the Internet, they could provide a reality show with unquestioned appeal.

I know it would appeal to me. I got attracted to people watching early. On Saturday evenings, my parents used to drive my sister and me downtown to angle park on the main street and watch the window shoppers and anyone else who strode, ambled, waddled, staggered or crawled by. Curiously, most seemed unaware or unconcerned that they were entertaining us free of charge. Only a few bowed or gave us a salute. I think it was a salute.

Even if we move them from time to time, parked cars provide few viewing options. Never mind. If we negotiate an Internet link to every surveillance camera in town, our options will soar. If we include the entire country, they’ll be virtually unlimited.

There’s more to this than entertainment. Jane Goodall did quality research observing wild chimpanzees in their natural habitat. We’ll do it observing wild people in theirs. We’ll watch shoplifters, burglars, robbers, arsonists, vandals, drug dealers and assailants at work. If we’re lucky, we’ll see their victims make a citizen’s arrest. If the victims are unlucky, we’ll see the police charge them with assault and forcible confinement while making a citizen’s arrest.

We may see police officers arrest exhibitionists who expose themselves indecently. Or, we may see the officers parade proudly with other exhibitionists who presumably expose themselves decently. It depends on… I’m not sure what it depends on.

We’re likely to observe sex trade workers selling themselves. We may even see slave trade workers selling others, and death trade workers selling private executions. We’re also likely to see motorists crash into fire hydrants, power poles, store fronts, houses, trees, pedestrians and each other. In many cities, vehicles outnumber people and like to throw their weight around.

We’ll witness democracy in action as groups demonstrate for and against activities they care about. At the same time, we’ll witness media objectivity missing in action as reporters cover some groups and ignore others.

We’ll also see politicians in action, kicking footballs, pitching baseballs and dropping hockey pucks to no avail; interrupting pancake breakfasts, steak barbecues, sod turnings and official openings; scrounging for votes in turbans, skullcaps, hijabs, kilts, kimonos and feathers; and kissing babies without their informed consent. Politicians like wasting time spending our money. Or is it spending time wasting our money?

Some say surveillance cameras are an invasion of privacy; others say we can’t reasonably expect privacy in public places. I thought we had settled the argument when we allowed Santa Claus to put us under surveillance.

Santa’s methods are far more invasive than ours. Why, not only does he see us when we’re sleeping and know when we’re awake. He knows if we’ve been good or bad, and we sing about it without protest. Whenever I hear “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” I want to resurrect George Orwell.

If I could, he’d be in for a shock. I’m told that more than 30 surveillance cameras operate within 200 yards of the flat in which he wrote about Big Brother watching us.