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Your Cameraphone: a Harbinger of a Massive Social Transformation

This article was written by Jamais Cascio in May of 2005. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

This week, I spoke at the first MeshForum conference, held in Chicago. The following is an adaptation of my talk, which adapts some earlier material with some new observations. Fair warning: it's a long piece. I look forward to your comments.

The photo at right is by Howard Greenstein, taken during my presentation.

Soon -- probably within the next decade, certainly within the next two -- we'll be living in a world where what we see, what we hear, what we experience will be recorded wherever we go. There will be few statements or scenes that will go unnoticed, or unremembered. Our day to day lives will be archived and saved. What’s more, these archives will be available over the net for recollection, analysis, even sharing.

And we will be doing it to ourselves.

This won't simply be a world of a single, governmental Big Brother watching over your shoulder, nor will it be a world of a handful of corporate siblings training their ever-vigilant security cameras and tags on you. Such monitoring may well exist, probably will, in fact, but it will be overwhelmed by the millions of cameras and recorders in the hands of millions of Little Brothers and Little Sisters. We will carry with us the tools of our own transparency, and many, perhaps most, will do so willingly, even happily.

I call this world the Participatory Panopticon.

The Panopticon was Jeremy Bentham's 18th century model for a prison in which all inmates could be watched at all times. The term has in more recent years come to have a broader meaning, that of a world in which all of us are under constant surveillance. The proliferation of video gear in the hands of governments and corporations feeds a not unreasonable fear of the panopticon. The dramatic reduction in size of video cameras and the addition of tools for digital analysis have further enhanced that fear. (Charlie Stross, in his 2002 essay "The Panopticon Singularity," expands on this notion, spelling out the various new tools for relentless observation.)

But in the world of the participatory panopticon, this constant surveillance is done by the citizens themselves, and is done by choice. It's not imposed on us by a malevolent bureaucracy or faceless corporations. The participatory panopticon will be the emergent result of myriad independent rational decisions, a bottom-up version of the constantly watched society.

This day is coming not because of some distant breakthrough or revolution. The breakthroughs are already happening. The revolution has already taken place.

It started with the Sharp J-SH04 and 05, the first camera phones. Introduced in Japan in late 2000, these phones took tiny, grainy pictures, about a tenth of a megapixel in resolution. Other manufacturers quickly followed suit, and the market for camera phones exploded; by 2003, camera phones outsold non-phone based digital cameras. Over the last couple of years, the quality of the cameras built into the phones has increased dramatically -- this last March, for example, Samsung released a 7 megapixel cameraphone, a level of resolution better than most straight digital cameras in use.

You may not be aware of it, but the cameraphone in your pocket is the harbinger of a massive social transformation, one already underway.

This transformation could be at least as big as the ones triggered by television and by computers, as the base technology -- mobile phones -- fills a new niche, different from both of these earlier technologies. TV is a “passive reception” medium; computers are an “active engagement” medium. Mobile phones can be thought of as a “passive engagement” medium, available for connections and interaction without requiring user attention.

Mobile phones are designed presuming that users will leave them on, only turning them off for limited periods. For the most part, they rest in your pocket or bag, waiting for activity which could come at any time; mobiles are “always on” network devices. Current mobile phone networks aren’t as “always on” as, say, a broadband connection, but each successive network generation gets closer to that goal.

Because of that connection, it's possible to take a snapshot with a cameraphone and send it off in email or post it to a web page with a push of a button or two. Thousands of so-called "moblog" sites have sprung up, dedicated to cameraphone shots of whatever captures the photographer's eye at that moment. And increasingly, cameraphones can do more than just take still images. A growing number of cameraphones can record -- and send -- video clips. With so-called 3G networks, bandwidth is sufficient to send live webcam-style video from a mobile phone.

So let's take a look at what the Participatory Panopticon is today.

We're just starting to see the potential of cameraphones for doing more than sharing snapshots of amusing signs and naked friends. As I wrote about a few months ago, a non-profit group called the Swinfen Charitable Trust enables ad-hoc connections between people in remote parts of the developing world and doctors digital cameras and camera phones. More formally, earlier this year, the medical journal Archives of Dermatology ran a paper by the University Hospital of Geneva comparing the ability of dermatologists to diagnose skin ulcers by examining the patient in person with their ability to do so via cameraphone images. In the study, the diagnoses were identical in nearly every case, supporting the idea that cameraphones can be another tool for telemedicine in remote areas.

