Computing Applications Inside risks

Close Exposures of the Digital Kind

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Sometimes the impacts of powerful technologies are relatively clear and pretty much expected. For example, we all realize that nuclear bombs are capable of impacting the world in drastic and dramatic ways via their very existence, even when not detonated. But some technologies, even seemingly ordinary consumer products, can impact global events and society in unexpected ways, and the risks they present to the status quo may be surprising indeed—to the technologists who create them, the firms that market them, and the consumers who use them.

A particularly notable example from today’s headlines is the digital camera. Although still a relatively new technology, these cameras have already become ubiquitous. Used by professional photographers and casual amateurs alike, they can hide in pockets, swing from keyrings, and be embedded into an astounding array of cell phones. These cameras combine many complex aspects of leading-edge computing and imaging technologies in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago at the price points now commonplace.

But digital cameras have special attributes that make them far more than mere tourist accessories, and can result in qualitative differences from their film-based cousins. With their ability to take large numbers of photos often of extremely high quality and at essentially zero cost per shot, digital cameras encourage the capturing of scenes that might otherwise have been left as ephemeral events that never would have been saved for posterity if film were the only choice available.

Since no film developing is required, these virtual piles of photos can be shot without concerns about what nosy film processors might think of the images. What’s more, digital still shots and even digital movies can be quickly copied and easily modified, are trivial to archive in quantity on inexpensive CD-ROMs, and can be instantly transmitted via email around the planet. Their power to rapidly influence events is enormous, and only now really becoming understood.

The expanding exposures of Iraqi prisoner abuse and torture are a case in point. It’s one thing to simply read an announcement that an investigation into abuse is being initiated. It’s something else again to actually see a naked prisoner leashed like an animal or other prisoners ordered into disturbing poses, not to mention the related images yet to be made public.

If digital cameras did not exist, it’s unlikely the photos and movies that triggered this firestorm would have been created in such quantity and explicit detail. It’s even less likely that such images would have been archived en masse and so found their way to public scrutiny. In this case, digital photos turned what might otherwise have been a mere military press release into a public outrage likely to change the course of history in significant ways.

Of course, like most other technologies, digital cameras are merely tools—to be used for good or ill. And as we’ve seen, the photographer can’t always control how shots will ultimately be used or what effects those images are likely to impart.

Thus, we can see digital cameras as another of those quintessential technological developments whose potential power far exceeds the sum of its parts. On one hand, they are capable of being used to invade individuals’ privacy in devastating ways, with cell-phone cameras now a particular focus of concerns, given their wireless connectivity capable of rapid photo transmissions. Yet, digital cameras may also be used to expose nightmarish crimes and horrors of all sorts. It appears that this technology has become the tool of choice for whistleblowers and intelligence operatives alike, and for all manner of shutterbugs in between.

While there are many observers who laud the role of these cameras, there will also be those who blame such devices for any and all perceived negative impacts. But as with so many inventions down through history, the rapidly evolving capabilities of digital cameras ultimately cannot be successfully suppressed nor their powers revoked, even if we wanted to do so.

In many respects, we still have not learned how to live in a balanced manner with many advanced technologies—not just digital cameras. The true path to enlightenment in this regard is through legislation, laws, and common sense, not by endeavoring to blame the messengers for images many would rather not see, sounds that most might wish not to hear, and insight into our own flaws that nearly all of us probably would much prefer to ignore.

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