Michael Agger summarizes the value of the camera phone in Slate. Its the "gadget", he tells us, "that perverts, vigilantes, and celebrity stalkers can all agree on":
The ubiquity of the cell phone camera means that every moment in ourlives is photographable. One consequence of this is an altered perception of the gravity of our day-to-day routines. We are now more aware of ourselves as observers of "history." When a van catches fire in front of our house, we and our neighbors are now out on the lawn recording. We e-mail this to our friends, who testify to the enormity of the event, and then we all await the next sensation. This impulse can be positive, but it also fuels the increasingly destructive American habit of oversharing. The snapshot speaks with a small voice: I'm alive and I saw this. The cell phone camera picture or video is a shout from the rooftop: Check out this crazy thing that happened to me.
Agger's critique of "oversharing" is correct. With YouTube, of course, as well as gotcha, Big Brother sites like HollaBackNYC, Litterbutt & RudePeople, we are victims of an oversharing culture in which everyone treats private information about others as if its public. Open source utopians would, no doubt, argue that sharing is the foundations of a healthy community. But I would argue the reverse. Healthy communities are rooted in both the theory and practice of individual privacy -- privacy from the overzealous gaze of the state, from neighbors, from priests, from friends and family. These rights of individual privacy are what distinguishes modern cities from medieval villages. Its what enables us to be anonymous and lose ourselves on the streets of New York City or London. One great book on this is Jonathan Raban's classic Soft City -- a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the exhilarating freedom which a large city like London provides us as modern individuals with complex and ever shifting identities.
When I'm walking the streets, I don't want anyone (friends or enemies) knowing where I am. Not on GPS or cell phone or the web. That's what is so seductive about modern city life. The health, the very viability of the community is predicated on our anonymity in the urban crowd (the best soundtrack to accompany this freedom is Steve Reich's City Life).
The fetish of digital sharing is leading us back to a medieval village culture in which we all know everybody else's business. We know where everybody has been, where they are, and where they will be. The originality of the modern condition lies in our ability to be lost in the crowd -- to disappear and then reappear at will.
All this is now threatened by the digital revolution. Welcome to a remash of the Middle Ages, Nineteen Eighty Four version 2.0 -- where all you need is a cell phone camera to become the Snoop Next Door.