you say Participatory Panopticon, I say Super Public

Preface: This has been sitting in my drafts folder for ages.. rather than keep staring at it, I’m just publishing it as it is – ideally there’d a be a clip from Strange Days, but I still haven’t got around to that 😦

These notions of the Participatory Panopticon and the Super Public have been bouncing around in my head for the past few weeks. Maybe it was catalysed by reading Glasshouse. I’m not sure. But I’m trying to make some sense of it here.

Jamais Cascio first spoke about the Participatory Panopticon at the MeshForum 2005 – IT Conversations has the whole speech online.

In his article on The Rise of the Participatory Panopticon he fleshes it out further:

Soon — probably within the next decade, certainly within the next two — we’ll be living in a world where what we see, what we hear, what we experience will be recorded wherever we go. There will be few statements or scenes that will go unnoticed, or unremembered. Our day to day lives will be archived and saved. WhatÂ’s more, these archives will be available over the net for recollection, analysis, even sharing.

And we will be doing it to ourselves.

This won’t simply be a world of a single, governmental Big Brother watching over your shoulder, nor will it be a world of a handful of corporate siblings training their ever-vigilant security cameras and tags on you. Such monitoring may well exist, probably will, in fact, but it will be overwhelmed by the millions of cameras and recorders in the hands of millions of Little Brothers and Little Sisters. We will carry with us the tools of our own transparency, and many, perhaps most, will do so willingly, even happily.

…in the world of the participatory panopticon, this constant surveillance is done by the citizens themselves, and is done by choice. It’s not imposed on us by a malevolent bureaucracy or faceless corporations. The participatory panopticon will be the emergent result of myriad independent rational decisions, a bottom-up version of the constantly watched society.

This day is coming not because of some distant breakthrough or revolution. The breakthroughs are already happening. The revolution has already taken place.

Tools for social networks will be the killer app of the participatory panopticon. Imagine layering a friendster or epinions on top of this, where comments can be given instantly, observations compared automatically. Or imagine layering a “collaborative filtering” setup, like the comment filters on Slashdot, or the product suggestions on Amazon.

These tools will form the basis of a reputation network, a social networking system backed up by unimaginable amounts of recorded evidence and opinion. You look at the person across the subway car and the system recognizes her face, revealing to you that she just completed a business deal with a friend of yours. Or that she just met your cousin. Or that she’s known to be a good kisser or a brilliant writer.

danah boyd sees the rise of the Super Public this way:

Digital life has really screwed with the notion of public, removing traditional situationism (Goffman) that connects strangers. If the Kenyan farmer is connected to the Internet and reads English, he can be a part of Bloomberg’s public via the New York Times. Yet, this does not mean that the New York Times would conceptualize him in their public, nor does it mean that his public acts would be equally visible by other constituents of the Times.

Digital architectures alter the structure of social life and information flow. Persistence, searchability, the collapse of distance and time, copyability… These are not factors that most everyday people consider when living unmediated lives. Yet, they are increasingly becoming normative in society. Throughout the 20th century, mass media forced journalists and “public” figures to come to terms with this, but digital structures force everyone to do so. People’s notion of public radically changes when they have to account for the Kenyan farmer, their lurking boss, and the person who will access their speech months from now. People’s idea of a public is traditionally bounded by space, time and audience – the park is a public that people understand. And, yet, this is all being disrupted.

In talking about “super publics,” I want to get at the altered state of publics – what publics look like when they are infused with the features of digital architectures. What does it mean to speak across time and space to an unknown audience? What happens when you cannot predict who will witness your act because they are not visible now, even though they may be tomorrow? How do people learn to deal with a public larger and more diverse than the one they learned to make sense of as teenagers? How are teenagers affected by growing up in an environment where they can assume super publics? I want to talk about what it means to speak for all time and space, to audiences you cannot conceptualize.

These are two different perspectives on the co-evolution of technology and society.

Jamais seems to view it from a more technological focus:

You may not be aware of it, but the cameraphone in your pocket is the harbinger of a massive social transformation, one already underway.

This transformation could be at least as big as the ones triggered by television and by computers, as the base technology — mobile phones — fills a new niche, different from both of these earlier technologies. TV is a “passive reception” medium; computers are an “active engagement” medium. Mobile phones can be thought of as a “passive engagement” medium, available for connections and interaction without requiring user attention.

Mobile phones are designed presuming that users will leave them on, only turning them off for limited periods. For the most part, they rest in your pocket or bag, waiting for activity which could come at any time; mobiles are “always on” network devices. Current mobile phone networks aren’t as “always on” as, say, a broadband connection, but each successive network generation gets closer to that goal.

Because of that connection, it’s possible to take a snapshot with a cameraphone and send it off in email or post it to a web page with a push of a button or two. Thousands of so-called “moblog” sites have sprung up, dedicated to cameraphone shots of whatever captures the photographer’s eye at that moment. And increasingly, cameraphones can do more than just take still images. A growing number of cameraphones can record — and send — video clips. With so-called 3G networks, bandwidth is sufficient to send live webcam-style video from a mobile phone.

