Category Archives: Oligopticon


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A rather odd and uncomfortable thing happened last night, that made me wonder about the ways in which young people are interacting with those who support them and care for them.

My family brought some Chinese food back from the village. It was about 9.00pm. They said that there was a group of very drunk kids out on the Green near where we live and that two of them appeared to be unconscious. They said that there seemed to be some association with a house where one of the teenagers I taught for a while lives. (It turned out it wasn’t that house that was involved). I thought I ought to go and check out what was happening, as I was worried that some of the children I had used to teach might have got themselves into trouble.

So I walked to the Green (which is more or less next to our house) and found, by the side of the road, two young men neatly tucked into the recovery position lying close to each other. They appeared to be unconscious. They were scratched and bleeding, although it was hard to see very clearly as it was getting dark. They had some equipment that looked like a length of gas piping attached to a compressor between them. There didn’t seem to be anyone around.

I crouched down, cautiously, and started trying to get a response from them. One of them stirred and mumbled; the other one was really far gone.

Two teens walked across the road to me, and asked with an air of relief whether I could get help, as they had been scared to. They said they knew these two, but not well, that they’d been drinking a lot of shots all evening and possibly other stuff, that they’d had a fight and then collapsed. I asked if they had taken any other sorts of drugs – there was a problem with Mephedrome (meow-meow) with some of the more troubled families in the area, previously, and these unconscious boys / men had that sort of uncared-for look about them, that made me wonder. The teens seemed quite responsible (as most of them are around here) but had been worried about calling for help themselves.

So not knowing whether these guys might need their stomachs pumping, I decided to call an ambulance. I was trying to ascertain the pulse of the very still one, while on the phone, when someone else came up, tried to elbow me aside and said very confidently (but in a slurred way – it was hard to understand him) that he was a professional. He started talking over me and generally getting in the way, while I was trying to count the breath rate of the very still young man. I was a bit annoyed, as I felt somewhat vulnerable bending over a young man who by all accounts was very drunk, had just been fighting and might suddenly spring up and knock me for six. So I tried to ignore the ‘professional’ who I felt was compromising my safety while I was doing the job I had been asked to do, got the information the controller wanted, then handed my phone to this person, assuming that if they were a professional they’d be able to cover the bases.

The ambulance arrived and people start prodding the young men – trying to get a response. The one who had seemed very out of it started stirring, and quietly emitted a mumbling series of short, sharp, Father Jack-like ‘Fuck offs.’ (It sounded more like ‘Furroff.’) It was clear that this was reflexive, he couldn’t even see us, he didn’t know who was there and it seemed tic-like. However the ambulance workers took exception to this and started telling him off. This seemed a waste of time to me. They were doing their job though and getting on with things, just trying to work out what needed to be done. The man continued to mumble ‘Furroff,’ and it was really clear that this was almost automatic. He was not otherwise moving; he didn’t respond in any other way to being prodded, which several people were now doing to him.

However the ambulance worker addressed him as though he were a rational person and told him (politely) that since he was being abusive she was calling the police. This seemed reasonable on the one hand to me, as ambulance workers live with the constant danger of being attacked by the people they are trying to help, on the other, it also felt protocol-like, as though she was covering some ticksheet, as the young man neither knew or cared about what she was saying.

A police-officer turned up and I think a PCSO arrived too. There were now two teens, and about seven adults all standing over these young men. The men stirred and one of them rolled slightly and clutched hold of his friend, as you do in the night when you’re sleeping. He looked vulnerable. One of the teens told us that the more responsive man lived in sheltered accommodation and that they were not from the area. And this was where it got all wrong somehow.

The ambulance workers and the police officer had taken exception to the swearing which had subsided and were goading the couple. They noticed the bit of gas piping that seemed to have been torn out of an installation somewhere. One of the responsible boys said quietly to me, ‘They were trying to kill each other with that.’ This raised a question in my head again, about whether the young men had taken anything other than alcohol and if they had any other injuries. (Also was there gas pouring out of some installation somewhere?) I could see that goading might be effective in trying to get them to stir, and possibly to walk away, but the two mostly motionless forms seemed to be a long way off from being able to walk (or even move or speak).

It became apparent that the one who lived in sheltered accommodation had had an accident and was only in his soiled underclothes.  (I hadn’t noticed before as it was getting dark). There was a bit of jeering from the crowd when this became evident. I started to feel uneasy.

