The coffee shop voyeur

Sociology professor says technology allows for new forms of people-watching

The JDUC’s Sidewalk Cafe is one of the best places on campus to people-watch without seeming too creepy.
The JDUC’s Sidewalk Cafe is one of the best places on campus to people-watch without seeming too creepy.
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I have a confession to make. I’m into voyeurism.

Not in that creepy, parked-outside-your-house-with-binoculars or sketchy handheld-camera kind of way, but in the sense that I like to people-watch.

And there’s lots to see in the public theatre.

There are the little kids who haven’t yet developed any concept of self-censorship and so every thought becomes an action; there are the lovers who are so oblivious to the rest of the world; the huge guy at the Matt Pond PA show who I could not tear my eyes away from, as he bobbed around in his leather jacket and Canada t-shirt with his eyes closed and tightly clenched fists pumping with pure emotion, singing louder than Matt Pond was.

David Lyon, a professor in the Department of Sociology, who studies issues of surveillance and privacy. He said that in our technologically advanced era, people watching can take on whole new forms, including reality TV shows and the Remote Lounge, a bar in New York City, where 60 closed circuit cameras are set up, displaying a live feed of bar patrons on 120 television screens.

“There you have an institutionalized form of [people-watching], where people are using communication media to facilitate what people have done throughout history, which is people-watch,” he said.

Lyon said that even in formal institutions of surveillance, the line between people-watching and surveillance blurs. He mentioned a researcher in the Netherlands who studied the habits of security professionals of the national railway system, who watch closed circuit video in a central location in Amsterdam. The researcher found that often when they were bored, the professionals would end up watching the feed coming in from their hometown train station. In some cases, this can be a problem.

“From a surveillance point of view, it’s a danger because it then becomes unauthorized watching,” Lyon said. “In many countries, closed circuit television operators tend to be male and researchers have discovered that they may be paying disproportionate attention to female characters in their screens, preventing them from noticing the deviant activities they’re watching for.”

Even in a crowd, most of us don’t expect to be watched. We live in our own lives, oblivious to the gaze of others. Despite the fact that our lives are under increasingly more surveillance in all spheres--from public profiles on the Internet through websites such as Myspace and Facebook, to the tracking of our spending habits through air miles points—the ever growing connectivitiy of people can actually sometimes make us feel more anonymous than ever.

Brad Pitt’s character in Fight Club says, “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.” Lyon said people-watching helps us come to terms with this, and to gain a better understanding of human nature and how we fit into the world.

“I do think that, just like ‘know thyself’ has been a philosophical piece of advice and it leads to all sorts of philosophical and ethical considerations, I think there’s a parallel in knowing others, because of an on-going fascination with the other,” he said. “I think it’s just that sheer human fascination with the other, which because we’re self-reflective creatures is also going to give us a social parallel.”

I caught Karlye Wong people-watching through the large windows at the Sidewalk Café in the JDUC. The ArtSci ’10 student said she often people watches.

“I think we do it to make comparisons between another person and ourselves. It’s also a good way to see what people are wearing,” she said.

Wong said her favourite places to people-watch are in class and at Leonard cafeteria, where so many people are gathered in one place at meal times.

“The caf is a good place to do it, especially in first-year where everyone is trying to make an impression,” Wong said. “It’s almost like a game.”

Of course, the key to winning the game of people-watching is not getting caught. I’m sure the “fists of pure emotion” guy would have been made self-conscious if he had seen me watching him more intently than the band.

The best way to avoid getting the police involved is to always carry a prop--a newspaper, an mp3 player or a friend; anything to make it look like you have a reason for being there besides staring at other people.

Also be sure to watch out for others like you, because the watcher can just as easily become the watched.

Top 10 people-watching locations in Kingston

1. The stools by the big windows at the Sidewalk Cafe in the JDUC.
2. The bay windows in Coffee and Company at Division and
Johnson Streets.
3. The tables at the front of the Sleepless Goat.
4. The bench by the A&P parking lot on a weekend after midnight.
5. The upper floors of Stauffer library, looking down onto the
main floor.
6. The comfy chairs in the upper ceilidh of the JDUC.
7. Sitting on the cement sign outside Stauffer library.
8. Leonard Hall cafeteria – you have both the big windows and all
the diners.
9. The front seats by the window at Megalos.
10. The front steps of Victoria Hall.

—Meghan Sheffield

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