Note: This originally posted on NJWV.
Behavior is modified and shaped not only through being observed, but also through the shame of negative social feedback when video and stills of bad behavior are released on a national and local stage. This both corroborates the effectiveness of the Autopanopticon and proves the camera phone as an increasingly powerful tool for social control.
Right after I wrote my Tragedy of the Commons post, Fototazo posted a nice essay about the Autopanopticon which made me rethink everything. I intended to reply over the summer but have only just gotten around to finishing my post—helped in no small part by Model View Culture’s Surveillance theme last week.
There’s a lot of fear of cameras right now. Some people are petrified of people with cameras—mainly from the privacy infringement point of view. Other people are scared of the government acting as big brother and spying on all of us in the name of “security.” In both cases, it seems like people are rarely scared of both government and photographers. It’s usually one or the other and becomes very easy to ridicule their point of view by pointing out how they’re not troubled by all the other photography going on in public.
I’ve mentioned previously that people are retreating from public space because we no longer trust it. That’s not exactly correct. I think we trust it to be itself; we just don’t agree with being monitored and letting someone else access and use our images and information. This is a legit fear. No one likes the idea of being monitored all the time, in part because no one really knows all the possible laws out there.
Heck, this is one reason why we have the 5th amendment and Miranda rights. It’s pretty easy to implicate yourself in something illegal if you don’t know all the ins and outs of the law. There’s also something intrusive and distrustful about someone monitoring you all the time. I wouldn’t want to be taped at my job and I don’t blame police officers for resisting it even though the events of this past summer have made it pretty clear that all cops should have cameras recording at all times.
Still, there’s too much benefit to government in having as many people photographing in public as possible—both in preventing crime and solving crime. As much as cops don’t like people filming them, they’ll be relying on those same videos as evidence when it helps their case.
There is even more benefit to big business—which is the interesting thing that fototazo doesn’t mention. His autopanopticon focuses on news and crime and media coverage rather than the more-likely personal data metrics trying to profile us and sell us more shit we don’t need.
The corporate side actually both scares and intrigues me more than the government side. Government’s interests are pretty obvious and center around behavioral control; there’s a reason why the Panopticon is a prison design. With businesses, it’s not always clear what the goal is. It might be trying to sell us things. It might be market research for new products. It might be market research about their competition. It might be part of an experiment in which we’re the subjects.
Lots of interesting angles. Most of them creepy. But I suspect all of them are going to be similar to the ways that we’re already tracked online.* Even with people retreating to things like Snapchat or tweeting and deleting or using search engines like DuckDuckGo, the web knows a ton about us. It’s not that privacy is dead but rather that being in a public space—which is what most of the web is—means you’re being surveilled by government and/or business.
*Full disclosure, I’ve stopped clearing my cookie information because the ads I get when I’m not being tracked online are creepier than the ones when I am being tracked.
From the photographer point of view, as much as we fear that our rights to photograph will be taken away as more people misbehave with cameras, perhaps we fear too much. Both government and business have reasons to encourage us to record each other as much as possible. And for us to share those recordings.
At the same time, while we photograph in public, it’s important to remember how to act like a grown up and be aware of who we’re photographing and the history of how that population has been surveilled in the past. A lot of the current anxiety about surveillance in the US is due to it being applied to populations which previously weren’t subject to this kind of thing.
The autopanopticon is a bigger change for the white middle class than it is for non-whites or the poor.
What we have decided to call surveillance is actually a constant interplay of various forms of monitoring that have existed and focused on black people, and specifically black women, long before cameras were around, let alone ubiquitous. Surveillance technology is a dissemination of cultural standards of monitoring. Our picture of surveillance needs to factor in not just tech developments, but the cultural standards that have bred surveillance, especially towards black culture, as part and parcel in our world.
It’s informative to realize how it’s been applied historically and the differing ways it’s still applied today. Especially since a lot of the tropes of photography buy into the surveillance of black culture and the treatment of blacks as spectacle*—both of which are key differences in how the general autopanopticon idea works. Where we expect the autopanopticon to be about specific people or events, a lot of surveillance is instead intended to generalize, appropriate, and commodify whatever is being monitored.**
*It’s worth reading all of Shit My Photography Professor Says here as a very blunt way of avoiding these tropes. Nuggets like this and this are the highlights.
**It’s also worth reading Dorothy Kim’s essay about how academia treats the digital public space. Lots of the same trends of appropriating non-white culture in that space.
As photographers, since we’re part of the monitoring machine, we have an opportunity to shape—even a little bit—the type of data being collected. Since we’re also being monitored, this is an opportunity to, in many cases, finally understand how it feels to be watched like this in public. Yes, it doesn’t feel good. But if it feels like a new concept, we’ve been lucky to have avoided it for this long.
And it’s something that should help us better sympathize with the ways people react to cameras the way they do.
If we’re disturbed by the fact that walking around with a camera results in us getting stereotyped as creepers or threats, we can either take a number and get in line behind everyone else who was there first or use our awareness of what it feels like to be stereotyped as a way realize what stereotypes we’re projecting on everyone else we see and photograph.