Big Brother at Uni
Living in a student ghetto in a student city can make you feel horribly middle-aged. It’s not so much their extravagant – or extravagantly revealing – clothing, that you could no longer get away with yourself. Actually I rather like the annual summer display of belly buttons down King’s Parade. And it’s not their youthful argot either. Even I find myself saying “uni”, when I mean “university”.
What is most dispiriting for us old liberals is more ideological. It’s the way the students have come to take for granted all the things we fought against and lost. They can’t imagine what life would be like with a nationalized railway or free eye-tests; and they can’t think what a second post would actually be for.
But even more alarming is that most of them have entirely bought into the idea of a surveillance culture. Show them a gloomy bike shed, a leafy path or a picturesque bend in the river, and there is nothing that your average Cambridge undergraduate would like to do more than install a CCTV camera in it.
They say it makes them feel safer. And I suppose that you can’t entirely blame them for not bucking the general trend. Ever since that macabre CCTV image of a pair of kids walking off with a toddler set the police onto the killers of Jamie Bulger, CCTV has had a peculiarly unchallengeable status amongst the British public as a crime detection or even prevention device.
Whether it is really effective or not is quite another matter. When my own Faculty was broken into for the usual haul of laptops and data-projectors a few months ago, the police didn’t even bother to look at what might have been recorded by the camera trained directly at the front door. “Wouldn’t be a good enough image, luv”.
All the same, the majority of the population is, I suspect, rather proud that we have more CCTV cameras per head than any other country in the world – even though a glance at most foreign newspapers suggests that, from the outside, it looks like a very odd enthusiasm for a liberal democracy.
And it’s on those civil liberties ground that I have always found the students’ embracing of CCTV such a puzzle. I wouldn’t mind it if they said “Look we know what the libertarian arguments are, but on balance we think that it’s worth the risk”. But in fact these highly intelligent young people (and half of them Amnesty members) just look blank when some old grey beard like me warns darkly about the dangers of surveillance. If anything, they’ll mutter the stupid mantra that you have nothing to fear if you’ve done no wrong. How could this be?
I was beginning to blame the usual suspects – viz they must have been taught this at school – when confirmation of these suspicions arrived by an unexpected domestic route. My son appeared at home, just before some big exams, having lost his backpack with all his notes. He seemed remarkably insouciant (I wasn’t). But sure enough the next day he came home, the back-pack found.
What he had done was go to the school CCTV controller clutching his school timetable – and so he could be tracked through the day. There he was entering the French lesson with the back-pack, and here he was coming out of it without. Hey presto, it was found in the French room.
This, I realized, must be a wizard procedure repeated over and over again in schools throughout the country, as disorganized adolescents get re-united with belongings thanks to the CCTV cameras. If Big Brother has always helped you find your lost property, no wonder you have a softer spot for him than I do.