Following a discussion with classmates about the social transformations accompanying digital media advances, specifically live streaming and other forms of ‘in the moment’ media-making, I spent some time reflecting on the implications of this evolution. The discussion prompting this reflection touched on the ‘democratisation’ possibilities (and actualities) of digital media; the proliferation of affordable, powerful computing and media-making/consuming devices has put the power to publish into the hands of the masses. While I am firmly of the belief that this rapid uptake in technology is a positive influence, my peers and I were discussing a variety of skeptical and critical analyses of contemporary digital culture. From pat interpretations of social media creating anti-social wastelands, to the quantitative nature of online interactions cheapening the value of our interpersonal experiences, there are any number of commentators offering cautions on the negative implications of our online lives.
But as has been the case with other historical examples of the rapid expansion of the privilege of access — be it to the written word, the vote, and even the fundamental recognition of humanity and citizenship — those who benefit from the prevailing architectures of power are often predictably apprehensive of the consequences. Of course it’s unsurprising that there is intergenerational critique of how online lives are lived, as well as implicit (and explicit) criticism of alternate cultural and social practices of digital life. Much of this criticism isn’t particularly insightful, or even very new: skepticism of the cultural and social value has accompanied technological advances and social change for as long as there have been technological advances and social change.
But there are signs that this mass uptake of digital media and technology is also having profound effects both on those who have been subject to traditional power and those who have traditionally wielded it. From the central role of social media and digital platforms in the Arab Spring and mass protest movements across the world since, there is evidence that digital communications technology is providing a means for citizens to hold the powerful to account. Of course, in reflecting on this evolution in how the camera is placed in the mechanisms of justice, it turns out that there already is some terminology for this. Sousveillance (observing from below, as opposed to surveillance’s observance from above), or one of a few alternate terms, presents a modern solution with an old rationale: the more cameras you have, the more the truth will be told (with justice naturally following). Of course this is witnessing by another name; the same process has been achieved through use of identification, through traditional journalism and photojournalism, and with formalisation and professionalisation of institutions of state power such as the police and military. But the rise of the ‘citizen journalist’ and the ubiquity of phone camera footage has material implications for the nature of public accountability.
Some of the most prominent (and also visually shocking) recent examples have been in the US, with the emergence of a racial justice movement focused on police brutality and deaths of black Americans. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has coalesced around several high-profile African-American deaths, and the subsequent response (or lack thereof) from police, political and justice bodies. A notable fuel for the groundswell of public outrage for these deaths has been the alarming and deeply upsetting footage of police interactions with black citizens, often taken by witnesses, bystanders or participants to the events, on smart phones. These have contrasted with the increased sophistication of state surveillance (especially digital), including usage of body-cams on police officers, in an attempt to capture some sort of truthful record of events. Some of these events have even been live-streamed to the social networks of those caught in sometimes fatal events.
It is an interesting contrast: that, increasingly, police officers will need to consider or even assume that their actions will be captured somehow, whether by a suspect or a witness or a passerby with their phone out. This is an intriguing counterpoint to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon: a space designed with central monitoring that cannot be confirmed by those who are monitored, thus ensuring they assume they are always monitored and acting accordingly. Instead, we have a digitised, decentralised and distributed inversion of the panopticon; virtual media, able to be created by any party especially in public spaces, but instead with the eye turned on all participants, including those exercising power. There are other forms of what has also been called social accountability, including use of apps to report problems with civic infrastructure in developing country contexts (with arguable efficacy). This new mode of accountability has enough similarities but also profound differences to warrant a new label; borrowing from Bentham’s Latin invention, perhaps we are moving into the age of the Panaccomptary (from the Latin accomptare: to hold to account).
But much as Bentham’s design for a panopticon never saw much of an impact in the real world, it may well be that its antithesis will be limited in its ability to transform the relationship between the governed and the governing. There are possibilities in the increase of sousveillance for social justice, but like most technological developments, the tools will only be as positive and as productive as the human (and thus fallible) thinking and motivations behind their creators.