Why Surveillance Cameras Might Be Bad for Creative Economies

An unusual argument against Big Brother on city streets.

Surveillance cameras now exist – often unseen – on city streets in the hundreds, mounted over ATMs, from street lights, at the entrances to private apartment buildings and in public parks. Efforts to map them in Manhattan, for example, have counted more than 2,000 such cameras, each adding to an increasingly comprehensive network that is creating – depending on your point of view – either safer streets or a surveillance state.

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Critics of this increasingly ubiquitous technology argue that so many electronic eyes have become invasive. They violate your privacy. They're redefining what it means to walk through public space. But here is one more novel argument that might cause unconvinced politicians to reconsider the social costs of heightened security: What if surveillance cameras are also bad for creativity and innovation?

This is the argument of Ann Cavoukian, the commissioner of the Office of Information and Privacy in Ontario, Canada. Speaking Tuesday at The Atlantic's CityLab summit on innovation, she argued that heavily surveilled cities are fundamentally incompatible with environments where people have the excess cognitive capacity to be creative. Spend a lot of your time preoccupied by whether anyone is watching you, and what your movements might look like on camera, and you've got that much less mental bandwidth to focus on things like, well, the next really great idea.

"The point," Cavoukian says, "is the focus shifts away from creativity and innovation and risk-taking, which you need for innovative pursuits."

This argument may sound like a stretch. But at least Cavoukian is speaking the language of municipal politicians now making decisions about how many security cameras are enough. Seemingly every city these days is trying to rebuild its economy around these two buzz words: creativity and innovation.

Watch Cavoukian's full comments here:

 

 

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.