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powerful tools, and the delegation of their control to political authorities, requires of us all a high degree of civic awareness.
By the same token, we’re hardly the first to point out that issues exist at the other end of the spectrum—the dark side of the democratization of visual technology and pervasive visual communication. In the world of business, the issues raised typically relate to protecting intellectual property, process advantage, or first-to-know advantage. As our garden retailer, Michelle Kline, put it: “We go to trade shows where people come from many different countries to show their wares. And because we’re all out there trying to get the newest, greatest idea from someone else, these trade shows have huge signs that say ‘No cameras.’ They have show police everywhere making sure, and if they catch you, they will physically take your camera away because they want you to understand that it’s that serious. Now that there are phones that have cameras built-in, it’s made things much more complicated, and everyone is even more nervous.”
The abusive capture and use of images for industrial espionage, voyeurism, identity theft, witness intimidation, exam cheating, and all manner of privacy invasion is already getting much play in the media. It sells papers, and it provides politicians with always-welcome opportunities for righteous indignation. Which is not to say that these abuses are benign—quite the contrary; this is an issue to be taken seriously. One could argue that unobtrusive spy cameras have existed for decades. They were not, however, produced in the hundreds of millions, handed to virtually everyone, or connected to a worldwide network that enables their images to be viewed instantly by anyone, anywhere.
It is only reasonable, therefore, for companies to mandate that visitors leave their camera phones at the reception desk, for health clubs to prohibit them in locker rooms, for officials to forbid them in courtrooms to protect undercover officers, and so on. It’s also only to be expected, unfortunately, that broadly restrictive legislation will be
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proposed in the spirit of scoring political points rather than in a manner that addresses the issues in a truly constructive fashion.
Doing so requires, first of all, understanding that there will be no returning to the circumstances of the twentieth century, where the vast majority of visual information was produced and distributed exclusively by the media, and the rules regarding who could see what, and under what circumstances, resulted from agreements, formal or informal, between those controlling the media and those controlling the government. The Internet and digital imaging have fostered modes of creation and distribution of visual information to which these old rules don’t apply, and to which they can’t be applied. The U.S. military learned as much with the Iraq Abu Ghraib prison scandal, as evidenced by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s testimony in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee on May 7, 2004: “We are constantly finding that we have procedures and habits that have evolved over the years from the last century that don’t really fit the 21st century. They don’t fit the Information Age. They don’t fit a time when people are running around with digital cameras.”
A society in which all or even a majority of its citizens become empowered to communicate visually, having with them at all times an image-capturing device that is connected to the global communications network, is bound to experience new forms of interaction that in turn are likely to drive significant social and political changes. Take, for instance, the phenomenon known as photoblogs, a dynamic form of visual, online journals. Photoblogs are designed to be updated frequently simply by sending images and text to an online site that has capabilities for viewer comments and linkage to other sites. These photoblogs greatly extend the reach of visual communication by making images available in a public forum to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. The fastest-growing types of photoblogs are those whose images come directly from camera
phones; these have been dubbed moblogs, short for “mobile blogs.” Most of the images currently on these moblogs are personal, but, like everything else in Going Visual, the boundaries between the personal, professional, and societal use of images intermingle.
Hewlett-Packard is one of many businesses looking at moblogs with great interest, and the company’s Phil McKinney told us he views them as a potentially important source of a new kind of information, “an area that we’ve been focusing on fairly heavily in our research we call ‘social reporting.’ We’re focusing on camera phones, working on making it very simple for someone to snap a picture and post it. One button to take the picture, and with one more click it self-publishes right to the photoblog. But we also want to automatically capture as much information as possible about the experience of taking the picture, and publish that along with the image. So you can do voice annotation. You get the date and time, the latitude and longitude of where you’re standing when you snap that picture; we publish all that on the blog. Our research team uses a map to geoposition where the photographs are being taken. You can watch the photoblog, and as photos are taken, little dots appear on the map.