"The Eyes and Ears" is a photographic project that deconstructs the common doorbell. Far from being just simple buzzers or chimes that once represented status, they are now being turned into key parts of the “smart home”. The project reflects upon the evolution towards increased surveillance in cities, which feeds off a profound change in how people interact with each other in the age of mobile technologies.
The troubling social and political implications of these technologies throw a dystopian twist on urbanist Jane Jacob’s dictum “there must be eyes and ears upon the street”, from which the project derives its name. Writing about U.S. cities in the 1960s, Jacobs meant the opposite of surveillance: neighbours would see and get to know each other, thus collectively reducing the fear of living in urban spaces.
Today, rather than simply answer the call of the doorbell we allow “digital doormen” to collect images and data via mobile phones and video recordings.
As an assignment for my MA course, I started documenting doorbells in London. At first simply fascinated by some of the weird examples I found, the series turned into a reflection on the evolution of the doorbell as it intersects with the past and the present. The images range from Victorian polished brass specimens in the wealthy streets of Marylebone to doorbells in rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods such as Brixton and Peckham. I used a visual approach similar to the typological method used by photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, who started documenting German industrial architecture from the late 1950s as a means of documenting social order.
MORE THAN A STATUS SYMBOL
Like the city itself as a complex system in constant evolution, the doorbell has undergone significant changes from its origins as a bell that was hung close to the front door, connected to a short rope so that it could be rung. While little is known when these types of bells were introduced, American scientist Joseph Henry is credited with inventing the first electric doorbell in 1831.
In the 20th century, the importance of doorbells as status symbol for both detached houses and wealthy apartment blocks grew with the arrival of chimes, which with their melodic sounds were marketed as a more relaxing alternative to buzzers.
Illuminating examples of the doorbell’s significance as a status symbol can be found throughout Andrea Levy’s novel “Small Island”. Celia, a friend of Hortense, one of the main characters, exclaims that when she moves to England from Jamaica, she will have a house with a doorbell, an invention not used in Jamaica. The doorbell epitomizes status and success for the Jamaicans moving to London from the late 1940s.
Located at the interface between the exterior and the interior, doors and doorbells are part of a threshold that can mean an opening or a beginning, or an obstacle, both physically and psychologically. This threshold separates us from the exterior universe and our interior nests and shells, to use the language of philosopher Gaston Bachelard, a space we tend to associate with privacy, security and intimacy.
SMART HOME SURVEILLANCE
The use of so-called smart home technology, which allows users to control and monitor their homes through networked devices, has gathered momentum in the last few years through mobile phone apps. Video doorbells allow residents to monitor who is at their front door from inside their homes and also remotely through apps. This has made doorstep surveillance an affordable option compared to expensive home security systems.
Judging by anecdotal evidence obtained by walking through Brixton and Peckham, new apartment blocks tend to feature video doorbell systems and it is not uncommon to find them stuck onto front doors of existing homes, replacing old-style buzzers.
Unlike traditional CCTV, these doorbells use sensors and alert users with a notification or sounds an alarm when they detect unusual motion or sound. By pressing a smart doorbell, a visitor sets off a chime in the house and can also alert the resident’s mobile phone with a live video feed of who is at the door. Connected to WiFi, they use infrared and motion detectors, so if someone hovers around the door without pressing the bell, the resident will receive a video of that too.
As a result, answering the door and the once-upon-a-time neighbourly act of calling around appear to have become enmeshed in a behavioural shift brought on by mobile phone technology that bolsters a desire to limit opportunities for spontaneous face-to-face interaction in the real world.
As Rowland Atkinson and Sarah Blundy wrote in their book "Domestic Fortress", “new social rules of etiquette have reduced casual drop-ins by friends and acquaintances, rendering suspicious the unplanned-for knock at the door.” Instead, mobile devices are used for planning and arranging encounters prior to arrival.
A HUMBLE DOORBELL NO MORE
Most of such video doorbells are manufactured by Ring, a U.S. start-up that Amazon bought for US$ 1 billion in 2018. Ring, which sells smart video doorbells from US$99 to a 18-carat yellow gold, sapphire and diamond covered model (on sale in Britain at over £76,000) covers over 90 percent of the U.S. market and is also making inroads into Europe.
But Amazon didn’t stop there. In 2018, it filed a patent that aims to pair Ring video doorbells with face surveillance technology like its “Rekognition”product, which captures and identifies a large number of faces in real time and is being marketed to police, customs and immigration enforcement agencies.
Jacob Snow, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, noted in a 2018 blog post that the patent application describes a system the police can use to match the faces of people walking by a doorbell camera with a photo of persons they deem suspicious. Homeowners can also add photos, and if a match occurs, it will be send to the police.
“Amazon is dreaming of a dangerous future, with its technology at the center of a massive decentralized surveillance network, running real-time facial recognition on members of the public using cameras installed in people’s doorbells,” Snow wrote.
Such technologies feed off what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman described as a “culture of fear” in postmodern society. While defending one’s home has been an important factor in human behaviour for centuries, this culture of fear provides profitable opportunities for companies selling defensive home technologies, turning homes into physical embodiments of fearful emotions. Many ordinary urban and suburban neighbourhoods, as much as gated zones and affluent enclaves, display an exaggerated use of landscaping and design to secure the home and control social access to it.
Against this backdrop, Jacobs' "there must be eyes and ears upon the street" has taken on a whole new meaning.