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Co-opting the Participatory Panopticon?

Is it still "sousveillance" -- watching from below -- if it's going straight to The Man?

The city of New York, in a rather clever move, has decided to equip its 911 (emergency) and 311 (non-emergency) call centers with the ability to receive cameraphone pictures and videos. In his State of the City address, Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared:

To build stronger trust and cooperation between the public and the police, we're also going to empower more New Yorkers to step forward and join the fight against crime.

This year, we'll begin a revolutionary innovation in crime-fighting: Equipping "911" call centers to receive digital images and videos New Yorkers send from cell phones and computers something no other city in the world is doing.

If you see a crime in progress or a dangerous building condition you'll be able to transmit images to 911, or online to NYC.GOV. And we'll start extending the same technology to 311 to allow New Yorkers to step forward and document non-emergency quality of life concerns holding City agencies accountable for correcting them quickly and efficiently.

This is one of those developments that makes so much sense, it's a wonder that nobody made it happen earlier. I have no doubt that we'll see other cities adopt this approach in the months to come, both in the US and internationally. As much as it has the potential for frivolous or malicious use -- just as regular 911 calls do -- it has the potential to give first responders a better idea of an emergency situation, allowing the professionals and the civilians to work together to evaluate conditions.

It's also an example of how a participatory panopticon society can be embraced by traditional channels of authority and social control. This will undoubtedly have some benefits, but it also raises uncomfortable questions. Will the photo/video 911 calls be given greater priority than the voice-only calls? Conversely, will the police respond as quickly to a situation where they can see the color of the victim (the NYC police is known for having issues in this regard)? And for me, the big question: will the existence of an "official" channel for using cell phones to capture images and videos of emergency and non-emergency problems eliminate non-official versions?

If the participatory 911/311 panopticon stands alongside other emerging community response networks, then this is, on balance, likely a positive development, as the citizens will continue to have channels to report problems that the city personnel might neglect. If the program results in pressure to shut down or block non-official networks, these citizen systems won't go away, of course, they'll just be driven underground, making them less reliable and pervasive.

This could be a moment for civic empowerment -- or a moment where an early version of the participatory panopticon is smothered by bureaucracy. Let's hope they don't screw it up.

(Thanks, Anthony Townsend!)


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