I live on a tiny picturesque street in a small picturesque town (as in “anyone lived in a pretty how town” – e.e.cummings). The property I live on originally belonged to a sea captain, and was part of the gardens of his house, frequently visited by George Washington. The houses on the street, Victorian in nature, are like Easter eggs in a row. This is why I set out to capture this unique lineup one day, in a picture.
But as I started snapping photos, first of my house, then of my neighbor’s, an uncomfortable feeling came over me. What right did I have to take pictures of the other houses on the street? Even though I could justify my actions on the basis of the result being altruistic and not meant for profit (the final product would be gifts to the owners) – I am not quite sure that justified my actions.
I suddenly felt a kinship with the indigenous people’s refusal to be photographed because they felt their souls would be stolen.
In the end, I realized I may have the legal RIGHT to photograph neighbor’s houses, but is it right ethically or culturally?
This is at the root of controversy over Google’s Streetview service, especially in the EU. Google maintains that they have the right, legally, especially since the pictures are taken from public property (the street). Privacy advocates deplore Streetview pictures of individuals, particularly in certain settings. Google has responded by (generally) obfuscating individual images and any individual identifiers.
Nonetheless, my experience makes the context of “privacy” inadequate; it’s really a context of appropriateness, of cultural sensitivities, of civility. Technology, and how we use it, seems to be a constant test of our manners, and interpersonal standards. Facebook, social networking, online gaming is certainly a more striking example of those tests. One of our publicly available research papers speaks to this context issue.
How we react to and use new technology (from pencils to iphones) poses new challenges in our behavior and, due to what I would call social entropy, or a tendency toward social disorder, our interpersonal actions. The inclination is towards less civility, less social order; a breaking down of the rules of engagement and behavior that may have been created consciously and unconsciously over millennia. An increased potential for misunderstanding, hurt feelings, antagonism, hatred, and (at the end of the spectrum) war.
And so the Streetview controversy, and my angst over picture taking of another’s property, isn’t about privacy. It’s about culture. It’s about how we treat each other, and how we respect each other, and what our actions mean and say. It’s about the kind of society we build with how we act. And whether we need to think more about how we use technology that enhances our actions.
Is what Google does with Streetview legal? Generally, yes. Is what Google is doing with Streetview – or what we are all doing with implicit decisions on how we implement and use new technologies – impacting us on another, more social, level? No doubt. For good? I don’t know.
Without sounding too luddite-ish, I suspect we are in a period of a disproportionate increase in social disorder, in part due to how we choose to use technology. That seems to be the lesson with Streetview as evidenced by my street photo project. This became especially poignant when my neighbor came out to ask what I was doing….