I promised some quick notes on the IWIS workshop earlier this week. I do have some note-like notes, especially from the early part of the workshop, but I will instead focus on some take-away reflections about interesting issues.
I was pleasantly surprised at the focus on the social over (or, at least, with) the hardware. That is, the group seemed very ready to talk about what it means socially to have and share individual recordings of the world. I was also happy to see that while privacy remained at the forefront, the group was able to walk a nice line between techno-utopianism and cynical skepticism–though certainly leaning toward the former. That is to say, the focus was not simply on privacy and its protection, nor simply on activism, but on how future public and private spaces might be shaped by “always-on” wearable technologies.
It was nice to be able to hear from a group of people who had really thought about these issues (far more than I have) and had shaped opinions about them. I think one of the major areas that need to be addressed, and this came out in the discussions, is the question of policy — and the question of policing. While sousveillance has largely been looked at as a counterpoint to surveillance, and a way of surveilling the surveillors, in some ways I think it is potential far more intrusive than traditional state- and corporate- (or state-and-corporate) surveillance. It has a lot to do with expectations. I have a hard time predicting how a stranger will behave, and widely available wearables (or camphones, for that matter) put me in a position of trusting not just society in general, but each individual member. The consequences of that trust being betrayed are significant, but since there is still no clear social mores regarding personal recording — it is still too new/rare a practice — I have no way other than an extensive interaction to know whether my privacy is in the process of being invaded each time I talk to someone.
This lack of understanding has shown itself in bad law, with a new federal bill that would outlaw camphones in particular private/public places. Bad law is not an uncommon reaction to new technologies. Think about the CDA. Bad law. Yet the problems it addressed were real (if grossly exaggerated). Now we are in the process of sorting out social solutions to some of those problems, and working these through will take a long time.
We also touched upon what I think is the most interesting part of this, which is moving what is a hyper-individual kind of technology — to what might be considered an extreme degree with implantable technologies — into a structure in which it allows and encourages collaboration. But I do wish we had gone a bit further with this. How is it that we will move from 100 recordings of an event to some commonly accessible narrative? We talked a bit about wearcomps in/as inverse surveillance. One of the differences between Steve Mann’s Sur/Sous distinction is that the Sur is able to shape and elucidate an ongoing grand narrative. Inverse surveillance will be made up of petites narratives. Will the power and usefulness of these recordings be diminished because of their place in the structures of power. That larger question informs the smaller: how do we move from memories to stories, from recordings to ideas, from an approximation of our observations, to the qualia of our experiences?
And again, sousveillance, when aggregated, has the potential of becoming omni-veillance. Even if you go with Brin and the idea that transparent society is the only acceptable solution, you must look for ways of cushioning its onset, and maintaining as much reciprocity and control in the short run as possible. Arun mentioned at one point the “tyranny of the masses” and for me too, this idea kept coming up. How do we avoid putting the “mob” in smart mobs? How do we ensure that there are systems in place that encourage mutual aid rather than groupthink? What does it mean when everyone in the room can record? When only some people can?
Overall, I agree with most of the participants: the time was way to short to thresh out some of these ideas. I was very happy, though, with what seemed to be a general consensus regarding some of the directions this research needs to be going. I’m very excited about a conference next year. There is always a difficulty in bringing together technologists, artists, and social scientists–a genuine effort needs to be made to provide a common language and culture for the conference. But I think the convergence of these areas falls naturally on wearcomp (and especially collaborative wearcomp), and I am glad to help make it happen in whatever way I can.
In the meantime, I’m going to keep working on my paper on Citizens Rights Management (or is “Personal Rights Management” better?).
fn1. I like “inverse surveillance” more, by the way. When said with an American accent, “sousveillance” sounds like Dr. Seuss invented it. (Which, on second thought, isn’t at all a bad thing.) When said with a bad French accent (like mine), it’s difficult to discern the difference between sur et sous.