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