Pictures: Worth a Thousand Words?
By Wendy M. Grossman, Mon Dec 09 11:30:00 GMT 2002

Peering into the future impact of picture messaging - and see what it might bring.


What will life be like when we've got an army of millions of people all equipped with mobile phones with built-in cameras and the facility to send and forward pictures? This is the prospect we are likely to face once the many barriers to MMS adoption - critical mass, ease of access, cost, interoperability issues - have been knocked down.

Simon Davies, executive director of Privacy International, says, "This is a mutation of the discussion that emerged after Rodney King - there was a call then for armies of volunteers armed with cameras." He notes that as early as the beginning of the 19th century, when the camera was first invented, "There were so many questions raised then about third parties, what happens to the image, the sanctity of the individual, and the power relationships."

Some of these issues arose for four design students sent out around London for a month with picture phones and paid-up SIM cards and instructions to try out the service with a view to putting out a book showing off the results. Most of the experience was positive: "When you're being sent a photo it's so much more being invited in because you're seeing it. It's really interesting to get a split-second shot through a friend's eyes," says Tom Vernon-Kell, one of the four. He says he misses having the technology available; because of cost, none of the students has signed up for the MMS service since the experiment ended.

Most of the discussion of deploying cameras, amateur or professional, throughout public life focuses on the benefits - safety, or better information about crimes. The potential for picture phones to ensure that someone's always on hand to snap a picture of an accident or, as in the Rodney King incident and similar ones since, police brutality is considerable.

Walking home late one night, for example, Vernon-Kell saw someone nearly get run over, and wished he had a camera to take a picture in case it was needed as evidence. Of course, he did have the picture phone - but forgot, even when he took out the phone to dial emergency services. Once the technology becomes widespread, amateur evidence gathering is likely to become common, and it's easy to imagine police MMS hotlines. More systematic surveillance seems unlikely, although Vernon-Kell says it occurred to him to wonder whether the network operator or phone manufacturer could turn on his phone and watch him without his knowledge.

Community Watch

The pictures the students assembled also show the potential for far more intimate invasions of personal privacy than have ever been possible before, especially when you add in the ability to send the pictures instantly to another person or, as Howard Rheingold suggests, directly to a public Web site.

Rheingold, author of the recent book Smart Mobs, which documents the beginnings of the mobile revolution, says, "My opinion is that it needs to be combined with some kind of real-time many-to-many system in order to really take off. I think that community is the story." Rheingold has some evidence: at a recent talk a member of the group Hiptop Nation snapped Rheingold with his picture phone and had the picture blogged in seconds. "If I were an operator, I would set up a Web site service where anybody could post pictures on the Web." Sure, lots of blogs now are read by only a few people - but they're your tribe.

One of the sites Rheingold mentions in Smart Mobs, upoc.com, sends up-to-date celebrity sightings and information to mobile phones and enables users to form groups and exchange messages. A dedicated fan club like the one that for years supported Steffi Graf as she played tennis around the globe can follow any celebrity in full color and real time.

In Japan, however, where 7 million picture phones have sold in the last two years and messaging prices are much cheaper than in Europe at present, blogging seems to be less interesting. Says Neeraj Jhanji, founder of Imahima, a Japanese mobile location-based instant messaging service, "Blogs or mobile blogs are interesting applications too but not needed by the average day-to-day communicator." The picture phones are widely used among 22 to 35-year-olds to snap shots of social events and stay in touch throughout the day.

Similarly, the students' phones went into spaces where the most surveillant society wouldn't dare install cameras - a pub loo, the rooms in private homes. Because the technology is still unfamiliar, the students say that people often didn't realise they were being photographed. The phones they had - the Nokia 7650 - have the lens on the back, so someone not familiar with the design could easily think the phone's user was just holding it unusually close to their face to write an SMS message. Vernon-Kell says the image bank is full of pictures of himself looking bored with someone else looking baffled.

It's odd to think of MMS gaining wide acceptance when videophones never have. Says Vernon-Kell, "I think with videophones people are worried about the lack of control - it's an unforgiving kind of instant thing. But the picture is approved and intended. There's a nice element of control."

Yet from Davies's viewpoint, control is exactly what this technology takes away. "What is different about this," he says, comparing picture messaging to personal video and still cameras, "is that the level of control, restraint, and filtering is massively diminished, so the opportunity between the taking of an image and its transmission used to be days and now it's microseconds. There is absolutely no opportunity for any control to be exercised by taker or subject, and that fundamentally changes everything. In a moment's whim or anger a reputation can be lost or a new reputation can be contrived."

The students' own experience provides an illustration. The book they assembled out of the pictures they sent during that month ends with a sequence of images purporting to show one of them, Rory Brady, asleep in the bed of another, Harriet Banks, with the implication that they had spent the night together. Messages from the day before showed Banks, somewhat drunk after a family wedding, inviting Brady over to her house and him considering the offer. The final sequence is pictures of the two women messaging back and forth about a sleeping body whose face the camera never shows.

Brady was in the US at the time.

Ironically, Brady says that in his own messages he tried very hard not to create a false persona. "I was more concerned about giving the wrong impression than coming across well."

One Picture: Worth a Thousand Flames?

Anyone familiar with the instantaneous nature of electronic communications knows that a simple, terse, typed message can facilitate anger to an extraordinary degree, even among people who know each other well. Usually when people think of the aphorism that a picture is worth a thousand words, they think of it as reflecting an innate quality of our brains: that we are primally able to process a much greater amount of visual information much faster than the more recently evolved language centers in our brain can process the meaning of text. But it would be equally valid to interpret it as saying that a single picture is as convincing as a thousand words in presenting - or misrepresenting - reality. People trust pictures in a way they don't trust words, in part because we interpret visual images from the minute of birth, while we learn language slowly incorporating reasoning and understanding at every stage.

That presumption will probably be compounded with picture phones in that the fact that the pictures may be taken and sent within a matter of seconds will seem to make them an even more faithful record. Of course, over time most people will build up banks of images inside their phones, whether those images have been taken, received, or downloaded from services, which they could forward.

Davies is disturbed by the possibility that the moments we'd all rather weren't photographed - the night we stumble home a bit too drunk from the bar, say - can be passed on to people with no connection to the original incident. "It is," he says, "another step along the way to a transparent society. If that's what we want, let's at least engage in some process of discussion."

Wendy M. Grossman is a freelance writer based in London, and author of net.wars. Her new book, From Anarchy to Power: The Net Comes of Age is out.