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January 08 2014

How did we end up with a centralized Internet for the NSA to mine?

I’m sure it was a Wired editor, and not the author Steven Levy, who assigned the title “How the NSA Almost Killed the Internet” to yesterday’s fine article about the pressures on large social networking sites. Whoever chose the title, it’s justifiably grandiose because to many people, yes, companies such as Facebook and Google constitute what they know as the Internet. (The article also discusses threats to divide the Internet infrastructure into national segments, which I’ll touch on later.)

So my question today is: How did we get such industry concentration? Why is a network famously based on distributed processing, routing, and peer connections characterized now by a few choke points that the NSA can skim at its leisure?

I commented as far back as 2006 that industry concentration makes surveillance easier. I pointed out then that the NSA could elicit a level of cooperation (and secrecy) from the likes of Verizon and AT&T that it would never get in the US of the 1990s, where Internet service was provided by thousands of mom-and-pop operations like Brett Glass’s wireless service in Laramie, Wyoming. Things are even more concentrated now, in services if not infrastructure.

Having lived through the Boston Marathon bombing, I understand what the NSA claims to be fighting, and I am willing to seek some compromise between their needs for spooking and the protections of the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution. But as many people have pointed out, the dangers of centralized data storage go beyond the NSA. Bruce Schneier just published a pretty comprehensive look at how weak privacy leads to a weakened society. Others jeer that if social networking companies weren’t forced to give governments data, they’d be doing just as much snooping on their own to raise the click rates on advertising. And perhaps our more precious, closely held data — personal health information — is constantly subject to a marketplace for data mining.

Let’s look at the elements that make up the various layers of hardware and software we refer to casually as the Internet. How does centralization and decentralization work for each?

Public routers

One of Snowden’s major leaks reveals that the NSA pulled a trick comparable to the Great Firewall of China, tracking traffic as it passes through major routers across national borders. Like many countries that censor traffic, in other words, the NSA capitalized on the centralization of international traffic.

Internet routing within the US has gotten more concentrated over the years. There were always different “tiers” of providers, who all did basically the same thing but at inequitable prices. Small providers always complained about the fees extracted by Tier 1 networks. A Tier 1 network can transmit its own traffic nearly anywhere it needs to go for just the cost of equipment, electricity, etc., while extracting profit from smaller networks that need its transport. So concentration in the routing industry is a classic economy of scale.

International routers, of the type targeted by the NSA and many US governments, are even more concentrated. African and Latin American ISPs historically complained about having to go through US or European routers even if the traffic just came back to their same continent. (See, for instance, section IV of this research paper.) This raised the costs of Internet use in developing countries.

The reliance of developing countries on outside routers stems from another simple economic truth: there are more routers in affluent countries for the same reason there are more shopping malls or hospitals in affluent countries. Foreigners who have trespassed US laws can be caught if they dare to visit a shopping mall or hospital in the US. By the same token, their traffic can be grabbed by the NSA as it travels to a router in the US, or one of the other countries where the NSA has established a foothold. It doesn’t help that the most common method of choosing routes, the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), is a very old Internet standard with no concept of built-in security.

The solution is economic: more international routers to offload traffic from the MAE-Wests and MAE-Easts of the world. While opposing suggestions to “balkanize” the Internet, we can applaud efforts to increase connectivity through more routers and peering.

IaaS cloud computing

Centralization has taken place at another level of the Internet: storage and computing. Data is theoretically safe from intruders in the cloud so long as encryption is used both in storage and during transmission — but of course, the NSA thought of that problem long ago, just as they thought of everything. So use encryption, but don’t depend on it.

Movement to the cloud is irreversible, so the question to ask is how free and decentralized the cloud can be. Private networks can be built on virtualization solutions such as the proprietary VMware and Azure or the open source OpenStack and Eucalyptus. The more providers there are, the harder it will be to do massive data collection.

SaaS cloud computing

The biggest change — what I might even term the biggest distortion — in the Internet over the past couple decades has been the centralization of content. Ironically, more and more content is being produced by individuals and small Internet users, but it is stored on commercial services, where it forms a tempting target for corporate advertisers and malicious intruders alike. Some people have seriously suggested that we treat the major Internet providers as public utilities (which would make them pretty big white elephants to unload when the next big thing comes along).

This was not technologically inevitable. Attempts at peer-to-peer social networking go back to the late 1990s with Jabber (now the widely used XMPP standard), which promised a distributed version of the leading Internet communications medium of the time: instant messaging. Diaspora more recently revived the idea in the context of Facebook-style social networking.

