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« Inverse Copyright: Transmitient/Recipient Equiveillance | Main | CIRCUMVENTING PRIVACY: WHEN TECHNOLOGICAL MEASURES BECOME SPYWARE »

Camera Phones and the Everyday

posted by:Rob Carey // 11:59 PM // November 29, 2005 // ID TRAIL MIX

On Nov. 15, Bill C-74, the Modernization of Investigative Techniques Act, was given first reading in the House of Commons. I mention this only because the ensuing commentary about the bill almost overshadowed another news item relevant to surveillance and privacy matters which appeared three days later. On Nov. 18, the technology forecasting company InfoTrends/CAP Ventures predicted that the shipment of camera phones would rise worldwide to 847 million units in 2009, from 370 million in 2005. The release goes on to note, “As an increasing number of users acquire and experiment with camera phones, the volume of images captured, shared and printed is projected to rise, producing additional revenue for wireless carriers and digital photo finishers alike.” According to another firm, Jupiter Research, the number of camera phone users who actually take and send photographs is likely to rise significantly as well, due to improvements in the camera's memory.

This imminent profusion of camera phones seems to beg the question (with apologies to Harold Lasswell), “who is watching whom, how, and with what effect?” If one asks this question of C-74, the answers are reasonably clear. Privacy advocates have excellent reasons for questioning whether the bill affords sufficient oversight to prevent the indiscriminate and arbitrary interception of electronic communications. Indeed, the provisions of C-74 seem exemplary of panoptic relations among those who watch and those who are (or who may be) watched, since a key purpose of C-74 is to remove technical and procedural barriers to surveillance; that is, to create conditions whereby the inviligation of electronic communications by certain agents is always possible. The few watching the many.

But this is obviously not the only way of describing relations among watchers and the watched. Mathieson, for example, has applied the term synopticism to situations in which the many watch the few; Rosen uses 'omnipticism' to describe relations in which the many watch the many. While these terms can be applied to relations among users of other types of ICTs, the rapid development and proliferation of camera phones, with their ability to (surreptitiously) capture and transmit images, seem to invite rich speculation about who is watching whom and with what effect in a way that other technologies do not. In the UK, for example, pronouncements about the effect of camera phones on society are plentiful and fervid. With their genius for constructing moral panics, some elements of the British press have used episodes such as the so-called Happy Slapping mania to denounce the technology. Yet the BBC openly encourages its viewers to submit newsworthy camera phone footage , for which it is prepared to pay. One BBC editor called this "the democratization of newsgathering."

Similar ambivalence has greeted the introduction of most new ICTs. Moral panics aside, though, if one asks the question - “who is watching whom, how, and with what effect?” - of camera phones, few really clear answers are actually forthcoming. Partly, this is because camera phone users have yet to explore fully all the ways in which the phones enable them to be watchful of others. The few studies done on camera phone use so far seem to indicate that users tend not to photograph strangers; like instant messaging, the phones seem to be used as a phatic technology whose purpose is to support group cohesion. But there is no reason to think that phatic practices among familiar others will remain the primary use of the technology, particularly as camera phones become more commonplace. In his essay, Walking in the City, de Certeau writes of everyday practices that elude "visual, panoptic or theoretical" constructions: "If it is true that forests of gestures are manifest in the streets, their movement cannot be captured in a picture, nor can the meaning of their movement be circumscribed in a text." If the adoption of camera phones continues at the pace predicted by InfoTrends, they will indeed become ubiquitous elements of everyday life, and it is exactly this - their insinuation into the forests of everyday gestures - that makes the implications of their use fascinating to contemplate.


Great post, Rob. I think there's a lot of value to be had in simply raising the sorts of questions you do, even if, as you note, the answers are far from clear.

I wonder, however, if one might not try to make the case that the primary use of camera phones will remain phatic, on the ground that their use to capture images of strangers is typically (though not, of course, necessarily) overt in nature: for a stranger clearly to capture my image with a camera phone as I walk about in public, she will usually have to point the thing at me in a way that makes it obvious to me that she is trying to capture my image. And if that's so, the stranger's use of the phone to capture my image will also typically afford me the opportunity to challenge that use. Since most strangers are probably disinclined to deal with such challenges, then, perhaps the use of the phones to capture images of individuals will remain restricted primarily to capturing images of familiar individuals who are known to be willing and unlikely to object (which is a use that, I take it, falls into the category of phatic use).

This might make for a relevant and significant practical difference between camera phones and other information technologies like the discreetly placed surveillance camera whose use was never intended to be phatic from the outset.

What do you think -- an overly sanguine perspective?

Posted by: David Matheson at December 2, 2005 12:35 AM

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