Camera phones, perpetual surveillance and the ‘event’

My colleague at Swinburne Lisa Gye gave a presentation recently on citizen journalism and mobile camera phones. She pointed out that mobile photos have an aura of authenticity about them because they are taken on the run, a ‘moment captured’. In Australia as in many other parts of the world, most of the population carry mobile phones – so we have a situation where lots of people have cameras in their pocket now, ready to capture a news event. This makes me think about perpetual surveillance: does the fact that we have millions of citizens armed with cameras change the way we behave? Foucalt claimed that people change their behaviour when they know they are being observed. How does mobile photography change the event it captures? I have been wondering for a while how mobile phones might shape or change our behaviour.

There have been many stories in the press about events which were actually staged for a phone (I can only think of the recent dreadful example of the rape of a teenager). But I think that even ‘everyday’ events are quite often staged for a mobile phone: when you take a short video of a friend for example, it must be a short, simple grab; the actor must turn and address the lens, the message must be simplified for its recipient. This means the life events we record are (at least in part) produced by the mobile device.

Mobile devices also have material limits that influence the events they capture: for example, a mobile screen is necessarily small (between 1 and 3″ for phones, up to 4″ for PDAs and Pocket PC), and video is comparatively hard to compress and expensive to receive, even on high-end 3G devices. So the material limits of the phone impact the recording. Mnemotechnics are never innocent; they shape the event they capture.