Prepare for the New Cameras-Everywhere World

New technology means we’ll only see more images like the New York Post subway-death photo.

Google Glasses.
Google Glasses.

Courtesy Google.

Some questions can never be answered. A prominent recent example is whether photographer R. Umar Abbasi, who captured the now-(in)famous image of a man about to be killed by a New York City subway train, could have saved Ki-Suck Han if he hadn’t stopped to take the photo of the train bearing down on the victim. Abbasi has insisted that he was too far away, and in the absence of proof one way or the other, we should take his word for it.

It won’t be all that long, however, before such questions can be answered. The growing presence of video cameras in public places assures that—and we need to think a lot harder about the implications.

Governments and businesses are mounting closed-circuit video cameras just about everywhere. Surveillance drones, including ones the size of tiny insects, are going to be flying over and around us soon. That’s Big Brother. Little Brother is burgeoning, too. More and more people are carrying cameras with them. Typically, these come in the form of mobile phones, but wearable cameras are growing in numbers and shrinking in size. Not too many years from now, lots of people will be wearing “heads-up” camera/display combos (such as Google Glass) that capture videos of pretty much everything they see. Unless we turn from the course we’ve set as a society, we’ll soon arrive at a day when every square foot of every subway station—of just about every place, really—is being recorded at all times, and probably from multiple views. And all of these devices, capturing higher and higher resolution images plus audio, will be connected at high speeds to digital networks.

When that happens, at least a few things will be predictable.

For example, the choices made by editors will still matter. Mass media are not going to disappear entirely. Even if we witness the demise of bottom-feeders (like the New York Post, which in this case put the subway picture on Page One with a lurid headline), we’ll still have media organizations with reach and clout. Interestingly, there’s been no outcry about the New York Times’ decision to post a surveillance-camera shot of a man who’s about to murder another man. The key differences are a) a passer-by didn’t take the picture; b) the police are trying to find the murderer; and c) the Times didn’t troll for readers with a seamy headline.

Over time, the more important choices will be made by the audience. Even if “mainstream media” (whatever that means) choose to behave with common decency, there will be no shortage of other outlets for gruesome pictures and videos that aren’t legally obscene or (like child porn) just plain criminal. Not long after the 2001 terrorist attacks, major media outlets made the lockstep decision to stop airing videos of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center or people jumping from the burning towers. But these are easy enough to find online. With more and more videos, it will increasingly be up to you and me to make our own decisions.

Meanwhile, the role of the professional spot-news photographer won’t merely change. It’ll just about end. People in that business should be looking for new ways to make a living. As I wrote in my book Mediactive several years ago, a cameras-everywhere world makes it much more likely that an “amateur” will get the most newsworthy images. But because tabloid-style media will always have an audience, probably a big one, new kinds of content marketplaces are sure to emerge, giving non-pros a way to sell and license the most newsworthy material. Look for bidding wars will erupt for items that are sufficiently interesting or ugly or titillating.

The more important implications of the cameras-everywhere world are about the surveillance society we’re creating. This isn’t a new idea, of course, as any reader of George Orwell or David Brin knows. But the degree to which pessimists’ fears are coming true is remarkable—and terrifying to anyone who cares in the least about liberty.

Online surveillance has gotten most of the recent attention, but it is also very likely that a variety of Big and Little Brothers will record us everywhere we go—eventually, with sound, too. Facial recognition and other techniques will mean that our every move will be trackable. The purveyors and adopters of this stuff like to say we have nothing to fear if we have nothing to hide. That’s police-state mentality, but it’s getting more common. Benjamin Franklin would be hooted down today for his famous and eternally right admonition, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

As noted, government is not the only one doing the surveilling—citizens are recording their own moves, and those of others. When we use cameras on our cellphones (and, soon, in our Google glasses) to keep an eye on official and corporate doings, we can hold powerful interests at least somewhat more accountable for their acts. This ability, naturally, has led the rich and powerful to conduct a war on photography. Courts are generally making common-sense rulings that recording what the police do on our streets is a First Amendment right. But it’s not clear yet whether corporate interests, such as factory farmers, will ultimately be permitted to ban recording on their own turf to keep us in the dark about their practices.

 We citizens will have to adopt countermeasures, meanwhile, to protect ourselves from spies of all kinds, online and in the physical world. I predict, among other things, a resurgence of Groucho Glasses and disguises of various kinds. The police have adapted this kind of countermeasure already in many cases, hiding their faces and badges from public view when they deem it necessary. Here’s another prediction: Look for laws prohibiting us from wearing disguises of any kind in public—with an exception for the police. Then we’ll have the worst kind of surveillance state: Only the people in charge will have privacy.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.