Wednesday, 20 May 2009

G20 Reflections: Sousveillance

The big story of the events around last month's G20 summit was sousveillance: 'the conscious capture of processes from below, by individual participants'. The death of Ian Tomlinson and the subsequent unravelling of the police account of events marked how far social technologies have changed our society, even since the last major summit in Britain, the Gleneagles G8 meeting in 2005.

That week itself marked a breakthrough for the role of members of the public in newsgathering. When the 7/7 bombings cut across summit and protests alike, it was camera phone images which told the story. However, while "user-generated content" had already been a buzzword in the news industry for a year or so, the conventions by which this material should be incorporated into reporting were still emerging and had yet to change the way news was created.

What the Ian Tomlinson case highlights is how far we have now moved towards a new information eco-system. It is significant that:

1. The key footage was gathered not by a protester but by a banker visiting from New York - the cameraphone in the hands of the passerby is now an important tool.

2. Other footage was largely posted on broad platforms like YouTube rather than narrow platforms like Indymedia.

3. News outlets in general are now largely comfortable with the idea of leading on stories driven by user-generated content.

4. Some news outlets (e.g. the Guardian, Channel 4) are developing a fairly sophisticated ability to work with user-generated content - not only providing a channel for its wider dispersion, but playing a role in piecing together a large number of individual elements to provide context and a degree of verification, giving credibility to stories which challenge the official version of events.

The deeper implications of this are interesting. Any of us who have been on a few protests over the years know that the policing of the G20 was hardly exceptional: practices such as kettling, baton charges on crowds, aggressive use of police horses, removal of ID numbers and so on have been common, in many cases for decades. In the past, it has been possible for senior officers and politicians to turn a blind eye to such behaviour, or even encourage it, while maintaining a public line about the decency and high standards of the British police. That situation only remained tenable, however, so long as the flow of information about events on the ground was relatively weak. Most people in this country will tend to take the word of a Chief Constable or even a Home Secretary over that of the most articulate, reasonable and well-groomed anarchist. However, the same people can react very differently to video footage providing direct evidence of police aggression.

What is interesting here is that, without any change in the values and standards professed by politicians and senior police officers, the stronger flow of information is likely to change the actual practice of policing. (This reminds me of an argument Slavoj Zizek makes in 'Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?' about the tactical effectiveness of taking appearances at face value: rather than simply pointing out the gap between words and reality, one can use the words as a point of leverage for closing that gap.)

How far and how deep will sousveillance go? Where else could society be radically changed, simply by holding existing professed standards to account, with the support of new and stronger flows of information from below?

One other story caught my eye recently - the reporting of the video of an Abu Dhabi prince torturing a man he claimed had cheated him in a business deal. Johann Hari's astonishing investigative report on Dubai (a great piece of old-style journalism) highlighted the disturbing foundations of the Middle Eastern states which have come to play a key role in the world economy. Could more direct documentation of the realities of these countries ever lead to a radical change in the ability of western countries to profess democracy and human rights whilst relying on their money?

The conclusion of Hari's piece, though, acknowledges the extent to which the extremes of inequality and injustice in Dubai are only a microcosm: more generally, our economic life tends to be dependent on situations in other parts of the world which we'd rather not think about. Which brings me, finally, to my friend Vinay Gupta's essay on 'The Future of Poverty' and the question which he poses: what will be the consequences when - as is set to happen in the next decade - cameraphones and mobile internet become widely available to people who still don't have the basics of clean water, decent sanitation or reliable food supply?

These are the kind of questions which we explore at the monthly GlueSniffers: ICT for Development meetups I organise with Vinay and Mark Charmer of If you're interested in joining us, sign up to get alerts when we schedule a meetup.

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