Brilliant quote from an interesting article:
“Privacy isn’t your right anymore. We sold it for pictures of cats and the ability to tell anyone in the free world what we had for breakfast.”
The photographer Arne Svenson has an amazing series of photographs. What he has done is photographed his neighbors in the building opposite from where he lives in New York. Using a 500mm lens he peered through the glass-faced building and took some amazing shots.
The result is a series of images called The Neighbors. They are very personal images into peoples private lives but – from what I’ve seen online – none of the images clearly identify anyone. On the artist’s site this is how the photographs are explained:
The grid structure of the windows frame the quotidian activities of the neighbors, forming images which are puzzling, endearing, theatrical and often seem to mimic art history, from Delacroix to Vermeer. The Neighbors is social documentation in a very rarified environment. The large color prints have been cropped to various orientations and sizes to condense and focus the action.
The Guardian has a quote from Svenson about his work:
“I don’t photograph anything salacious or demeaning,” is Svenson’s stock retort when pressed on his work’s morality. “I am not photographing the residents as specific, identifiable individuals, but as representations of humankind.”
Despite this, two neighbors sued Svenson after having spotting their children among the subjects. Yet a court ruled this month that Svenson’s actions were defensible under the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, and that such art needs no consent to be made or sold.
The interesting thing is that Svenson seems to express a clear ethical boundary. He is taking photographs of people, without their consent, inside their homes and making them public. And yet he does draw the line at making individuals identifiable.
Lifelogging has been a buzzword for some time now, but its still a cumbersome task for most of us. But this is not going to last long.
One device that’s going to make this all too easy is the Memoto, which has the tag line “Remember every moment.”
The product is small and simple, clip it on and it takes two photos per minute until you take it off. In the promotion video Memoto says: “What if we could build a camera small enough to never be in the way, but smart enough to capture life as we live it.”
The mass of 5 megapixel pictures are stored on Memoto’s storage surface, and include the time and the location where they were taken. Via an app the photo’s are searchable via gps and time.
When the images are stored on the cloud they are organized into moments, represented by the algorithmically chosen most interesting image.
Sure this is a cool toy, its small, light and colorful. But it also raises several ethical implications. Such as:
Despite all these questions the devices are available and will probably be around soon. A day will produce over 1000 pictures – which explains the need for the algorithm to help us sift through the garbage. But even then I suspect that most of us will realize that we live fundamentally boring lives, probably not worth documenting.
Technology is always older than we think. Recently XKCD published a wonderful series of quotes on how we perceive the changes technology brings on the pace of everyday life.
Then today I came across Mark Twain’s excellent use of the camera in King Leopold’s Soliloquy: A Defense of His Congo Rule published in 1905.
The kodak has been a sore calamity to us. The most powerful enemy that has confronted us, indeed… Then all of a sudden came the crash! That is to say, the incorruptible kodak — and all the harmony went to hell! The only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn’t bribe… Then that trivial little kodak, that a child can carry in its pocket, gets up, uttering never a word, and knocks them dumb!
The way things are supposed to work is that we’re supposed to know virtually everything about what they do: that’s why they’re called public servants. They’re supposed to know virtually nothing about what we do: that’s why we’re called private individuals.
Huge hi-res images are fascinating and the London Panorama from the BT Tower is no exception. But the resolution got me thinking that this was an excellent visualization of what surveillance really can look like. It’s not only the barely visible images taken from cheap cameras on walls. Check out the zoom on this baby…
Do you see the man with the red shirt and glasses?
Data retention and mobile telephones are seen as boring subjects. But change that to “Your phone company is watching” and get Malte Spitz to harass his phone company to use his right to information. The data he gets maps out 6 months of his life – check out what he does with the data. All of a sudden data retention is not boring – it is scary serious.
Spitz demonstrates simply why this is important. He argues that we have to fight for our right for self-determination every day. He is right and history may depend on it.
What kind of data is your cell phone company collecting? Malte Spitz wasn’t too worried when he asked his operator in Germany to share information stored about him. Multiple unanswered requests and a lawsuit later, Spitz received 35,830 lines of code — a detailed, nearly minute-by-minute account of half a year of his life.
Malte Spitz asked his cell phone carrier what it knew about him–and mapped what he found out.
What is public space? Ok, so it’s important but what is it and how is it defined? The reason I have begun thinking about this again is an attempt to address a question of what government authorities should be allowed to do with publicly available data on social networks such as Facebook.
One of the issues with public space is the way in which we have taken it’s legal status for granted and tend to believe that it will be there when we need it. This is despite the fact that very many of the spaces we see as public are actually private (e.g. shopping malls) and many spaces which were previously public have been privatized.
So why worry about a private public space? Who cares who is responsible for it? The privatization of public space allows for the creation of many local rules which can actually limit our general freedoms. There is, for example, no law against photographing in public. But if the public space is in reality a private space there is nothing stopping the owners from creating a rule against photography. There are unfortunately several examples of this – only last month the company that owns and operates the Glasgow underground prohibited photography.
