Erik Larson

Nov 17, 2008

Running Stop Lights

I was driving down I think it was Lakeline a few weeks ago, and noticed a camera pointing down at me at an intersection. I stopped a little past the line, listening to music and I suppose not doing my best driving. At any rate, I had some spell of worry after driving away, as if, somehow, the technology would record not my running the light, but my stopping past the line. After a while I recovered from my Orwellian paranoia; glad to say I haven’t received a ticket from this camera yet.

Later I talked with a friend about the privacy issue, and in particular the issue of whether cameras should catch red light runners regardless of whether any human (police officer) witnessed the event. My friend took a reasonable position, saying in effect that, look, you’ve run the light or you haven’t. Why require that a cop be present at every light? Why not use technology, if it works? After all, we don’t have existential angst about police having well-calibrated radar guns to catch speeders. Who argues with this?

It was a reasonable point, I suppose. But, after puzzling about it for a while, I smelled a rat. My question was simple: suppose we had a technology that was even better than cameras, or radar guns. It represented the completion of all such technologies. It rode along with us, and, if you broke a law, it would simply record the infraction, and send the ticket. So, if you run a stop light, you get a ticket. If speeding, a ticket. If you happen to be risking more serious infractions by driving after having too many, you’ll be apprehended later, sure as the sun rises, and will spend the night in jail. And on and on. The perfect completion—just the logical extension—of cameras at stop lights. Any one for this?

My friend recoiled at the suggestion. I asked why, and after some mumbling and fumbling, just declared that it wasn’t right. Right.

What’s interesting is how, seemingly, more security makes such good sense, to a point, and then suddenly it seems positively distopian. We’re all for better security when it doesn’t feel like the State sucks away our autonomy. But, as my thought experiment suggests, once we do feel this way, we recoil.

It’s worth thinking about the distinction between the two cases. Just decent (not omniscient) technology like cameras at stoplights sounds great. But better and better technology, and suddently we’re holed up in Montana with guns. So where does the issue really stand? I wonder. Flipping the coin, consider it this way. Why should we be allowed to break the law, ever, and get away with it, just for lack of technology? We still broke the law. Why, then, recoil when law enforcement just works better ?