Sunday, December 31, 2017

Somebody's watching you

Don't look now: someone is almost certainly watching you.

This year alone, according to estimates published by Business Insider, we humans--at least those of us able to afford some kind of camera--will take some 1.2 trillion photos, the majority of them with smartphones. That's an average of 500 photos for every one of the nearly 2.3 billion smartphone owners in the world, or approximately 133 images for each person on the planet. We add this number of digital records to the 1.1 trillion photos we took in 2016, the 1 trillion we took in 2015, the 800 billion we took in 2014 and so on. 

I've written about trillions before on this blog--see "Counting Trillions"--and 1,000,000,000,000 remains an almost unimaginably large number, whether we're talking about debt, stars, digital images or intestinal flora, all notions that we currently measure in the trillions.  For example, 1 trillion seconds ago was 31,546 years ago, which is to say well before the end of the last ice age, and possibly before humans lived on or in the Americas, although new evidence suggests that humans or humanoids just might have been cracking mastodon bones along the Pacific coast around 1 billion hours or 115,000 years ago. But 1 trillion hours, which is to say nearly 115 million years ago, dinosaurs were roaming the earth, and some 43 trillion hours ago, the earth was a spinning, gaseous lump.

I am, of course, doing my part to contribute to the global glut of digital data: I estimate that in the last six or seven years, I am personally responsible, for some 10,000s of photos, most not taken with a smart phone, but with that now apparently obsolescing instrument, a stand-alone camera.  The majority of these thousands of photos reside on my (various) hard-drives, and will never be seen by anyone.  Why keep them then? Because they are? Because I think I can? Because they might matter? Because I haven't had time to look at them yet long enough to decide if I will keep them--and I think that someday I will?!

Time may do its work and corrupt these drives, or make the file systems in which the photos are recorded unreadable if I don't do something else to fix or translate them. This has already happened to videos I shot less than a decade ago.  I feel a pang of loss all out of proportion to the content of those files; memories of dozens of 8mm home movies of my mother, as a baby, being bathed, fill my head, valuable proxies for the sort of content that might be lost when such files disappear.  If I am being honest, however,  I must note that I only once watched a few minutes of that apparently endless maternal footage, much to my mother's relief; I suspect that no one has any idea where those reels are now. My own files recorded walks along the Nova Scotia coast and up to the summit of Coronados Island in the Sea of Cortes. I remember these walks well; why isn't that enough?

Why do we need to capture ghosts of ourselves and our experiences everywhere we go? What are we preserving thus? What losses do we imagine we might forestall with our clicking and posting or filing? Do we really think we're so evanescent that all traces of us will disappear when we die, leaving behind our mountains of stuff, our digital data, our gyres of plastic and debris? Perhaps it's simply a fear that we will (or do) disappear when others don't see us--that certainly seems to be what facebook and the other organs of social media would like us to believe. And so we continue to log our lives, at greater and greater pace, arriving at the point where the logging very nearly coincides with, or even sometimes replaces the living.

But think about this: we now live in such a ubiquitously recorded world that surely, often, many of us regularly show up, ghosts in a host of records we know nothing about.  Not only are we billions snapping anything and everything and everyone, but cities, shops and work places are full of closed circuit cameras; certain professionals now regularly wear bodycams; many people set up web surveillance of their houses and yards;  and of course there are ever more versions of Google Street View.  Sometimes we know we are being captured by these cameras; often we do not.  Often we live our lives utterly unaware of the cameras all around us.

Would we live it differently if we noticed them? I wave sometimes to the surveillance cameras on neighbours' houses, or jump out of the way of a tourist's lens along the Halifax waterfront, but most of the time I remain blissfully ignorant of any record of my passing. I think I prefer it that way, although perhaps I ought to smarten up.

I always feel like somebody's watching me.
And I have no privacy.

Rockwell, Somebody's Watching Me 1984

For a time in the late 1980s, in Baltimore, not long after a friend had been found bludgeoned to death in her own apartment, I was subjected to some sort of watching. Often, as I entered my apartment, after a run or a day at school, the phone would ring.  If I answered,  someone who clearly knew I'd just come in would say something to me about my arrival. My watcher never explicitly threatened me, but they clearly meant to be menacing.  I found them very terrifying, particularly in the wake of my friend's unsolved murder.  I contacted the police; they put a trace on the line, but never discovered who was stalking me.  I ultimately paid to have an unlisted phone number, although I worried sometimes that this meant that whoever had been watching might have to confront me then to reach me. Within a year or two I'd moved away, and I forgot the whole incident. Until yesterday, when I was thinking about just how many cameras are clicking and clacking and recording all around us.

My friend Martha, from whom I'd rented a room in Halifax in the fall, wrote to tell me that she'd seen something peculiar on Google Street View:

Eventually I got around to taking a look. Yes, there it was, my car in Martha's drive.  But I didn't think that's what she meant, so I zoomed in for a closer inspection. Yes, there I was, at the door, bag in hand, coming or going.  It was a warm day; September; I'm wearing a crumpled white blouse, open at the neck. Google has blurred my eyes, just as they'd blurred my license plate, still I recognize myself, or a version of myself: faded, blurry, unselfconscious, but recorded. How many millions and billions of these sorts of photos exist of we billions as we wander about in our daily lives? 

In 2015, Rose Eveleth set out to try to figure out the answer to that question for the Atlantic magazine; what she found is that no one knows. No one even knows how to estimate how many such "accidental" portraits exist. Apparently many. As I began to talk about my image with others, the stories began to pour back about this or that friend, snapped while walking the dog, or mowing the lawn. Weird, because when I've seen Google Street View, it's almost always been like Daguerre's early images, streetscapes devoid of humans. And yet here, in the photographic shadows, we are...


Caroline Cakebread, "People will take 1.2 trillion digital photos this year--thanks to smartphones"

Number of smartphone users world wide from 2014-2020:

Karin Cope, "Counting Trillions," 

Jessica Schladebeck, "Humans may have arrived in America 100,000 years earlier than thought," 

Carrie Sylvester, "2017 Camera wrap-up: where have all the cameras gone?" 

Rose Eveleth, "How Many Photographs of You are Out There In the World?" The Atlantic 2 November 2015:

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