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With great documentary power comes great responsibility

On July 1 professor Steve Mann from University of Toronto got into an altercation at a Paris McDonald’s, apparently because employees objected to his camera glasses. McDonald’s denies any wrongdoing, while professor Mann has posted his account online – complete with footage from his glasses. The event has caused a great deal of interest, with some calling it the world’s first cybernetic hate crime. Exactly what happened and why is unclear and does not concern this post. Whether it was a cybernetic hate crime, rules-obsessed employees or a clash of personality and culture is fairly irrelevant. What is interesting is the ethics of documenting one’s environment, and how to deal with disparities in documentary power.

Documenting public and semi-public space

Professor Mann has been in trouble before by doing informal documentation of surveillance in stores, often exposing the double standard where customers are supposed to accept being surveilled (“if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”) while the staff do not take kindly to customers surveilling the store. Mann has been important in spreading the idea of sousveilance, where citizens monitor authorities and surveillance powers. This may be an important way of maintaining transparency and government accountability.

However, when documenting you also document other people. They are not necessarily consenting to it and might even rationally object: being documented as coming out from the porn store is different from merely being seen leaving. In the second case the witness may of course gossip about it, but there is no strong evidence and it cannot easily be disseminated – but a video clip can easily reach millions and remain persistent. One could certainly imagine some French people who would also strongly object to being documented as eating at McDonald’s. Conscientious sousveilers will of course blur faces to protect privacy, but mistakes can happen and not all people will be documenting for benign purposes. A move towards stronger documentation means that the sphere of informal unguarded interaction (previously protected by local norms) shrinks, something which might impair the freedom and enjoyment of public life.

Institutions also tend to wish to control how information is gathered about and in them. This is the most likely reason for McDonald’s employees trying to prevent what they saw as filming: while there is no overarching rule against it, local franchises may have such rules. Or they may believe they have: often employees have a weak grasp of the actual regulations, yet enforcing them strongly presumably out of fear for their own position (hence Tesco bans on writing down prices). There are rational reasons for privately owned semi-public places to restrict documentation (preventing price comparison, protecting visitor privacy, perhaps preventing crime planning) and they might also legally have the right to do so. But just like private establishments have legal and ethical limits on what types on people they refuse to serve, there are valid limits to documentation bans too. As various forms of recording equipment become commonplace and integrated in everyday interaction banning their use without compelling reasons will be counterproductive: it drives away customers, it increases suspicion that something isn’t right, it might cause more documentation through stubborn reactance, and most importantly, it may prevent people from the freedom of interaction with the world and each other they rely on.

Technology has changed far faster than most institutional culture and laws, undermining their validity. As people gain more documentary power conflicts over their accustomed use of it in environments attempting to restrict it will emerge. Negotiating what usage is appropriate – in regards to the interests of bystanders and institutions – is a fairly slow process.

Unbalanced documentary power

Sousveilance is aimed at balancing concentrations of power by monitoring them. But not all concentrations of power are government, corporations or institutions. Sometimes they are fellow individuals. Professor Mann is in many regards a power concentration: a well-known researcher with an extensive social network, but also equipped with a documentation system years ahead of consumer models and with the skills to use it well. The McDonald’s employees are not as powerful. Their side of the story has not been heard, perhaps because they rely on the company to present it but also likely because they can at most recount their experience. Meanwhile the footage is available on-line in a form that seems to support Mann’s story. If this had been a standard brawl it would have ended up as a story where the parts made allegations on equal footing, biased perhaps by home advantage or social status. But now one part can present compelling, globally available documentary evidence. Unless McDonald’s counters by showing some very good surveillance camera footage they are going to lose the battle for sympathy.

Documentaries are no guarantees of truth or neutrality, as anybody who has sat through a Michael Moore film knows. Editing together factual material into a compelling story can change the conclusion in profound ways, and make it appear more clean-cut than reality ever were. Even without editorial manipulation asymmetries in documentation seem to bias power: we are more likely to believe the side that provides the evidence, especially if it is from a first-person perspective. And if the documentation doesn’t support their side, they might just choose to delete or hide it.

This suggests that a partial sousveilance society is problematic: the people who can document will have advantages over the undocumenting. The overall benefits might still be large enough to be worthwhile – authorities might think twice before engaging in abuses of power, and criminals may often find themselves thwarted – but interpersonal interactions may still be undermined by the extra power dimension. Chilling effects from censorship and monitoring apply on the micro-scale too, albeit in smaller forms. The best way to protect oneself is of course to join the bandwagon and document – just in case.


We have seen nothing yet. Technology is conspiring to make information easily recordable and transmissible, making leaks and long-term storage easy. The nature of the Internet makes massive focused attention on particular compelling cases more likely. And we are all investing in personal surveillance, whether we intend to or not. Institutions are going to discover that they have far less control over their internal information than they thought or wanted, and that efforts to (re)gain it will both be costly, opposed and uncertain. I do not think perfect transparency is likely to occur, but I do think we are going to see many cases where groups that believed they had achieved strong privacy get a rude awakening – whether they are corporate boards, McDonald’s employees or people in their own back yard.

What ethical principles should guide our documentation of each other? An obvious one is tolerance: it is not possible to live in a transparent society without tolerating at least some deviations, since they are unavoidable. Respecting each other as people with real human frailties and value is important. Another aspect is recognition that indiscriminate use of the information can be very harmful: posting something to YouTube means that it could become the next viral meme, and the consequences for the victim significant. At present we do not generally recognize just how potentially powerful our tools are, and most of the time they are not: given the power-law distribution of attention only a few clips or conflicts become the next big thing, but those gain far more attention than we typically imagine. This suggest that we should be far more cautious about sousveilance that involves individual people than sousveilance that deals with institutions.

Conversely, institutions should recognize that the average documentary power is increasing and is getting integrated into normal life. Preventing people from using their full documentary powers must be done with a great deal of transparency and consistency, or it will tend to backfire – visibly, possibly virally.

We are becoming Arguses, and we better get good at it.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. The initial example may have less to do with employees and workplace rules but with the way in which filming in public is controlled in France. As I understand it any one can ask any photographer (video or still) to erase any image they have of them taken in a public space. It makes shooting in public very problematic for tv companies etc. There is some detail on this law here:

    Obviously this does not overly detract from the wider points you are trying to make.

    1. In fact, that law shows that the mess extends even into the public space. The spirit of the law is presumably just aiming at balancing some of the privacy-documentary tensions I mention, but I assume it does not really succeed. It is presumably unenforceable, given how smartphones can do unobtrusive recordings and it is hard to contact the photographer behind a surveillance camera.

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