One of the adults said mockingly, ‘Ah look, how sweet, he’s cuddling up to his boyfriend.’ They started making homophobic/shit-based jokes, alluding to the state of this person’s underwear, and then one of the workers said to the two boys who asked me to help, ‘I hope you’ve got some photos and you’re going to put them on Facebook.’

The boys who just didn’t really know any better, were trying to get along with what they saw as responsible adults, laughed and said they’d taken some photos earlier. One of the workers than said, ‘Well make sure you get some more now, of them cuddling like that.’ They all started discussing how to get photos and put them on Facebook and how that would ‘teach’ the young men.

I was incredibly tired – I’d been up since four, only got back about half an hour previously, had had to walk away from a meal I was looking forward to, and I started to see red.

So I shouted over the rather Lord of the Flies cocktail party atmosphere that was starting to develop, got everyone to be quiet for a minute, and then asked whether we were just going to take the piss out of them or what the plan was. That did at least stop the appalling jokes. The police officer looked at me in a ‘Who are you?’ way, and asked as much. I said I’d heard there were two unconscious men lying in the street and had called it in. He looked rather as though I’d done the wrong thing. Maybe I should have just swept them up. He more or less told me I could go, and I went, not because I was going to do what anyone told me to, but because I was starting to feel the red mist.

A young man, living in sheltered accommodation, who gets himself into trouble, has photos taken of him and then shared by people who don’t even seem to know him that well. Never mind about needing the right to be forgotten. He already seems like one of the forgotten, and surely he has the right not to be treated in that way?

I know nothing about these people, (and I feel a bit bad writing about the state they’d got themselves into, but no-one will know who they were, hopefully) but I felt a slight despair. I had a flashback to the hours I had spent in a classroom full of teens trying to get them to understand the basics of mobile netiquette, trying to explain how they shouldn’t sext or frape and how to keep secure. I felt undermined. All that effort that is going into the UK Cyber Security Strategy – trying to ensure that people can stay safe online. Someone seems to have forgotten to tell the grown-ups.

So next time this guy is looking for a job, or possibly in court, or otherwise having to account for himself, any of the snoopers who like making people’s lives difficult will have a great time with these photos. To make it clear, I didn’t see any photos being taken, and I would have stopped them if I had, and I certainly wouldn’t have left.

I’m not blaming the police or the ambulance workers – compassion gets in short supply when working with people who seem determined to constantly attack and undermine: who appear at the zeniths of their various madnesses to be dangerous, vicious and violent. The workers on the front line see people at their worst (and sometimes their best) and don’t see the more even parts of people’s lives away from the drama that brings them to hospital or the police. The workers have their ways of coping with what they have to deal with. Those ways can seem grim to us who watch them do their jobs but who don’t put up with the crap that they do.

The ambulance and the police had come out really quickly on a Friday evening, the worst possible time for them, found out what was going on, and got on with things. They were, I think, trying to make a bond with the boys who’d called it in, trying to show that they ‘got’ young people’s behaviour. The boys likewise were doing the same. I don’t know if it was really malicious. I trusted them to get on with it, or I wouldn’t have left.  I can’t imagine how pissed off they must have been at having to come out and deal with yet more drunkenness. And I don’t know whose responsibility it should be to look after drunk people. Everyone’s?

I’ve recently met a few people who check job-applicants’ Facebook profiles. One of them told me about her work rather gloatingly. It seemed that she quite enjoyed surveying the web and poking a disapproving finger at what people get up to. The young man who was almost literally lying in the gutter will probably never end up in his moment of drunken glory, on the other side of a computer monitor under her rather sanctimonious gaze. But Christ, I feel sorry for people who do.

If, as it seems, everyone, including the police and ambulance workers, promotes the documentation of our embarrassing crevices, if we are accidentally, deliberately or contingently surveyed at all those points where we would least wish to be surveyed, we are going to have to learn a great deal more humanity, in order to understand these peeks we are now afforded into the disorder of some people’s lives. 

Latour writes about the Oligopticon in a work that is accompanied by this document: ‘Paris: Invisible City‘ and of how ‘computers have the virtue of materializing things better, of slowing them down, of reducing to the scale of a model the abundance of interactions that we take for granted.’ The lady who looks at people’s Facebook accounts is not able to ‘capture all of Paris’ in a single glance’, but she is still practising a form of domination ‘at a glance’ when she passes judgement on what she sees before her.

To misappropriate from Latour, ‘Social life seems to be back to square one: rough bodies, frustrated feelings,fledgling languages, barely polished “netiquette”, simplistic technologies,fluctuating currencies. These elementary social atoms groping for one another in the dark seem more like the primitive beings peopling the opening of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality.’

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