A few universities and activist groups are experimenting with applications allowing cameraphones to read bar codes, functioning like mobile networked bar code scanners. Users can snap a photo of a bar code on a product and get back information from a variety of websites on whether the product was produced sustainably, whether the company making it behaved ethically, even whether there's a better price to be had at a different store.

But the panopticon aspect is really most visible in the world of politics and activism. In the US, in last November's national election, a group calling itself "video vote vigil" asked citizens to keep a watch for polling place abuses and problems, recording them if possible with digital cameras or camera phones. In the UK, the delightfully-named "Blair Watch Project" was an effort, coordinated by the newspaper The Guardian, to keep tabs on Prime Minister Tony Blair as he campaigns around the country. The project was prompted by the Labour party's decision to limit Blair's media exposure on the trail; instead he was covered by more cameras than ever.

Efforts such as these make it clear that every citizen with a cameraphone can be a reporter. Citizens can capture a politician’s inadvertent gesture, quick glance or private frown, and make sure those images are seen around the world. The lack of traditional cameras snapping away can no longer be an opportunity for public figures to relax. All those running for office have to assume that their actions and words are being recorded, even if no cameras are evident, as long as citizens are present.

This notion of individual citizens keeping a technological eye on the people in charge is referred to as "sousveillance," a recent neologism meaning "watching from below" -- in comparison to "surveillance," meaning "watching from above.” Proponents of the notion see it as an equalizer, making it possible for individual citizens to keep tabs on those in charge. For the sousveillance movement, if the question is “who watches the watchmen?” the answer is “all of us.”

Even if the term sousveillance is recent, the action isn’t. An early well-known sousveillance effort -- long pre-dating the term -- is the Witness project. Founded in 1992 by musician Peter Gabriel, Witness has partnered with over 200 human rights groups in 50 countries, supplying video cameras and communication gear to allow people on the scene to document abuses of human rights. Witness attempts to create pressure for change by shining a light on injustice around the world. These are remarkably brave people. If the worst sousveillance supporters in the US may face is being escorted out of a department store, the worst Witness activists might face is torture and death.

But the Witness cameras stand alone; their only connection is via the hand delivery of video tape.

Things change when you can send your exposé over the Internet. Speed and breadth of access are the best allie for transparency, and the Internet has both in abundance. Once damning photos or video have been released onto the web, there’s no bringing them back -- efforts to do so are more likely to draw attention to them, in fact.

These days, sousveillance can be summed up with just one image:

As we noted at the time, Abu Ghraib was the digital camera's "Rodney King" moment, with the pictures taken of prisoner abuses by American troops in Iraq, sent via email around the world. The three-step process of See, Snap, Send, when empowered by digital technology, can be revolutionary action. Whether the people taking the pictures did so out of a sense of outrage, a desire to document a moment, or even misguided amusement, the result was still the same: recognition that anyone, anywhere, with a digital camera and a network connection has enormous power, perhaps enough to alter the course of a war or to shake the policies of the most powerful nation on Earth.

In reaction to the photos, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said: "We're functioning ... in the Information Age, where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon.”

Digital devices and network connections can allow individuals to bypass chains of command and control.

Although the Abu Ghraib pictures were taken with regular digital cameras, they suggest that the effect of cameraphones will prove even more exasperating to those in power. The proliferation of small, easily concealed and readily networked digital cameras can be a headache for those trying to retain some degree of privacy, but they’re a nightmare for those trying to keep hold of some degree of secrecy.

And the value of sousveillance can be demonstrated by actions here in the US, as well.

New York City police arrested nearly two thousand people during last year's Republican National Convention. Protestors were condemned by authorities for "rioting," "resisting arrest," and the like. The city provided video tapes to the press and to the courts taken by police officers that seemed to show protestors out of control. But many arrestees denied that they'd done anything wrong--some even said they were not protesting at all, and were only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But it turned out that the police weren’t the only ones armed with video cameras. Citizen video efforts (PDF) show people swept up without cause and without resistance. It's become increasingly clear that police officers misrepresented the events at trial, and that prosecutors selectively edited the official video record to prove their cases. According to the New York Times, of the nearly 1,700 cases processed by early April, 91 percent ended with charges dropped or a verdict of not guilty. A startlingly large number of them have involved citizen video showing clearly that the police and prosecutors were lying.

