My friend Alexandra Samuel penned a piece titled “After a Loss in Vancouver, Troubling Signals of Citizen Surveillance” over at the Harvard Business Review. The piece highlights her concern with the number of people willing to engage in citizen surveillance.
As she states:
It’s one thing to take pictures as part of the process of telling your story, or as part of your (paid or unpaid) work as a citizen journalist. It’s another thing entirely to take and post pictures and videos with the explicit intention of identifying illegal (or potentially illegal) activity. At that moment you are no longer engaging in citizen journalism; you’re engaging in citizen surveillance.
And I don’t think we want to live in a society that turns social media into a form of crowdsourced surveillance. When social media users embrace Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs as channels for curating, identifying and pursuing criminals, that is exactly what they are moving toward.
I encourage you to read the piece, and, I’m not sure I agree with much of it on two levels.
First, I want to steer away from good versus bad and right versus wrong. Social Media isn’t going to create only good outcomes, or only bad outcomes, it is going to create both (something I know Alex acknowledges). This technology will, like previous technologies, reset what normal means. In the new world we are becoming more powerful “sensors” in our society. We can enable others to know what, good and bad, is going on around us. To believe that we won’t share, and that others won’t use our shared information to inform their decisions, is simply not logical. As dBarefoot points out in the comments there are lots of social good that can come for surveillance. In the end you can’t post videos of human right injustices without also being able to post videos of people at abortion clinics, you can’t post videos of officials taking bribes without also being able to post videos of people smoking drugs at a party. The alternative, a society where people are not permitted to share, strikes me as even more dangerous than a society where we can share but where one element of that sharing ends up being used as surveillance. My suspicion is that we may end up regulating some use – there will be some things people cannot share online (visiting abortion clinics may end up being one of those) but I’m not confident of even this.
But I suspect that in a few decades my children will be stunned that I grew up in a world of no mutual surveillance. That we tolerated the risks of a world where mutual surveillance didn’t exist – they may wonder at a basic level, how we felt safe at night or in certain circumstances (I really recommend David Brin’s Science Fiction writing, especially Earth in which he explores this idea). I can also imagine they will find the idea of total anonymity and having an untraceable past to both eerie, frightening and intriguing. In their world, having grown up with social media will be different, some of the things we feel are bad, they will like, and vice versa.
Another issues missing from Alex’s piece is the role of the state. It is one thing for people to post pictures of each other, it is another about how, and if, the state does the same. As many tweeters stated – this isn’t 1994 (the last time there were riots in Vancouver). Social media is going to do is make the enforcement of law a much and the role of the state a much trickier subject. Ultimately, they cannot ignore photos of rioters engaged in illegal acts. So the question isn’t so much on what we are going to share, it is about what we should allow the state to do, and not to do, with the information we create. The state’s monopoly on violence gives it a unique role, one that will need to be managed carefully. This monopoly, combined with a world of perfect (or at least, a lot more) information will I imagine necessitate a state and justice system that that looks very, very different than the one we have right now if we are to protect of civil liberties as we presently understand them. (I suspect I’ll be writing some more about this)
But I think the place where I disagree the most with Alex is in the last paragraph:
What social media is for — or what it can be for, if we use it to its fullest potential — is to create community. And there is nothing that will erode community faster, both online and off, than creating a society of mutual surveillance.
Here, Alex confuses the society she’d like to live in with what social media enables. I see nothing to suggest that mutual surveillance will erode community, indeed, I think it already has demonstrated that it does the opposite. Mutual surveillance fosters lots of communities – from communities that track human rights abuses, to communities that track abortion providers to communities that track disabled parking violators. Surveillance builds communities, it may be that, in many cases, those communities pursue the marginalization of another community or termination of a specific behaviour, but that does not make them any less a part of our society’s fabric. It may not create communities everyone likes, but it can create community. What matters here is not if we can monitor one another, but what ends up happening with the information we generate, and why I think we’ll want to think hard about what we allow the state to do and to permit others to do, more and more carefully.