Essay Klasien van de Zandschulp & Natalie Dixon

Oddstream vroeg dit jaar kunstenaars naar hoe zij de toekomst zien. Vandaag zijn Klasien van de Zandschulp en Natalie Dixon aan het woord in het essay When neighbourhood apps turn creepy.

gepubliceerd op 26-01-2021



The same apps that were designed for our safety are also fuelling
social profiling in neighbourhoods, raising questions about our sense
of community.

It’s 2026 in Nijmegen East. Your phone buzzes. Messages pour in from the neighbours via the WhatsApp group: “Be aware, suspicious person in our street!! 👀”. Next, live drone footage appears in the group… you see a person in a hoodie slowly walking past the houses. Your smart watch beeps a warning: your heart rate has jumped, you’re anxious! Dammit, this drone thing started so innocently. The city council offered them to the neighbourhood at a discounted price. Hell yes, why not? The drones patrol the streets and the neighbours just sit back and relax without a worry. If something’s up, the drone shares suspicious footage with the cops and you get on with your life. But that’s not what happened.
Strangers started rocking up in the street wearing anti-face-detection masks. Suddenly the drone was checking in with the neighbours for verification. Is this person suspicious? Alarms started sounding. You’d swear the street was on fire. Now you’re all on high alert all the time for  those undetectable assholes in the street. A message from the next door neighbour Geert: “You know the drill people, doors and windows closed, double check your security camera is on so we can follow this guy and get the best shots”. Another neighbour responds: “Jesus everyone, when can we go back to being a peaceful neighbourhood?? Arghhhh🤬”. A neighbour zooms in on the drone footage and shares a pixelated shot of the stranger’s head. You stop. That hoodie looks familiar….wait a minute, shit, that’s our babysitter!.

Nightmare neighbourhood? Future scenario? Totally implausible? Right now, globally, there are countless examples of intimate neighbourhood surveillance tools at work, that make this neighbourhood surveillance-drone scenario a very realistic peek into the future. Intimate neighbourhood surveillance has been our research subject for the past 5 years. We’ve seen burgeoning surveillance practices amongst ordinary people who are watching each other and trying to claim space through technology. Sometimes we see peaceful suburban streets turn
into spaces of paranoia.

In Johannesburg we heard from a neighbourhood who organized themselves via their WhatsApp group to chase a stranger out of their street. Two residents headed outside, encouraged by others in the group. Finally they caught up with the stranger and shot him with a paintball gun (#truestory). Later a private security company arrived and tasered the man (#stillatruestory). Eventually the police arrived and reprimanded everyone for attacking this person. Technology and vigilantism have a relationship it seems.
Closer to home in Amsterdam we spoke to Charlotte who lives in a wealthy neighbourhood in the west of the city. WhatsApp Neighbourhood Watch street signs are scattered throughout the area and some of the houses are guarded by smart doorbell cameras. Charlotte recounted a story of a neighbour who shared a photo in the group of a man standing in their street, seemingly without purpose. The message read: “Black man looking into a house in our neighbourhood, he’s been there for a few minutes already…. 🤔”. Other neighbours chimed in to discuss a confrontation. One person, clearly the hero in the group decided to take action. A few minutes later, after the confrontation, the so-called hero replied: “This guy is waiting for the real estate agent, he’s here to view a house. No reason to panic people”.

These examples show how paranoia and fear circulate and are perhaps even amplified through surveillance technology. Ultimately this manifests as a form of social control, a global phenomenon, exaggerated in places where inequality thrives in places like South Africa and Brazil. Yet, the Netherlands is by no means an exception where municipalities are doing deals with companies like Nextdoor and WhatsApp to offer citizen-led security. Neighbourhood surveillance is becoming more sophisticated and better networked. Market research predicts that by 2023, the global spending on smart home security cameras alone is projected to grow to 1.4 billion U.S. dollars. Dutch households are following suit with the rise in  popularity of doorbell-cameras such as Ring and Nest. In the province of Gouda residents can  even apply for a subsidy, up to €250, from the municipality towards the installation of a security doorbell-camera (as long as they promise to share their data with the cops).

Residents are using ever more sophisticated technology to track strangers and those they deem “suspicious”. Yet, what our research shows is that social and racial profiling routinely forms part  of these activities and is often dressed up as a genuine security concern. With the ever-increasing normalization of surveillance devices (anyone notice the Ring doorbell  cameras currently on special at Albert Heijn?), it’s especially urgent to ask ourselves, how do these technologies shape our sense of community?

About us:
Researcher Dr. Natalie Dixon and interactive artist Klasien van de Zandschulp collaborate together as studio affect lab. They have been researching neighbourhood surveillance for the past 5 years in various capacities. Dixon wrote her PhD on the topic of WhatsApp and
neighbourhood watch and Van de Zandschulp has been researching the same topic in various cities in the Netherlands through her art practice. Currently they are developing their interactive documentary project Good Neighbours.

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