The Joys of Surveillance: Crowdsourcing of the Social Contract

Google Street View: A Canine Disagreement
My favorite Google Street View: A Canine Disagreement

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of a lengthy Skype conversation with the RamblingLibrarian (Ivan Chew / Librarian) and LeafMonkey (November / Environmental Geographer) on everything from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, to human hacking via spoken / written language (i.e. triggers in code), to the trafficking of experiences, to the phenomenology of geographical information (Seero.com and Google Street View). Yes, the conversation drifted, but most of it seemed be related to the tinkering of human experiences.


This morning I read about how The Times of London collected “10 bizarre sights in Google Street View“, but they only gave links. ValleyWag did everyone a favor by posting screenshots of the funnies.

This has been a major pull for me… to record every moment possible. The fleeting, the kooky, the puniness of humans. But of course, when mapping technology unconsciously (and awkwardly) takes on a higher surveillance role, it comes with its own set of social issues.

Google Street View has been showing everything from men leaving strip clubs, to protesters at an abortion clinic, to sunbathers in bikinis. In more extreme cases, the Pentagon has asked Google to remove images for military security reasons, while a cat lover has complained about the Street View becoming a form of feline stalking (Thanks November!). Interestingly, these people were engaging in activities visible from public property in which they do not wish to be seen publicly.

Seero: Live videocasting with GPS tracking

While lifecasting hasn’t been widely adopted due to the technical inconvenience it brings (i.e. complexity of equipment), we obviously still want more ways to share our life experiences, which would be a constant inadvertence to sharing the lives of others in your environment. Seero, a new live video streaming service which combines with GPS tracking, take Google Street View to a more personal, emotional level.

While intended for sharing personal travel experiences, services like Seero provide both motion video and positioning information which could be pretty intense, especially for would-be paparazzi who’s goal would be to forcibly share the lives of others. I can’t wait to try that on a clear day, on myself that is.

Christian Nold's BioMapping

As someone hoping to become a “social cyborg“, I’ve been wanting to push the boundaries of digitizing and sharing rich experiences, by combining streaming video, GPS data and possibly body + emotional information as accurately as possible. There’s headway in this direction, as Christian Nold’s biomapping (or moodmaps) takes psychological arousal readings from participants and maps them to GPS data to determine interesting regions on a given location. It’s part art / performance, part science. You can watch his documentary here (mpeg4 / 160mb).

I do wonder how far we can go with our surveillance culture. Web services like Seero.com (live video / gps) and my recent interview about Qik.com (live video / cameraphone) reveal a trend towards the sharing of even richer forms of personal experience. While some of us might look forward to such technology as a means to build our own visual form of reputation trustbank, it also shapes our society towards leading a lifestyle of integrity.

From the looks of things, George Orwell’s dystopian future might happen for us, but it won’t be because big brother is watching us; it’ll be us watching ourselves. This crowdsourcing of social contracts would mean an increased capacity to monitor, more so than the logistical constraints of a mere government.

Consequently, is there some underlying democracy taking root thanks to these non-directed (or passive) forms of surveillance technology? Will society as a collective intelligence be able to handle something as highly cognitive as the role of governance?

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