These services allow many independent people to maintain servers, offering the service in question to clients while connecting where necessary. Such an architecture could improve overall reliability because the failure of an individual server would be noticed only by people trying to communicate with it. The architecture would also be pretty snoop-proof, too.

Why hasn’t the decentralized model taken off? I blame SaaS. The epoch of concentration in social media coincides with the shift of attention from free software to SaaS as a way of delivering software. SaaS makes it easier to form a business around software (while the companies can still contribute to free software). So developers have moved to SaaS-based businesses and built new DevOps development and deployment practices around that model.

To be sure, in the age of the web browser, accessing a SaaS service is easier than fussing with free software. To champion distributed architectures such as Jabber and Diaspora, free software developers will have to invest as much effort into the deployment of individual servers as SaaS developers have invested in their models. Business models don’t seem to support that investment. Perhaps a concern for privacy will.

March 07 2013

If followers can sponsor updates on Facebook, social advertising has a new horizon

This week, I found that one of my Facebook updates received significantly more attention that others I’ve posted. On the one hand, it was a share of an important New York Times story focusing on the first time a baby was cured of HIV. But I discovered something that went beyond the story itself: someone who was not my friend had paid to sponsor one of my posts.

Promoted post on Facebook.Promoted post on Facebook.

According to Facebook, the promoted post had 27 times as many views because it was sponsored this way, with 96% of the views coming through the sponsored version.

When I started to investigate what had happened, I learned that I’d missed some relevant news last month. Facebook had announced that users would be able to promote the posts of friends. My situation, however, was clearly different: Christine Harris, the sponsor of my post, is not my friend.

When I followed up with Elisabeth Diana, Facebook’s advertising communications manager, she said this was part of the cross-promote feature that Facebook rolled out. If a reporter posts a public update to his followers on Facebook, Diana explained to me in an email, that update can be promoted and “boosted” to the reporter’s friends.

While I couldn’t find Harris on Facebook, Diana said with “some certainty” that she was my follower, “in order to have seen your content.” Harris definitely isn’t my friend, and while she may well be one of my followers, I have no way to search them to determine whether that’s so.

In these situations, “sponsored” is the label you’ll see on promoted posts, Diana explained. She also confirmed to me that anyone can (or will be able to) sponsor/promote the public post of someone else, “if they are following them or are friends with them.”

If that happens, the sponsored post will then be boosted only to friends of its author, as opposed to an entire network of followers, said Diana. In the United States, she said that will cost about $7. If this is broadly rolled out, it will be interesting to see if PR companies or news outlets quietly opt to boost stories.

The only constant on Facebook is change

What this all seems to herald is a broader move where getting seen on Facebook will depend much more upon your willingness to pay for it. This is, of course, the dynamic that has long existed on radio and television, unless you can earn “free media” coverage by being newsworthy.

Given the recent kerfluffle over the cost of sharing on Facebook and criticism of the Facebook newsfeed, issues around algorithmic transparency only seem to be growing.

While Facebook posted a “fact check” in response to Nick Bilton’s New York Times column, arguing that “overall engagement on posts from people with followers has gone up 34% year over year,” my experience on the platform matches his: even with nearly 100,000 subscribers, my updates aren’t receiving anywhere close to as much engagement as they did before last November.

Given the reactions I’ve seen to his column, I believe that Bilton speaks for many journalists and others who have turned on subscribers, along with quite a few Page owners. What we see on Facebook is now driven not just by what our friends and family share but how we and others respond to it, as interpreted by algorithms, along with our interests, expressed by Likes, and the social networking giant’s need to make money.

I remember quite clearly when this shift began, on November 3, 2012. WolframAlpha analytics told me that an update with a screencap and annotation of Facebook’s prompt to “pay to promote” received the most comments of any picture in 2012.

Pay to Promote on Facebook imagePay to Promote on Facebook image

My feeling last November was that paid promotions would result in my updates becoming deprecated in the newsfeeds of others. Feelings, however, have to be balanced with data. Recent research suggests that, like most users, I have underestimated the audience size for my posts.

A new study (PDF) by the human-computer interaction group at Stanford University’s computer science department and Facebook’s data science team found that a median Facebook user reaches 60% of his or her friends over the course of a month.

Percentage of Facebook friends who saw a postPercentage of Facebook friends who saw a post

I’m not sure if making public updates sponsorable will fundamentally change how we use or experience the world’s biggest social network. Will having followers promote posts degrade your relationships with friends or your interactions with them? Does it create an incentive to be nicer to them? Perhaps the latter, but the rest of it seems uncertain.

