Recently a woman outside an upstate New York strip mall launched a racist verbal attack against a man who did nothing more than start his truck.
Instead of screaming or fighting back against this unprovoked tirade — which is what most people would have done — the man calmly recorded her verbal assault with his phone and uploaded it to YouTube. Millions of people subsequently joined together in publicly shaming the woman.
From actress Porscha Coleman uploading a customer meltdown to her Vine account to a road rager being shamed on YouTube, the future of surveillance is unfolding on an extremely personal level thanks to the proliferation of cameras on cell phones and other devices. Add in the growth potential of video recording because of new wearable technologies like Google Glass and it becomes obvious that the next revolution in human behavior will not only be televised, it’ll be filmed by billions of different people.
When we’re all watching each other
Unlike state and corporate surveillance — where the surveillance processes are hidden from most people and the end results subject to deniability — personally initiated surveillance is by its nature public. In fact, most people who record videos and post them online would not even call what they’re doing surveillance.
Instead, your average human records people and events simply because they want to share the video with others. This social aspect to recording is why more than 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute of every day.
But as with all things related to social media, it’s not only cute kittens and laughing babies which are popular online. People also love watching other people acting badly. There’s a deep-seated human need to shame those who break our cherished social norms — and when there’s video of these transgressions, so much the better.
And just as the ability to record and upload our daily personal interactions is becoming easier and easier, it’s likewise easy to imagine how people will react to this trend. Some people will demand new laws, but such belated legal prohibitions will likely fail to prevent the coming explosion of video recording. Others will wear anti-surveillance clothing. But such fashion choices will probably be more effective against large-scale surveillance by states and corporations, and may even pose such a burden to interpersonal interactions that many people will avoid wearing them.
No, the way most people will respond to everyone recording their daily interactions will be to simply remain calm and cool. To show how reasonable and logical they are. After all, bland and boring rarely goes viral. And if you stay calm while someone else loses their cool, the resulting video can only benefit you.
Those in the public eye such as politicians have already learned the hard way that they must always act as if they are on camera. There’s a reason so many politicians these days act so scripted and bland — that’s the safest option around cameras. They already know that even a single recorded meltdown or weird comment can go viral, causing people to ignore the thousand other times when they acted perfectly normal.
It’s easy to imagine more people following the lead of our political leaders as cameras begin recording every single human interaction of every single day. When buying groceries, most people will be polite to the clerk. When something goes wrong, most people will try to stay calm and reasonable. The majority of people already act this way, but the knowledge that they are also on video — and that repressing their emotions and acting cool and logical will look better than giving into anger — while give even greater incentive to behave this way.
Welcome to the world of Spock
Repressed emotions? Acting cool and logical? Does this remind anyone of a certain Star Trek character named Spock?
In the Star Trek universe, the Vulcans are famous for attempting to keep emotions from interfering with their beloved rule of logic and reason. But what makes Vulcans such fascinating characters is the fact that they aren’t truly emotionless — they still feel anger and love and disgust and so much more. The essential Vulcan conflict comes in maintaining this facade of logic and reason despite their explosive emotional core.
This is all the more evident in Spock, who is half human and half Vulcan and even more given to all those base human emotions.
When I predict that the increase in cameras will cause people to act more like Spock, I don’t mean every single human will do so. The human race is nothing if not composed of a diverse set of personalities and cultures and beliefs. There will always be people who see constant surveillance as a challenge to overcome, or have nothing to lose from acting out on video, or see an opportunity to do something so outlandish or wrong that it will vault them to infamy.
But most people aren’t like this, as the mug shot industry has discovered to its financial delight. People who don’t have something to gain from infamy — and instead lots to lose — will go to great lengths to avoid harming their reputations and families and jobs with negative information.
Again, being on camera all the time does not mean that some people won’t still be violent or act up and scream and make total asses of themselves. That will always happen. But imagine a world where if you get mad, video of that incident will haunt you for the rest of your life. Where that video could keep you from landing your dream job or attending a certain school or even finding the love of your life. Where every bad human interaction you have can be aggregated into a personal reputation score much as your financial interactions are now turned into credit scores.
I sadly predict most people will respond to such a world by shutting down their emotions and simply trying to behave.
I hope that one day humanity grows up so we understand that people have good days and bad. That all of us are more than the sum of any individual glimpse into our lives.
But before that happens, my guess is that humanity will spend a number of years living in the land of Spockdom.
Live long and prosper. And don’t forget to smile for the cameras.
Jason Sanford is a Nebula Award nominated author whose science fiction stories have been published in a number of magazines and books, including Interzone, Asimov’s and Analog. Follow his Sci-Fi Strange Medium collection at https://medium.com/sci-fi-strange.
This column was originally written for the Czech science fiction magazine XB-1.