Out from under surveillance - Daniel Silliman

The surveillance camera was in the upper corner of the store, always watching, always recording.

For months, every day for hours, the camera caught me as I worked as a clerk at the gas station. The camera watched while I counted change, when I restocked the shelves, talked on the phone, read a book or sat staring off at nothing. I worked there for nine months, doing 35 to 40 hours a week. That means there was something like 1,260 to 1,440 hours of recorded footage of me.

But no one ever looked at it. No one cared.

I wasn't robbed and my till count always came up reasonably close, so no one cared to see what the camera recorded. Of course, the camera saw, but only with the unblinking, unconcerned stare of a dispassionate machine. No one even bothered to look at my tapes, because the tapes and I didn't matter.

This is weirdly disturbing. It's hard to lose the idea of being watched. From when we are young, we are told Santa Claus is keeping a list, God is keeping up with our prayers, and our mothers have eyes in the backs of their heads. But then, it turns out that, at best, there is a record of our acts, but no one's bothered to look at it.

In 1948, George Orwell wrote his famous novel about a futuristic, totalitarian state, where everyone would always be watched by the authorities. The government, "Big Brother," was always watching.

That image, that fear, has captured civil libertarians and paranoid people ever since. The public is warned semi-regularly about the possibility we're being spied on. Everything is monitored -- public places have cameras, traffic lights watch us, our IT systems track our e-mails, our cell phones broadcast a GPS signal.

But I think the real disturbing thing is the extent to which we're not being watched. Big Brother could be watching me, but he isn't, because Big Brother doesn't care. I am irrelevant.

I am narcissistic enough to think someone should be watching me. I am interesting. I am important. People should care. There's some part of me that thinks James Lipton, from the TV show "Inside the Actors Studio," with his funny beard and little blue note cards, will at some point want to ask me about every banal part of my life, will lean in, interestedly, as I tell him my most, and least, favorite word and offer up chunks of clichéd inspiration.

I don't think I'm alone, in this self-centeredness. We all think we're the center of everything, and are disturbed by being de-centered. Recently, some theoretical physicists at Stanford University have speculated our universe is just one of many, and probably not even an important one. This thought just continues the whole history of astronomical mapping, as we find out our earth is not the center of the solar system, our solar system is not the center of the galaxy, and our galaxy is not the center of the universe.

The more we know, the more we realize how peripheral we are.

Last week, President George W. Bush was talking about writing his memoirs and the publishing companies told him that really, nobody cared. Nobody is watching him, he's irrelevant now, but he could keep notes or something if he wanted, because people might be interested someday, maybe.

That's kind of shocking -- even the president needs to be understood, wants to be watched, and is struggling to assert his importance. This is insanity, but then, Richard Nixon bugged his own office and more than one person has asked to see their nonexistent FBI files.

This is a peculiar modern plight. We've made it so easy to be watched. But where are our stalkers? Our spies? Our Big Brother? We update our Facebook statuses every hour, we Twitter our latest sighting, post our day's diary, and wonder if there isn't someone out there to see us.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.