Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Arts & Culture

New Novel 'Panopticon' Set At Border

New Novel 'Panopticon' Set At Border
How much of our daily lives are being videotaped? The ubiquity of surveillance cameras is one of the themes in David Bajo's new novel "Panopticon" set on the border between San Diego and Mexico.

How much of our daily lives are being videotaped? The ubiquity of surveillance cameras is one of the themes in David Bajo's new novel "Panopticon" set on the border between San Diego and Mexico.


David Bajo grew up on the San Diego-Mexico border. His new novel is called "Panopticon" and it's set on that same border.


David Bajo will sign copies of his novel "Panopticon" tonight at The Book Works in Del Mar at 7:00pm.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Everywhere you go, everything you do, there's a good chance your image is being recorded on something. Maybe somebody's cellphone, their Ipod a surveillance camera, your body detected by heat imaging, your person and possessions X-rayed and documented. If you think all this sounds just a little paranoid, you might be right. But constant exposure to the eye of some camera somewhere seems to be the direction our society is taking. And that all seeing eye is at the center of a mystery of the new novel, Panopticon, much of which is set right here in the San Diego Tijuana border area. David Bajo is the writer of Panopticon. Thank you for being here.

DAVID BAJO: Oh, it's wonderful to be here back in San Diego.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Oh, right. You grew up in the San Diego region right near the boarder really.

DAVID BAJO: Yes, on a ranch very near the border near the ocean.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Why did you decide to set your novel there.

DAVID BAJO: I knew my subject was going to be this emerging Panopticon that you so well described there, and I knew that would involve the borders within us, the boarders outside us, the borders between memory and imagining and the borders within our own psychologies. So to put it on a physical border made sense to me. I knew that I would be able to explore those thematic issues through the landscape.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, one of the major themes in your book is obviously surveillance, and what you call digital omniscience. What do you mean by that term?

DAVID BAJO: The digital omniscience is definitely the society we're moving toward and have been moving toward. It's the public surveillance that we're all, I hope we're aware of, the traffic surveillance, the security surveillance, and satellite imagery. But it's also what's being called now, the participatory Panopticon, where what we put into things like my space, YouTube, face book, any footage that we take with your cells or cams and just put out this for the public, that's the digital omniscience that we're forming.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So it's more than simply taking someone's picture. It is world of information, this digital information that is just out there, circulating and being refreshed all the time.

DAVID BAJO: Yes, refreshed all the time, and also reinvented. I mean, when I can take any public image that I can gather and I can gather those fairly easily and make of them what I want. And put that back out there. So we are represented by someone else's perspective. Or we can be. And that's the interesting part, maybe the disturbing part.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes, yes, I think many people have said that's the part that really stays with you. Give us if you would a plot synopsis.

DAVID BAJO: It's about three reporters on the -- in San Diego who's investigating the nature of surveillance of the city. And one is -- one is a photographer. That's Rita. And they're sent out with very little information from their editor just to investigate this growing Panopticon in this city, or San Diego. And what they find is they not only are able to investigate how they can see other people, they are also investigating how other people are seeing them. So it's that dynamic the that these reporters have to deal with.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's a mystery that makes it makes you think about what's coming, but it also is very rooted into what's happening now. I mean, these journalists -- it's the last day of their paper's existence.

DAVID BAJO: It's the last seven days yes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Why was it important for you to give it that perspective? A journalist and the fact that their newspaper is dying?

DAVID BAJO: I wanted to -- I was a journalist for seven years here in San Diego, a while back, and I wanted to explore how this emerging Panopticon is going to affect journalists. And it is, it's affecting how a newspaper is constructed. It's now much more on line than it is paper. And it has to be more dynamic. And that's why I wanted the paper to be heading toward an end, but at the same time heading toward a new vision of itself.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. I'm speaking with David Bajo, he's author of panopticon and I think that one of the things about this book for people who live here in San Diego, of course, is the fact that it's set here in San Diego, and the locations are people -- were places that people will recognize. Of did you spend a lot of time here researching for the book? I knew you grew up here, but you did it long distance in a we, didn't you and.

DAVID BAJO: I did both. And I did come here specifically to research the book as I was working on it. I especially wanted to walk through the boarder areas I was walking through. But also Balboa park, that is just a vast, mysterious part of our city. That I very -- but back in south Carolina where I live now, I was able to use the Panopticon look the at city live. For instance, I placed a key scene in the big kitchen which is a wonderful little cafe in golden hill, and I doing witheled it, just to refresh myself to see how it looked, and I found a live 360 camera that Ahowed me to look all around live, the big kitchen. I could did the same thing with beach cameras, surf, I believe it is, has 11 live cameras all along the coast so I was able to look at the San Diego coast live also, the border also is accessible live.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So you used the emerging panopticon to write your novel Panopticon.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you think people are aware of how many surveillance cameras there are on a place like Balboa appear or say, El Cajon boulevard?

