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Rise of the cam-phone?

By Dave Menendez
Sunday, July 13, 2003, at 6:49 PM

Summary: I originally thought that putting a camera in a cell phone was pointless, but I’m beginning to question that. Are cameras and phones offer more together than apart? How will society be affected as networked cameras become common?

I am beginning to think that my initial skepticism about embedding digital cameras in cellular phones was incorrect. When I first heard about it, my reaction was “why bother?” You can get far better quality from a stand-alone digital camera, better viewing resolution from a computer, and faster transmission from the internet. Sure, if you and your friends have appropriate phones, you can send a picture directly from your phone to theirs, but how often is that going to be useful?

Possibly more than I thought. A comment on Plastic suggests that sheer convenience does outweigh the mediocre parts:

Then one day I started using it as an extension of my memory. Numbers on ads, weird streetnames. One evening after a harrowing flight and an even scarier drive in a rental car and a new city outskirts at night, I found myself snapping a picture of the license plate of the car after I had parked. I was terrified it would be stolen, that I wouldn’t find it, etc.

Digital cameras may be one of those things which are useful in new ways when you always have one around, much like “always on” internet access changes how people use the web.

This wouldn’t be the first time I guessed wrong about these things. When people first started ripping their CDs onto their hard drives, I thought they were crazy. Why use up disk space on lower-quality copies of data you already have lying around? Well, it turns out you do this because it’s really convenient. In the old days, if I wanted to hear a track off one album and then another track of another album, I’d either have to switch disks in my player or create a custom mix. Once I have both albums on my computer, all I have to do is select one and then the other. The barrier of entry is virtually erased, allowing me to do things like put my entire album collection on “shuffle” that simply weren’t practical before.

Making digital cameras widespread and networked will have interesting effects on society. As another Plastic reader put it:

There’s this saying that in a town with hidden-weapon carry permits, everyone is polite, because you don’t know who could retaliate when. I am thinking the same thing could be said, in a way, for recording devices and the public net, except that it doesn’t leave lethal bullet-holes behind.

This is reminiscent of Steve Mann’s argument for always wearing a camera, which I discussed two years ago in connection with the Arizona prison cam. As he puts it, having multiple independent records of an event is the best defense against manipulation by interested parties. He also argues that we have the right to know when we’re being recorded and to see the recordings, two safeguards which phone cams do not provide—as evidenced by their more prurient applications.

As I said before, it’s hard to see where this is going. Assuming camera phones aren’t just a fad, we’re currently closer to Marge Simpson’s hope that “as long as everybody is videotaping everyone else, justice will be done” than Vernor Vinge’s warnings of social collapse triggered by ubiquitous law enforcement, but that may change. Certainly, it would be cause for alarm if the government started requiring all camera phone images be made available to the FBI or DHS or whomever.