Is sousveillance the answer?
Marina Hyde in the Guardian last week wrote a very interesting piece on the ongoing fallout from the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests in London. She argued that the appearance of mobile telephone camera foogtage, which revealed more about the way the police treated the passerby, showed that this kind of inverse surveillance (or what Steve Mann calls ‘sousveillance’) was the way to fight the increase of surveillance in British society.
I’ve been suggesting this as one possible strategy for many years too, however what Hyde didn’t really deal with is the other side of the coin: the fact that the authotorities in Britain already know that this is a potential response and are trying to cut down on the use of photographic equipment in public places. Anti-terrorism laws already make it illegal to photograph members of the armed forces, and in the new Counter-Terrorism Act, there is a provision to allow the police to isue an order preventing photography in particular circumstances. Further, it is now regarded as suspicious by police to be seen taking an interest in surveillance cameras.
The bigger issue here is the fight for control of the means of visibility, and the legitimate production of images. The British state is slowly trying to restrict the definition of what is considered to be ‘normal’ behaviour with regards to video and photography. In the new normality, state video is for the public good, but video by the public is potential terrorism; police photographing demonstrators is important for public order, but demonstrators photographing police is gathering material potentially of use in the preparation of a terrorist act.
However, I am not 100% in favour of the proliferation of cameras, whoever is wielding them. I think it’s essential that we, at this moment in time, turn our cameras on an overintrusive and controlling state. However a society in which we all constantly film each other is not one in which I would feel comfortable living either. A mutual surveillance society in which cameras substitute for richer social interactions and social negotiation, is still a surveillance society and still a society of diminished privacy and dignity. I worry that sousveillance, rather than leading to a reduction in the intrusiveness of the state, will merely generate more cameras and more watchers, and merely help reinforce a new normality of being constantly observed and recorded.