Busting racism with mobile phones

I’ve written before about how cameraphones are turning us into a nation of “citizen reporters.” And a couple of weeks ago, I wrote an essay for the New York Times Magazine where I compared the growth of cameraphones to the “Rodney King effect.” After all, the Rodney King incident was captured on tape because of a technological shift: For the first time in history, videocameras were cheap enough — and portable enough — that the average American started carrying one around, ready to capture malfeasance on tape. Cameraphones take this trend and amp it up exponentially. Within one or two years, it’s estimated that fully half of all Americans will be carrying around a camerphone — or even a videophone. Hell, within a few months you won’t even be able to buy a phone that doesn’t have a camera on it. And that means that we’ll be living in a world with a million eyes — where it’s harder than ever for creepy behavior to go unrecorded.

In fact, that’s already happening. Last week in Portland, a few cops parked outside of a hip-hop club with a largely black audience. One of the cops mounted a stuffed toy monkey on the patrol-car hood — “the kind of thing you expect to see in the South, like a Confederate flag,” as one observer said. “They might as well paint their faces black with white lips.” One clubgoer whipped out his mobile phone and snapped a picture — and the next day, the picture appeared in the Portland Tribune.

Busted. In a followup story, the Tribune called it the dawn of “the age of technological vigilantism”, and even the police force had to admit the picturephone would probably lead to charges against its officers:

Portland police say they’ve not used cell phone photos as evidence in any cases, but the Independent Police Review Division of the city auditor’s office plans to use the Ringlers pictures to investigate the gorilla incident.

“We still don’t have the photos ourselves, but since it was in the paper, it obviously establishes beyond any doubt that there was a stuffed gorilla on a Portland Police Bureau car,” said Richard Rosenthal, the police review board’s director. “It’s not an issue that’s being disputed by anybody.”

(Thanks to for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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