What does seem clear is that, over the past five months, Facebook users have been seeing fewer updates from friends and more content targeted to their “Likes.” This now include updates containing links or ads regarding products, services, causes or politicians that their friends “Like” elsewhere online.

Given that Facebook is a public company that provides a free, advertising-supported product and needs to grow its revenues, these changes aren’t surprising. That said, these changes feel like one more step away from the clean, uncluttered network I joined in 2007 to privately share details about my life with friends and family.

If this new pay-to-promote feature catches on with brands and corporations, they will have a quietly effective new means to influence us through our friends. I still find Facebook valuable, but my relationship status with Facebook is now set to “it’s complicated.”

July 30 2012

Iran: Police is censoring ‘in affiliation with Facebook'

Commander in chief of Iran cyber police insists that the authorities would prosecute those who ‘promote immorality and prostitution' in social network websites. Kamal Hadianfar claims [fa] that Iranian police would ‘purify' this social network ‘with collaboration of Facebook managers'. Major social networking services including Facebook and Twitter are blocked in Iran.

Reposted byiranelection iranelection

April 17 2012

Letters: The web's new world order

The British people fought wars and went through a great deal of civil strife to construct the form of democracy we currently have. Thus there is nothing wrong with our government seeking to ensure that within its national boundaries activity in cyberspace conforms with its laws. The alternative proposition, that the law of the internet is coterminous with the decisions of the US supreme court, is unacceptable everywhere except the US.

The internet of course is magical and wonderful. But we should not have to put up with all the bad stuff in order to benefit from the good. By failing to deal with significant levels of online crime, I'm afraid the high priests of the internet industry, of whom Sergey Brin is most certainly one, have created the situation of which he and they now complain (Web freedom under threat – Google founder, 16 April). It may not be too late to halt or reverse some of the processes Brin is anxious about, but time is running out and laissez-faire will not cut it.
John Carr
London

• I recently replaced a defunct mobile phone and, a week in, find that the new phone's default settings included backing up "application data, Wi-Fi passwords and other settings to Google servers". Is Mr Brin a suitably qualified glasshouse stone-thrower, or does the above sit uncomfortably with Google's previous sniffing for Wi-Fi networks while making photographic surveys?

Internet freedom must rely upon a sea of small providers rather than disproportionate control by nations or global corporations. I will be looking to remove other Google services from my phone.
Mike Brown
Newcastle upon Tyne

• "Internet freedom" is just a vehicle for transnational corporations such as Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook to impose their ideology of rightwing libertarianism on the world – strident capitalism, no taxes, no government, no community. They are a threat in the same way as Murdoch has proved to be, but for some reason we talk about them as if they were the post office or the library.
Dr Stephen Dorril
University of Huddersfield

• Ai Weiwei's comments on the power of the internet to achieve freedom (China's censorship can never defeat the internet, 16 April) remind me strongly of the prescience of your former Communist affairs correspondent Victor Zorza (died 1996). I recall the characteristic enthusiasm with which he told me, almost certainly as far back as the 1970s, that he was convinced that fledgling information technology would prove to be a death knell for totalitarian regimes. As your other articles demonstrate, however, this is not quite so straightforward a matter, given the partially successful attempts at censorship in today's authoritarian countries. But the general conclusion still holds, as Ai Weiwei suggests. Once the monopoly of information slips out of the hands of the rulers of such countries, political consequences are bound to follow sooner or later.
Peter Roland
Bognor Regis, West Sussex

• Russia's alarming restrictions on internet freedom, including the imprisonment of pro-democracy bloggers (Nervous Kremlin seeks to take back control, 16 April), are inconsistent with its membership of the UN Human Rights Council. When he first became president in 1999, Vladimir Putin promised to defend freedom of speech. When he returns to the post next month, Putin would do well to honour his word – and that of his country.
Hillel C Neuer
Executive director, UN Watch, Geneva

• Re your editorial (14 April), New South Wales police have set up a social media community engagement project called Eyewatch. Each of our 80 local area commands has a Facebook page. Each day, police publish local crime issues and crime prevention tips. We are now formulating neighbourhood watch closed Facebook groups across the state so communities can be in touch with police whenever they want to. Our pages have attracted 93,000 fans and over 30m page impressions. Crime is being solved; communities and police are working together to identify problems and create community solutions. This programme – applying the Peelian principles to the 21st century – could be easily adopted in the UK.
Chief Inspector Josh Maxwell
Manager, Project Eyewatch


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April 10 2012

Instagram: what is Facebook getting for $1bn?

