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A Participatory Panopticon?

wearable wireless cameraWhat happens when you combine mobile communications, always-on cameras, and commonplace wireless networks? We're going to find out very soon.

Mobile phones and PDAs with cameras are increasingly common; one in six phones sold in 2003 had a camera in it, and last year cameraphones actually out-sold other digital cameras. But, as this photo (which I took with my Sony-Ericsson T610 cameraphone and cleaned up a bit) shows, image quality from cameraphones is often quite poor. That's a temporary problem, however; Nokia just introduced a one megapixel camera phone, and other phone manufacturers are sure to follow suit. Within a decade, your phone will likely be able to take pictures at least as good as your present-day digital camera.

The bigger change will come from an entirely-new class of hardware -- what I call the "personal memory assistant." Both Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft have built test versions of wearable cameras designed to record the world around you as you go about your day (the HP wearable always-on camera is the illustration at the top of this post). Nokia and HP are working on the software required to make such cameras usable. If you've seen or used a TiVo, imagine a TiVo for your day-to-day life. If you don't think that's revolutionary, consider that human memory is notoriously faulty; what happens when a person can have perfect recall?

There is no reason why wearable personal memory assistants wouldn't be linked to wireless networks. There are good reasons why they would be, in fact: 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). I suspect that nearly all of these systems, once they come to market, will have wireless communication built-in.

Of course, along with these new devices come a host of new dilemmas. Just as with cameraphones today, there will be people using them for various unethical purposes. The situation will be made worse by the potential invisibility of these systems: it may be difficult to tell whether a given pair of glasses is web-camera-enabled just by glancing at it. There will undoubtedly be attempts to embed software in the cameras to prevent the recording of copyrighted material, or to make an obvious noise if the image appears too much like a naked body. Perhaps there will be a mandate of a "remote shutoff" switch iin the devices, so that theaters and locker rooms and the like can automatically prevent wearable camera functions. Some of these fixes will work, some won't.

Now tie this technology to what Alex posted yesterday about Way New Urbanism. Mobile systems combined with GPS and GIS and social software and RFIDs and "smart dust"... These are tools to reshape your relationship with your environment, other people, and even your sense of self.

I offer up this scenario in order to ask: if we know these devices are on their way, are really already here in crude form, how can we use them as tools for good? Are these systems the harbingers of a Transparent Society, or are they the makings of a Panopticon Singularity? Does the sousveillance concept make sense, a world where we are all have the ability -- and responsibility -- to "watch the watchmen?" Would these be the perfect tools for corporate whistleblowers and anti-corruption activists?

This could be big.


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Comments (5)

Brian Auten:

Very interesting, esp. in light of today's front page column story in the L.A. Times, "Smile and Say 'Fess up" re: greater use of cameras in police interrogations.

The article insists that police detective and interrogators are wary about the use "stronger" (not necessarily abusive) psychological methods of questioning as cameras proliferate because the camera opens them up to assorted difficulties come trial.

The problem is what one can do with camera-enabled 'perfect recall' in the litigious U.S. environment. What does it mean for the future of interpersonal communication if nearly all person-to-person interaction could be taped (and used in nuisance litigation)?


i've always thought the mix between wireless and cameras was a good idea, because then no one physically near you can 'take your tape' or whatever, the stills or video are being streamed to an offsite server right away!


8th IEEE Wearable conference info

Haven't seen any recognizable cyborg/wearable users at MIT Media Lab in the last few years.

Steve Mann (still in Toronto?) was been thinking about this stuff for decades now.

When the camera was new,the Indians were afraid to have their pictures taken because it would steal their soul. "It is good to not leave a shadow."(Lenape/Scythian)

Sousveillance04, the recent International Workshop on Inverse Surveillance, is now 'glogged at http://wearcam.org/iwis/

Judging from the 'glog, it seems there was lots of interesting discussion.

The question of lifelong cyborglog is whether police (such as in the Rodney King incident) should be able to de-activiate the 'glog and if any such interruptions should exist. Ideally the cyborglog is a continuous lifelong capture with no breaks in the record.


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