The emergence of sousveillance is a wonderful example — suddenly, rather than an abstract and science fictional notion, it’s something that makes intuitive sense to everyone who follows the daily news.
I’ve written before about the future implications of “sousveillance” — everyone watching everything — and its potential to minimize abuses by the “powers that be” … See for example my 2011 interview with David Brin, one of the pioneers of the sousveillance concept.
And now, one after another we can see examples of encroaching sousveillance pushing in exactly this direction — not in the futurist blogosphere but in the regular news that everyone looks at.
A few days ago, a video made the rounds showing a white South Carolina cop shooting a black guy for absolutely no reason — the cop accosted the driver for not having his seatbelt fastened in the parking lot of a gas station, then asked the driver to get his ID, and then shot the driver (fortunately not fatally) when he reached into his car to get it. This kind of thing actually happens all the time, as any black Southerner could tell you — what’s new is that the cop car had a video camera in it, recording automatically, which allowed us all to see the evil deed getting done. Without that video, it’s very doubtful a judge would have believed the black guy that he’d been shot for no reason. The white cop could have told a BS story about being threatened with assault or whatever, and due to rampant racism, he would likely have been believed.
Now today I see a report documenting how the US Federal Reserve bank fails to adequately regulate big banks like Goldman Sachs, instead routinely kowtowing to their wishes. This of course is no big surprise to me, or anyone else who’s had anything to do with the world of high finance. What’s different is that now we have audio recordings of conversations which blatantly document how absurdly wimpy the “regulation” process is. Carmen Segarra, a lawyer who was hired to investigate compliance issues in Goldman Sachs, was fired from the Fed for refusing to water down her critical conclusions regarding Goldman. That would have been the end of it, most likely — except that, during many of her conversations with folks in the Fed and Goldman, she had carried a tiny audio recorder purchased at the Spy Store. Due to the availability of these recordings, we can now hear for ourselves just how lame are the government’s efforts to enforce compliance of Goldman to government regulations (and there seems little doubt the same is true regarding other major banks as well).
I don’t need to repeat the well-known facts about Snowden and NSA surveillance… or the role of videos taken by individual soldiers in exposing the US military’s abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib…
Of course, these recent revelations aren’t going to solve long-standing structural and cultural issues overnight — American white cops will keep abusing law-abiding black citizens, especially in the the South; big banks will keep manipulating and bamboozling government regulators so that regulations largely serve their own economic advantage rather than protecting society from anything.
But what we see now is the beginning of something bigger. These are just the first few dribblings of a flood of sousveillance video and audio, that increasingly will make public aspects human life and society that have previously remained hidden.
There is no question of putting the genie back in the bottle. Even in North Korea, sousveillance will eventually reign. The question is how society will react. When the various abuses of power that routinely occur throughout the world are all documented, all out there on the Web for everyone to see — then what? How will the process of adjusting society to right the various wrongs exposed unfold?
Anyone who has compared totalitarian societies — or modern China (which is not quite totalitarian, but is its own unique state capitalist beast) — to current Western-style democracies, will have noticed the power of a free press to help combat corruption. Free press doesn’t immediately eliminate corruption of course, but it provides a very useful tool toward this end. Without a free press, it’s very hard to seriously deal with corruption, because it’s just too easy for corrupt people in positions of power to control the spread of information about their corruption, thus reducing the number of people who can try to stop their corruption. Without a free press, the fight against corruption generally reduces to a political battle among a small number of players, corruption accusations becoming just another tool for infighting.
What we’re seeing now is the next level of free press — beyond anything that even the biggest, best army of investigative reporters could achieve. It seems quite plausible that as sousveillance increases, corruption and abuse of power will actually decrease commensurately. Just as, in spite of all the problems in the world today, we do have less corruption and less abuse of power than existed in most past societies.
It’s easy to be cynical about politics and human society. But in this case, I see real hope that advances in technology will be able to trigger substantial improvements in the realms of societal organization and cultural memeplexes.
There may even be impacts on the economic front. The dynamics via which the elites are gradually accumulating more and more of the world’s resources for themselves, have been exposed and analyzed carefully in various tomes like Piketty’s celebrated Capital in the 21st Century. But books like this only impact a small segment of the population. Video and audio recordings of economic power brokers actively engaged in fleecing the masses may have a greater impact. We can expect to see more of these as time goes on.
The future will be increasingly complex and there are many competing, cooperating and competing dynamics at play. But the power of sousveillance to combat corruption is going to be an increasingly powerful part of the mix.