The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 45.0°F | Overcast and Breezy

Wearable Web Camera Goes Too Far

Column by Anders Hove
Executive Editor

The first time I ever saw Steve Mann G was during a fire alarm at East Campus a few years ago. The night air was chilly, but nonetheless many students and tutors were standing around in little groups socializing and watching the progress of the fire engines. One hall tutor, a stand-up comedian, was telling some jokes when a man -- Steve Mann, to cut the suspense -- jerkily approached us and pointed his bright light into our faces.

This was clearly a delicate social situation. Though he wasn't saying anything, the Mann with the light had interrupted the tutor's line of jokes. How could we listen when faced with this new curiosity?

Mann's apparatus has advanced considerably since then. At the time he had to wear tens of pounds of cables around his waist, and what looked like a large, black bike helmet on his head. The wires and helmet were connected to each other and to several blinking boxes and a visor that Mann wore over his eyes. In his right hand he held a large area light, and he pointed this at whatever he looked at, just as he was pointing it at us right now.

"Oh, this is great," said the tutor. "Allow me to introduce you to Steve Mann. He wears this thing on his head all the time. He's filming you right now, and the images he gets are put on the World-Wide Web."

The Mann and his light continued to silently stare at us at point blank range.

"Hello," I ventured.

The Mann said nothing.

My friends and I exchanged a nervous glance.

"I don't know if he can talk to us or not," said the tutor, leadingly.

The Mann slowly turned his visored head and began walking toward the firemen. Still he said nothing. The firemen continued to discuss their progress with one another, occasionally glancing at Mann.

I decided then and there never to talk to someone with a camera on their head again. I also decided to look at Mann's Web page to try and understand why he behaved in such fashion.

When I read Mann's home page, I was impressed. It discussed privacy issues and the fact that more and more people are planting television cameras to survey our lives. Cameras watch customers in convenience stores, in the Coop, and in malls. Cameras peer out from behind museum exhibits, from the top of street lights and entrance gates, and even out from some urinals. Many of the cameras are hidden, apparently acknowledging the fact that some people do not want their every urination recorded on video. I'd like to even think there is a norm in our society that sets some limits as to how far our privacy should be compromised on video.

Anyway, Mann's Web page gave me the impression that he wore this camera garb partly in order to raise new and provocative social issues. Issues like: How do you take a shower in that thing? (On second thought, scratch that question.) I think Mann has succeeded in raising those issues. In fact, I think he's succeeded so well that now I'd like him to stop.

Unlike many people, I'm willing to acknowledge that the Media Laboratory does important and interesting work. Sometimes inventors and their toys seem a little esoteric at first, and that's fine.

Mann, however, goes too far. I respect Mann's right to experiment with the Web camera in his office, or at home, or in the rooms of consenting colleagues and friends. But must he continue to subject us to the ongoing culture of seeing him in his ugly apparatus roaming the street freely?

I would place the Web camera phenomenon somewhere in between garish clothing and rollerblades. Garish clothing may be ugly and annoying, but it's not so annoying to warrant collective action. Fashion violations are given out at Charm School, maybe, but otherwise we should be content to let the fashionally-challenged pass among us with minimal social sanction.

Rollerblading, on the other hand, poses a danger to fellow humans. That's why it's not allowed in MIT buildings. In addition, however, the vast majority of people find rollerblading so annoying that it warrants additional social sanction. It would be impolite, for example, for someone to rollerblade in my room.

The Web camera, then, falls between the two. It poses no danger to us, but it is so extraordinarily annoying and disconcerting to look at that every social pressure ought to be applied to get its (currently only one) wearer to come to his senses.

The Web camera annoys me for a number of reasons, only a few of which I will list here. First, it is the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen someone wear on a regular basis. This thing is worse than Spandex, tweed, and bell-bottoms combined. It draws attention to itself -- so much so that I consider it immodest to wear regularly. It's so bizarre that the Boston Globe Magazine put a picture of Mann and his garb on the cover of a recent issue. Thanks to Mann's exhibitionism, the entire Boston metropolitan area probably thinks he represents MIT's contribution to the fashion world. Disgusting.

Second, Mann's device is an actual camera. I know people can currently take pictures of public things and public people and use them as they please. But usually there is some courtesy attached to photography. I don't stick cameras in front of Mann's face, and if someone asks me to leave them out of a picture, I oblige. Also, when someone else is using a camera, you can gingerly avoid the field of view.

Mann's camera, however, is everywhere he is, always. Anything he sees he can save. There is a picture on Mann's Web page taken from slightly above a woman seated at a desk. The woman is wearing a rather loose shirt, and she doesn't look very happy about being captured for Mann's later voyeurism. With normal cameras, such incidents are avoidable. Not so with the Web camera. Get it out of my face.

Finally, the camera represents a rather brutal form of escapism. I know I'm an exception, but I've always found walkmans a little insulting -- their wearers seem to be saying that the normal sounds of this world are not good enough for them. The Web camera is worse. Can't Steve Mann just rest content with normal life and the sights and sounds it deals him?

Eventually I'm sure television signals will be relayed to visors such as Mann's (if they haven't already). That will bring forward a host of other issues. Even now, though, Mann is essentially a walking boob tube. He's got one of those black boxes strapped to his face nearly around the clock. Why some people have to have the television on all day I've never understood, but at least these people don't have to watch it all the time, using it as a complete substitute for existence. Mann's is a further step in that direction.

I'm not suggesting Web cameras should be banned from public places. Not yet. I do think we should establish a norm of courtesy whereby people would, out of deference to others, keep these cameras to themselves. For now, and for this community, I hope Mann will bear the burden of such a norm.