We've all become familiar with the Long Tail for content, but the concept is applicable in a number of different contexts. One I hadn't considered until reading an article from last month was its applicability to the concepts of surveillance and privacy. Perhaps this is an abuse of the metaphor, or useless, but I put it out there anyway.
Typically, though not exclusively, we worry about the mass collection of data by large institutions. The thing about this data, however, is that it generally covers relatively easy-to-collect information that is readily put into categories, monetized, and is common to many people. This data is at the head of the surveillance curve. Data points that are shared by only a few people, or are difficult to reliably collect and categorize, or simply seen as not monetizable are not recorded or, if they are, don't receive much attention. This data is in the long tail of the surveillance curve.
Is technology changing the market for the long tail of the surveillance curve as it has changed the market for the long tail of the entertainment curve? If so, what does this mean for privacy?
The article that sparked my thoughts came from worldchanging, and talks about the coming "participatory panoptican", in which we welcome our own personal surveillance as a "memory assistant" (The Rise of the Participatory Panopticon).
Soon -- probably within the next decade, certainly within the next two -- we'll be living in a world where what we see, what we hear, what we experience will be recorded wherever we go. There will be few statements or scenes that will go unnoticed, or unremembered. Our day to day lives will be archived and saved. Whats more, these archives will be available over the net for recollection, analysis, even sharing.
And we will be doing it to ourselves. ...
[I]n the world of the participatory panopticon, this constant surveillance is done by the citizens themselves, and is done by choice. It's not imposed on us by a malevolent bureaucracy or faceless corporations. The participatory panopticon will be the emergent result of myriad independent rational decisions, a bottom-up version of the constantly watched society.
This seems to me a very plausible scenario, perhaps not so close as the author might imagine (there are still tremendous technical difficulties), but coming appreciably close. And, yes, we will strive for and welcome this technology.
Right now we have to make a conscious decision to turn on our surveillance capabilities. We have to actually take a photo, turn on the recorder, etc. In the future, however, like IM and email today, we'll have to actually make a decision not to record things by default. Moreover, given the flow of information, editing to delete certain information will be very burdensome, just as cleaning out a heavily used email account is. Storage is cheap, editing is costly, keep it all.
Right now much of this recording, this citizen surveillance, is a form of sousveillance, the surveillance of authority from below (think videotaping a police beating, or electronic poll watching) and particularly important events. However, this technology will not long remain simply for sousveillance and key events. It will become part and parcel of our daily lives, recording everyday events in order to ensure that nothing is accidentally missed (storage is cheap, editing is costly, save it all).
And the thing is, we're going to want to share a lot of this data. We're social creatures. We'll blog it, upload it to Flickr, tag it in del.icio.us, let our Google personal assistant do it's magic, and that information is gonna be out there. Put there. By us.
Were constantly checking with each other for useful insights. You stumble across a new restaurant, and want to know if any of your friends or any of their friends have been there before. You learn about a new politician, and want to know if anyone you know has heard her speak. You meet a new guy, and want to know if someone in your circle has dated him before. These are all conversations we've had, or have had variations of. But they're all subject to the vagaries of memory -- was it *that* restaurant that had the bug in the soup? Was it *that* politician saying something about prayer in schools? Was it *that* guy my sister dated and dumped for cheating?
In a world of personal memory assistants and a participatory panopticon, those questions are answered.
This may change the nature and use of surveillance. Big corporations and governments are going to be unlikely to be able to handle this heterogenous, massive data flow. There will simply be too much to sort through and organize to use in any real effective, mass way. They will continue to rely on the head of the surveillance curve. Sure, there will be things they can do that they couldn't before, they'll be able to move down the surveillance power curve even farther (much farther), but trying to get value out of a lot of this citizens surveillance will be too difficult to deal with on the wholesale or even retail level.
However, those who have enough incentive to dig through this long tail of surveillance information will be able to gather a lot more data than ever before. Corporations, in general, won't be interested in this data with regard to their mass of customers. It won't be profitable. Employees, on the other hand, will likely find their employers digging into the long tail of surveillance. As I noted, governments won't be able to do use this data on a mass scale, but will have the resources and incentives to dig quite deep into the long tail on occasion. And remember that, in the Panopticon, those under surveillance weren't being watched constantly, they simply could never be sure that they weren't being watched.
The most interesting thing, perhaps, and something we are seeing now is that your average citizen won't have access to the head of the surveillance curve, but will have access to the long tail. Might this not lead to a situation in which it would be better to make the head of the curve more available, not less, as the long tail might be misleading? How would this change our social relations, when everyone has access to the long tail, but little more? What niches of surveillance will exist in the long tail?
Anyway, just some thoughts on a Wednesday afternoon.
Bonus: Lots of copyright issues to be dealt with:
I hope this pushback happens, frankly, because the alternative is rather unpleasant: memory rights management, where you have to have a license to remember. Think about how often you encounter copyrighted material over the course of the day: music on the radio, shows on tv, articles in magazines and on the web. Right now, because meat memories are imperfect, nobody cares if we remember snippets of songs or scenes from movies. We dont have to pay for hazy recollections. But when you have perfect recall, the game has changed.via Moore's Lore