What are the rules for our all-seeing surveillance society?

You know, the courts might not work any more, but as long as everybody is videotaping everyone else, justice will be done

When Marge first uttered this (comically unconvincing) homily at the end of the best-ever episode of The Simpsons (Homer Badman, 1994), the notion of an all-seeing surveillance society was remote enough to be funny.

By the end of the 1990s, however, UK local authorities had begun to lay the foundations for the surveillance society.  By 1999, they had installed 21,000 CCTV cameras.  By 2010, according to civil liberties campaigner Big Brother Watch, the number of council-owned CCTV cameras had topped 59,7000, roughly equivalent to one camera for every 1000 UK citizens. Private owners accounted for unknown thousands of additional CCTV cameras.

But it’s the smartphone that allowed the all-seeing surveillance society to blast off.  Over 43% of the UK population now owns a smartphone, with most devices featuring video cameras.

Recently the media has been buzzing about one of the upsides of the all-seeing society: funny smartphone videos on YouTube.  Fenton the runaway deer-worrying dog is just the latest, attracting 2 million views within a week.  In the lifestyle pages, feature writers offer advice on how to find your own pot of gold with a lucky viral video.  It’s all (depending on your appetite for cats playing pianos or biting babies) a bit of a laugh.

Every silver lining comes with a cloud, of course.  And this week the surveillance society showed its less smiley side when a YouTube video called My Tram Experience went viral.  You’re bound to have seen it by now: a woman (who seems drunk or mentally ill) is filmed spewing racist abuse at passengers on a London tram. It is depressing and pathetic (in the original sense of the word) – albeit relieved by the dignity and restraint shown by the other passengers.   This afternoon the woman was remanded in custody.

Bad and sad things happen, and they will find their way onto the Web.  What’s unsettling here was the instant massing of an angry online mob baying (sometimes literally) for the woman’s blood.  Armchair abuse is one thing.  More creepy was the abusers’ assumption that they were the good guys for joining in the attack: “Look at me!  I’m more liberal because I hate this woman more than you!” Today, the brilliant Spiked Online pinned down the phenomenon with its usual precision as a “twenty-first-century Twitch Hunt”.

So what homily can I, Marge-like, offer on this unedifying episode of Real Life?  Only that the all-seeing society is here, and here to stay.  Millions of cameras are (potentially) watching our every move.   We need to understand this, and the responsibilities it brings.  We talk about the ‘virtual’ and the ‘real’ – but in the all-seeing society the two things overlap more and more.  Things we do or say online have consequences offline.  You wouldn’t join an angry mob in the ‘real’ world, would you?  So what makes it better to be a bully or a nark in the ‘virtual’ world?

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