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The Bright Green Panopticon
Jamais Cascio, 24 Feb 05

camphone.jpgThe "participatory panopticon" is the emerging world of camera and network-enabled devices, allowing us to capture, store and send our passing observations of the world around us. We see it emerging with cameraphones sending email to doctors for inexpensive telemedicine. We see it emerging with software designed to annotate and index every file, every sound, every bit of video on one's computer. We see it emerging with digital images, sent around the web, threatening the centers of power. That the participatory panopticon is a mixed blessing is a given; for every activist surreptitiously documenting polling abuses via cameraphone, there are dozens of sad voyeurs hoping to capture a wardrobe malfunction the same way.

But our observations about this phenomenon have, so far, focused on its social manifestations, the changes to our behavior and our politics. But how does the participatory panopticon intersect the Bright Green future? They're more closely connected than you might think.

One of the core Viridian philosophies underlying the Bright Green vision is the notion of "making the invisible visible." This applies broadly: being able to see pollution output or energy use at a glance makes it much easier to know where to focus efforts; corporate and government transparency strengthens democracy and makes corruption much more difficult; and the "open source" model (making the normally "invisible" code visible to anyone) enables broader civic, economic and scientific participation. A Bright Green future is an open future.

Participatory panopticon technologies are, at their core, also about transparency. The ability to record one's life and to send those recordings to anyone on the global networks is a powerful tool for catching and archiving efforts to harm the planet and its inhabitants. The Witness program is an early model for this: activists armed with video cameras and mobile phones documenting human rights abuses for the world. As cameraphones with video, mass storage and WiFi come onto the market, how long will be it before we see the emergence of a "Green Witness," documenting environmental crimes for the world? Or, from a happier perspective, how about a collaborative archive of "great works" around the world -- sustainable design, smart buildings, and the like? Easily done in a participatory panopticon world.

And as the cost and size of sensors continues to plummet, the recordings of the world around us need not be limited to the natural human senses. Already there are mobile phones designed to detect alcohol on the breath of users; in the same way, a near-future phone could also detect health hazards and toxins in the air, alerting the user of potential dangers. Biochips are getting tiny, cheap and ever more sophisticated. Which manufacturer will be the first to add one to a handheld? The same could be asked about sensors for detecting radio signals (such as RFID or WiFi) or software for reading UPC barcodes off of products. The Corporate Fallout Detector gives us an idea of why this last might be useful, as it reacts to the ratings given manufacturers by ethical consumer and pollution monitor groups when it reads a product's barcode. Our future participatory panopticon version could add one's own history to the mix, pulling out references from recorded observations about previous experiences with the product.

Connected to the right databases, a sensor-laden, camera-enabled, networked "phone" could be a handheld guardian. Users have to be able to trust those databases, though; there would be ongoing struggles over who has the "right" information. Would a paid subscription site, with fact-checkers and editors, be more trustworthy than a "WikiSensorBase" site, collaboratively edited and monitored? It's the same question now being asked of encyclopedias and news.

Perhaps users would find that they trust the observations of their families, friends and colleagues more. With sufficient bandwidth and processor power, it would be possible for one device to query multiple others, quickly, generating a collaborative consensus. The Ethical Consumer guidebook may say that a given detergent leaves no toxins, but two family members and a friend all say that it also doesn't work. This kind of system would be a prototypical reputation network, but for products, services and companies, not people.

Openness and transparency are fundamental to the success of a Bright Green future. Fortunately, through happenstance and consumer demand, we seem to be tumbling into a world where it will be possible to build networks enabling enormous levels of openness and transparency, far beyond what we might otherwise expect. Some people, particularly those in positions of economic and social power, won't like this. Efforts to hinder the technologies of the participatory panopticon, however -- to make it possible to jam networks selectively, for example, or shut down recording remotely -- may also have the effect of hindering the development of mobile, inexpensive information tools most useful for monitoring corporate and government transparency, for sharing insights into the state of the planet, and for keeping a close watch on the world around us.

The participatory panopticon may be the unintended baggage of a successful Bright Green future. If so, we'll be better off not trying to fight it, but making certain to turn it to our own ends.

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