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.
How Cameras Everywhere Can Make the World a Better Place
That’s why people are polite in an elevator, but rude in traffic. In an elevator, the close quarters forces people to be very civil for a few seconds—holding the door for each other and speaking respectfully and politely to one another.
In traffic, the idea is that we’ll never see these people again, so why not flip them off, cut them off or tailgate? Yes, most people are civil drivers. But in an elevator, everyone is civil.
The great thing about cameras is that, in a globalized, mass-population world, cameras give us the potential for village-like or even elevator-like accountability.
For example, my guess is that the people abusing teenagers in Australia would not have done it if they knew video of their actions would spread around the world.
I’m a big fan of the Ring Video Doorbell, which mounts in the same place a regular doorbell would be installed. It records video of any motion and records video when someone presses the doorbell. The bell rings both in the house and on the app, and you can talk to people as if you’re inside using an intercom. The video is uploaded to the cloud in real-time, so even if the camera is taken or destroyed, the video is retained.
The camera is obvious on the Ring doorbell, and that’s one of the things I like about it. I don’t want a spy camera. I want everyone coming up to my door to know that whatever they do, they’ll be held accountable for it. Still, thousands of people are getting caught with this product stealing packages, breaking and entering and other nefarious actions.
Imagine if every home had a camera like this and everyone knew it. Sure, crooks would wear masks and commit burglaries. But the casual kind of petty sociopathic behavior—stealing packages, defacing doors or stealing Halloween candy—would pretty much end. Those are the actions of people who believe they’re outside of the village’s scrutiny and, therefore, won’t be held accountable for their actions.
In fact, I’d love to see a lot more cameras in the world. All police should have body cams. All police interrogations should be recorded and the recording made available to the accused. Courtrooms should have publicly available cameras. In fact, in any situation where the powerful can victimize the powerless, cameras should be rolling.
Of course, we need to protect private spaces from invasion from illegal and unethical snooping. Baltimore’s use of aerial surveillance into people’s backyards was a clear violation.
How We’ll Adjust to a World Full of Cameras
There are some ways in which humans change and evolve to cope with changing technology and other ways in which humans will never change.
I think it’s likely that, over time, we’ll adjust to the ubiquity of horrible videos online and learn to understand that the most entertaining videos and pictures don’t reflect the reality of the world, but are exceptions to normal activity.
Likewise, I don’t think humans will evolve to become universally moral and compassionate. Therefore, we’ll ultimately benefit from the ubiquity of cameras in a way that makes people behave more civilly and ethically because of the knowledge that they’re being watched.
That change in behavior won’t come about from the invasion of privacy or the existence of hidden cameras, but from the expectation that we’ll all be held accountable for our actions in public. If you don’t do anything criminal, misanthropic or malicious, the video will be ignored and deleted. If you do something harmful against another person, that action will be proved by the cameras beyond any doubt and you’ll pay the price.
Every new technology involves some kind of new trade-off. On balance, cameras everywhere in public specifically used for protection and transparency will make the world a better place by holding people accountable. We’ll treat each other as we do in elevators, rather than on L.A. freeways—or as in a small village, rather than in a vast city like New York.
And that’s a better world.