The Ever-Present Eyes of the Cell Phone

Several of the non-coronavirus stories that have somehow penetrated the news are a result of those ubiquitous cell phone cameras. They’ve captured the shooting on an unarmed black man in Georgia, a Minnesota policeman with his knee pressed against another unarmed black man who died during his arrest, along with a couple of widely disseminated nonviolent but seemingly racist encounters between white and black people.
One might conclude that there’s been a recent viral outbreak out of racism, but our guess is that these incidents aren’t any more common but are more likely to be videotaped and posted on the internet. All sorts of obnoxious behavior is winding up on the internet these days, often resulting in public shaming and even more severe consequences for the miscreants, ranging from losing jobs to being charged with crimes.
One might hope that this phenomenon will have some deterrent effect against people behaving obnoxiously, but so far we haven’t noticed that happening. Most of our interactions with other people, which have been somewhat limited the past few months, are quite pleasant, bolstering our hope that people of all ages and sexes and races and class are basically OK, but there still seems to be the usual number of them who just don’t get how awful they’d look on a viral video. By now most of them have cell phone cameras of their own, and will pull them out to make you look bad, but if you keep your calm and act reasonably they’ll still wind up looking awful.
We have a still camera and a video camera on our old-fashioned and relatively dumb “flip phone,” but being defiant Luddites we’re proud to say we have no idea how to use them, much less upload anything visual on the internet, and we mostly regard these newfangled machines as another annoyance of modernity. People use them to show their friends the fancy meal they’re eating and share “selfies,” that quintessential neologism of the moment, and to our admittedly Gutenberg-era conservative way of thinking it has a aggravating effect on an already self-obsessed culture. We’d also hate to have our worst moments be videotaped and go “viral” on the internet, although we do our best not to do anything virulent, and wonder about a brave new world where our every venture into the public space is watched by both public and private cameras.
Some good might come of it, we grudgingly admit. There are now a couple of cases of white men allegedly killing black men for no apparent reason that might have been swept under the racial rug if not for some seemingly damning cell phone footage. In the Minnesota case the videographers were bystanders who caught it from different angle, and in the Georgia case it was captured by a man now accused of being an accomplice.
When President John Kennedy was assassinated in broad daylight in the public square there happened to one guy in the crowd who caught it on a hand-held film camera, and the footage has been argued about ever since. We truly hope nothing like that ever happens again, but if it does we expect the investigations and commissions and historians will have thousands of videotapes from every possible angle. All these videos might well result in the guilty being punished and the innocent exonerated, and we hope that comes to pass.
We don’t hold out much hope that human nature will be much improved by it, though.

— Bud Norman

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