"On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy," wrote E.B. White in the opening lines of his classic book, Here Is New York.
White was writing in 1949. In today’s New York, the gift of loneliness can still be found in abundance. The gift of privacy, on the other hand, seems to be getting harder and harder to obtain. Or maybe we’re just changing the way we define it.
We are being watched and recorded in an ever-increasing number of locations. A 2005 survey by the New York Civil Liberties Union found 4,176 security cameras below 14th Street in Manhattan alone, up from 769 in the same area in 1998. There are surely even more now, not to mention the high proportion of the city’s residents who are toting around personal surveillance systems in their pockets, in the form of phones.
For the most part, average people seem to have grown comfortable with this reality at this point, although plenty of analysts say we shouldn't be so complacent. In an era of ubiquitous data-mining, our expectations of what constitutes privacy in public spaces has undergone a sea change. Surveillance cameras seem practically quaint when modern technology allows corporations and governments to track you in so many ways.
And in cities, enjoying the sensation of being watched has always been part of the street game. People like to be seen as much as they like their privacy, and they often dress to prove it. When we get dressed each morning, we know we are going to be judged, even if we aren't videotaped.
In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a group of tech-minded friends has set up a kind of style surveillance camera for a project they’re calling Styleblaster. They rigged up a camera in the front window of their apartment and programmed it to snap a picture every time a person walks by, then upload it to a continuous stream of images. (You can read all about the tech behind the project here.)
From the copy on the site:
Unlike a typical streetstyle blog, Styleblaster documents all -- the visiting fashion plates, the hipsters and have-nots, the native Polish and Italian proud who have for years called this neighborhood home. And above all -- the dapper salarymen and businesswomen who stand to inherit the area.
Situated a block from the hellmouth of the Bedford "L" subway train, our camera aims down the street, capturing Williamsburg on the hoof…
We believe this service fills a need for live fashion information, with a unique and unmatched vantage point on the hippest block in New York City. It will quickly become a destination for New York City peacocks to traipse by and show off what makes the neighborhood hop. For the savvy, a place to be seen. For the flaneur, a bounty of style.
Visitors to the site are encouraged to rate the style of those pictured by clicking on a top hat. Since the project surfaced a couple of days ago, some bloggers have questioned whether Styleblaster, while perfectly legal, constitutes a creepy invasion of privacy.
I emailed Jules Laplace, who with his girlfriend, Mary Burford, is one of the minds behind the project. Was he worried about people pictured on the site being ridiculed for their appearance? "Yes, I worry about people being ridiculed in general," he says. "There is a lot of mean spirit on the Internet…. People hide their bigotry in real life but the walls come down online. Lots of sites pander to that, and what can you do? It's part of the reason we don't have comments. There's no use in making another forum for idiots."
Laplace points out that far from capturing only self-conscious hipsters, the automated camera shows the diverse population that still exists in the neighborhood, one of the city’s most-often-cited cases of gentrification. "Our camera does not discriminate," he says. "We believe the photos are evidence that everyone has their own personal style. We hope the site will be viewed in that light -- a positive, equalizing force."
Laplace, 30, insists that he wouldn’t have any problem with his own picture showing up in a feed like Styleblaster. "There's such a glut of information on the Internet, I'd be surprised if anyone would even be aware of it," he says.
The idea that someone, somewhere, is always watching doesn’t trouble him. "I have grown up being surveilled, both online and in public," he says. "Cameras photograph us at the bank, at the liquor store, and on any city street. Go out on a busy day to any touristed part of Manhattan, and you will be photographed by private citizens with cameraphones without your consent. Hiding from it is, I think, an exercise in paranoia. An abject life is hardly a life at all. So we go out each day, dressed to meet the public, and accept the consequences and the benefits of that."
As White wrote more than 60 years ago, "The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck."