Nothing to hide

Commentators have suggested that when phone users share all aspects of their life in public spaces they are taking part in the gradual erosion of British reserve. This is perhaps more complex than it appears: for example was this tradition of reserve a quality that was expressed by all classes or was it perhaps exercised by a few who recommended it as a model others should follow? Was it the unconscious expression of one class to maintain the order of another who perhaps felt threatened by the loud public speech of the underclasses?

But to really bring this debate up to date we should connect the trend of talking loudly and often on the phone with the rise of surveillance.

Surveillance in public and private space is a well-established feature of contemporary life but what cannot be so easily absorbed are the ways in which the meta theme of surveillance has been taken into everyday behaviour. How can we calculate the degree to which constant monitoring has informed body language, speech forms and life in public space?

Talking on the phone might be seen as a way of illustrating the talker has ‘nothing to hide’ – the traditional defence used by the defenders of surveillance. But talking in this way also inadvertently creates witnesses to speech and behaviour. By opening up the details of ones life in public the individual is collusive in identity creation. Information revealed in speech, movement, numbers called, paths followed, folds the individual into the system. They are now more knowable (and, in the rubric of law and order, better protected) but is their sense of agency in some way compromised? 

Alternatively it may be possible to read such open speech as a defiance, however modest of public propriety. Are loud talkers the unsung warriors of our time openly displaying the details of their lives in an attempt to make us all a little less bashful? Does CCTV play an unconscious role in the behaviour? The relationship between the fact of increasing surveillance and the subtleties of custom is complex to unravel. No wonder it’e easier for commentators to settle on something as simple as British reserve. 

Autonomy and a sense of agency are important forces that help ground an individual and give him or her a feeling of power. But what do you feel when the instruments of surveillance technology inform the behaviour of others in public space? Is this threatening or liberating? It will be a good first step to think this through.