I live in a pleasant, middle-class, mixed-race neighbourhood in a big American West Coast city. The only real problem here is property crime. It's not a dangerous neighbourhood by any stretch of the imagination - Princess Anne could walk down the middle of the street naked at 3 a.m. and feel perfectly safe. Even so, we do have our bad apples: A car gets broken into or stolen every couple of weeks. Burglaries occur a few times a year.
You'd think that we would do something about it. But we busy middle-class people, contrary to stereotype, are nothing if not adaptable. The first time something happens it's an aberration. The second time and thereafter, we absorb it into our routine. So when one of us goes outside in the morning and finds a glittering spray of safety glass where our car used to be, we make calls to the cops and the insurance company, then wait for a cheque in the mail. We rarely see the police. We never see the criminals.
Until a few weeks ago. A gang strolled into our neighbourhood in broad daylight on a weekend afternoon, smashed out a window on my neighbour's car, and tried to steal it. When my neighbour pulled up in a second car and took issue with this plan, the gang objected to his objections, battered his second car, and threatened to come back later and kill him. They were genuinely outraged that one of their victims would actually have such temerity. Crime had become just as easy and routine for them as it had for us.
The next weekend, as an experiment, I spent the wee hours of one morning looking out through my front window. I half expected to see the street fill up with pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers at the stroke of midnight. However, my activity log for the night looked like this:
1:00 began watching street
1:15 car went by
1:25 paper van went past
4:00 went to bed
Every so often, a stray dog would trigger a series of motion-activated security lights, leaving an irregular trail of radiance across the block, as if a fighter-bomber had flown over, strewing sticks of white phosphorus.
If this was a typical night, my enthusiasm for a block watch program wasn't going to last. Even worse, there was nothing for me to write about - no potential source of income. If only we had some way to know when the bad guys were actually out there.
But hey, wait a second. That's an informational problem - a technology thing. And technology is supposed to solve real problems, not just enable us to download digitised photographs of Ken and Barbie in a coprophilic ménage à trois with My Little Pony.
Thus was born the Global Neighbourhood Watch concept. The plan is, with Wired's help, that we get little video cameras and aim them where most crime happens. We will digitise the output of those cameras. We will include motion detectors so that the cameras will spit bits only when something is actually happening (maybe 0.1 per cent of the time). We will hook the neighbourhood computers into the Internet, probably through an ISDN connection (available for cheap over existing phone wires). We'll use CU-SeeMe shareware to send the video out.
The question, of course, is where to send the video.
Well, we West Coasters are eight hours behind the UK, which is eight hours behind Australia, which, in turn, is eight hours behind us. So when it's prime crime time in any of those places, it's late morning or early evening in the others. People are wide awake, and, if they are wired types, they are near their computers. The plan is to find neighbourhoods in the UK and Australia that also have high nocturnal property-crime problems, and that are also inhabited by computer users. They'll set up cameras in their trouble spots and patch them into the Net, too.
Imagine that I'm sitting in front of my PowerBook one morning, writing fiction. Suddenly a window pops open on my screen, showing me live video from Australia. At the bottom of this window are two buttons: one green, one red. If the culprit is a stray dog or a tree blowing in the wind, I hit the green button, and the window is dismissed. But if it's some son of a bitch breaking into a car, I hit the red button, and in Australia a rude noise blares out of a computer and wakes the owners up. The Aussie goes to the window, verifies that a crime is in progress, and summons the cops. Or perhaps the owners emerge from their house and tell the bad guys to knock it off - then the bad guys threaten to trounce them.
Windows are the best crime-prevention devices of all. The virtual windows on a computer screen could serve the same function, linking distant places into a distributed neighbourhood. In modern society, we have more in common with fellow homeowners on the other side of the planet than we do with burglars living a few blocks away. Until outlaws started threatening us, we've politely ignored this fact.
Readers in the UK or Australia who think they are candidates for our prototype Global Neighbourhood Watch should e-mail me at email@example.com. We seek neighbour-hoods where there is a nagging property-crime problem, where people know each other, and where several households own Windows or Mac computers.
We're hoping for a friendly and cooperative little distributed neighbourhood. But the US is so large, computerised, and crime-ridden that Global Neighbourhood Watch will probably be a seller's market in the long run. Companies will establish warehouses in Malaysia where workers sit in front of screens keeping an eye on untold anonymous minivans. What visions of America will these workers develop in the long run? When they patch into Global Neighbourhood Watch, they'll see stray dogs, blowing branches, paper carriers, and - every so often - crime. That's an improvement, but it's so boring that they'll have to be paid to watch it. If we could develop image-processing and pattern-recognition software good enough to filter out dogs and tree branches, then it would be crime, crime, crime again, and maybe they'd watch it for free. We cut out the Hollywood middleman. The solution to our crime problem becomes their entertainment. Everyone wins, except the criminals. Which is how it's supposed to work.
Neal Stephenson is the author of The Diamond Age and Snow Crash, among other novels. He has an uncontrollable compulsion to play with computers.