Is the social network just after another chunk of the world's visual memory, asks Guardian head of photography Roger Tooth

In my job I guess it's unsurprising that I keep hearing things about photography. "Facts" like half of all pictures ever taken were taken in the past 12 months. Could that be true? It might be if some people are taking pictures of every meal they eat. A colleague talking to a fellow guest at a wedding, who was sporting the brand new Canon 5Dmk3 costing £3,000 — was he a pro photographer? Oh no, he just wanted the best for his photographs. $1bn for Instagram.

Yes – $1bn for a smartphone app that makes your snaps look like retro Polaroids and sends them to your friends. It probably does a lot more than that, but to misquote Mark Knopfler that sounds a whole lot of money, if not exactly for nothing, really not that much.

Now I know I shouldn't admit this, but I do like some of these toning apps. Some of the effects are quite beautiful and the results can encourage the budding photographer. They're harmless and probably have quite a short shelf life.

In the end it really is the actual image under the electronic processing that counts. Most of the time the filters are covering the shortcomings of the original photograph and the person behind it. They will soon become a visual cliche and need continual updating to stay fresh.

The $1bn is buying Facebook another chunk of the world's visual memory. Facebook is making sure all those images don't end up on Flickr or in some other storage cloud.

But why the boom in making still images? Why are people still taking pictures and not shooting video?

Well have you tried video? It looks easy enough until you try editing it. If it's bad it's not just a bit of a joke it's a boring joke. With a still photograph processed through a toning app one can produce a finished and pleasing piece of work. And don't underestimate the growth of photography as a note-taking medium, not just for documenting family life, but as a useful tool for all sorts of professionals from doctors to plumbers to record and communicate. All those 1,000 words taken care of by the click of a shutter.

Roger Tooth is head of photography for the Guardian


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March 12 2011

SXSW 2011: Can Facebook photos be used commercially?

Social network grilled over whether businesses and advertisers could co-opt 'Flickr's worth of photos uploaded every month'

Much of the focus of this discussion was inevitably focused on Facebook's photos product manager, Sam Odio, who disappointingly played the "not my remit' card when asked the most interested and pertinent questions about Facebook's use of users' photos, including facial recognition and how images might be co-opted by advertisers.

• Facebook sees "a Flickr's worth of photos uploaded every month", said Odio. But it's worth considering the different values of those two services: Flickr includes some high-quality, well edited photography, while Facebook focuses on storytelling over quality. It doesn't matter, said Odio, if that first photo of your newborn nephew is blurry: it's the social context behind the photo.

• Odio fielded a question by one delegate about how businesses and advertisers might start appropriating photos for commercial use. "We're not in the business of selling ads through people's photos and we want to prevent businesses having free rein over users," he said. "But businesses are users," pushed the delegate. Odio said Facebook would want the people in the photos to be telling the story – which means advertising would be there but more subtly, and directed by users.

• As for ownership of photos, Odio said that comes down to the need to build the API in such a way that it can access your friends' photos. If each of those users retained ownership, that would become very complicated. "There are worries we are going to use photos in advertising but it doesn't really benefit us that much given how sensitive the subject is."

Yan-David Erlick, a serial entrepreneur who founded Mophot.to, predicted that social photos will become even more integrated with our lives through different sorts of tagging. "Timelines between items will mean that over time, these entities are not viewed as individual pieces of media but will have contextual attributes tying them to other pieces."

• Odio explained how after struggling to keep his startup photo site Divvyshot going in 2009, ploughing in all his own savings, he got a random email one Sunday night. It was from Blake Ross, who later turned out to be co-creator of Firefox, at an address at Facebook. "He said 'Sam – your site looks interesting. You should come here.' I was living with six developers at the time and they were all looking over my shoulder to figure out if the email was fake or not." It was, and Facebook acquired Divvyshot in April 2010.

• Feature requests aren't always the best way to develop a product. Odio said nobody asked for Instagram, which just raised $7m in funding, but now it is taking off. Facebook's engineers also have a monthly hackathon where they can work on whatever they like; that doesn't determine product direction but features such as drag-and-drop organisation have come out of that.

• On facial recognition, all Odio would say is that Facebook "hasn't been able to move quickly on it given how sensitive it is", which does seem to imply it would have liked to do plenty if it could have got away with it.

