We are all watchers now

Reacting to a Washington Post story on crime in Second Life, Gardner Campbell is troubled by calls for increased surveillance in virtual worlds. But while the notion of being watched by the authorities is as creepy in cyberspace as it is in the real world, we pay less attention to another kind of surveillance. Whether I am piloting my avatar through Second Life, or walking around in my hometown, I am myself a watcher who can, increasingly, record what I see. Whether the authorities surveil or not, we’re doing it to one another.

The funniest screencast I ever made was this snarky 3-minute video report on an IBM press conference I attended in Second Life. It’s a side-splitter, really, you should watch it, and yet it makes me slightly uncomfortable. Anyone in Second Life can, at any time, switch on a virtual movie camera and record everything that’s happening. And there’s no indication of that, nobody sees a camera.

As a teenager, I loved taking candid photos with my dad’s 35mm Exacta. At one point he told me you can get a side-looking lens so people won’t know they’re being photographed. At that point I started to think about the aboriginal notion that a photograph can steal a bit your soul. I’ve been conflicted about candid photography ever since.

Last week I was in the Alewife station on Boston’s Red Line, and saw something I’ve always been curious about. The escalator was completely disassembled for repair. Here’s what the steps look like:

And here’s a worker replacing the rollers on the giant bicycle chain that drives the thing:

As I was taking this shot, one of the workers joked about how I might be a spy for the MBTA, checking up on their work. He was mostly, but I think not entirely, kidding. It was a slightly uncomfortable moment.

Collectively, all of us now wield immense powers of surveillance. Whether the subjects of that surveillance are avatars or real people is beside the point. It isn’t necessarily the authorities who are doing the surveillance. We are doing it to one another. It happens every time somebody is tagged in a photo on Facebook or Flickr. It gets easier all the time.

Is this a good thing or bad thing? A bit of both, I think, hence my inner conflict, and my eternal fascination with David Brin’s The Transparent Society. Who will watch the watchers? The question becomes very different when we are all watchers, recorders, and publishers.

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5 thoughts on “We are all watchers now

  1. You are a spy for the MBTA. Since this story is forwarded to their maintenance people by someone you have no way of knowing or controlling since you published it in open Internet. The real issue is pretty much the same as the point of a recent post of yours about the value and interpretation of the data by the viewer.

  2. I just woke half the house slapping the table laughing. It was when your avatar sat on the table that did me in. That’s me in Second Life. I get that it’s supposed to be transformative, etc. But I have the same experience you illustrate in your post EVERY time I’ve ever been there.

    I’m almost always the idiot stuck in the plants or something.

    The thing is, and here’s what riles me, I have to reasons why this should be awesome: I was a lifelong gamer (less as years go on), and I feel like I should be better able to navigate than I manage at present. Second, I am a Gibson/cyberpunk freak, and I’m so frustrated that this stuff isn’t more data-integrated. When I saw that Amazon Web Services video done in SL, I *thought* the data was real, not just a model. Boy, I thought, now THAT is what this place is meant for. Whoops.

    Thanks for the laugh and the thoughts, Jon.

  3. Jon, I share your discomfort / internal conflict. At the same time that I revel in the possibilities and transparency, I realize that any picture of me taken anywhere could wind up being displayed on the public Internet for all to see. I go to every conference *assuming* that pictures of me will potentially wind up on Flickr, Facebook, blogs or more. Every time I participate in a video conversation, be it with Skype, Sightspeed, iChat, ooVoo or , I have to assume that at some point someone may take a screen capture that will potentially wind up on a blog or web page. Previously those screenshots or pictures might have been taken and shared internally or with friends… now they are up for the world to see. It’s a different world.

    I’m also have the same conflict with the live streaming services such as uStream, Kyte, Qik, Yahoo!Live or . I am very impressed by their ability to stream live information from random places (and potentially record that video for later viewing). But now when you are at a conference… or really anywhere… that person holding up the camera, laptop with webcam or phone with camera may be streaming live out on the public Internet.

    It will be interesting to see in the years ahead how we balance our ability to publicly display/stream photos/video with concerns about privacy. (Or perhaps we simply give in and accept that we have no privacy anywhere?)

    Thanks for the thought-provoking piece,

    P.S. Like Chris, I did enjoy your SL video and I, too, have wound up sitting on desks or other places I didn’t mean to!

  4. I never got into the Second Life phenomenon. I guess I’d rather do the things my little Avatar character would do in RT. Besides, most of the time, it’s more fun that way!

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