A Modest Proposal: Maybe the Matrix Isn’t So Bad if We Can Watch the Watchmen

Part 1 The Accountability Matrix

(This is a follow-up piece to one we published recently on the Huff Post here)

Let us begin with a modest proposal: Maybe the matrix isn’t so bad. Not long ago on Culture Digitally one of us wrote that we were immersed in a capture and conversion matrix. That series of posts proposed that we are recruited into big data through 1) inviting interfaces (like a nifty touch screen), 2) coerced into it through the momentum around a particular growing techno-practice (everyone liking “liking”) and 3) engaging in it reflexively, like Pavlov’s dog, as a consequence of a conditioned response to reified social dynamics like social proof, reciprocity or consistency.   Of course our inputs, no matter how they got there, are all collected into a data infrastructure designed to collate and sell us as an almost perfectly known audience or consumer segment. That fact has been established beyond doubt by research and public relations disasters.[1] The initial take on the capture matrix was a generally pessimistic read on human agency as we move through capture and conversion networks that we can neither escape from nor opt-out of. (We’ve added a discussion note for those among you who thought “sousveillance” was the notion we were advancing. Not quite.   After reading our post, please read our end-note discussion on that matter. )

Recently, citizen-generated documentation[2] of excessive use of force by police officers in the US may illustrate another under-explored element of the capture matrix. Yes, the networked communication infrastructure still is a mostly corporate-owned constellation of communication services and devices aggregating our incidental and purposeful shopping habits and political interests, but it’s also a tool that we can appropriate and convert into an accountability matrix. That appropriation may be a variant of what others have called “lateral surveillance”(Andrejevic, 2006), but for the purposes of this essay we highlight its use on State actors by the citizenry in a manner illustrating empowerment heretofore only witnessed in moments where fortuitous hand-held cameras or CCTV video were on hand to provide visual documentation of contentious moments in civil society.[3]

To reiterate, we offer our thinking on the accountability matrix in light of 1) recent events in the US and 2) existing legal structures governing civic engagement with capture technologies and responses by civil and State actors to their increased use. Our readers ought not to infer that we seek to generalize all State actors (police, State functionaries, etc.) as agents in an oppression apparatus that has been transgressing civil rights unchecked for decades because no one was looking. In the U.S. we like to think we are an open democratic society where power lies in the hands of “the people.”   State actors are our neighbors, mothers, fathers, and other family members and friends given authority to exercise State power only because it serves the “General Will.” (Rousseau, 1762) It would be incommensurate with a grounded approach to how we understand society, culture, and technology if we chose to say that the behavior of those who’ve been captured by by-stander video and audio or recent federal policing audits are a monolithic representation of professionals in society that have a great deal of responsibility and a very hard job. No, that’s not our intent. Our purpose is to question whether a shift in accountability structures impacting State actors and citizens can shift professional cultures and civil society that have traded on “the benefit of the doubt” or “a blue wall of silence.” (Chin & Wells, 1998) Such mores can put pressure on otherwise good people to look the other way and become complicit in the “eclipse of reason” through their silence or inaction. (Horkheimer, 2013) Maybe that’s changing if something as unexpected as a cell phone video can plug a State actor, who is isolated in their professional community and norms, into the broader community and constitutional democracy they are serving. Things have gotten out of hand or maybe they always have been, we just didn’t know it.

imagesThe accountability matrix constitutes artifacts such as body-cameras to document and check police action but most importantly it also involves cell phones, commercial CCTV, etc. and the associated data networks that transmit their content. Recently researchers from the Data and Society Institute posted their thinking on police-worn body cams. Their work is a well thought-out consideration and we agree on some points but demure from others. For our readers and contributors who straddle our venues, we put a pointer to their work here so you can advise us on how we may think together to make the accountability matrix something we can embrace as part of a wider citizen-operated accountability matrix, even if it includes police-worn body cams whose footage is in State hands. In the sections that follow we delineate our take on this particular phenomenon in our polity.

Social Mass Media Redux and Social Movements

We recognize that social media have for a while now been used to frame transformative events in contentious struggle between activists and State actors. Research on social movements has shown that the media have the power to frame issues events in a contentious struggle. Doing so constitutes a key element in expanding the publics that come to see how a movement’s understanding of issues goes beyond its immediate adherents. (Gitlin, 2003) As a mobilization strategy, social movement organizations seek to “capture” mass media. They scramble for news coverage and are motivated by the desire to have a voice in narratives about their struggles and goals. Looking back at the history of social movements, we can agree that mass media have been particularly important but they are centralized in for-profit institutions and sometimes willfully avert their cameras and reporting from important moments in struggle. A central problem for any social movement is access to mass media and garnering a sympathetic read on their cause, which is often difficult and bounded by elements of “agenda setting” dynamics in the news media business.