As we become more accustomed to using cameraphones to capture the fleeing and unexpected, the more they will become integrated into our social discourse and personal relationships.

But the problem with the fleeting and unexpected is that, well, it’s fleeting and it’s unexpected. If you don’t have your cameraphone out and at the ready, it’s hard to capture those moments in full. And if you want to recall your spouse’s favorite movie or wine or moment of beauty, you’re certainly not going to whip out your mobile and say “honey, could you repeat that for the camera?”

WhatÂ’s the answer?

Get rid of the mobile phone.

Given all that IÂ’ve said so far, thatÂ’s probably not the answer you expected. But a hand-held phone-shaped device is just one physical manifestation of an always-on, always-connected mobile tool. ItÂ’s not the only option, and itÂ’s really not the best option. Digging a phone out of a pocket or bag and holding it up to oneÂ’s head is often a clumsy activity, and certainly a distraction while trying to do something else, like driving.

DejaView is now selling a hat or glasses-mounted camera and microphone system connected to a small portable PC. It constantly buffers the last 30 seconds of whatever you’re looking at, and can save the buffer to permanent storage at the press of a button. In the few seconds it takes you to realize youÂ’re looking at bigfoot or may have just passed an old friend from high school, the moment may have passed irrevocably. But as long as it hasnÂ’t been more than 30 seconds, the DejaView device can save it to a hard drive, holding onto it for good.

The DejaView has obvious limitations: bulky camera and cable, clumsy belt-pack storage, 4 hour battery life, 30 second buffer, no ability to wirelessly send signals, no ability to play back recordings on the spot. But anyone who dismisses it because of them hasn’t been paying attention, and should be cursed to wander the Earth using a circa-1990 cellular phone and video camera. *This* version is ugly, ungainly, and far too limited — but it’s a harbinger of things to come.

deja-view setup

These are the progenitors of what will amount to Tivos for your everyday life. You can think of them as personal memory assistants.

Address books and PDAs are already primitive forms of memory assistance, but they require positive action. You have to enter your contacts, your calendars, your personal notes and observations. True PMAs will be passively engaged, taking in everything, just like oneÂ’s own “real” memory — only theyÂ’ll be much less likely to fade over time.

And PMAs wonÂ’t just be stand-alone devices.

Wearable personal memory assistants will be linked to wireless networks, and for good reasons: to let others see what you’re seeing (so that they can help you); to access greater computing power for image-recognition (including, eventually, facial-recognition routines so that you never forget a face); and for off-site storage of what you’re recording, giving you far greater capacity than what you could have on-camera (and keeping the images safe if the unit was lost or damaged).

All of these are being worked on now, in bits and pieces. Moblogging is evolving into videoblogging. Lightweight wearable displays can show you a computer screen which appears to be floating at armÂ’s length, even though itÂ’s really just an inch from your eye. Japanese company Omron has developed face recognition software for cameraphones to let them recognize their owners. A company called Colossal Storage claims that they’ll have 10 petabyte drives on the market before the decade is out. 10 petabytes is ten million gigabytes. You could store more than a year’s worth of high quality digital video, plus high fidelity audio, plus assorted other data, in space like that.

Now take this ability to record what you see, hear and experience, and layer onto it the ability of these personal memory assistants to share information with each other over an always-on wireless network. Stand alone PMAs are basically oneÂ’s memory on steroids — incredibly useful, but not the whole story. These tools will allow us to share our experiences with each other and — more importantly — to share what we think about our experiences with each other.

People will want to share their opinions. ItÂ’s a very human behavior. WeÂ’re social creatures, and our perceptions are constructed based on how others around us respond.

WeÂ’re constantly checking with each other for useful insights. You stumble across a new restaurant, and want to know if any of your friends or any of their friends have been there before. You learn about a new politician, and want to know if anyone you know has heard her speak. You meet a new guy, and want to know if someone in your circle has dated him before. These are all conversations we’ve had, or have had variations of. But they’re all subject to the vagaries of memory — was it *that* restaurant that had the bug in the soup? Was it *that* politician saying something about prayer in schools? Was it *that* guy my sister dated and dumped for cheating?

In a world of personal memory assistants and a participatory panopticon, those questions are answered.

Warren Ellis overtly explores a world where everyone live-blogs in his unfinished, untitled story on livejournal. As the protagonist describes it:

I was the first to try it. That’s how people noticed me. Back then, I was working off a powerpack slung on a belt, cobbled together out of two old Sony CD players. A cannibalised Logitech webcam mounted on one shoulder. Mikes ripped out of a bunch of dumped mobile phones arranged on a jacket I found for twenty quid in Camden Market, black microfiber and hazmat-orange plastic. An always-on GPRS link that sent back whatever I was “seeing” and “hearing” to my home computer at 33K, which published it to the web.When I got a better connection, I added a glove that recorded feedback. If you had something similar — and this was new, touchlogging was a few years away — I could transmit to you the exact feeling of a handshake, a texture, and, later, a climate.

danah continues in her post to see the more societal issues of how media influences things:

A reporter recently asked me why kids today have no shame. I told her it was her fault. Media is obsessed with revealing the backstage of people in the public eye – celebrities, politicians, etc. More recently, they’ve created a public eye to put people into – Survivor, Real World, etc. Open digital expression systems coupled with global networks took it one step farther by saying that anyone could operate as media and expose anyone else. What’s juicy is what people want to hide and thus, the media (all media) goes after this like hawks. Add the post-9/11 attitude that if you hide something, you are clearly a terrorist. Should it surprise anyone that teenagers have responded by exposing everything with pride? What better way to react to a super public where everyone is working as paparazzi? There’s nothing juicy about exposing what’s already exposed. Do it yourself and you have nothing to worry about. These are the kinds of things that are emerging as people face life in super publics.

