I’ve publicly written many times about my extreme discomfort with the direction of certain technological innovations; how, left unchecked without explicit guarantees of privacy, they could lead to what one Supreme Court justice described as a turn-key totalitarian state. In the wrong hands, there would be nowhere to run, no place to hide. It’s not as if we can trust our elected leaders to police themselves – The Wall Street Journal has reported on the Justice Department secretly using traffic cameras and license plate recognition software to build real-time databases of vehicle movements to monitor individuals. If that doesn’t send a chill down your spine, it should.
One of the things that I’ve been pleasantly surprised about is the way a mental model, the Observer Effect from physics, has radically transformed conversations by allowing other people who might not be interested in a topic to see, first hand, what is actually done or experienced. Whether it’s hidden camera footage at slaughterhouses showing inhumane or unsafe conditions or abuse against toddlers by nannies, those who do something questionable, if not outright evil, are exposed. Sometimes, the results are simultaneously entertaining and infuriating. Case in point: Enjoy this compilation of failed insurance fraud attempts, foiled by dash cams in Russia.
In recent weeks, a series of undercover videos from Planned Parenthood showing staff promising to sell body parts, along with trays of dismembered arms and legs picked through with tongs, has been blasted on news channels, across the Internet, and written about in print through newspapers and magazines. Whether one supports Planned Parenthood wholeheartedly or wishes it destroyed and its employees put in prison, actually seeing what the debate is about for yourself, with your own eyes as if you were in the room, provides an interesting perspective that can help better inform your own personal beliefs. It makes it real. That has value no matter where you fall on the political spectrum. I know people who have watched this and said the medical research is worth the saved lives; that this is a necessary cost and those aren’t babies, but, rather, clumps of cells not entitled to human rights because they aren’t human. I also know people who have grown ill and think it’s like looking at a World War II era concentration camp experiment, believing it is borderline, if not outright, demonic. You have to see it for yourself to know. In any event, it’s influencing discussions in Congress. [Warning: Do not watch this video at work]
The University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology did a study of a 12-month program in Rialto, California requiring police officers to wear body cameras, recording their (and suspects’) behavior for later review. It appeared in The Journal of Quantitative Criminology and found a 50% decline in the use of Police force, as well as a 90% drop in complaints filed against the police compared with the previous year (some of which may have been due to better police behavior, some of which may have been due to dishonest criminals filing false complaints, knowing they recording would prove them wrong).
Would police officer Michael Slager, now on trial for the murder of Walter Scott, have committed his crime if he were wearing a camera that could not be disabled? Had it not been for a nearby happenstance recording, he would have gotten away with it, gunning down a fleeing man from behind as if he were swatting a fly.
On the other hand, a police officer in Montana who was forced to shoot an unarmed suspect in a life-and-death split second decision breaks down in tears after the officers who arrive for backup are unable to find a weapon. He was cleared of all wrongdoing because he couldn’t have known the guy wasn’t reaching for a gun. The camera saved his career. It’s one thing to hear about it but if you were on a jury, watching the video gives a perspective you otherwise wouldn’t have had.
In Sweden, a social experiment carried out at a trucking company using hidden video cameras went viral over the past few days. It demonstrates how explicit anti-gay discrimination is real, to the apparent shock of the people who made it. Two guys applied for a job. As part of the setup, one was completely non-qualified, had no work experience, didn’t have the necessary licenses, and showed no initiative in his personal life. The other was well-qualified, experienced, ready-to-go, and demonstrated personal discipline (e.g., talked about regular gym use). When the well-qualified candidate, who is in the process of being offered the job on the spot, mentions he has a boyfriend, the interview ends, the interviewer turns to ice, rushes him to the door, and refuses to shake his hand or make any usual social contact as if he were a leper. He is informed there is a lot of competition and turned down for the position. The non-qualified candidate is hired and told there were only two or three other applicants; that he – who has no skills whatsoever other than being straight – was the best fit. [Make sure you turn on English subtitles unless you happen to speak Swedish.]
Things like that are going to change the conversation in places like the United States. Corporate America and the Democrats have been trying to pass something known as The Equality Act, which will make employment discrimination illegal in all 50 states but they can’t get it done because of Republicans in Congress, despite the fact a super-majority of Americans support it and believe it is already the law (including most of the people who are members of the Republican party!); they actually have no idea there are 29 states in which a person can be fired for being gay. Seeing what the experience is like, as if it were happening to you, is useful to making an informed opinion. It can change minds in a way few other strategies can.
(On a personal note, it’s funny how deeply ingrained our codes can be; how, even years after they formed, they can cause instinctive reactions that overwhelm any sense of rationality if we let them. You already know a small part of my own life story (see here and here). After watching the video, it resonates on such a fundamental level because I know it could easily be me in that chair that an involuntary, 20+ year old program starts running in the deepest parts of my brain, driving me to protect myself so I could survive such a situation. I have this overwhelming compulsion to work all night, coming up with one more cash generator; to buy shares of Exxon Mobil or Cola-Cola so there’s even more dividend income arriving each quarter; to start a competing trucking company and run him out of business. My heart rate actually picked up and there’s this general, unsettled feeling, like I need to check the windows before a storm that’s on the horizon. “Are we covered? Are we protected?”. It’s still there; echoes and shadows in corners not yet fully swept out by subsequent experience. The evolutionary survival instinct is a remarkable thing. Aaron and I were talking about this during a run the other day. We’ll turn 33 years old later this year and despite having been together since we were teenagers, we have never once, in our entire lives, been able to casually reach out and grab the others’ hand in public without having to do a risk assessment of our surroundings.)
Or how about subconscious bias? This was an experiment done in a public area showing how a random girl’s body language and reactions changed based on the race of the man who sat down next to her. Being able to observe as if you were there makes it a much more interesting conversation. What do you think causes it? How is it absorbed into her subconscious that she needs to protect herself this way? How does the young man’s subconscious notice he’s treated differently (or is it so common, he’s never known anything different?).
Am I glad cameras are proliferating everywhere? No. But I will admit it’s not all bad. There are some non-expected dividends that, if we use wisely, could help improve the world for a lot of people.