• Odio said a startup should make the product extremely simple; he had got distracted when trying to add too many features and functions. "Focus on one thing and do it extremely well. In early days the product needs to be explained to users in 10 seconds or less."

• One delegate said he was concerned that Facebook is becoming such an important repository for his life, and that photos are the most easily accessible part of that archive compared to status updates or messages. Erlich described the web being used as an external memory for us all, from photos to phone numbers; this ties in with Clay Shirky's idea of cognitive surplus – if machines can take over the mechanical parts of our brain function, what can we do with the space and energy that frees up?


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December 23 2010

Good as news

We can see design thinking at work in web phenomena such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but the predicament of printed news remains an unsolved problem

In the 1850s, a New York publisher announced that newspapers were dead: he had seen a telegraph in action. In fact, the immediacy of the telegraph made people much hungrier for news from hundreds of miles away, and proved a major catalyst in the growth of newspapers.

The telegraph story is told by Arthur Sulzberger Jr, the publisher of the New York Times, in a new book called Designing Media. His interlocutor is Bill Moggridge, the man who designed the first laptop in 1980, went on to found IDEO, the largest design firm in the world, and is currently the director of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. Sulzberger is one of 37 people that Moggridge interviews in the book, from editors and TV producers to the founders of Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. It's a veritable Who's Who of the people who have revolutionised media in the last decade.

Reading the interviews (excerpts of which you can also download and watch on video), I had one question at the front of my mind: what, exactly, is the relationship between design and the media revolution we are experiencing? Or, to put it another way, why is this book – which contains many fascinating insights into the way media work, some of them design-related but most of them not – entitled Designing Media? I didn't find the explanation in the book, so I called up Moggridge to ask him. His answer was simple: because media is a form of design. In fact, he argued, everything is a form of design.

To be honest, I suspected he would say that. Most people may still think that "design" refers to manufactured objects – chairs, telephones and cars – but designers have become far more expansive in their worldview. They now design customer experience and services, from internet banking systems to patient flow in a hospital. Businesses are rapidly latching on to the notion of "design thinking" – the idea that the creative problem-solving used by designers can be applied outside of traditional design – as a means of becoming more effective. Moggridge himself is a paragon of the designer dissolving the boundaries of his discipline. He is the godfather of interaction design, which started out as the design of electronic interfaces but now refers to the design of any form of user experience, from navigating a BlackBerry to paying at a checkout.

From there, it takes no great leap of imagination to understand media as design. After all, many of the new media moguls are software designers. Indeed, Chad Hurley, the founder of YouTube, started out as a graphic designer (probably the only graphic designer in history to become a billionaire). I buy the argument that design thought processes can be applied to almost anything – whether that means we call those things "design" is a semantic discussion we'll save for another time. But I find it easier to understand the argument in relation to new media rather than traditional media. It doesn't seem far fetched at all to describe social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and user-generated content sites such as Wikipedia and YouTube as forms of design.

Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales actually describes what he does as "community design". It sounds like a form of social engineering, but what he means by the phrase is that Wikipedia is not just an anarchic piece of crowd-sourcing: it's a carefully designed eco-system. If people are going to work on an encyclopedia for free, you have to create the conditions in which they're willing to do so, by giving them recognition and not profiting from their labour. It was important to Wales to make Wikipedia an open system, and so it was designed around the principle that most people are honest and well-intentioned, rather than making it a closed shop to exclude the few bad apples who want to write false or slanderous entries – in truth, he tried the closed system first with Nupedia and it failed. Yet, while it's true that anyone can write or edit an entry on Wikipedia, everything there is carefully monitored. It's often described as "democratic", but Wales himself thinks of it more as a monarchy, with the writers overseen by moderators who are in turn overseen by the king – King Jimbo, as he's known. So the design aspect isn't just how the website looks, it's how users create the content.

Immediately you can see how different design rules suggest different ideologies. Like Wales, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg is also fixated on the idea of openness. He fervently believes that designing a platform for people to share personal information helps make the world a more open place. And he found that making things human – "just seeing someone's face" – works best. It could have all looked like email, with its Spartan text-only interface that betrays its origins in the military. But it doesn't. It's designed to make people feel more present, and engaged with a community rather than an individual. Moggridge is right to suggest that the secret to Zuckerberg's success – you may have seen him on the cover of Time this month – lies in having designed a social network where there is no layer of technology getting in people's way.

