Saturday, December 13, 2008

Public Eyes

C. W. Nevius' column in today's San Francisco Chronicle provides a narrative with more hard data than most Internet evangelists can stomach. It is also a story about the Tenderloin, one of the seamiest neighborhoods in San Francisco, which also happens to be a short walk from my own front door. When those Internet evangelists talk about making the world a better place, they tend to ignore these neighborhoods, just as, when they decide to talk about globalization, they prefer to ignore the ugliness of Darfur or the new age of pirates on the high seas. I could ignore the Tenderloin, too, deliberately choosing paths from here to there that give it a wide berth; but I choose not to do so. If I am going to declare that San Francisco is my city, then I should be aware of more than what draws tourists to this city.

Nevius' story is about trying to use the Internet to make the Tenderloin a safer, if not better, place. It begins innocuously enough:

One week ago, was a cool new Web site that was picking up additional viewers every day. It consisted of two cameras on Taylor Street that aired 24-hour views of the street. A microphone picked up street sounds, and a chat board allowed regulars to talk about what they were seeing. They counted buses, raced each other to post the numbers written on taxis, and developed a little culture of their own.

My immediate reaction upon reading this was, "My God, someone wants to turn the Tenderloin into the next Pete's Pond," thinking about the webcam set up to monitor activities at a watering hole in Botswana with support from National Geographic. I worried that people with nothing better to do with their time would decide to trade waiting to see an elephant for waiting to see a wino. However, if I am to believe the narrative as Nevius presented it, I have to admit that I was being too cynical:

The site was a hit not only with viewers from all over the world, but with neighborhood groups. They realized that when they saw crimes occur, they could immediately report them to the police, and that's just what they did.

"I assumed the community would be against it," [Adam] Jackson said Friday. "But the community embraced it."

The guys who didn't like it are members of a graffiti group. When they found the site, they made a banner advertising their Web site and held it up in front of the camera. Jackson decided the banner was meant to encourage graffiti and deleted it. The group took that as an affront.

"Their argument was free speech," Jackson said. "My feeling was it's my camera. I can do what I want."

And that's when he ran into the real problem. As Jackson admits, he was remarkably naive about posting his personal information. He not only included his e-mail address, but the address of his apartment and which floor he was on. His phone number was also available.

Jackson began to get e-mailed threats. Someone posted photos of Jackson and his girlfriend on their own Web site. Somebody called his employer to say Jackson was a pedophile.

"We just wanted you to know that we know we are being watched," said one message, "and we don't like it."

When Jackson called the police about some letters being spray-painted on the street, the harassment intensified. He was a snitch. Anonymous thugs threw rocks at his window at night, and he was followed to work by a group of guys in hooded sweatshirts.

"It wasn't like I was crazy," Jackson said. "This was guys walking up behind you, staring at you."

This Web camera wasn't a crusade by Jackson, it was just an idea he had that he thought would make things safer and quieter in the neighborhood. He was even planning an Internet fundraiser for Glide Memorial Church. But it quickly turned into more trouble than it was worth. He'd already made the mistake of revealing too much - now he just wanted to make it stop.

The first offer the bullies made was so outlandish even Jackson, worried about his safety, turned it down.

"They said unless I videotaped myself admitting all this and got it played on the local TV news, they would come after me," Jackson said.

The alternative was that Jackson post an apology written by the group, which included phrases like "... what a racist and ignorant human being that I am ..."

Jackson did that. He also arranged to move out of his apartment and to take down the cameras.

So the bullies won? Not so fast.

Neville Gittens, spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department said, "We want to follow up on this. We're going to reach out to him to encourage him to make a police report."

And, with his apology, Jackson announced something else. The site will continue, but not under his direction. An unnamed party already has a camera up at a different Tenderloin street corner.

Jackson said at least three other sites have sprung up independently, and there has been interest in linking all of them together through It is possible that neighborhoods all over the city will have 24-hour cameras. That was Jackson's idea all along.

"People have already started doing this themselves," Jackson said. "There's no way to stop it now."

Like any good story, this one has an arc that rises and falls, although it is hard to predict the trajectory of the arc beyond the confines of this particular narrative. Nevertheless, there are benefits to trying to extract "lessons learned" from the events as they have transpired thus far. Nevius identified three such lessons, each of which deserves examination:

For starters, Jackson has learned about privacy on the Internet: There isn't any.

I agree that this has to be at the top of Nevius' list, but I am not particularly happy in my agreement. The fact is that this should remind all of us, particularly all those rabid evangelists out there, how little most people know about "life in cyberspace" (in the spirit of the subtitle of the Homicide series). Worse yet, the Kool-Aid of Internet evangelism is so effective that those who imbibe it do not seem to want to know about such things, figuring that the operative rule is come-on-in-the-water's-fine, no matter how much evidence may accumulate about the danger of sociopathic "sharks" in that water.

Nevius' second lesson is as follows:

Second, neighborhood cameras work - for better or worse, they focus attention on life on the street.

I do not know if he intended this; but in my reading of this sentence the operative word is "focus." As I suggested at the beginning of this post, those of us who do not actually live in the Tenderloin would prefer to ignore it. Admittedly, many of those no longer ignoring it because of the webcams may have shifted their attention in search of a new genre of "reality" entertainment (sort of like people who used to buy police-band radios). Perhaps now that the police have a stake in this operation, they will try to do some basic demographic analysis of those who choose to see the world through these particular webcams. If they provide a new approach to community vigilance of one's own neighborhood, then all that really matters is that the police provide the necessary moderating force to keep vigilance from erupting into vigilantism. On the other hand, if these cameras are doing little more than providing a diversion for kids who are bored in Beijing, then the police need to ask if it is possible to raise the level of community spirit, without which these cameras will not be much of a benefit.

Then we have the final lesson:

And third, did you ever wonder why it is so difficult to get people to step up and try to make things better in troubled neighborhoods? It's because there are always some self-appointed guardians of the status quo who make it as difficult as possible.

I am not quite sure whom Nevius means by those "self-appointed guardians of the status quo." My guess is that he is referring to the members of the graffiti group, in which case the status quo he seems to have in mind is a community consensus that such vandals can do anything they damned well please. To push beyond the Homicide reference, this is a bit like the implicit consent that residents of the Towers grant to the drug-dealing gang on whose turf they reside in the first season of The Wire. The fact that the community "embraced" the initial adamsblock webcam should support the proposition that they did not consent to the practices of that graffiti gang, even if they did not rally to support Jackson when he came under attack. My own reading of the narrative sees this more as the problem of a community in fear of those who abuse it. They embrace a possible solution but are still ruled by their fears. Even the current support of the police may not provide sufficient force to get over those fears, but my guess is that the community is at least gradually moving away from them. I would assume that the primary impulse away from those fears is the force of community commitment. If that commitment was enabled by Internet technology, then that accomplishment brings more credit to the Internet than all the "cool-speak" we have had to endure over the last ten years!

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