What I Learned After Watching 24-Hour Surveillance Footage for a Week
I dove headfirst into the strange serenity of Insecam.
A shop in Almaty, Kazakhstan. All photos via insecam.org
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Do you ever just sit and think about everything going on right now? It's chaos out there.
At the time of writing this, a volcano in Hawaii threw a huge cloud of ash two miles into the sky. Remember that Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared four years ago? Experts now think all the passengers were murdered by the pilot, who messed with the air pressure and made them all unconscious. Ten people were killed in yet another US school shooting last week.
You get the idea. The news makes us think that major things are happening all the time. I assumed this independently too because on a planet as big as the one we're on, how can they not be?
And then I rediscovered Insecam.
Insecam is an online directory of unsecured security cameras, currently purporting to display around 73,000 live-streams from around the world. It’s existed for a while—Motherboard wrote about it in 2014—but nobody has really delved into it since. This confuses me because in many ways, it is the only glimpse we have of what is happening everywhere, in real time. We can scroll through social media feeds until our wrists are sore, collect as much statistical data as we like, pivot our way through Google Earth, but none of this gives us the same insights as being able to visually observe the present from so many angles.
Churches, restaurants, farms, streets, bars, private gardens, beaches, barber shops—they’re all there, streaming 24 hours a day within neatly organized categories such as "farm" and "traffic" and "interesting." Because the owners of these security cameras probably don't know this footage is being streamed online, you're basically an invisible observer. If that sounds creepy and unethical, welcome to 2018—someone is probably watching you reading this.
Anyway: Those who know me well know that I have an incredibly obsessive personality. I once took so many vitamin supplements that my limbs went numb for six months. I’m the kind of person who cannot have a hobby unless that hobby becomes my entire personality for an unspecified duration of time. Context given, you'll understand why—for a week or so, recently—Insecam became my life.
I would view Insecam first thing in the morning, check in when I should have been doing other stuff at work, scroll through Insecam on the bus home, angling my phone screen so the other passengers wouldn’t notice that I was staring blank-faced at live footage of a potato factory in Bolton. For something that shows all the bits of the real life we intentionally leave off our social media because it’s so boring, Insecam is very easy to get sucked into. Oh, I’ll just peep at what’s happening in this Taiwanese hairdressers then I’ll stop, I’d tell myself, before getting lost in there for another few hours, spying on empty backstreets, Bible-belt churches, and Israeli bakeries.
After watching 24-hour surveillance footage from around the world almost constantly for one week, my main takeaway is this: nothing is happening, most of the time. I'm serious. We think of the world as this screaming, disastrous thing—a nonstop miasma of events and movement. Whereas, actually, when our backs are turned, when we are asleep or elsewhere, what sits behind and around us are endless empty spaces and motionless objects.
What I found most interesting about live streaming weren't the fights or affairs or accidents that you'd expect, but the sheer nothingness that permeates every single corner of the earth. When you leave to go to work, for example, your bedroom just sits there being empty and all your belongings remain still. Now imagine that on a global scale. Laundromats go silent, and roads exist without cars for hours at a time. Oceans are still carrying on at 5 AM, when the sky is black. It's astonishing.
Another revelation that came from this experience is that humans are not the center of the universe. We think we are because that’s how we’ve evolved, but we’re not even close to filling the whole world up. There are flamingos taking solitary dips in lakes and cows going to sleep and horses staring into space without interruption. And when humans are around—and there are lots of us, scurrying around like ants, chatting on phones in parking lots, furiously driving through the rain —it rarely looks like we’re doing anything interesting.
In fact, when I did see people on Insecam, they were usually working. It was weird to observe capitalism unfold on such a large scale: I watched hordes of people sewing garments, typing away in offices, and packaging supplies to be sold. If you're wondering what most people are doing right now, if they’re awake they’re probably getting ready to work, at work, or coming home from work. If these Insecam streams are anything to go by, leisure is fleeting.
It's worth mentioning here that a site like Insecam—for all of its appeal—is also inherently not good. There’s something disturbing about being able to view a person without their consent, regardless of whether it’s loosely legal or happening to all of us.
The creator, an anonymous admin who appears to be hosting the service in Russia, explained that the site "has been designed in order to show the importance of the security settings. To remove your public camera from this site and make it private the only thing you need to do is to change your camera password." In other words, some nerd has set it up just because they can. And there are probably people using it for questionable purposes, and almost certainly those finding stuff to masturbate over. One scroll through Reddit, for instance, will show users saying things like, "I found a nice girl in Colombia." This is absolutely not even slightly OK.
But in a world where we define ourselves by what we do, and consider our environments in terms of all the things happening within them, Insecam is like a portal into what’s really going on—which is "not much." For me, its appeal doesn’t lie in voyeurism, as such, but in how it allows you to experience a sort of solitude, a specific type of observation, which isn't possible when you’re physically present within those environments. As a friend of mine put it, “If you’re physically inside the space you ruin it by being there. It wouldn’t be an empty space in the same way. But this is what it feels like to somehow experience totally empty space. You're like a ghost."
There’s also something engrossing about knowing what’s going on at weird times of the night or in secluded areas. Scrolling through Insecam gives me the same curious, almost ASMR-like feeling as riding in an Uber between those dead hours of 3 AM and 5 AM, looking out the window, seeing a locked park and thinking, 'What is going on in there?' Insecam answers some of those questions; it quenches some of those curiosities and provides at least some relief when it comes to the mysteries of the human condition.
Or maybe I’m just romanticizing a bunch of extremely creepy, boring webcams and I should just, like, look out a window or something.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Daisy Jones on Twitter.