Today news and other traditional media outlets while still powerful are not the only means available for framing a movement’s aspirations.   User generated content (UGC) and immediately available content streaming and distribution data networks make just about any participant or by-stander to contentious action a mass media broadcast enterprise. To the chagrin of some State actors, content of that sort has not only helped frame a struggle for mass audiences but has also served as evidence against State actors. We posit that as a means of dictating the tone and urgency of a movement’s narrative, user generated documentation and its attendant distribution platforms are framing apparatuses; as a means of providing evidential support for claims against or for State actors, they are an instrument in the accountability matrix.

The difference between the two is subtle but important. As a framing apparatus the accountability matrix affords a means of deploying alternative narratives and accounts of a social movement’s issues or “transformative” events.[4] The narratives are deeply embedded in the subject position and are rhetorically persuasive. As instruments of accountability they are unedited, just-in-time raw footage of events. Consistent with what Yochia Benkler and Jack Balkin would label “see for yourself” culture, (Balkin, 2003; Benkler, 2006), it’s entirely reasonable that unedited and immediately available primary, evidentiary data would trump attempts by opposing parties in contentious struggle to frame an issue beyond what the documenting footage in the immediate context makes clear. It’s the force of primary footage that legitimates quickly mobilizing 3rd party instruments of justice (i.e. agencies in the federal government with oversight responsibilities ensuring civil rights) against State authorities and other offenders.

How did it come to this? How did we enter a moment in our polity’s history where the metrics for accountability have so rapidly changed? One could say we have been at this moment for quite some time beginning with the widespread adoption of the smartphones equipped with a video camera, a broadband data connection and our collective penchant for fixing in media important events in our personal histories.

A cell phone by any other name would be the Panopticon and smell as sweet : The limits of the utility of the de minimis infraction

320px-Presidio-modelo2Wearable technologies are “in.” Whether for fitness monitoring, health care, extreme sports or augmented reality, technology companies are rushing to get an increasingly connected suite of wearable technologies to quantify, record or inform our daily routines. Whether as an unintended consequence or as a logical extension of its design, users have for some time been appropriating cell phones to do more than just take a “selfie” or capture a moment during a family vacation. One could argue that the cell phone was a wearable technology long before we had the term. One could also say those cell phones have been holding us accountable in ways we were not prepared to accommodate in our daily routines. So while we might be just now coming to turns with the possibility of ubiquitous capture, it’s been a long time coming in our opinion. The growing pains of our current struggle to accommodate it are an outcome of clashes between different spheres of public/private and personal/professional lives. Notions of accountability across and within the varied life-worlds we inhabit is changing fast.

When we think about the changing levels of accountability in an average person’s everyday routines, we think of the de minimis infraction in social norms. A de minimis infraction is a minor transgression of trust or decorum not reaching beyond the few, having little to no social cost and arguably an inevitable externality stemming from social relations between self-aware and self-interested members of society. No one is perfect and to hold any person to an absolute normative standard is only absolutely reasonable in cases where extreme threats to life, liberty and property are concerned. Otherwise we tend deploy sanctions that reasonably fit the social transgression. They take the form of ridicule, condemnation, or ostricision or just shrugging and saying, “so it goes.” In those instances, participants in social relations afford forgiveness and forbearance. In other words, sometimes the acceptable white lie is preferable to the inconvenient truth because it preserves a social relation that is beneficial to all parties in the long term.

Such is our burden as imperfect actors in an imperfect world.   The infractions that are worthy of a forgiving shrug are de minimis in that the outcomes are not catastrophic and it’s possible to argue that if it had been otherwise, the social relations that they strained would have crumbled under a the greater pressure of absolute infallibility and the greater good would not have been served. In some ways, then, the de minimis social infraction is a form of release valve, where every once in a while a forgivable transgression isn’t a terrible thing.   That being said, we have to recognize that wherever the accountability infrastructure for de minimis infractions was prior to social media, cell phones, geo-location services and ICT ubiquity, it wasn’t embedded in portable technologies that track our location, record our texts and emails, are susceptible accidental dialing, take pictures and video and put all that data on some “cloud”, YouTube or NSA storage facility. Not to mention we do love to post pictures of ourselves sometimes realizing only after the fact that the image or tweet was not particularly flattering.

Unfortunately some infractions are not even remotely de minimis and those may have been getting by too prior to the growing accountability matrix.   While this essay might be read as modest proposal for ubiquitous surveillance, it’s not. It’s an analysis meant to propose that we are at a crossroads. Our societies are at a moment that would make social constructivists cringe. We are in the midst of reverse adaption, recalling all the things that “got by” but now are documented because our imperfect way of documenting the “butt-ends of our days and ways”[5] just got a little more “perfect.” Some wayward spouses, we’re sure, wish they could go back to the good old days of rotary phones, cash only motels and telephone booths.   Similarly some people holding the public trust and the power and authority of the State also wish for the good old days. If we had to choose only one group that gets the time machine, we’d go with the wayward spouses because while it’s objectionable, it’s not a disruption of trust so far reaching in society that it can throw the legitimacy of State power into question. Certainly, the former is not de minimis to the jilted spouse’s or immediate community or friends and family, but transgressions where State power is concerned have far reaching impacts on public trust and can undermine the whole of our social structure.

