The Faux Power That Comes With a Video Camera in Your Pocket
As I leap down the swirling cesspool of YouTube once in awhile, I find these amazing and sad compilation videos of people confronting businesses, neighbors, and random strangers armed with nothing but an attitude of entitlement, a sense of injustice, and a smartphone camera.
“Is this good customer service?”
“I am a paying customer!”
“I’m recording you and you’ll be on YouTube tonight.”
“Can you tell me your name and the name of the manager right now?”
“I’ll be sending this to corporate and you’re getting fired.”
“You can’t put your hands me! I’ll call the police because you’re assaulting me!”
There is another strain of video that involves people in cars, breaking the law and when pulled over, being intentionally shitty and baiting toward police while filming on their cameras. About half those videos show the police giving up and the other half being patient until they break out the car windows and drag them out of the car.
The phenomena of an entire society armed with tiny videocameras in their pockets at all times has created some sort of belief that the act of videoing someone is both a shield and a weapon, as if every interaction is a Jerry Springer moment where no matter what you say or do, there will be a team of onstage bouncers there to stop any potential violence.
I recall, while working in Millennium Park, telling a man that he needed to be seated in the front area of the stage during the Mariachi Fest. The problem we encountered was hundreds of phone videographers massing up into the aisles to be close to the stage and causing a potentially hazardous circumstance, blocking fire lanes and clogging up the the area. I put into place the policy that people could shoot videos from the transverse aisle on their feet but needed to be seated in the areas close to the stage.
The man did what people often do in pursuit of the shot they want — he ignored me and continued filming. I stood in front of him and placed my hand in front, blocking the camera and continued to ask him to take a seat. After some dancing around, he realized I was just going to spoil his shot if he didn’t sit so he turned the camera on me. “I’m filming you! I’m filming you! You will go up on YouTube!”
I found it funny that he felt his phone could be weaponized in this situation. I smiled at the camera and explained to YouTube that we had this policy and that I was asking the man to take a seat. He kept filming so I started talking about the concert we were watching, how many cups of coffee I had, and how I felt about wearing all black in ninety-eight-degree weather. He finally sat down and stayed there. Later, he came and apologized for using his phone on me. We laughed. He admitted that most people get really angry when he pointed his camera at them and that he had put other encounters up on YouTube. “Will you put me up there, too?”I asked. “No,” he smiled. “You didn’t act badly.”
If there is a Murphy’s Law sort of thing for new technologies, it probably goes something like “For every good a new technology can do, there will be five assholes who use it badly.”
The fact that we are all carrying instant recording devices has such an exponential potential for good. Using it to hold authority accountable in some way, recording closed door meetings with high powered male executives who might want to jerk off into a potted plant, recording police brutality in real time, catching politicians when they lie are all positive effects. Government and corporate surveillance of the citizenry is obvious and can also result in both good and bad outcomes.
But there will be five assholes who use this technology to weaponize their personal agendas and threaten people with exposure to the inevitable trolling, name-calling, even death threats now completely routine when it comes to the brilliant tool known as the internet. Like the video of the Smirking Kid and the Native American Drummer ®, a lot of those bad actors are creating these moments devoid of context and rely on our groupfeel tendencies of this moment in history to create momentum in their search for justice, their desire for viral fame, or likely both.
Before we judge Jussie Smollett too harshly for fabricating an attack to gin up his street value, look carefully at these videos of people intentionally baiting employees of companies on camera to attempt a jumpstart on activism about coupons expiring or waitresses being late with a coffee refill. Smollett is just the tip of the iceberg of an overwhelming sense of entitlement crashing into the bow of society’s ocean-liner.
“Are you willing to give me refund? Are you willing to give me refund? Are you willing to give me refund?”
The truly unfortunate inevitability is the fatigue society experiences that dulls the effects of legit uses of public recording. Each time we engage in these sorts of videos and faux sense of power and outrage, we are that much less likely to give a solid shit. Each example of self-serving, self-promotional outrage at racism or sexism obfuscates those examples of genuine racism and sexism. Every time we use this technology as a weapon against cops simply doing their job or the manager of a Denny’s after waiting twenty minutes for a hamburger, we diminish its benefits in exposing real injustice.
Ironically, while bemoaning the overreaching powers of an Orwellian Big Brother, it is inescapable to understand that we are Big Brother. We are the insidious Watcher, ever present, ever judging.
Seriously, your insistence that you want your money back because there was mayo on your Burger King order is not fucking injustice.