However, here's the question. We all know that the media are in a turbulent state of flux, but in what way does reading the situation as "design" help? Is it just semantics, down to the fact that the word "design" is just so malleable? Paola Antonelli, senior design curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art, doesn't think so. She recently predicted in the Economist that in the near future designers would be involved in everything from science to politics. She sees design as the uber-profession, with a skill-set that transcends all boundaries. "For a simple reason: one of design's most fundamental tasks is to help people deal with change," she says.

The design world is in confident mood, but for these predictions to come true the rest of the world needs to buy into the argument. If I was Arthur Sulzberger Jr, I'd be thinking about how designers could get me out of a massive dilemma that was costing my company hundreds of millions of dollars a year. There's only one reason why newspapers haven't yet gone the way of the telegraph and that's because they still make about 20 times more advertising revenue than websites. If you were to grant Sulzberger just one wish, I have no doubt that he would reply: I wish someone would design a way for us to make as much advertising revenue from the website as we used to make from the newspaper. Banner ads? Forget it. The fact that you can't give over most of a webpage to an ad the way you could a printed page is simply because we've all been conditioned by the early days of the web when everything was free. There's a design challenge that everyone's trying to crack.


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January 08 2010

Life through a lens

Everywhere you go these days, there are people with camera-phones – many of us record, document, and upload the minutae of our lives. But, ultimately, should we be doing it just because we can?

There are three people standing in front of a glass case in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Each of us is trying to get a good view of the so-called Becket Casket. As you know, it was made in Limoges in the 12th century and depicts one of the most infamous events in English history, the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket. It is is one of the most lovely things you can hope to see on a bleak January morning.

Only one problem. The bloke in the middle is hogging the full-frontal position, clearly the best view to savour Becket's martyrdom. He has been there for five minutes now – not, so far as I can judge, appreciating the boldly engraved figures against a brilliant blue background, but meaninglessly, endlessly, exasperatingly snapping the same view. He has that dead-eyed, mouth-gaping, eminently slappable face we all have when we hold our camera phones a foot in front of our faces and click, click, click.

Unable to see the casket properly, I reflect sourly on what the great German philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote about how instrumental rationality undermines the emancipatory possibilities of technology, reducing it to a tool for our domination. What I think he meant by this was that instead of using technology such as camera phones to make our lives richer, freer and happier, we stand like lumps doing something socially irritating and existentially pointless, thereby ruining the view for everyone else. We have become snappers on autopilot, slaves to our machines, clogging up cyberspace with billions of images that nobody in their right minds – not even the person who sent them – thinks are worthwhile. Or maybe I'm wrong.

Seven years ago, the camera-phone hardly registered. Indeed, on 17 June 2003, some idiot wrote in the Guardian that the low take-up of those newfangled 3G phones with their built-in cameras, launched two months previously, could be ascribed to the fact that "it's not immediately clear what they're for, and that mystery is not sufficiently seductive to make many of us shell out". The writer all but argued that camera-phones were destined for the technological knacker's yard, like Sinclair C5s, the Securi-Gnome and NiteMates slippers with their built-in headlights (all real products). With the benefit of hindsight, let me admit what a bonehead I was to write that.

These days, the very idea of a mobile without camera or video facility seems absurd. They're more portable than most digital cameras and, more importantly, offer faster connection with the internet, which is a key consideration in this age of virtual presenteeism. So if you're Jonathan Ross and think your Twitter followers would like to see your photos of you playing in the snow with the kids, you can post them online before you've even cleared your desk at the BBC. The seemingly expendable has become the utterly essential. Such, quite often, is the appliance of science.

The latest figures from the Mobile Data Association show that the number of MMS (or video and picture messages) is rising fast: 336m were sent in the UK in 2006, 553m in 2008, and, when the MDA publishes its UK Mobile Trends report next month, another large rise is expected for 2009. True, the number of video and picture messages hardly compares with the number of texts sent (78.9bn text messages were sent in the UK in 2008), but the MDA argues that, "while SMS [texting] is used or conversational activity, MMS is much more 'event' driven." Hence the yuletide and New Year's Eve spikes in picture messaging: on Christmas Day 2008, 4.4m picture messages were sent – 3,000 every minute. The safe money says many more were sent over Christmas 2009, and that there will have been another huge surge in UK picture messaging thanks to all the snow.

So what are all these images we are sending? The majority are, frankly, worthless, and often taken in socially unacceptable circumstances. During Peter and the Wolf at London's Royal Festival Hall last week, I watched parents (who had been instructed to turn off their phones before the show began) photograph their kids against a backdrop of the Philharmonia Orchestra and a big screen of the animated film. Why? "Just to prove we're here, to record it for our son when he grows up," said the woman next to me and my daughter on row NN, who was one of the parents taking the pictures.