Should We the People be Complicit in the Wearable Panopticon?

Recently President Obama visited Newark New Jersey in an attempt to frame the administration’s acknowledgment that law enforcement in the US had lost some of the public trust given recent abuses and the resulting outpourings of outrage in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, etc. Newark’s community policing was heralded as exemplary by the a administration as it set out a series of recommendations for improving law enforcement community engagement, limiting “militarized technologies” and investing nearly $263 million to increase among other things the use of “body-cams” for police. The recommendations were met with some resistance from police unions and skepticism by activists and its efficacy will only be substantively proven if and when all municipalities adopt it.

To their credit, law enforcement in some communities in the US have been using wearable cameras for some time and the number is rapidly growing. But widespread adoption has not until recently been acceptable due to budgetary constraints and a general aversion by State actors to affix on their bodies a device documenting every enforcement interaction they have with the general public. Whether that aversion is an attempt to hold the “blue wall of silence” or whether there are empirically proven privacy and safety concerns is still open to debate but in instances where confrontations between armed State actors and unarmed citizens are taking place, logic would dictate we err on the side of caution and record the event.

Lost_in_Space_Jonathan_Harris_&_Robot_1967While we agree with others that it would be a terrible idea to adopt State surveillance through body-cams as an absolute solution, few have looked closely at State laws and court room precedent in the US governing citizen generated footage and the ways in which citizen go about documenting State actors at work.  Few have proposed workable solutions to include it into the accountability matrix. In our opinion we cannot frame the body-cam question as being solely about the dangers of State surveillance.  Obviously, it wouldn’t make much sense to hand over the accountability matrix’s capture power to body-cams whose footage only leaves State hands when authorities are ready to give it up.  However, we don’t feel it’s entirely prudent to deny the body-cam option if we are going to get a workable techno-legal structure in place for increased State accountability and return public trust.

We opine that the debate has to include a discussion about 1) letting State footage serve accountability purposes alongside citizen-generated footage and 2) how to educate the public and State actors about their legal rights and responsibilities when citizen’s want their own capture footage to be part of the accountability apparatus. Therefore, instead of dismissing body-cams as “danger danger Will Robison!” for our liberty, we imagine a number of complimentary but independent mechanisms for capturing and distributing evidential and social movement-framing footage: one in State hands, the other distributed across civil society agencies and citizen by-standers with every right to point their cell phones at anyone exercising State power. Citizen-generated content would remain in the hands of the citizenry with immediate distribution options, not limited only to traditional mass media or State actors. Together  they would triangulate citizen participation and activism with State willingness to be held accountable from all camera angles.

If we don’t bring these elements together we risk anus vs. them” mentality between a body-cam only world and proponents of citizen participation.   We all know that a great many police officers are not exemplified by those that have gotten themselves captured on cellphone footage destroying the public trust along with lives.  The theoretical blue wall of silence is a bad thing when it creates a “cone of silence” around otherwise good people, because there wasn’t 3rd party documentation of an event that made it foolish to not cross that blue line. A “body-cam only world” would certainly not make us less skeptical and replenish our rapidly waning trust in State actors. Citizen-generated footage alongside body-cam footage would conflate what sociologists would say are otherwise insulated “life worlds” and position say, police officers (who genuinely live to serve and protect) to see themselves not as solely part of a “fraternal order” of professionals but part of a community of “fellow travelers,” depending on each other for upholding their equal human rights. Those life worlds that may have been like ships in the night prior to the accountability matrix, would become irrevocably intertwined and law and social practice would have to reverse adapt.

Our conclusions here in Part 1 suggests we don’t think body-cams can be dismissed outright nor accepted whole sale, because a better solution would be to triangulate their data with citizen-captured footage creating more data points. The irony doesn’t escape us.  Yes, we’re arguing for bigger data in a world where we are growing increasingly wary of it, but we’re also arguing for different zones of control over the data ecology.  We’re not arguing for and remain wary of Assange’s specter, the “god of mass-surveillance

Stay tuned for part 2 of this essay.


End Note Discussion: Is it sousveillance by another name?

