The other day I came across an article in the Metro that appealed to my sense of the absurd (Rookie PC chases himself for 20min in CCTV bungle – Wednesday, 8th February 2012). The article describes how a probationary plain clothes police officer was seen by a CCTV operator to be “acting suspiciously” in an area “that had [recently] suffered a spate of break-ins”. The officer was then contacted by the operator and asked to pursue the suspect, which he did for twenty minutes unaware that he was trying to pursue himself and unable to understand why, despite the fact that, as he was constantly being told by the operative, he was “on the heels of his prey”, he could see no sign of the fugitive.
I am reminded of a novel by Philip K. Dick, 1977’s A Scanner Darkly, made into a film in 2006 by Richard Linklater, in which an undercover drug enforcement officer is asked to follow and apprehend a suspected drug dealer by superiors who fail to realise that the drug dealer is the undercover persona of the police officer. The novel, and subsequent film, through the metaphor of a fictional powerful psychedelic drug known as ‘Substance D’ or ‘Slow Death’, is a classic paranoid exploration on loss of identity and multiplicity of personality. A person, Dick is saying, is not a single coherent identity. We are each of us capable of being many different and often contradictory people depending on context and circumstance. The mask we wear at work is probably not the mask we wear in our own home, or with our own family, friends or acquaintances, and sometimes that contradiction forced on us by social conventions can have debilitating consequences to an individual’s sense of self.
The imaginary tale of Dick has a much darker and starker conclusion than the real life story in the Metro, which ends with a sergeant entering the CCTV control room and recognising the suspect and police officer to be the same person to much hilarity. But the story does highlight I feel how the world, with the aid of new technologies, has come to resemble a science fiction more absurd than anything invented by a novelist.