Benign Surveillance – a Friendly Eye

What if you could look at any public place, anywhere in the world, from your home.  What if there was a network of shared cameras, available for your use.  Would you look at a scenic vista over San Carlos?  Would you see who is arriving at Ritual Coffee in the Mission?  Would you look to see if the sun was shining out at Lands End?

What would you call the activity that you’re doing?

  • Is it surveillance?
  • Is it peeping?
  • It is watching?
  • Are you a voyeur?

None of these words describe very well the benign use of internet cameras to take a look at something somewhere else.  Sensr.net provides such a service and our tag line is simply “Watch your Stuff!”  I think this is a pretty good summary of what people are currently doing with Sensr.net.  They’re also doing things like sharing their camera views and posting clips to Twitter and Facebook.

Often, when I’m talking to people about Sensr.net and internet cameras, I receive a partially hostile response.  People associate cameras with centralized authority or control.  Even the word “surveillance” implies watching someone because they are suspect [http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/surveillance].  People worry about their privacy.  The meme that makes us worry about being watched seems pretty deeply ingrained in our society.  I’ve wondered where that comes from.

Watching has long been used as a form of control.  In the 18th century, a philosopher named Jeremy Bentham designed a type of prison called the Panopticon.  The word combines the roots for “observer” (-opticon) with “all” (pan-).  In this prison, an observer could see everyone no matter where they were.  The idea was that if no one knew when they were being watched or when they weren’t all prisoners would behave.  Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) is sometimes considered a modern incarnation of the Panopticon.  But in at least some studies it’s been shown that all this watching doesn’t really cut crime rates [http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2008/05/problems-with-the-panopticon-uks-cctv-doesnt-cut-crime.ars].

So what happens when remote cameras simply become an adjunct to the other ways we perceive our environment?  Then internet cameras simply become tools for viewing.  One of my co-founders noted that perhaps the feeling of invasion stems from the fact that there are two different groups of people: the watchers and the watched.

With Sensr.net we have an opportunity of turning things around, contrary to traditional video surveillance.  With Sensr.net, the watchers and the watched can be part of the same social network. [YB 2010]

I really like this idea, but then I come back to the problem that generated this blog post: what is a good word to describe the service that Sensr.net is providing?  I don’t have one yet, so I might have to invent my own.  How about a word with Latin roots: “amicus-oculus” – a friendly eye!  Not very sexy, but not scary either.

If you’re reading this and you have a good suggestion for a word or phrase we can use to describe Sensr.net, please contribute it below as a comment.