We thank Nicolas John from Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a contributor here on Culture Digitally for recently pointing out that our notion of the accountability matrix could be read as a formulation of Mann’s, Nolan’s and Wellman’s concept in “Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environment” in Surveillance & Society 1(3): 331-355.  We summarize that article here with our thoughts on how our concept differs:

In the first two cases presented by Mann et al sousveillance was meant to bring some form of attention to the general public and illustrate general compliance by people in public spaces to being surveilled. In the US passive compliance to public surveillance is part of the legal structure affording little or no privacy protections when there is no “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Therefore if the cases took place in the US, it would not surprise us that citizens of legal adult-age were only mildly curious or off-put when someone took their picture but had no recourse if they objected. Minors may have had legal recourse but that was not discussed.

In their third case, souveillance was carried out as a performance to decenter the power of the observer by observing him or her [person or organization] in return.   Where contention over the privilege to surveil versus being surveilled emerged, it was defined by policies governing private spaces defined by property owners who reserved the rights to surveil and to deny patrons of a shopping mall, for example, the right to sousveill. Because property and privacy law in the US deem the property owner the ultimate authority in their premises (barring any threat to life, liberty or public safety) sousveillance in private property would not have legal grounds in the US, in our opinion.

In their fourth case, sousveillance again took place in a privately owned spaces and it was allowed when those sousveilling benefitted from common, privately structured policies or “external” policies that allowed mutual surveillance between business proprietors and visitors. Again, unless these policies were defined by the property owner, in the US, a law that gave a member of the public the right to sousveille while on private property where a reasonable expectation of privacy exist would require overturning nearly a century of legal precedent privileging property owners over visitors.   Unless those visitors are State actors with subpoena or warrant, in which case a reasonable expectation of privacy does not protect the citizen. We should note here that this particular Constitutional protection has been violated by the US government during its massive data collection program since the Patriot Act was enacted. Recently those powers were significantly curtailed as revelations by Edward Snowden and others made lawmakers and the US citizenry acutely aware of that practice, positioning elements of the Patriot Act for a Constitutional challenge. Lastly, we found little connection to our concept Mann’s et al fifth case which was playful and disruptive.

We differ on a number points from Mann’s et al concept. First, the accountability matrix is a legally bounded infrastructure in our imagining of it, which in the US is premised on a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Constitutional case law in the US has established no expectation of privacy in public spaces but a protected expectation of privacy in the home or in privately owned locations. Mann et al rightly point out that individuals can exert their own observational power through “reflectionism” which “holds a mirror” to the observer but that itself would constitution a case of resistance and is not what we are outlining as accountability matrix. The cases presented by Mann et al are generally peformative and pivot on the reflective power of the performance. It wasn’t clear to us that they sought to counter evidentiary or social movement narratives/frames deployed by State actors.

Secondly because the cases in the US where citizen footage has focused accountability on State actors and those events took place in public spaces we opine State actors had no expectation of privacy and thus sousveillance as a performtive or disruptive strategy for the sociology of actor interaction is not the framework at play. An accountability matrix is not a world of wearable technologies in opposition to each other but a synthesis and implementation of what is already legally and sociologically tenable. If souveillance is reflectionism that constitutes an extra institutional tactic , the accountability matrix is data triangulation. And that data is already present and part of the social practice of a networked populace capable of mobile communication and capture. We are not out to reinvent the wheel on this one. We are simply suggesting a way in which all the wheels at play can be equitably and effectively pieced together for the greater good.


[1] Here we’re thinking of Facebook’s admission last year that it was selectively curating timelines and notifications based on what it projected would be a positive outcome for usage.

[2] Here we mean “citizen” as in a member of the “polis” and wider community of person’s deserving of human rights.

[3] Most notably in recent US history the video tape of Rodney King being mercilessly beaten by LA police.

[4] For more on transformative events see David Hess’ & Brian Martin’s “Backfire, Repression, and the Theory of Transformative Events” in Mobilization, Brian Martin’s Justice ignited : the Dynamics of Backfire and Hector Postigo’s “Information Communication Technologies and Framing for Backfire in the Digital Rights Movement.” Social Science Computer Review.

[5] A riff on a favorite line from T.S Elliott’s “The Love Song of Alfred Prufrock.”


Andrejevic, M. (2006). The Discipline of Watching: Detection, Risk, and Lateral Surveillance. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 23(5), 391–407.

Balkin, J. M. (2003). Digital Speech and Democratic Culture: a Theory of Freedom of Expression for the Information Society (SSRN Scholarly Paper No. ID 470842). Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network.

Benkler, Y. (2006). The wealth of networks : how social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press.

Chin, G. J., & Wells, S. (1998). The “Blue Wall of Silence” as Evidence of Bias and Motive to Lie: A New Approach to Police Perjury Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network.

Gitlin, T. (2003). The whole world is watching : mass media in the making & unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Horkheimer, M. (2013). Eclipse of Reason. Martino Fine Books.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1762). On the Social Contract. Courier Corporation.