The next time around, don’t expect the police to politely ignore citizens with video cameras. Unfortunately, people carrying video cameras, even small ones, are pretty obvious. But people carrying mobile phones are not. Video phones and higher-bandwidth networks will transform activism. The next time around, we'll see the transmission of dozens, hundreds, thousands of different views from marches and protests live over the web.

As the selectively edited RNC protest videos suggest, you can’t always trust what you see. But what digital technology taketh away, it also giveth.

We're all familiar with the use of programs like photoshop to make images of the unreal look believable. Usually it's done for (sometimes dark) humor, but sometimes photo manipulations are done for more serious or malicious reasons. The lesson is clear: skillful use of digital tools to reshape our visual records can call into question the veracity of all digital photos.

But that’s not the whole story.

It’s easy to alter images from a single camera. Somewhat less simple, but still quite possible, is the alteration of images from a few cameras, owned by different photographers or media outlets.

But when you have images from dozens or hundreds or thousands of digital cameras and cameraphones, in the hands of citizen witnesses? At that point, I start siding with the pictures being real.

Now it's all well and good to think about the value of always-networked personal cameras as a tool for sousveillance, for “watching the watchmen,” but really: how often do we attend political rallies or visit military prisons? Cameraphones as tools of political action, while certainly important, will not in and of themselves lead to the participatory panopticon.

Your spouse will.

It's inevitable. You'll want to recall a casual mention of his favorite movie, or the name and year of the wine she loved so much, or what he *really* said in that argument. You'll want to be able to share the amazing flock of birds you saw on the way home from work, or the enthralling street musician you passed while shopping. In the past, all you could rely upon was imperfect memory and whatever descriptive skills you possess. Now, and increasingly as the technology progresses, these tools will make it possible to retain and share those moments with perfect clariyt.

It’s important to recognize that this is happening already. Howard Rheingold wrote recently of "neta," which he describes as a Japanese tradition of sharing things seen with one’s friends. Cameraphones are allowing neta to be shared visually, not just conversationally. He relates the comments of a Japanese observer:

"...cameraphones capture the more fleeting and unexpected moments of surprise, beauty and adoration in the everyday..."

As we become more accustomed to using cameraphones to capture the fleeing and unexpected, the more they will become integrated into our social discourse and personal relationships.

But the problem with the fleeting and unexpected is that, well, it's fleeting and it's unexpected. If you don't have your cameraphone out and at the ready, it's hard to capture those moments in full. And if you want to recall your spouse's favorite movie or wine or moment of beauty, you're certainly not going to whip out your mobile and say "honey, could you repeat that for the camera?"

What’s the answer?

Get rid of the mobile phone.

Given all that I’ve said so far, that’s probably not the answer you expected. But a hand-held phone-shaped device is just one physical manifestation of an always-on, always-connected mobile tool. It’s not the only option, and it’s really not the best option. Digging a phone out of a pocket or bag and holding it up to one’s head is often a clumsy activity, and certainly a distraction while trying to do something else, like driving.

It’s likely that rather than carrying around your networked camera as a hand-held phone, you'll wear it, probably built into glasses. The phone would be built in, as well, perhaps evolved into a networked computer. Everything you say, whether to someone in front of you or over the phone, and everything you see, can be captured. The display can be shown on the inside of the glasses' lenses. All of this can be done now in bits and pieces but, so far, not very elegantly.

In their respective labs, HP, Microsoft and Nokia are all working on variations of this idea.

But they’re not the only ones. Taking a limited approach, an Israeli company called Natural Widget is now selling an application letting you record your mobile phone conversations right on your phone. That’s a very tentative step towards recording everything around you, but it’s a functional one.

A bigger step comes from a company called DejaView.

DejaView is now selling a hat or glasses-mounted camera and microphone system connected to a small portable PC. It constantly buffers the last 30 seconds of whatever you're looking at, and can save the buffer to permanent storage at the press of a button. In the few seconds it takes you to realize you’re looking at bigfoot or may have just passed an old friend from high school, the moment may have passed irrevocably. But as long as it hasn’t been more than 30 seconds, the DejaView device can save it to a hard drive, holding onto it for good.

The DejaView has obvious limitations: bulky camera and cable, clumsy belt-pack storage, 4 hour battery life, 30 second buffer, no ability to wirelessly send signals, no ability to play back recordings on the spot. But anyone who dismisses it because of them hasn't been paying attention, and should be cursed to wander the Earth using a circa-1990 cellular phone and video camera. *This* version is ugly, ungainly, and far too limited -- but it's a harbinger of things to come.

