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.