Particpatory Panopticon

[via Smart Mobs] Jamais Cascio asks: “What happens when you combine mobile communications, always-on cameras, and commonplace wireless networks?” and answers:

Mobile phones and PDAs with cameras are increasingly common; one in six phones sold in 2003 had a camera in it, and last year cameraphones actually out-sold other digital cameras…Within a decade, your phone will likely be able to take pictures at least as good as your present-day digital camera.

The bigger change will come from an entirely-new class of hardware — what I call the “personal memory assistant.” Both Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft have built test versions of wearable cameras designed to record the world around you as you go about your day (the HP wearable always-on camera is the illustration at the top of this post). Nokia and HP are working on the software required to make such cameras usable. If you’ve seen or used a TiVo, imagine a TiVo for your day-to-day life. If you don’t think that’s revolutionary, consider that human memory is notoriously faulty; what happens when a person can have perfect recall?

There is no reason why wearable personal memory assistants wouldn’t be linked to wireless networks. There are good reasons why they would be, in fact: 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). I suspect that nearly all of these systems, once they come to market, will have wireless communication built-in.

Mobile systems combined with GPS and GIS and social software and RFIDs and “smart dust”… These are tools to reshape your relationship with your environment, other people, and even your sense of self.

I offer up this scenario in order to ask: if we know these devices are on their way, are really already here in crude form, how can we use them as tools for good? Are these systems the harbingers of a Transparent Society, or are they the makings of a Panopticon Singularity? Does the sousveillance concept make sense, a world where we are all have the ability — and responsibility — to “watch the watchmen?” Would these be the perfect tools for corporate whistleblowers and anti-corruption activists?

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.