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I Like to Watch
Will inexpensive and rapidly proliferating phonecams prove to be a welcome check to governmental malfeasance or just another assualt on privacy?

By William Kanapaux

Chances are you’ve seen the commercials. Someone with a mobile-phone camera snaps a shot and sends it to a friend who for some reason is hanging out with the Sprint PCS guy.

As far as gadgets go, the phonecam would seem to have limited use: How many times does a person see something so remarkable that it warrants sending a picture of it to someone immediately? Maybe you want to show a friend how much of a slob her new boyfriend is, or how much of a dog her steady boyfriend is, but all in all, the gadget seems fairly inconsequential. At least according to the commercials.

But the golden rule of technological innovation is that new devices will get used in unanticipated ways, and the phonecam is no exception. Just as Web logs took the Internet by storm in 2002, mobile blogging—known as moblogging—is fast becoming the latest advance in digital media for the multitudes.

Moblogging software allows users to update their blogs almost instantly from their mobile phones. Users send text or photos to a specified phone number, and their blog updates automatically. As long as you’re within network range, you can feed your moblog a steady stream of updates.

Some experts predict that as phonecams grow in popularity, they will ultimately change the way people interact with the Internet, with upwards of a billion users posting to moblogs to inform friends andx family of key events in real time.

According to Wired magazine, U.S. consumers will buy 2 million of the devices this year. In Japan, more than 13 million phonecams have been sold. And now that federal rules allow mobile-phone users to keep their phone numbers when switching cell phone service, wireless companies are expected to entice potential customers with all sorts of extra goodies, including phonecams. The powers of marketing will do their share to make them a popular item.

Phonecams and moblogs also serve as a potentially powerful source of raw information during times of crisis, disaster and confrontation.

Phonecam users sprang to action during the massive power blackout in August. Most mobile-phone users in New York City found they couldn’t make calls, but those with phonecams could send pictures. Web applications for these networks operate on different channels that were unaffected by the loss of power.

The results can be found on moblogs that showed the event as it happened, at least for as long as a user’s phonecam batteries held up. Examples can be found at http://blackout.textamerica.com and http://johnwehr.com/blackout. Mobloggers also helped document the recent wildfires in California, check http://fire.textamerica.com.

Over the last two years, traditional blogs emerged as a new voice for political discussion, and moblogs are likely to amplify this once the technology gains a critical mass of users. A quick Google search using the terms “FTAA,” “Miami” and “blog” generated nearly 4,000 results, the majority of which focus on police actions at last month’s Free Trade Area of the Americas demonstrations.

Substitute the term “moblog” for “blog” and only a page’s worth of results appear. Of these, none is a true match. But as the number of phonecam users continues to grow, it’s a safe bet that many of these politically oriented blogs will incorporate phonecam images to document alleged abuses by authorities.

The technology allows for an interesting game of cat and mouse between law enforcement officials and those who protest against government policy. The Patriot Act may have given the federal government powers worthy of Big Brother, but a proliferation of phonecams creates a swarm of citizen-observers. The perennial question “Big Brother’s watching us, but who’s watching Big Brother?” can now be answered. We are, as long as the phonecam’s charged.

Apparently the FBI doesn’t like being watched. When the agency announced last month that it had begun gathering information on war protestors in an effort to ferret out extremist elements, one of its justifications was that anti-war groups videotaped police as a means of intimidation.

This kind of government-sanctioned mindset among baton-wielding riot police might make those handy little phonecams far more attractive than a larger digital camera or video recorder. And since phonecams are reasonably priced, compared with digital cameras, it’s not hard to imagine that large crowds will be bristling with the devices, if only as a means of self- preservation.

Being able to post the images they record, in real time, certainly adds to their impact. Technology writer Xeni Jardin describes it as “a cheap, fast strain of DIY [do it yourself] publishing in which everyone is an embedded reporter.”

Of course, political issues aren’t the only item on the phonecam agenda. The ability to instantly send digital images holds possibilities from the mundane to the obscene. And image quality is currently a shortcoming. Available phonecams produce images of less than a megapixel, and as picture quality improves, so will the need for greater bandwidth. But it’s a pretty sure bet that in the not-so-distant future, phonecams will be capable of transmitting high-quality images—both still and moving—at high rates of speed.

Despite—or maybe because of—the lack of picture quality, phonecams are being used to create art. Sent, “America’s first phonecam art show,” will premier in Los Angeles in February. The project will include both an exhibit of invited contributors and “an online public dialogue in which amateur photographers and phonecam users around the world share mobile snapshots of their lives.”

It should be worth checking out online (www.sentonline.com). But you don’t have to wait until February.

Entering the search terms “moblog” and “art” will bring up a number of potential offerings. Sites that have gained attention recently include an online Norwegian gallery (http://home.powertech.no/ pervo/bromweb/nokia2.htm) and the work of John Parres, CEO of Click The Vote. His moblog offers an interesting mix of politics and art (http://www.parres.com/john/ photoblog.php).

It is unreasonable of course to expect that this emerging medium will always be used for noble means such as artistic expression and freedom of speech. The same power that gives the user the ability to express and create can also be used to exploit and intimidate. Already, gyms across the country—and the world, for that matter—are forbidding the devices for fear that they will be used to invade the privacy of other members.

In a world already bristling with devices that listen in and watch our movements, transactions and keystrokes, we can add one more. But this one is small, cheap and widely available. Perhaps it will serve as a type of check and balance to the powers that would like to consolidate media into a limited number of channels.


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