On Paranoia

For the last year and a half, the members of the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) have been the butt of an obvious joke: they're all "paranoid"; they think everybody is watching them; etc. etc. In the August 1999 issue of Details magazine, SCP co-founder Bill Brown was described as "mildly paranoid." In an article published shortly thereafter by the Associated Press, Bill got an opportunity to respond to this dash of artificial flavoring. (For what does "mildly" paranoid mean? Can paranoid conditions be divided into mild, medium and strong, like spicy foods?)

Asked about a magazine article describing him as "mildly paranoid," Brown set the record straight. "I'm very paranoid," he said.

Too bad the writer didn't think to add "with a smile" to that last sentence!

And, in September 2000, New York magazine described Bill as "an accomplished paranoid" -- as if paranoia were something one does badly or well, depending on skill and experience. (There have been other references to or questions about paranoia in discussions of the SCP, but they haven't been published or broadcast yet. This text will track them, if and when they appear.)

Bill and the rest of the SCP have obviously been willing to play along with these lame attempts at humor. In a spectacular society such as ours, the theme of paranoia is to be expected whenever an activist goes public with a concern that isn't already familiar to most people through the mass media. If an issue of concern hasn't been "in the news," then it isn't and can't be real; the issue is and must be the delusion of the person who identifies and complains about it. And so "paranoia" doesn't refer to the mental illness of the activist, but to the average person's ignorance of the larger issues involved in the activist's struggle. The more ignorant the observer is, the more paranoid the activist appears; conversely, the less ignorant the observer, the less paranoid the activist. This is especially true when it comes to "obscure" issues concerning surveillance cameras, which are put up without any notification whatsoever, hidden from view and designed to work without being detected.

And so the SCP -- realizing that it would be a mistake to object to or refuse to acknowledge the humor in these jokes -- have played and laughed along with them. No harm done, right? None of the jokers actually think that Bill or the others members of the SCP are paranoid in the clinical or psychological senses of the word, and for the perfectly good reason that the aforementioned people are not paranoid, thank you very much. Laughing and playing along has, no doubt, actually helped the SCP, for no one likes people, especially public figures, who can't laugh at themselves or see the humor in jokes (even the cruel ones) made about them.

But it would be a mistake to leave it (our comments on paranoia) at that and move on. Isn't it strange that paranoia is detected in the SCP and only in the SCP? What about the people who have installed surveillance cameras all over New York City? If anyone is "paranoid" here, it is surely them and not the people who object to the ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras!

The SCP has good reason for its "paranoia," if the group is indeed paranoid: it is an undeniable fact that the city is filled with surveillance cameras. Even New York magazine had to admit it: "Though he's an accomplished paranoid who reels off a list of Defense Department-related agencies that sniff out his Web server, Brown is also a polemicist who considers the number of cameras aimed at public space in Manhattan -- at least 2,500, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union -- an invasion of privacy." But the installers of these cameras do not have good reason for their paranoia. As a matter of fact, New York City is not filled with drunk and disorderly persons, drug dealers, prostitutes, vandals, thieves, burglars, muggers, rapists, child molesters, murderers and terrorists. And if New York City is remarkably crime-free for a city of its size, it isn't because the ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras has chased away or lead to the arrest and imprisonment of all the criminals (the so-called War on Drugs took care of that). The cameras started going up in New York in 1998, years after the rate of crime plunged and stayed low.

Not only are the camera installers truly paranoid, but they also deliberately seek to induce paranoia in other people as well. The only reason this irrational and barbaric approach to crime prevention/detection is tolerated is the fact that the camera installers say they want to induce paranoia in a single group or category of people, and that this one group, moreover, is guilty by definition and thus already deserving of punishment (the dreaded criminals, that is, the people who intend or are likely to commit a crime if the opportunity presents itself). But paranoia is not a tool and it can't be used selectively. All of us -- criminals and law-abiding citizens alike -- are made to feel "paranoid" by the ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras in public places; all of us feel that the camera installers presume us guilty until proven innocent. And so, rather than increasing public security, which would seem to be the goal of all crime-fighting measures, surveillance cameras undermine it. Instead of being fearful of crime, we are fearful of crime-fighting measures.

One of the striking things about paranoia is that, unlike other forms of serious mental illness, the affected person retains complete possession of his or her mental faculties, intelligence, orientation, logical abilities and memory. In the words of Dr. Weber, who studied the famous case of Judge Daniel Paul Schreber,

It is therefore neither rare nor remarkable that paranoiacs although perhaps for a long time considered oddities, carry on their business sufficiently well and their professional duties in an orderly manner, can even work scientifically with success, although their mental life is seriously disturbed and they are in the throes of a delusional system which is freqently quite absurd. Such cases are known in large numbers to every psychiatrist of some experience, indeed they illustrate nicely the special features of paranoia.

In the many fields in which strategy is employed against adversaries or foes who are presumed to be persistent, intelligent and well-organized -- street gangs, drug cartels and other smugglers, organized crime families, terrorist organizations, spy and counter-spy networks, computer hackers, military forces, etc. etc. -- paranoia isn't a disability or a draw-back: it counts as an asset or special qualification for the job. And so, given the importance of protecting society from its many strategic adversaries, it's a good thing society produces so many paranoid people, right?

Wrong. One of the things that makes the SCP effective is the fact that the group isn't and refuses to become paranoid.

Contact the Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail SCP@notbored.org

By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998

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