At a Lily Allen gig, a colleague found she was one of the few in the audience not holding her camera-phone above her head to shoot pictures or make films that could be illicitly uploaded online. Meanwhile, at the London Aquarium, a friend's family excursion was all-but ruined by guppy-like adult snappers blocking the view of slightly less gormless, gaping fish. How many pictures of fish in tanks do we, as a society, really need?

When another friend visited the Taj Mahal recently, he noticed how few people, on arriving, actually looked at the building with their naked eyes. Instead, they would lift their phones immediately to capture an image that everybody in the world has already seen a million times. And a recent letter to the Telegraph complained about how the solemnity of a christening was destroyed by a godmother elbowing the vicar aside to get shots of the baby at the font.

Back in Room 8 of the V&A, one of us cracks. "Will you bloody stop taking pictures!" shouts the woman to the man's right. "You're ruining it for everyone. Let someone else have a look for five seconds, please!" She's wearing a tweed cape, a solidly set hairdo and a forbidding expression that seems to say 'I'm on a day trip from the home counties and I'm not having this'. The man, who may have too little English to reply, skulks off towards Room 9.

Minutes later, I find him in front of the Soissons Diptych, snapping away again, oblivious to the hard stares and tutting from those in less favoured positions. I wander up and say: "That's going to be a rubbish picture, mate." He barely stops photographing to offer me this reply: "Yeah? This is a 10-megapixel Samsung SCH-B600, actually, so the photos are going to be pretty excellent. Thanks very much."

It turns out the man does have good English (he's from Manchester). And lines in sarcasm. He's a fan of gothic art and architecture, and plans to set up a Flickr photo stream as well as beautifying his Facebook page with some of the best shots from his trip. He has already emailed a picture of the Limoges Casket to prove that he was, on 10 January 2010 at 11.15am, standing in front of it. He plans to tweet some shots later, too.

Another great thinker, the Leeds-based sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, wrote in his book Liquid Love that, in a modern world in which those purportedly fixed and durable ties of family, class, religion, marriage have melted away, we look for something else to hold us together. Hence, no doubt, the rise of social networking sites – and hence, too, the feverish snapping with camera-phones to take images that can validate our existence to our Twitter followers, our speed-dial intimates, our online "friends". It's a new Cartesian cogito: I photograph, therefore I am (and don't my uploaded images glam up my Facebook profile a treat?). Maybe Marcuse was wrong: we're not so much in thrall to technology, as using it for an unanticipated emancipatory project.

In that context it's not enough to moan, as Telegraph columnist Nigel Farndale did recently, that "photography, once a noble art, has become, thanks to the move to digital, a mental illness" Riffing on the verse of Welsh poet WH Davies, Farndale wrote: "What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare. Click. No time to stand beneath the boughs – click, click – and stare as long as sheep or cows. Click, click, bloody click."

But moaning isn't enough. We also have to wonder what happens to us when technology increasingly gives us our windows on the world. One thought is that the camera-phone changes our experience of the world for good rather than evil. It can even be a tool against capitalism. Billy Bragg, the politically engaged musician, has been on the receiving ends of the click, click, bloody click of the camera-phone a great deal when playing gigs recently. And, counterintuitively, he loves it.

"I've had to tell bouncers not to stop people taking pictures of me when I'm playing," Bragg tells me. "You have to like it because people who take the photos or make the films with their camera-phones are not thinking you're a pranny. They're doing it because they like you, so there's no point getting upset." It's an interesting corrective to those musicians, such as Boy George, who have tweeted their pleas to audiences to leave their camera-phones at home and watch the show. At last November's 250-gig London jazz festival ushers tried to curb the increasing number of fans using camera-phones to record performances. But, as our jazz critic John Fordham noted at the time, this clampdown stopped his favourite music reaching a wider online audience.

One reason the rise of the camera-phone appeals to Bragg is that it gives him free publicity. It's transgressive technology that helps Bragg and his fans stick it to the Man. "In the past, I've spent thousands of pounds making videos that MTV wouldn't show. Now what happens is that some kid will put a film they've made of me playing live on YouTube and it can have 20,000 or so hits. What is happening is that you're being promoted."

Recently, Bragg was doing a soundcheck in Toronto and decided to have a go at fitting the words of John Cooper Clarke's Evidently Chickentown to the tune of Dylan's Desolation Row. It worked so well he played it at a late-night gig. "Somebody filmed it and now it's on YouTube. I thought that was brilliant."

