The Onset of Connected Cameras
By Justin Hall, Wed Aug 13 10:30:00 GMT 2003

Now that wireless Western nations are just beginning to agree upon the proper place to make and receive mobile phone calls, the mobile connected camera is coming. Where is the proper place to take or distribute a picture? Awash in phone cameras since the year 2000, Japan has just begun to wrestle with this problem.

Mobile phones in Japan have taken photos since 2000; in the last few months they've reached digital camera quality. It's annoying to be overwhelmed or interrupted by a mobile phone conversation; it's paranoia-inducing to imagine that anywhere you go anyone around you might be taking your picture and sending it around the world.

These Internet connected cameras will generate a new and complex series of social mores, regulations and technological strictures, as we struggle to adapt to a society where citizens have the power of recording and surveillance held previously only by groups and institutions.

Sound When They Snap A Shot

Sociologist Mizuko Ito has observed firsthand the development of these complex techno-social contracts. Ito is a researcher at University of Southern California and Keio University in Japan. Her recent research examined mobile messaging amongst Japanese teenagers. She adroitly described the way they create private space with a daily flurry of short mail messages. Now she's studying the kind of photos people take and trade with their mobile phone cameras.

TheFeature caught up with Ito over an IP phone connection from San Francisco to Tokyo. She pointed out some of the subtle ways that you can track Japan's reaction to mobile phones. After years of debate and discussion, rules for phone conduct have become more specific: instead of "please shut your phone off," signs and announcements now say, "Please don't talk into your phone." She envisions a similar timetable for sorting out connected camera issues: "It's going to take five years to create that combination of social and technological, public and private solutions."

Early fears over mobile phone cameras stem from their anonymity, Ito observes. Mobile phones are a common sight; it can be difficult to tell if someone's using a phone to take a picture. Most mobile phone cameras make some kind of a sound when they snap a shot. Recently, handset manufacturers in Korea fought a legislative effort to make the sound louder - they said it would damage sales. Either way, a determined hacker can turn their sound off, or muffle the speaker.

Ito sees a future for consensual phone camera signaling: "I wonder if there's going to be some kind of technological shift to demonstrate the presence of a camera phone. Or to signal that you're using the phone for one purpose or another. Some phones have a physical function to close the lens - to resolve the ambiguity about the use of the phone."

There is an ambiguity to mobile phone cameras not only for the people who loathe being photographed, but also for the people holding the devices. "Every one knows it's bad to snap pictures up people's skirts," Ito observes. "They know if they get caught they'll be in trouble." But there's more of an ethical gray area surrounding photos of property. Is it okay to take a picture of a hairstyle in a fashion magazine you're browsing in a bookstore?

Customer Digitization

The first reports of an effort to limit "digital shoplifting" emerged from Japan last week. Storekeepers were tired of people photographing cool hairstyles or clothes in magazines and sending the snapshot to their friends, instead of buying the printed matter.

It's perverse media ecology. The magazine publishers undoubtedly design the magazines on a computer, using digital content. Then they print it, and put it on bookstore shelves. Users then filter into the bookstore and use their mobile phones to selectively re-digitize the content they like so they can distribute it faster and wider than print allows.

These "shoplifters" are using mobile phones to augment an inefficient means of content distribution. Arguably, they should be able to get the magazine's content digitally without having to scan, perhaps off a website service. It's a pedestrian version of Napster - digitizing media without permission because it's the most convenient way to share. People want to use technology to share. Much of the discussion about digital copyright violations in the West happens under the rubric of "file sharing." But digital camera use in magazine stands was labeled "digital shoplifting" by the Japanese Magazine Publishers Association. It was a masterstroke of publicity, immediately identifying this phenomenon with crime by name. "Digital shoplifting" adapts the old rules covering property theft for citizen digitization.

"Everything in public space is available for digital reproduction"

The Japanese Magazine Publishers Association signs posted in bookstores admonish browsers to "refrain from recording information with camera-mounted cell phones and other devices." But according to Ito, it's not just bookstores that have to worry about their contents being digitized and spread: "A curious unintended outcome [of connected cameras] is that people are going to be more careful about making things available in print."

In her forthcoming study, she found that kids who like a particular logo or celebrity don't necessarily go to a digital downloads site, they take their own picture of a poster or magazine. Before connected cameras, "the feeling was that print objects are relatively safe from digital reproduction because of the hassle of input. People could feel a sense of protection in that printed form. Now digitization has been so sped up. Everything in public space is available for digital reproduction." That's likely to have long-term effects on the licensing and distribution of images.

Undoubtedly there will be laws and rules and signs and censure to control the over-eager invasive mobile photographers. Perhaps the generation raised in the midst of connected cameras will expect to be surveilled in this way, and they won't mind so much.

The right to film and distribute will likely be worked out through a series of messages. Early in the era of connected cameras, many of those messages will be printed up and posted on walls. Later messages will be social cues, as people attune their ears for the sound of a mobile phone camera shutter and look to see if anything is awry. Someday, mobile camera hardware and software might negotiate permission to photograph based on context.

Noted Silicon Valley columnist and explorer of the new journalism landscape Dan Gillmor wrote this recently on his weblog: "Cameras will soon be impossible to see. They'll be in our glasses, our clothing and eventually in our very bodies..." If millions of cameras are to be wielded by every human or institution, then we'll have little choice but to expect that we're being watched all the time. Then we can only hope that our embarrassing moments will be lost in an overwhelming torrent of digital images.

Justin Hall has been writing about digital culture for over a decade now, mostly on his web site He splits his time between Japan and the United States, west of the Mississippi.