Basically, Seattle has a homeless crisis that no one with actual power is willing to do anything about. And so the city's present situation is this: As the number of the excluded soars, due to the collapse of public housing and social services, and a building industry that is almost totally devoted to forms of housing that have the upper middle class as its poor, businesses and institutions and individuals directly exposed to the consequences of this extreme and, most importantly, imposed poverty (there is no such thing as real/natural poverty in our society) are left to defend themselves. This condition is the source of the Social Darwinist imaginary that transforms political economic (and therefore cultural) phenomena into the wild trees and beasts of a jungle. The homeless of Seattle: Red in tooth and claw.
It is in this context of culturally imposed scarcity of capital, housing, and general welfare that the developments in QFC on Broadway and Pike are, for the most part, explained. A few years ago, the supermarket closed its second exit, which it saw as bleeding thieves. Soon after, it hired black-shod and -clothed security guards who can enforce property rights with lethal force. A few months ago, it placed monitors in front of machines that make people do the job of both a grocery clerk and bagger, but with no pay (self-checkout machines). Last week, it installed hanging screens that go out of their way to make themselves known. They are all over the supermarket and want you to see that you are being watched.
When you get close to one, it turns on and you are there, in the aisle, caught in the consumerist squeeze of trying determine what is the best item at the lowest price (this is a paradise "whose skies [are] the color of hell-flames" for the subject of neoclassical economics, homo economicus). On the screen appears you holding a can of tuna or rolls of toilet paper and the words, in red: RECORDING IN PROGRESS.
@SuzyFoodSport Displeased to see that I'm now treated as a criminal at my QFC. I do understand that shoplifting is an issue, but accusatory screens like this at every checkout are a good way to send customers like me over to Trader Joes or Safeway where I'm treated as a customer. pic.twitter.com/OVUTnBv1rC
— Zach Renner (@ZLRenner) February 16, 2019
These screens take Michel Foucault's panopticon theory to the next level. A surveillance camera is hidden or obscured by a black half-bubble. These may or may not be watching you, and so it is up you to decide to take or not take the risk that attends a five-finger discount. This is the subjective essence of panopticism: out of the fear that you might be watched by a loss prevention officer, you must check yourself. You do the you the law wants you to do. But a screen that watches you, and shows it is doing so to you, leaves no doubt. There is no inner questioning or doubt. There is no gamble. It is objective. You are watching yourself being watched and recorded.
These monitors are, for sure, the expression of two significant current market developments that overlap. One is, as I have already pointed out, a defense against an increased and imposed human misery that, in its terminal form, is homelessness. The other is the technological displacement of the only means by which a poor person stays off the streets, wage labor. The cameras replace human workers who can also effectively monitor and check loss. The QFC on Broadway and Pike has aggressively embraced the automation of services that were once the source of wages for the working class. The 300-year history of this displacement constitutes much of the history that many celebrate as technological progress. But I believe the primary function of these seeing screens that make you see you is concerned with a desperation that has spread across the city with the escalation of excessive poverty (and all of its consequences, which are direct—the need for food—and indirect—the need for cat food).
In this way, we must see the new screens in QFC with other expressions of the homeless crisis, such as the bizarre tower of police power that was erected in the parking lot of the Rainier Avenue Safeway (it's now gone, because its ominousness was so unpopular). And the grim facts described in KUOW's Sydney Brownstone piece, "A homeless man steals clothes from a Seattle Goodwill, goes to jail. His story isn’t unusual."
These are three of the 318 people charged by Seattle prosecutors for stealing from Goodwill — one for as little as $13 worth of merchandise — in a single year. In that time, between November 14, 2017, and November 14, 2018, the City of Seattle prosecuted more people for stealing from Goodwill than any other retailer.This is not an attack on crime, but on a growing homeless population that's ontologically determined by a political process controlled by the ultra-rich. The city will not put money into the problem directly, but civil society (businesses, schools, homeowners, and so on) will spend lots of it and legal resources on criminalizing something that is, in essence, not real (though it is experienced as such). The homeless crisis is 100 percent cultural.