How Cameras Everywhere Can Make the World a Better Place

NEWS ANALYSIS: People worry about the invasion of privacy from ubiquitousness of still and video cameras. But consider the upside of having cameras everywhere.

Cameras Everywhere 2

Smile! Cameras are everywhere now.

Thanks to smartphones, just about everybody carries a high-quality camera and an instantaneous way to share photos and videos with the world. Our laptops have cameras. Our drones have cameras. ATMs, intersections, police cars and street corners have cameras. Businesses have security cameras. Even a new generation of smart doorbells has cameras.

New live-streaming options are coming out. For example, the Mevo is a great little consumer camera designed for live-streaming anything. Taser is working on live-streaming police body cameras, which it promises will enter the market by the end of next year. Google plans to roll out a mobile live-streaming YouTube option any minute now.

Are all these cameras, video and live-streaming really a good thing?

The debate over ubiquitous cameras normally centers on a trade-off between privacy and security. The idea is that cameras enhance our security, so the more, the better. But they violate our privacy, so the fewer the better. How do we achieve a balance?

That's an interesting debate. But I'm not going to rehash it in this column. Instead, I'd like to focus on the underappreciated dichotomy between despair and justice.

The Trouble With Pictures

Two video-related events emerged in the news recently that forced public debate in technology circles about the despair vs. justice dichotomy—or they should have.

In the first case, videos were smuggled out of the Four Corners teen detention center in Australia showing horrific and inexcusable abuse of incarcerated minors.

In the second case, a woman used Facebook Live to live-stream a fatal encounter with police during a traffic stop in Minnesota.

What both videos have in common is that they're graphic and horrific, and watching them is the kind of experience that can make you lose faith in humanity.

What they don't have in common is that Facebook banned or censored the Four Corners videos, but allowed the traffic-stop videos.

What are the standards here?

Facebook won't say clearly why it banned the one and allowed the other. But it does raise a lot of questions about which videos we're allowed to see by the gatekeepers (such as Facebook) and which we're not allowed to see, and why.

The truth is that horrific, graphic and depressing videos are everywhere online these days. Sites such as YouTube and LiveLeak are rife with all manner of fights, car accidents, war, terrorism, abuse and more.

Watching these videos preys on a human cognitive bias. Our brains are not designed to understand the scale of human activity and so we can't fully comprehend the horrors we see in the context of the broader world of all the good that people do in the world. And so we're left with the nagging feeling that most people are sociopaths and the entire world is a bad neighborhood.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil points out, however, that the world isn't actually getting worse. Instead, our information is getting better.

In fact, we have access to billions of boring pictures and videos depicting people behaving with civility and kindness. And we ignore them—because they're boring.

But we react intensely to scenes of violence, death, destruction, human anguish and injustice because it reflects what we fear will happen to us—not what is normally a part of our lives.

It makes us feel some of the fear and even panic of the people caught up in wars, street violence and natural disasters. It gives us the sensation that we are in as much danger as the people we see in videos that are shot all over the world and streamed to our homes and offices.

No amount of rational discourse or supporting statistics could make us feel that the world is getting better or safer.

So, what's the solution?

The Great Thing About Pictures

The set of cognitive biases that convinces us that human society is really in decline is based on the fact that our brains are not designed to think globally. In fact, our wetware is ideally suited for us to live in and understand a tiny amount of geography and a miniscule community—say a village, plus a few surrounding villages.

In a village, there's universal accountability. In other words, our moral systems assume that others in the community will know what we're up to and we learn to adjust our behavior accordingly.