These are the progenitors of what will amount to Tivos for your everyday life. You can think of them as personal memory assistants.

Address books and PDAs are already primitive forms of memory assistance, but they require positive action. You have to enter your contacts, your calendars, your personal notes and observations. True PMAs will be passively engaged, taking in everything, just like one’s own “real” memory -- only they’ll be much less likely to fade over time.

And PMAs won’t just be stand-alone devices.

Wearable personal memory assistants will be linked to wireless networks, and for good reasons: to let others see what you're seeing (so that they can help you); to access greater computing power for image-recognition (including, eventually, facial-recognition routines so that you never forget a face); and for off-site storage of what you're recording, giving you far greater capacity than what you could have on-camera (and keeping the images safe if the unit was lost or damaged).

All of these are being worked on now, in bits and pieces. Moblogging is evolving into videoblogging. Lightweight wearable displays can show you a computer screen which appears to be floating at arm’s length, even though it’s really just an inch from your eye. Japanese company Omron has developed face recognition software for cameraphones to let them recognize their owners. A company called Colossal Storage claims that they'll have 10 petabyte drives on the market before the decade is out. 10 petabytes is ten million gigabytes. You could store more than a year's worth of high quality digital video, plus high fidelity audio, plus assorted other data, in space like that.

Nobody has put them all together yet. How long do you think it will take?

Now if you're in the intellectual property business, you're probably squirming in your seat right now. If everyone (or near enough) wears some kind of video and audio capture device connected to the net, doesn't that mean that everyone will be making copies of the movies they see, songs they hear, articles they read?

Yep.

Now the obvious immediate response is "well, stop it!" ...and we'll undoubtedly see, initially at least, regulations demanding that people shut off their memory assistants while in movie theaters and such, or that the devices respect digital rights management and stop recording when copyrighted material comes on. But you know, if these devices become as widespread, as popular, and as useful as I expect them to be, you're going to eventually start getting pushback. If people are using these devices as an adjunct to their memories, they're going to start feeling like restrictions on what their assistants can record are equivalent to attacks on what they're allowed to remember.

To be blunt: the more that people feel like these tools are extensions of themselves, the less they’ll want to have them restricted.

I hope this pushback happens, frankly, because the alternative is rather unpleasant: memory rights management, where you have to have a license to remember. Think about how often you encounter copyrighted material over the course of the day: music on the radio, shows on tv, articles in magazines and on the web. Right now, because meat memories are imperfect, nobody cares if we remember snippets of songs or scenes from movies. We don’t have to pay for hazy recollections. But when you have perfect recall, the game has changed.

This all sounds kind of overwhelming, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s not just a case of needing to integrate the hardware pieces, or figuring out how to power it all, or making the design something people would want to buy. There are some deeply difficult user interface issues involved here. Recording everything is not the same as recalling something specific. It’s a big question how you’ll be able to find the interesting stuff in your terabytes or petabytes of life archives.

But the hard challenges are also the attractive ones. Microsoft's Bay Area Research Center is one of the groups working on figuring out how to filter huge volumes of data from one’s life. Their "MyLifeBits" project is trying to come up with a way to automate metadata tags for text, visual and audio data. They call the process "CARPE" -- Continuous Archival Recording of Personal Experience. They've generated some interesting ideas and models, but nothing marketable -- yet. But soon.

Now take this ability to record what you see, hear and experience, and layer onto it the ability of these personal memory assistants to share information with each other over an always-on wireless network. Stand alone PMAs are basically one’s memory on steroids -- incredibly useful, but not the whole story. These tools will allow us to share our experiences with each other and -- more importantly -- to share what we think about our experiences with each other.

People will want to share their opinions. It’s a very human behavior. We’re social creatures, and our perceptions are constructed based on how others around us respond.

We’re constantly checking with each other for useful insights. You stumble across a new restaurant, and want to know if any of your friends or any of their friends have been there before. You learn about a new politician, and want to know if anyone you know has heard her speak. You meet a new guy, and want to know if someone in your circle has dated him before. These are all conversations we've had, or have had variations of. But they're all subject to the vagaries of memory -- was it *that* restaurant that had the bug in the soup? Was it *that* politician saying something about prayer in schools? Was it *that* guy my sister dated and dumped for cheating?

In a world of personal memory assistants and a participatory panopticon, those questions are answered.

