Sunday, June 3, 2007

Surveillance Society

Who is this guy? Why is he trying to climb a locked gate at 682 S. Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco? Why do I have his picture?

Like most internet geeks, I am fascinated by Google Street View. If you haven't heard about it yet, here's an overview: Google paid a company called Immersive Media to mount 360-degree cameras on cars and vans and take street level photos in cities across the US and around the world. The idea is that you can see more than a map of your location; you can see a pedestrian-level view that allows you to turn around any direction. Thinking about booking a hotel in Miami? Now you can check out the neighborhood. Confused about directions to a party? Look for a nearby landmark. You can even zoom in for close-up shots or "walk" down the road by clicking a directional arrow. So far, only a handful of locations (including Denver, Las Vegas, Miami, New York, and the San Francisco Bay Area) have gone live. But Google has announced plans to rapidly increase the number of available street views over the next 18 months.

Predictably, Google Street View has raised privacy and security issues. Countless users are searching for the next big hit: some girl's thong (now removed from Street View at her request), some dude entering an adult book store, even a well known homeless man who was killed after his photo was taken (see Boing Boing to learn more). Google reminds its critics that these images are taken from public thoroughfares, and that users can flag images for removal if they have serious concerns. And yet one can only wonder at the embarrassing and potentially illegal things that will inadvertently be caught by Google's cameras. With Google Street View we continue our immersion into the total surveillance society.

Increasingly the notion of "private space" seems quaint and antiquated. Facebook "feeds" allow our every click to stream onto our friends' pages. Twitter allows us to broadcast our every emotion. Boost Mobile Phone advertisements capture the vibe with their slogan-demand: "Where you at?" We hear about the presence of one camera for every 14 people in the United Kingdom. But that's amateur stuff. Real surveillance, the perfect panopticon, comes when we learn to discipline ourselves. When we feel guilty for not being available for the view of others in some way at all times we have fulfilled Jeremy Bentham's eighteenth-century vision of an All-Seeing Place. So...Where you at?

Learn More

  • New York Times, May 31, 2007, Google Zooms in Too Close for Some

  • Brisbane Times, June 11, 2007, Now You See it, Now You Don't

  • Dr. Dobb's Portal, June 15, 2007, Google Waffles on Street View Takedown Policy

  • Street Reviewer
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