Monday, September 22, 2014
Go Slow with GoPro?
In an article in this week's New Yorker magazine, Nick Paumgarten contemplates the wider effects of GoPro, the sports-oriented wearable cameras that have inspired viral videos of amazing stunts watched by millions on the Internet, and things like the GoPro Mountain Games, a venue where mountain bikers, rock climbers, and even ten-year-old girls on ziplines record every second of their exploits for fun, and sometimes profit. (It turns out that GoPro sponsors certain athletes with things like free cameras, or a monetary reward for getting a million hits on a GoPro-made YouTube video.) While admitting the obvious entertainment value of the small portable video cameras both for the users and the viewers, Paumgarten looks at the potential downsides of this new technology, and provides some useful food for thought.
First, he worries that people will increasingly fall victim to what I'd call "camera-itis", which I have suffered from on numerous vacations: the temptation to transform a live novel experience, whether of a ski slope, a wedding, or the Leaning Tower of Pisa, into just another shot to be captured. This is in contrast to the traditional reason to see remarkable sights, which is to let them soak into you and transform you over time. For example, the way Henry Adams visited Chartres Cathedral in France.
One of the most profound appreciations of the artistic merits of Chartres Cathedral was penned by the American historian Henry Adams. A reader of his book about that medieval monument to faith can sense the hours of study, contemplation, and reflection that Adams put into his work, both in time spent at the cathedral and in historical research. Perhaps Adams used photographs to jog his memory, but his musings on the cathedral are about as far as you can get from the exploits Paumgarten describes toward the end of his article: BASE jumping from famous buildings while wearing a GoPro. Yes, the One World Trade building does show up in a shot filmed by a clandestine leaper from that building, who managed to survive. But the point of that video wasn't artistic appreciation.
For readers like me who have never heard of BASE jumping before now, it stands for "building, antenna, span [of a bridge, presumably], earth [meaning a cliff]"—four types of places from which a jumper whose courage sometimes exceeds his judgment leaps in the fond hope that his parachute will deploy in time. So far, 242 haven't—that is the total number of deaths recorded in an online BASE fatality list since the sport began around 1981. A GoPro or other means of documenting your exploit is a necessary part of this fringe semi-suicidal cult sport. While it would be unfair to shut down an entire camera industry on account of its abuse by a few kooks, it must be admitted that the availability of cameras like GoPro have encouraged this sort of daredevil activity.
But one of the most serious and wide-ranging issues Paumgarten identifies in connection with GoPro-type cameras springs from a matter I blogged about a few weeks ago in connection with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Paumgarten writes "a world in which the police film every interaction is not all sweetness and light. You may catch some bad cops, but you'd also hamstring the good ones. . . . It deprives the police of discretion, and the public of leniency. There are many things we'd rather not see or have seen."
Paumgarten's chief concern here seems to be that once a cop films an infraction, he or she will have no choice but to proceed with an arrest. He says a video record "has the effect of a mandatory sentence" and enforces "uninterpretable standards of exchange."
I have spent some time trying to figure out what he means by uninterpretable standards of exchange, and haven't made much progress. Every image has to be interpreted somehow. Objectively speaking, images are simply arrangements of color on a screen, and require perception and interpretation by a human mind to convey meaning at all. The question is not whether a video can be interpreted—not only can it be, it must be if it is to convey any information—but who does the interpreting, and what principles the interpreter follows in translating the raw images into conclusions about pertinent matters of fact.
Paumgarten may be thinking in legal terms that filming police encounters effectively brings the whole legal system—judge, jury, prosecuting and defense attorneys, you name it—onto the street corner along with the cop and the public. And of course, such a situation would markedly change the interaction between law enforcement and citizenry. But unless we become an actual police state, with every action, word, and gesture not just potentially, but actually scrutinized by a hostile Big Brother, video recording of police work need not change the routine activity of cops who deal with the public. For every arrest, there are many lesser interactions of the "break it up, folks, there's nothing to see here" variety. And unless some lawyers find a way to exploit the presence of recordings of this sort of minor interchange by charging police brutality where none exists, there is no reason to think that cops with good judgment will be any less able to deal with the public in these minor ways than they are now. But never underestimate the ability of lawyers to squeeze profit out of a situation.
Beyond law-enforcement concerns lies the greater question of how life will change as recording cameras become more nearly ubiquitous. There have always been foolhardy persons willing to risk life and limb for the chance to do something that will get their name in the paper—even if it's the obituaries. We may have a few more of these folks now that GoPro has come along, but they probably would have gone ahead and done something foolish anyway without a camera. In the hands of private citizens, GoPro cameras seem to be mostly a benign influence, encouraging the sharing of remarkable experiences by those who do not have the descriptive verbal abilities of a Henry Adams. And while wearable cameras hold out the promise of better evidence in police work, we need to adopt rules that preserve the ability of the cop on the beat to use his or her discretion in enforcing the law. The introduction of radar speed-detection devices did not eliminate the warning ticket. And the use of wearable cameras need not transform a police department into an array of RoboCops that automatically mete out punishments for all infractions, however minor or technical.