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The Tally Ho

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

A good use for those damn camera phones?

I am unwillingly drawn in by Thomas Friedman's editorial, "Calling All Luddites" calling for the creation of a tech party. Or at least asking the parties we've got to acknowledge advancing technology and the minimal standard we need to maintain. He seems to have gotten many of his ideas from Andrew Rasiej, a Democrat running for public advocate in New York City. Some of the issues he raises should be blindingly obvious:

At the City Hall subway stop this morning, Mr. Rasiej plans to show how one makes a 911 call from the subway. He will have one aide with a tin can in the subway send a message to another aide holding a tin can connected by a string. Then the message will be passed by tin can and string up to Mr. Rasiej on the street, who will call 911 with his cellphone.

"That is how you say something if you see something today in a New York subway - tin cans connected to someone with a cellphone on the street," said Mr. Rasiej, a 47-year-old entrepreneur who founded an educational-technology nonprofit.

Some of the changes he's proposing are less political and more cultural. "Mr. Rasiej is also promoting civic photo-blogging - having people use their cellphones to take pictures of potholes or crime, and then, using Google maps, e-mailing the pictures and precise locations to City Hall." How would this help? How would it hurt? Foreigners may have been a little shocked after London's 7/7 bombing to realize that the city had the whole incident on videotape--they combined footage from CCTV in subway stations and tapes from local businesses to figure out exactly when the men with the bombs showed up and what they looked like, and using that were able to discover who they were. In this case, the miles of tape were fortuitous. However, I'm against the blue-light police cameras that Daley has put up all over Chicago, because I'm in some of those neighborhoods and I don't like the idea that some cop in an office somewhere is picking his nose and watching me drive down the street. (Chicago PD uses these cameras to intervene in drug sales, respond to traffic accidents, and all manner of surprising stuff.) So, it seems like "civic photo-blogging" or total video coverage is a great idea--for someone else.

Friedman ultimately makes the wrong case: we do need to be aware of technological advances as we engage politically, but we need to be debating and scrutinizing these advances, not chasing them blindly. Civic photo-blogging in the public arena might make for a great neighborhood, or an empowered populace. (I've already seen motorists snapping photo evidence to support their disputes on ridiculous parking tickets.) Without limit or caution, it could also move us into a police state with stunning speed--think of The Matrix, where every citizen is a potential government agent. My organization bans cell phones altogether now, because patients were snapping covert photos of each other and trying to violate their privacy. But if the house next door falls on mine? I'd love to email the developer a picture before the dust had settled.

I'd love to hear more (especially those of you in NYC) about Rasiej, or your experiences with the techno-state. I agree with Friedman that we must follow these advances, but we need to do it cautiously.

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