The Eye in the Sky

Eyes aren't always symbols of humanness, as a brief perusal of the British transport system shows.

"We're watching out for you", proclaims a Network Rail poster in bold letters underneath an unnecessarily large picture of a CCTV camera. I can't be the only person who, every time I see the poster, misreads it as "We're watching you".

Given the amount of money I imagine Network Rail allocates poster campaigns such as this one, I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if this "misreading" were intended. Normally, when we're treated to a black stencilled picture of a CCTV camera, it's to remind us not to steal, or smoke in the wrong place, or vandalise, or sit in the first class carriage. So naturally, these big blue posters with pictures of looming CCTV cameras on them make the skin crawl before the text beneath has had a chance to reassure commuters of how much Network Rail cares about them.

Queensland Rail in Australia are also at it. On their website they reassure their paranoid customers with an image of a bold exclamation mark inside a big red triangle. This symbol is more commonly associated with the word "danger" than "safety". Yet without a hint of irony, they go on to assure customers that they want "to help you feel safe and secure", before announcing that "we're watching out for you with 6,800 CCTV cameras".

At least Luas tramways in Dublin avoid the doublespeak and freely admit, in what could be a paraphrase of the Big Brother mantra, "CCTV is watching you".

 

Another publicity campaign that seems to deliberately subvert the message it purports to be sending is the series of tube posters that resemble the dust jackets to a 70s reprint of Nineteen-Eighty Four. Stylised drawings of eyes, ears and lips bounce out from every wall of the underground, reminding law-abiding citizens to report "anything suspicious" to "our staff" - a nebulous and undefined body of TfL security personnel, probably by now outsourced to Serco, who presumably lurk behind those creepy, flashing, beeping mobile bin machines in flak jackets and ski masks, ready to frisk anyone who looks a bit too Muslim.

In New York, a similar "security" campaign has churned out thousands of bright yellow posters that boast "there are 16 million eyes in the city". In order to remind people what eyes are, the poster depicts 12 sets of them. One can't help but be reminded of the "Big Brother is Watching You" poster in Nineteen Eighty-Four, whose "eyes follow you about when you move".

San Francisco International Airport went for a more minimalist approach with their sign inviting travellers to report suspicious activity, but the end product was no less creepy for it:

"Secure Beneath the Watchful Eyes" - the 2002 Transport for London (TfL) posters that resemble the front cover of a Philip K Dick paperback - has a distinctly Juche ring to it, resonant of Bradley K Martin's authoritative title on North Korea: Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader. Which should come as no surprise, given that Britain has more CCTV cameras per capita than North Korea does.

These posters, purportedly erected to reassure London citizens, are eerily reminiscent of over-the-top book sleeves for dystopian novels:

There is a serious point here, though. A study by Newcastle University, which found that people put more money in honesty boxes when a picture
of eyes was on the wall, inspired West Midland Police's "Operation Momentum" - a poster campaign with the tagline "We've got our eye on criminals."

The strategy is not a new one. The US Homeland Security Department used the spectre of a (not very subtly disguised) German-atron peeking over the next door fence to encourage curtain-twitchers the nation over to join in the fight against Nazism.

It seems the West Midland's strategy may well have trickled down to the Met and TfL, who have both incorporated pictures of eyes as central aspects of their poster campaigns. The image of an eye gives the impression of surveillance, even if there is no one doing the surveilling. It contributes to a psychological climate of paranoia and self-consciousness that arguably does away with the need for actual CCTV cameras. The image of a CCTV camera itself is perhaps more powerful in this respect. CCTV cameras make us think of surveillance, but with that additional degree of removal from the surveillor. Pictures of CCTV cameras, or dehumanised eyes like those the TfL assures us we are "secure beneath", create the impression of being subjects in a system - one that is not human, and that we are powerless to affect.

Something else non-human is the tannoy voice at King's Cross station. Tannoy lady has a mechanical rasp devoid of inflection or emotion. One imagines she has a very limited sense of humour. The metallic clang of her voice reverberates around the station, reminding passengers that
"security personnel patrol this station for purposes of safety and security". In the spirit of belt-tightening, they may well have cobbled together this humanoid's repertoire from the sweepings of film reel that didn't make the final cut of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I feel like I'm in Children of Men and always half expect the train to roll past a cage full of infertile refugees.

Anyone worried that the state is becoming too voyeuristic can find solace in the fact that surveillance is, in a salutary example of the Big Society in action, being outsourced to ordinary people. The website Internet Eyes offers lonely people who are bored of masturbating the opportunity to monitor live CCTV feeds and report suspecting wrongdoing or "suspicious activity" to business owners. In a plug on the website, founder and CEO Tom Morgan explains that citizens can "assist our already overworked police and security staff by becoming that extra pair of eyes."

There is clearly great power in the image of human eyes. And often, far from being comforting or human, they are intimidating and soulless, feeding a paranoia that can be harnessed for political ends. From the Sun God Ra, to the Illuminati triangle found on the US dollar, to WWII and current anti-terrorism propaganda, eyes have been used as symbols of power, to impress, discipline and threaten. We would do well to remember the power of such symbolism the next time we pass a poster purporting to make us feel safe.

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.