This brings to mind the recent film TV Junkie, which is literally an edit of a guy’s life. From the Sundance description of the film:

Rick Kirkham got his first video camera when he was 14 years old. It became his best friend and confidant. From that point on, he began documenting every facet of his life. He got his first break in TV as a dancer on American Bandstand. A little nudge from Dick Clark to pursue a career in television, and he was on his way. He quickly rose through the ranks from local TV news to a gig as a national correspondent for Inside Edition. His girlfriend then got pregnant, and they got married. Everything was golden…or was it? The flip side of his life was another story, and his camera shockingly captured both with the same candor and vigor. What unfolds in TV Junkie is a riveting journey into the heart of darkness, where one man’s fight for survival is caught on tape in an unprecedented way. A self-imposed The Truman Show with a dark twist, TV Junkie transcends one man’s tragic story and becomes a harrowing reflection on a generation obsessed with celebrity and technology. Utilizing more than 3,000 hours of footage, directors Michael Cain and Matt Radecki tackle the Herculean task of editing it with intelligence, compassion, and honesty to tell this unbelievable story that is both a cautionary tale and a gripping portrait of a TV junkie.

Jamais continues to touch on societal and political issues too:

Efforts such as these make it clear that every citizen with a cameraphone can be a reporter. Citizens can capture a politicianÂ’s inadvertent gesture, quick glance or private frown, and make sure those images are seen around the world. The lack of traditional cameras snapping away can no longer be an opportunity for public figures to relax. All those running for office have to assume that their actions and words are being recorded, even if no cameras are evident, as long as citizens are present.

This notion of individual citizens keeping a technological eye on the people in charge is referred to as “sousveillance,” a recent neologism meaning “watching from below” — in comparison to “surveillance,” meaning “watching from above.” Proponents of the notion see it as an equalizer, making it possible for individual citizens to keep tabs on those in charge. For the sousveillance movement, if the question is “who watches the watchmen?” the answer is “all of us.”

Abu Ghraib was the digital camera’s “Rodney King” moment, with the pictures taken of prisoner abuses by American troops in Iraq, sent via email around the world. The three-step process of See, Snap, Send, when empowered by digital technology, can be revolutionary action. Whether the people taking the pictures did so out of a sense of outrage, a desire to document a moment, or even misguided amusement, the result was still the same: recognition that anyone, anywhere, with a digital camera and a network connection has enormous power, perhaps enough to alter the course of a war or to shake the policies of the most powerful nation on Earth.

In reaction to the photos, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said: “We’re functioning … in the Information Age, where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon.”

Clearly, the world of the participatory panopticon is not one of strong privacy and personal secrecy. Paris Hilton is not going to be happy here. ItÂ’s going to be hard to escape past mistakes. ItÂ’s going to be easy to find unflattering pictures or insulting observations.

It’s a world closer to what author David Brin described as a “transparent society.” But even that’s not quite right — in Brin’s words, from the Accelerating Change conference this last fall, “a good transparent society is one where most of the people know what’s going on most of the time.” ItÂ’s sousveillance coupled with the sense of responsibility arising from knowing just how powerful these tools can be. It’s an active phenomenon of strong accountability and unfettered access. The participatory panopticon, conversely, is one of passive engagement, where transparency is an emergent phenomenon coming from connections between myriad independent personal archives.

But the world of the participatory panopticon is not as interested in privacy, or even secrecy, as it is in lies. A police officer lying about hitting a protestor, a politician lying about human rights abuses, a potential new partner lying about past indiscretions — all of these are harder in a world where everything might be on the record. The participatory panopticon is a world where accusations can easily be documented, where corporations will become more transparent to stakeholders as a matter of course, where officials may even be required to wear a recorder while on duty, simply to avoid situations where they are discovered to have been lying. It’s a world where we can all be witnesses with perfect recall. Ironically, itÂ’s a world where trust is easy, because lying is hard.

But ask yourself: what would it really be like to have perfect memory? Relationships — business, casual or personal — are very often built on the consensual misrememberings of slights. Memories fade. Emotional wounds heal. The insult that seemed so important one day is soon gone. But personal memory assistants will allow people to play back what you really said, time and again, allow people to obsess over a momentary sneer or distracted gaze. Reputation networks will allow people to share those recordings, showing their friends (and their friendsÂ’ friends, and so on) just how much of a cad you really are.

Check out his recent interview on NeoFiles where Jamais updates his notion…

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