DAVID BAJO: I thought they were. I'm not necessarily an astutely street person, but the more I talked to people, I am surprised that those who think it's a little bit paranoid to believe that we're on camera, I think the average American is on camera 200 times a day. It's a number that stuns me, but I find people are unaware of it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you think we're deliberately unaware of it?

DAVID BAJO: I do. I think wee more willfully unaware of it. It's funny because we really embrace the technology of it, we want the technology of it, but at the same time, we want to sort of deny that that technology is looking at us. And that's what the main character here, Aaron Quitzman, is discovering in himself.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And so we want the cameras there in order to catch evil doers and bad guys and give us an insight into crime, but we don't don't necessarily want them there to capture our image as we pass by a store.

DAVID BAJO: I think we want them this to satisfy our voyeuristic nature. Aside from the crime, and aside from any kind of vigilance, we want to watch other people. But we are very, very protective, I think in our society especially, of our privacy. And it's just a -- it's a paradox. We want to watch, but we don't want to be watched. Some people do want to be watched of it's an interesting mic.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And again, as you were referring panopticon who assess is it to get feeds of all of these cameras.

DAVID BAJO: It's surprisingly easy. You can down load the programs that you need for free. One is video jack. And one is UCSmith. And these are just two examples. And these are diagnostic tools that are designed to -- for security people to, you know, see how secure their systems are. But what they really are are ways for you to tap into any public surveillance feed. You can also tap into other people's PC cameras. If they're not protected on there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And as you were watching these feeds, did you feel a little creepy.

DAVID BAJO: Yeah. I did. Of but the public surveillance that's out there, they who have the authorities are, whether it's the police or a private firm, they want you to join in the surveillance. They don't mind. If they want to block it, there are ways to block it, but there are also always going to be ways to circumvent that blockage. But yes, in my home town of Columbia south Carolina, the public surveillance is very easy to tap into on a lap top, and I can just watch.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You just watch people walking by. Oh, I didn't know he went to that store. 92 right.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with David Bajo, he's the author of panopticon and we mentioned before that you grew up here on a ranch near the San Diego Mexican boarder. How has that area changed?

DAVID BAJO: The your has changed a lot. And aye watched it change over the years. It's been -- generally it's been covered by housing tracts that swept over the other ranches. My family ranch, the Bajo Ranch, is still there. And parts of it have been swept away by growth. And that's a large part of the book itself because the main character is watching his city be covered, the city he knew is being covered. And people were watching his reactioning to that coverage and how that's affecting him.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Wouldn't you say that -- I would say that this is a really very multicultural book in that it has its feet really firmly planted in both San Diego and Tijuana. And did you feel that way when you were growing up so close to the border?

DAVID BAJO: I did. I felt I was growing up in a twin city. My father was a physician on the border and at least half of his patients, probably more, were from Tijuana. Or both, from Tijuana and San Diego. From my window, I saw the heights of Tijuana, from my other window, I saw the lights of downtown San Diego. And they were very much twin enforce me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you watched a lot of Mexican television too when you were growing up.

DAVID BAJO: I did. Channel 12, those I'm sure channel 12 is still there. I watched everything on channel 12, I loved it. The Mexican wrestler movies, Santo and blue demon and play significant roles in the book.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering after creating this slightly futuristic world, not terribly much, of panopticon does is frighten you or does it have certain qualities that you would like to see come about?

DAVID BAJO: It doesn't frighten me. And that's what I real -- what the main characters in the book discover, they discover that it's inevitable, and that the Panopticon itself is indifferent, it's what we will make of it. And I do not see it as this 1984 big brother. It's more like little sister and little brother collectively building this Panopticon. It was a humane way of dealing with ourselves.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And do you think in a way, it's going to add something to our lives, if we know that our images are not sort of sacred anymore but they are just simply out there all the time?

DAVID BAJO: I think it can. I think it might. I actually have hope for the pan opt con, the participatory Panopticon. It fits well in a democratic society. As long as no one usurps the power of it, and I don't think that's possible. It's just and those who know how to work it best are actually those who are beneath the highest power structures, just kids, I mean, my students know how it work it much better than I do, and my daughter knows how to articulate it much better than I do.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's instinctive.

DAVID BAJO: It is instinctive to our nature.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for coming in and speaking about your book.

DAVID BAJO: Oh, thank you, it's been delightful.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with David Bajo, he's the author of Panopticon.