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Bloody Visions: What Would the Boston Bombing Look Like in the Google Glass Era?

Some critics complain about graphic images while authorities plead to the public for more video, showing how the surveillance culture can be both scourge and savior.

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John Tlumacki / Boston Globe / Getty Images

A man comforts a woman on the sidewalk at the scene of the first explosion near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon, April 15, 2013.

Another tragedy, another media debate about whether the images of tragedy have gone too far. This time, the debate is not just about what TV networks, print outlets, or mainstream-media websites choose to show but what everybody else does: the ugly pictures, snapped by bystanders and spread instantly in social media, of victims with limbs blown off, bleeding into the street, possibly dying before our eyes.

But while media critics debate whether all the Vine’d and Instragrammed images of bloodshed are desensitizing and exploitative, a second, opposite story is unfolding: authorities investigating the bombing are pleading for members of the public to come forward with more photos and videos from the scene—anything that might offer a clue as who planted the bombs, when and how.

Any crowd like the one in Boston is now a massive surveillance organism. As I wrote after a controversy over a picture of a man about to die in a New York subway accident, we have become Homo documentis, Man the Recorder. It’s almost unimaginable that a spectacular public attack could take place and the perpetrator not be captured, somewhere in the gigabytes upon gigabytes of digital keepsakes.

And the twin reactions to the amateur images from Boston—whether there were too many after the bombing, whether there were enough from before—perfectly illustrates how our increasing cyborg ability to capture everything we see can be both scourge and savior. Pictures from amateur photojournalists in Boston may have invaded privacy, horrified us, and made accidental viewers feel violated. And other pictures from amateur photojournalists may, if we’re lucky enough, bring someone to justice.

It’s notable that all this is happening today, as Google has sent out the first, early-adopter models of Google Glass. The wearable computers raised privacy alarms before they even hit the streets, getting banned in advance from casinos, bars, and strip clubs. Google’s own promo video for the glasses imagines–albeit more positively–a wonderland of constant documentation: young, happy users (“The old won’t get it,” sings the soundtrack) recording a life of upscale pleasures like hot-air ballooning, piloting, and horse jumping.

It looks incredibly cool, even before whatever apps the app-magi dream up to take advantage of it. And yet you don’t have to be a complete cynic to wonder whether the first killer applications may be for, say, the myriad collectors of online upskirt shots.

Google isn’t blind to that, of course; it published a Glass FAQ, which cautions against driving or biking with Glass against local laws (though the promo video involves both biking and plane flying) and cautions, “Always consider your surroundings – just like you would with a cell phone.”

Well, yeah. And are we considerate with cell phones? I’m sure you are! But you can go to a movie opening weekend or restaurant anytime and see how social mores have revolved since the first jackass said “Guess where I’m calling from!” into a brick with an antenna in the 1980s.

Google Glass, or whatever follows it, may indeed rewrite the social contract, redefine privacy, or turn us all, as Gawker bluntly but fairly put it, into assholes. They may unlock potential that my puny imagination can’t even conceive of now. But in some form or another, the technology will come, and it will change, and we will change with it.

Right now, it sounds reasonably conspicuous to record with Google Glass–you have to issue a voice command or touch a button on the rim. Will it always be so with the eventual imitators–smarter, faster, with better storage–a few tech-generations from now? Will our smart-wearables, at some point, be constantly on, running on a buffer so that we can decide to record something minutes after we see it, like you can now with a DVR? At some point, will most of us be, basically, Tivo-ing reality?

It’s all a little exciting, and a little unsettling. But today of all days, you also have to wonder, as tech-pundits like Robert Scoble have: what’s going to happen when something terrible happens–a bomb, a hijacking, a mass shooting–a few years from now, in a world of people wearing computers? There might be an entire cloud-based data bank of recordings that investigators could search to hunt down the murderer.

But it’s probably too much to imagine that it, or any technology, would ever discourage mass murder. When someone kills again, it may be that there will be more eyes on them. That could be a good thing, but not a good without a price. The rest of us may find ourselves, whether we want to see the horrors or not, tied in the cloud to a network of eyes that never close.

6 comments
cherylvanhoorn
cherylvanhoorn

It is odd. I grew up with a profound dislike for main stream media. I did not watch the news in my teens and early twenties and as a consequence missed the invasion of Quwait by a month. As I have grown older and as the media encroaches into civilization more and pushing boundaries now it is not possible to isolate one's self from all forms of media and due to this faster and harder news coverage snakes its way into every application on social media it is hard to miss disasters and absolute acts of evil.

There has been a whole run of fear recently about the world coming to an end. These people point to the ever increasing natural disasters and how profound they are. I don't know that there is necessarily a growth in these instances but that there is the factor that media is everywhere. You can't escape it so something that would have happened in a natural disaster that was made as a token of tragedy becomes a full blown Wagner opera. Media has become the opera singers of the world.

As a company that is grappling with developing the means of using words and stories in real time of the internet through an e-zine, Tweaking MADD and a writing site called Blogging MADD. The maleability of social media is only in its infancy and not even walking. It is fascinating and disturbing the amount of ourselves that we are giving up to enable the constant social stands that we have. But again as noted above there are undoubted advantages to the world and there are disadvantages in the form of the loss of personal freedoms. We are selling our souls and like in 1984 by saying 'do it to her, do it to here'

MarkHolland
MarkHolland

People take so many pictures because they assume that everything happening around them is terribly important. Only once in millions, perhaps billions of pictures is this ever really true. The rest of the time it's just meaningless noise.

Lucelucy
Lucelucy like.author.displayName 1 Like

The thing is, it's coming, and railing against it is kinda like me getting all pissy when I returned from England in 2005 to find that Aaron Brown had been dumped for Anderson Cooper.  (See pissy comment on your other piece this morning.)  I think we may be suffering from false memory syndrome when it comes to privacy.  When were our neighbors not peeking through our windows?  I recall listening to a local radio station back in Wisconsin, 40 year ago at least, when it was not uncommon for people to call in to complain about their neighbor on food stamps with butter in her fridge.  (How do you know?  What are you doing opening her fridge?  Oh, you're a friend.  She asked you in for coffee and you searched her fridge?  Um-hmmm.  And then you called the radio and whispered in its dear little ear.  Um-hmm.)  People on FB get all pissy on a regular basis about the invasion of privacy.  I suppose it might do a little good now and then - don't want to discourage them in case they *are* making a helpful difference - but I suggest that we assume that no matter what we do, someone is paying attention.  Someone probably has been, all along.

mattb.carr
mattb.carr

I've been unbelievably angry about this, you should not be taking pictures of dead and dying people, gawking at death and destruction like "oh my gosh, I better take a picture of these people instead of helping OR getting out of the way". I just can't understand why people would do this. I hate it. I hate it so much.

Foreign
Foreign

the thing is that authorities do ask for pic for investigation purposes, not for attention, or feel-like-sharing purposes. one possible major difference that comes to mind is the purpose and impulse linked to that. Authorities have always asked for witnesses, theses pics/footage are merely that and should not be confused with social media bleeding. wrong or bad.