But clearly there are downsides to camera-phones, too – the plague of "upskirting" photos being posted on the web, for example, or Heat magazine encouraging its readers to pap stars in the street and send the photos to the magazine. Aren't these terrible things facilitated by camera-phone technology?

"I'm not sure privacy is all that important an issue when it comes to people who are famous and are seeking attention," says Bragg. Anyway, he argues, camera-phones have more serious uses.

"Thanks in part to camera-phones, we're all reporters now. And that idea is going to have some pretty radical consequences, especially for police officers. Think about it: only an idiot goes to a demonstration without a camera or a camera-phone nowadays." He cites the Guardian investigation into the death of Ian Tomlinson, a demonstrator at the G20 protests in London last year, who was shown to have been beaten to the ground by police by means of films made by other demonstrators' mobile phones.

Today, grainy camera-phone images or films demonstrate the virile realness of a news event. We expect them to show that a story was so hot it took place before TV crews and the rest of the old media got there. Hence the wannabe Christmas Day pants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutalib was immortalised in blurry phone images taken as the plane descended into Detroit.

Media commentator and professor of interactive journalism Jeff Jarvis writes: "We are in the era of news served raw. Witnesses to any event can now capture and share what they see not just with acquaintances but with the world, and without the filter and delay of news media. And that doesn't mean just cell-phone snapshots of bombings or surreptitious footage of closed events. We also have access to the guts of news – original documents, full transcripts, unedited video. Life is on the record."

The truth of this analysis was dramatised by the unauthorised images of Saddam Hussein's execution on 30 December 2006, taken by a security guard on his mobile. His grisly footage of the event spread through the internet, subverting the official version. In her paper, The Global and the Mobile: Camera Phone Witnessing in a Age of Terror, social media expert Dr Anna Reading of London's South Bank University argues that the footage "took away the pretence of civility that some tried to place around the act". Instead, it revealed that he was put to death during an unruly spectacle in which onlookers taunted Hussein by yelling, "Go to hell" and chanting "Muqtada, Muqtadaa, Muqtada" (a reference to Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite Muslim cleric).

Reading also argues that camera phones lets the world into places from which we would hitherto have been excluded. When the white comedian and former Seinfeld star Michael Richards rounded on two black hecklers at a 2006 comedy gig in Los Angeles with racist abuse, his rant was captured by a member of the audience on their camera phone and broadcast on the internet, arguably ruining Richards' career.

Consider one significant contrast between the 9/11 bombings in the US (2001) and the 7/7 bombings in London (2005). Arguably, what connected us most poignantly with the former were the phone calls from the doomed passengers aboard Flight 93 to their loved ones, while four years later, what made us empathise most with the ordinary victims was the self-portrait of Adam Stacey escaping from a bombed tube train on the Piccadilly Line that the civil servant took with his phone. Imagine how different our perception of 9/11 would have been if the soon-to-die had emailed their last camera-phone images from the twin towers.

What interests Reading is how camera-phone technology can link people across borders. "It is not so much what the images capture indexically, but their iconic status in reminding us of our complicity in a war declared against global 'terror', rather than a nation state. Stacey's camera-phone image escaping from the London bombings was everyman with a mobile phone."

Arguably, the camera-phone first took on this raw witnessing role on Boxing Day 2004, when the tsunami struck in the Indian Ocean, killing nearly 230,000 people in 14 countries. Media outlets relied on footage from people on the spot, many of whom were using camera-phones. And last year, they were used to bear witness to government crackdowns in Teheran against those protesting against alleged fraud in June's presidential election.

In itself, the camera-phone changes nothing. The Standard 8mm colour home movie that Abraham Zapruder took in Dallas on 22 November 1963, which represents the most complete film of the murder of President John F Kennedy, is akin to the footage the unnamed security guard took of Saddam's execution. Both are short, grisly films showing the killing of an important public figure that have gone on to have immense political significance. But there are two big differences.

First, the camera phone is tiny, and thus relatively easy to slip into situations where authorities want to stop unofficial images or films of an event being taken. Second, and much more importantly, the images and films we take with them can be spread around the world in seconds. Our experiences can now travel freely across borders. Admittedly, most of them won't be worth sending in the first place, but that doesn't mean they won't get sent.

"It's absurd to argue that technology always changes things for the better," says Billy Bragg. "Clearly it doesn't. But at best the camera-phone is subversive in the way it's being used. We shouldn't be frightened of it. We should welcome it."


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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