Another limitation brought about by the privatization of public spaces is the limiting of places where citizens can protest. The occupy London movement did not chose to camp outside St Paul’s for symbolic reasons but because the area land around the church is part of the last remaining public land in the city.
Over the last 20 years, since the corporation quietly began privatising the City, hundreds of public highways, public pathways and rights of way in place for centuries have been closed. The reason why this is so important is that the removal of public rights of way also signals the removal of the right to political protest. (The Guardian)
This is all very interesting but what has it got to do with Facebook?
In Sweden a wide range of authorities from the Tax department to the police have used Facebook as an investigative tool. I don’t mean that they have requested data from Facebook but they have used it by browsing the open profiles and data available on the site. For example the police may go to Facebook to find a photograph, social services may check up if people are working when they are claiming unemployment etc.
What makes this process problematic is that the authorities dipping into the Facebook data stream is not controlled in any manner. If a police officer would like to check the police database for information about me, she must provide good reason to do so. But looking me up on Facebook – in the line of duty – has no such checks.
These actions are commonly legitimized by stating that Facebook is a public space. But is it? Actually it’s a highly regulated private public space. But how should it be viewed? How should authorities be allowed to use the social network data of others? In an article I am writing right now I criticize the view that Facebook is public, and therefore accessible to authorities without limitation. Sure, it’s not a private space, but what about a middle ground – could Facebook be a members only social club? Would this require authorities to respect our privacy online?
One of the enduring myths about Social Media is that it is somehow about connecting friends, colleagues or contacts. The reason I call this mythological is not the fact that people can have 100s or 1000s of friends on Facebook – even if that is a bit weird (see Dunbar Number) – no my gripe is that friends, colleagues and even contacts have the right to make demands on you and even if they behave badly cannot simply be unfriended or unfollowed without social repercussions. Aside from that Social Media can naturally be used to support and strengthen friendships.
But if the crowds online are not my friends – what are they? Well, as Facebook would say, “its complicated”. But one aspect of our relation to them is that they are a perceived audience and we are constantly (well at least when we broadcast online) perform for them.
The Abnormality of Normality
The problem is that most of us are normal. It’s kind of a definition about who we are. Most people have to be normal – or else the concept of normality would not work. So aside from the miniscule number of abnormal or outstanding folks most people online are normal.
This normality raises a problem in the concept of performance lifestyles. How do we publicize our normality? Well, the answer is often that we don’t. Or rather, we do, but we cheat. The trick for many users is not to create a fictitious life (which nobody would believe) but to present our ordinary (normal, boring) lives in just a slightly odd way.
The simplest way of doing this is to enhance the ordinariness of the situation. So nobody watches a film or reads a book but we watch an excellent film, read an awesome book. Or a terrible book and a horrible film. This is because there is little or no value in publicizing the ordinariness of a situation – so it must be made extra ordinary in some way.
Another strategy is to constantly, almost manically, repeat the same activity. Several years ago I came across a blog that was only pictures of the persons toothbrush with toothpaste. Two pictures per day (morning and evening I guess). Now one image was boring enough but the sheer weight of all this toothpaste made the photoblog extraordinary and oddly fascinating.
The problem is that this takes an obsessive investment. It’s much easier to publish odd things that happen around us, things that stand out from our everyday experience. For the most part this is relatively harmless but in certain situations it isn’t. What is extraordinary in healthcare? Whatever it is, it violates patient privacy to put it on Facebook. Unfortunately this doesn’t always stop people from posting.
The Unhappiness of Others
Every now and then we can read reports that Facebook or Social Media is making people unhappy. For example The Anti Social Network or “They Are Happier and Having Better Lives than I Am”: The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others’ Lives. This is an obvious effect of the performance lifestyle on others. Since nobody writes about the daily drudgery of normality it may seem to others that their own lives are boring in comparison.
This is why the absolute highpoints of performance lifestyles seem to be weddings and children. Both provide ample opportunities for photographs and other information spreading. They are both (relatively) extraordinary experiences while remaining in the realm of what is considered OK to boast about. Imagine if I was to boast about my new car in the same way as others boasted about their weddings? Information about the car would be considered bragging and people would ignore or unfriend me. Information about the wedding may still be seen as bragging but people will keep this to themselves and congratulate me.
Actually in one way this is one of the motivations for my own performance lifestyle project: My coffee sadism project
Most mornings when I have time I enjoy coffee at my local cafe. Not a take away but actually sitting down a couple of minutes with a real newspaper, drinking real coffee out of a real cup. This is a perfect start to the day. It has an additional bonus. I take photo’s of my morning coffee and post them to Facebook. Some images I also post to my Flickr set where I maintain a collection.
