What happens when digital imaging technology and the means to share the results worldwide become ubiquitous? The participatory panopticon happens – and it’s already here. Jamais Cascio looks at the benefits and pitfalls of a society where all of us are becoming Big Brother to one another.
This November, comedian Michael Richards learned about the participatory panopticon. So did the UCLA police. And early in the month, Virginia Senator George Allen learned that it can have a political bite.
The participatory panopticon is the emerging scenario of distributed observation of the world around us, using cheap, networked tools like mobile phones and open, web-based tools like YouTube. A rapidly-growing number of us have literally at our fingertips systems of capturing and sharing what we see. Most of what we capture will be of interest only to ourselves, or to close friends and relatives; some, however, will have a far greater reach that we might suspect.
What all three of the examples I cite at the beginning of this piece have in common is that they were recordings of events that (a) the perpetrators would, in retrospect, probably wish to have done differently, if at all, and (b) would have received little notice in the era before personal networked cameras and video-sharing websites. Certainly there may have been rumors that a comedian had “gone nuts” on stage, or that UCLA cops had beaten a student, but as rumors, they’d have a limited life-span, and would soon be forgotten. Because of the participatory panopticon, however, these events will for a very long time shape how many of us think about these people.
The participatory panopticon is not going to go away any time soon. The publicity associated with the Richards and UCLA cases — and the political impact of the George Allen “macaca” incident — virtually guarantees that more citizens will have cameraphones at the ready to capture and share damning evidence of the misbehavior of officials and celebrities. So what will the participatory panopticon explosion look like?
Mass Participation: The next time we see a cameraphone-recorded, newsworthy event, chances are we’ll have multiple perspectives on it, each video providing additional context and evidence. On balance, this will be useful, as a typical response by those caught on video is that the recording misses what happened before, or after; the more witnesses, the greater the accuracy. Moreover, having multiple recordings helps to mitigate the effect of…
Fakes: The combination of the impact of these recordings, the low quality of the actual video, and the rise of easy-to-use digital image and video tools means we are almost certain to see faked cameraphone recordings of seemingly volatile incidents, whether involving celebrities or civic officials. A video uploaded to YouTube can be highly disruptive to the “story” a movie star or presidential candidate wants told, even if the video is later shown to be a hoax. The initial scandal usually carries more memetic weight than the subsequent correction. Especially given what happened to George Allen, expect to see one or more faked videos used to attack candidates in the run-up to the 2008 election in the US. That’s why we’ll see more…
Self-recording for self-defense: A key lesson from the 2004 presidential campaign in the US was that it’s vitally important for protestors to make their own (multiple) video recordings of protests and arrests. The NY police videotaped protestors, but apparently edited the recordings later on to justify the arrests — edits that were exposed by comparisons to the protestor videos. If the UCLA cops that beat the kid in the library last month had been wearing their own personal cameras, they’d be able to demonstrate that the kid was, as they claimed, behaving in a way that warranted the beating prior to the point where the citizen cameraphone recording started.
Self-recording for self-defense won’t be much help if the individual does, in fact, mess up — it wouldn’t have helped Michael Richards or George Allen, for example. In the case of public officials, however, that’s a good thing. If a police officer or elected leader knows that every contact he or she has with the public is being recorded, they will presumably be less inclined to behave in careless or corrupt ways. This deterrent effect would be even greater if the recordings were made available to the public soon after they’re made (with appropriate blurring or muting to protect the privacy rights of the citizens involved).
For police officials, the use of personal cameras to record citizen interactions would be a small step from the current use of dashboard-mounted cameras in many police vehicles, used to record traffic stops and the like. As the proliferation of “true life video” programs on television shows, these recordings can be very useful as evidence if someone attacks an officer; clearly, a badge-mounted camera would offer even greater evidentiary value.
The proliferation of cameras this scenario suggests is undoubtedly troubling for many civil libertarians and privacy advocates. The problem is, these cameras have already proliferated — the majority of mobile phones sold around the world have a camera, and more cameraphones were sold in 2005 than any other kind of camera, digital or film. We will have more examples of the participatory panopticon in action in the coming weeks and months. Similarly, surveillance cameras have become a commonplace part of urban policing, whether mounted on buildings, street lights, or police car dashboards. What we need are rules and practices that make the use of these tools more responsible and transparent.
David Brin refers to this as “reciprocal accountability,” a phrase I particularly like because it recognizes that we have laws and public officials for very good reasons, but that they need to be accountable to the public in substantive ways. The participatory panopticon is the emergence of an uncoordinated, haphazard form of reciprocal accountability, relying more on scandal than on process. We will need to pay more attention to how these practices are formalized for one very important reason:
The participatory panopticon watches us all; This isn’t simply a concern for police officers, politicians and comedians. Everyday citizens who behave in ways that draw notice — for good and for ill — will increasingly find themselves captured on cameraphones and featured on video sharing websites. We’re already seeing example of this, from the “dog poop girl” in South Korea to student recordings of abusive teachers around the world. As more people see the value of making these recordings, and as the tools for making and sharing the videos become even easier, we will see this become a commonplace part of news stories and public discourse.
The participatory panopticon isn’t a scenario of the future; the participatory panopticon is here.