On What are you working on?

I don’t mean in the sense of “So, what do you do?” for people whose profession (e.g., writers, filmmakers…especially writers) might not appear to involve actually doing very much.
I mean in the nosy sense. A boss or busybody or fisher of insider information might ask you what you’re working on, leaving you to wonder what, exactly, they’re getting at. To avoid the appearance of micromanaging, hovering, or intrusion, the passive aggressive boss might install cameras (“They’re just webcams!” he might say chirpily.) and offer assurances that they’ll only be accessible “to Charles and James and myself,” and all they’re for is to “read the whiteboard in the lab” or to “see if you’re there before coming over” (telephones being an outmoded way of contacting you, apparently).
Then, when the “webcam” is installed, and it turns out to be housed in a little smoked glass dome, and to pan and zoom, via remote control, then your boss really will know what you’re working on, because now, he can follow you around the lab with his camera. At meetings, the webcamming managers will giggle at their new toy, which in the very techy, science-y, even, culture of your workplace, is now an object of gadget envy, by people who don’t work within its lens’s reach, of course.

Monitor, 1998, Craig Kalpakjian, Andrea Rosen Gallery, image:momentaart.org
Monitor, 1998, Craig Kalpakjian
Andrea Rosen Gallery, image:momentaart.org

In the first week, you’ll know your boss knows what you’re working on, because it’ll turn out the “webcam” can read a monitor on an experiment–oh, and your computer screen–from across the room. It can zoom in on your colleague’s nascent ear hair, “Did you know Craig has ear hair?” becoming a topic of conversation among the admins in your bosses’ offices. IT people you’ve never met will smile at you in the hall, and say hi like an old friend. Occasionally, a stranger’ll just drop by to chat; she’d always meant to introduce herself before–you seemed so interesting. Her eyes dart furtively to the black dome and back as you talk, and you say to yourself, if she were a cop, she’d blow the sting.
Your neck and shoulders will seize up by the end of the week, and only when you point out to your male colleague that they’re checking out his ass, too, you know, will his disgust for the ideological implications of these controlling cameras overcome his entrenched gadgetophilia. When you impose on the head of the project for a few minutes of his time that afternoon, he will explain the extremely circumscribed authorized uses–and users–of the camera and he’ll reassure you that any fears you will have are unfounded. Then he’ll ask, in confidence, why, have you heard something different? Then you’ll unfold the totality of the harsh spotlight you are under, the misuse and intrusion that inexorably attends the installation of surveillance cameras, and that will missioncreep back, as long as the cameras are there.
Late on that Friday afternoon, a stern mass email will go out–he’s a pretty no-nonsense guy, all said and done–from the project head, “the cameras will be disabled immediately, pending the development of an appropriate use policy.” An IT guy you’ve never seen will say hi to you as if you’d shared an office once when he comes to hastily remove the cable. When you come in on Monday, you’ll be surprised to see the cameras gone, even their bolt holes puttied and painted over. You’ll login to your email to find another mass email from the project head, announcing the cameras’ demise, timestamped Saturday evening.
This surveillance camera drama is brought to you courtesy of my wife and her colleagues at NASA. See performances with far unhappier endings, by the Surveillance Camera Players, at “Psy-Geo-Conflux” this weekend, a culture happening you’ll still not quite grasp after reading this Village Voice article. I do get that the cool Wooster Collective folks‘ll be doing a walking tour of street art, though.