When I am being nice I call this a photo project, when I am being researcher I call it an experiment in social media. But when I am honest I call it my sadism project… as it annoys the hell out of my co-workers and some of my friends. Performance lifestyle is the need to publicize elements of your life in order to enhance the quality of it. Naturally it does not have to be at others expense – but it often seems to be.
Busy playing catch-up with my notes (what are train rides for?), these notes come from a lecture I gave last week were the focus was on social media use in healthcare. I was (and am) excited about this subject as it touches on several sensitive difficulties like privacy, patient security, freedom of speech, professionalism and censorship like acts.
I chose to begin in an odd place – with planking. Remember planking? Wikipedia defines it as:
“an activity consisting of lying face down in an unusual or incongruous location. Both hands must touch the sides of the body and having a photograph of the participant taken and posted on the Internet is an integral part of the game. Players compete to find the most unusual and original location in which to play. The term planking refers to mimicking a wooden plank. Rigidity of the body must be maintained to constitute good planking.”
My point in beginning at this point was to show that there are many strange fads. These fads may be seen as silly – but are they harmful? Silly may be permissible but harmful acts may need to be controlled. Naturally planking wasn’t taken totally out of the blue but the in 2009 several members of staff at a UK hospital risked being fired for planking on the job.
From this point I showed several examples of Social Media & healthcare related acts that created a point of departure for the rest of the short presentation. My point was to widen the discussion from the bad apple theory to a wider group of neglectful individuals. Take for example the situation where a hospital worker has his picture taken with an anesthetized patient and posts this to Facebook.
The first error is to think of taking the picture, the second is asking someone else to take the picture, the third is to take out the camera, the fourth is that nobody else in the room reacted, the fifth is to post the image to Facebook, the sixth is all the positive comments people left on Facebook and the seventh is all the people who silently witnessed the process.
The question I want to explore is: WTF? How is this even possible? Then I put forward three ideas. (1) The people are ignorant of their acts and their consequences, (2) the people are stupid, (3) it was all an accident or mistake.
Obviously this story has too many stages to happen accidentally or by mistake. People doing stuff like this must obviously be stupid but are they really stupid people? I don’t think stupidity really covers these acts. If you ask healthcare workers about patient security or privacy I am sure they will be able to give a long and well-discussed answer to the topic. Can it be that people are ignorant of the consequences of their acts? This seems to be too odd, even people who only have a rudimentary understanding of social media will know the effects of their acts. So what’s left?
One of the interesting things about technology is the way in which it enables us to do things which we normally cannot do. But it is also interesting that technology encourages us to do things differently. For example there seems to be a change in the way in which we react today when we witness an accident or emergency.
1. Photograph the event
2. Tweet the photo
3. Update status on Facebook
4. Call emergency services
Naturally this is apocryphal but it has a sad ring of truth about it.
To this we must add the fact that bad news travels fast and is spread widely. This means that scandals spread faster than good news. To quote Winston Churchill “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on.”
So healthcare organizations are struggling to handle the situation where people are surrounded by sensitive information that if put online spreads faster and causes great harm to the individuals and damages the reputation of the organization. To handle this many organizations are creating policies. However, many of the policies are not really paying attention to the realities of the situation they attempt to regulate.
Many policies focus on protecting the organization rather than enlightening the individuals. The goal is to minimize any damaging effects of a damaging spread of information rather than helping individuals understand what social media is and how it should or could be used.
Social media very often leads to performance lifestyle where the individual works to present him or herself in an interesting way. As most individuals have ordinary lives the challenge is to present the ordinary as something extraordinary. In many cases this results in using superlatives. In social media we don’t (for example) just drink coffee but we drink excellent or horrible coffee. As social media demands activity of its users it does not work to help us to recognize or be aware of excessive or harmful spreads of information but rather encourages us to do more.
It is important to remember that on Facebook we are not customers or clients – we are the creators of the raw material (our data).
“If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold”
So the design encourages us to share, the licenses limit the responsibility of the platform (for example Facebook) and a lack of social responsibility ensures we will not be interrupted in our sharing (even of harmful information). Basically we see that we are in a situation were local laws are not in control of the infrastructure we use to communicate and therefore its efficiency is eroded.
On the topic of social responsibility it noteworthy that the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, has been quoted saying: privacy is no longer a social norm and “A Squirrel Dying In Your Front Yard May Be More Relevant To Your Interests Right Now Than People Dying In Africa”. It is ideas like these that shape one of the greatest information infrastructures ever devised. It’s obviously not about creating a more responsible world but about a radical new transparency were corporations mine us for our data.
In the light of this we must realize and remember two things: Firstly, policies are not enough – their focus is on protecting organizations in the face of human errors. Even if “everyone” in an organization knows things are being done wrong – the moment a major error occurs the policy may be used as a defense of the organization to the detriment of the user. The secondly, in a network silence is acquiescence. In other words by allowing information to be spread without comment is the same as passive agreement to the information.
What organizations need to ensure is that there is an ongoing discussion on the role and effects of social media.