We’re being watched, part 4 of 7: Body cameras will film everything

This is a seven-part miniseries I’m doing on privacy and unauthorized surveillance in the digital age. Check out links to the other posts at the bottom.

At the beginning of his post “As We Become Cameras,” Matt Hackett cites a prescient quote from Susan Sontag:

A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectivize reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them. Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers).
— Susan Sontag, “The Image-World” (1973)

In his post, Hackett predicts we will lose our privacy not just because we unconsciously allow VR and Wi Fi and TVs to collect and digest our data. He says we will voluntarily allow it as we adopt always-on body cameras.

In the wake of reports of police brutality and excessive use of force, many municipalities are proposing rules requiring their police to wear body cameras to film every interaction with citizens. This seems like a big step now. In three years it will be commonplace. In five to ten years, every citizen will be wearing one too.

Hackett relates the potential mass adoption of body cameras to the history of wristwatches. He says that before the industrial revolution it was uncommon for clocks to have minute hands. And clocks weren’t even widely synchronized until the advent of train travel. Two hundred years ago, time was less precise and meant something than it does to us now. No one imagined that wearing a clock on your wrist would considered normal.

Might the same be true for body cameras?

A few things are clear: We are a visual species. We value capturing images. We are doing so at an increasing rate. Hackett writes, “More photographs have been taken in the past year than were taken on all film combined. More than 2 trillion photos were shared last year, perhaps twice or more were captured and sit dormant on phone hard drives. This says nothing of video.”

We can only suppose this trend will continue as hard drives get smaller, cloud storage gets cheaper and more people have access to photographic devices. Hackett writes, “By 2020, 80% of the world will be in possession of a physically unlimited camera attached (mostly) to an instantaneous global image distribution network.”

Wouldn’t the next step be wearing cameras all the time so that you never missed a shot? No, you say, Google Glass was a failure. It was socially unacceptable to be caught wearing a pair. You were a Glasshole. But just a few months ago, Snap released Spectacles, their version of a wearable camera. The response? They are one of the hottest accessories of the season.

Snap Spectacles.

I remember when Gmail first came out. A lot of people were nervous about handing over their data to Google. Allow them to scan my personal email and show me ads? No way! Oh, wait, it’s free? Okay. Years later, how many of your friends use and prefer gmail? A ton. As long as we know that giving up our privacy is part of the deal, we can get comfortable with it.

First Skype gave video calls to the people. Then iPhone made it mobile with FaceTime. Then services like Periscope made live streaming easy. Then Snapchat made quick video clips a snap to share. Then Instagram launched their own version. Video is becoming ubiquitous. Looking at that trend, the next steps look obvious.

I love one of Hackett’s quotes near the end of the piece:

We are approaching a world in which visual and auditory presence at a distance — seeing as another, instantly — is not a rare luxury good, but a basic assumption of society and industry. The superpower of unbounded remote vision is becoming mundane.

Read widely. Read wisely.


As we Become Cameras: Wearable cameras will become ubiquitous. We’ll barely notice.” by Matt Hackett in Medium (6 minute read)

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