The All-Seeing I(phone)

In the aftermath of their team's loss of the Stanley Cup, the good citizens of Vancouver, British Columbia proved themselves to be not such good citizens after all.  The post-game riot gave the city a serious black eye in the Canadian press, with images of average Vancouverites smashing storefronts and even setting police cars on fire spreading far and fast.  The media was quick to mention that there were 8 stabbings that night, and the Toronto Star was largely alone in its attempt to pick 'heroes' from the fracas, with even their front-page story of an unidentified man who attempted to stop the destruction of a store, and was badly beaten as a result, penned with an undeniably tragic undertone.

But the end of the riot on Wednesday night was not the end of the story.  For the past several days reports have trickled in of rioters' identities being brought to the attention of the authorities.  It seems there is no longer the safety of anonymity in a crowd; cell phone videos and digital snapshots, business security camera and news broadcast footage, YouTube videos and Facebook status updates and self-incriminating tweets have made it easier than ever for society to hold people to account for those things they've done when they think they're safely unobserved.

And that's a good thing.

Big Brother is Watching; that was the message of George Orwell's famous 1984, a warning against the danger of state surveillance.  But for there to be a big brother there must be a little brother (or sister), and it turns out there are, in fact, a great many of them.  Big Brother may be watching, but all the Little Brothers and Sisters are watching right back, with an ever-increasing ability to surveil the very forces so interested in watching them.  And this may be the most transformative thing to happen to the state since the introduction of responsible government and democracy.  In a study conducted by Pierrick Bourrat from the University of Sydney, Nicolas Baumard from the University of Pennsylvania and Ryan McKay from the University of London, a strong correlation was noted between the effect of observation not just on a person's actions, but on their opinion of other people's actions.  The study found that those who felt they were being observed were far less likely to excuse the transgressions of a third party.  The effect seems analogous to what conservatives have for decades decried as 'political correctness', a sense that some things a person might not otherwise think twice about became suddenly unacceptable when there was an outside party to judge them.

If the results of this study, conducted on the Campus Universitaire de Jussieu in Paris, reflect a larger reality, then the impact could be difficult to overstate.  It's not only each other, after all, that all the Little Brothers and Sisters are watching, but those who hold the levers of power and authority.  Indeed, never before have elites been so closely scrutinized by so many people in such detail.  Even those leaders who attempt to resist the increasingly brazen rallying cry of transparency can only hide so much, lest they lose the trust of the electorate.  And the more the elites are scrutinized and studied and watched, the more difficult it should become for them to get away with the kind of abuses of the past.  Not just because they worry about getting caught out themselves, but because those around them, all too aware of the constant stare of the camera lens in every cell phone and computer and store, may well be moved to speak out against such things.

Because, after all, Little Brother and Sister are Watching, too.

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