Participatory Panopticon

Jamais Cascio’s talk from Mesh Forum 2005 entitled “participatory panopticon” is very interesting, it regards the societal changes that come from mobile phones with digital cameras and other always on mobile networked tools. The Panopticon was Jeremy Bentham’s proposed prison where the inmates could be watched all the time. Mr. Cascio’s idea is that we will be soon living in a ‘participatory’ panopticon where the people voluntarily take the part of the warden. Instead of big brother, there are a lot of little brothers and sisters with cell phones.

As cell phones get better, imagine a world where politicians won’t know whether they are being recorded at any particular time. Look at what happened with Abu Ghraib – individuals with a digital camera and network access changed the public perception of the war in Iraq. Look at Rodney King – an individual with a video camera changed the public perception of the police. Recently, a plane crash in Miami was recorded by a man on vacation who happened to be recording at the time.

An interesting new concept is personal memory assistance. A first generation device allows you to record the last thirty seconds of what you have seen. It’s bulky and has a limited battery life. As these get better, imagine the copyright issues. Since meat memories are imperfect, nobody cares if you remember a copyrighted song imperfectly. When memories become perfect, then you could enter a situation where a license is needed to remember. Memory assistance devices would be required to be deactivated in movie theaters and other performance spaces. The backlash could come only when people feel restricted on their ability to remember. The more the people feel these devices are important to their lifestyle the less likely that they will accept restrictions on their use.

Always on networked devices that can record important events are an important tool to implement an ethos of citizen journalism. When the average person can record, upload, and share easily, as these devices become ubiquitous, then we come closer to the world envisioned by Mr. Cascio.

UPDATED TO ADD: Geek Press has a link to a great article on the use of cameras on public property.

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