Tools for social networks will be the killer app of the participatory panopticon. Imagine layering a friendster or epinions on top of this, where comments can be given instantly, observations compared automatically. Or imagine layering a “collaborative filtering” setup, like the comment filters on Slashdot, or the product suggestions on Amazon.

These tools will form the basis of a reputation network, a social networking system backed up by unimaginable amounts of recorded evidence and opinion. You look at the person across the subway car and the system recognizes her face, revealing to you that she just completed a business deal with a friend of yours. Or that she just met your cousin. Or that she's known to be a good kisser or a brilliant writer.

Clearly, the world of the participatory panopticon is not one of strong privacy and personal secrecy. Paris Hilton is not going to be happy here. It’s going to be hard to escape past mistakes. It’s going to be easy to find unflattering pictures or insulting observations.

It's a world closer to what author David Brin described as a "transparent society." But even that's not quite right -- in Brin's words, from the Accelerating Change conference this last fall, "a good transparent society is one where most of the people know what's going on most of the time." It’s sousveillance coupled with the sense of responsibility arising from knowing just how powerful these tools can be. It's an active phenomenon of strong accountability and unfettered access. The participatory panopticon, conversely, is one of passive engagement, where transparency is an emergent phenomenon coming from connections between myriad independent personal archives.

Also at Accelerating Change, Brad Templeton of the EFF countered Brin's vision with a quote from the Earl of Spencer: "Privacy is what they take away when they want to torture you.” And indeed, official misbehavior does seem to go hand in hand with governments that want to know everything and tell you nothing.

But the world of the participatory panopticon is not as interested in privacy, or even secrecy, as it is in lies. A police officer lying about hitting a protestor, a politician lying about human rights abuses, a potential new partner lying about past indiscretions -- all of these are harder in a world where everything might be on the record. The participatory panopticon is a world where accusations can easily be documented, where corporations will become more transparent to stakeholders as a matter of course, where officials may even be required to wear a recorder while on duty, simply to avoid situations where they are discovered to have been lying. It's a world where we can all be witnesses with perfect recall. Ironically, it’s a world where trust is easy, because lying is hard.

But ask yourself: what would it really be like to have perfect memory? Relationships -- business, casual or personal -- are very often built on the consensual misrememberings of slights. Memories fade. Emotional wounds heal. The insult that seemed so important one day is soon gone. But personal memory assistants will allow people to play back what you really said, time and again, allow people to obsess over a momentary sneer or distracted gaze. Reputation networks will allow people to share those recordings, showing their friends (and their friends’ friends, and so on) just how much of a cad you really are.

In the world of the Participatory Panopticon, it’s not just politicians concerned about inadvertent gestures, quick glances or private frowns.

And avoiding it won't be as easy as simply agreeing to shut off the recorders. Unless you schedule your arguments, it's inevitable that something will be caught and archived. And if you leave your assistant off as a matter of course, you lose its value as an aid to recalling details that pass in an instant or didn't seem important at the time.

Moreover, if you turn your recorder off while those around you are still archiving their lives, you place yourself at a disadvantage -- it’s not knowledge that’s power, it’s recall of and access to knowledge that’s power.

Neither can we avoid it by simply deciding not to take this particular technological path. This is not a world we can decide simply to adopt or to reject. As I’ve shown, many of the pieces are already here or will soon be in place; more will come about as a side-effect of otherwise attractive innovations. It’s unlikely that someone will set out to build the participatory panopticon, but it’s very likely it will emerge nonetheless. It will be the troubling and fascinating result of the combination of a multitude of useful tools and compelling utilities.

Personal memory assistants, always on life recorders, reputation networks and so on -- the pieces of the participatory panopticon -- will thrust us into a world that is both painful and seductive. It will be a world of knowing that someone may always be recording your actions. It will be a world where official misbehavior will be ever more difficult to hide. It will be a world where your relationships are tested by relentless honesty. It will be a world where you will never worry about forgetting a name, or a number, or a face. It will be a world in which it is difficult or even impossible to hide. It will be a world where you’ll never again lose a fleeting moment of unexpected beauty.

This piece is a part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on Oct. 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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Comments

A recent example of sousveillance.

Video reports using jailbroken iPhones with video streaming software. These were live during the Republican Nation Convention protests.

Link:
http://qik.com/theuptake


Posted by: Joel Mutate on 5 Sep 08

One of the most insightful articles I have read in this decade...Thank you as I put this knowledge to test...

Robert W. Gately
Miner/Poet


Posted by: Robert W. Gately on 6 Sep 08



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