From the Boidem -
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everydaylife

February 27, 1998*: You Are There

I wasn't there to see the eclipse of the sun (February 26, in the west), and I have to admit that I wasn't there at the Exploratorium web site in order to watch it via the internet either. Not that I would have minded seeing it, but not only was I geographically in the wrong hemisphere, I wasn't near a computer that would allow me to log into the Exploratorium site. So I didn't catch the eclipse in real time.

On the other hand (and on another day), I listened to the Los Angeles Police Department radio band in real time. There I was, sitting at my desk, doing something that resembled work, and blasting from my speakers was the lifeblood of Los Angeles, the real thing, the daily life that movies are made of. And was it ever boring! Not to say that there wasn't certain potential there - after all, if the police had been chasing a white Bronco on the L.A. freeway, that might have been the sort of thing I'd have tuned into. But in such a case it would have been more satisfying, not to say easier, to watch it on television, and I'm pretty sure that a newspaper or television station would have transmitted it via its website to all the web addicts who prefer to watch in a miniscule part of their computer screen instead of on their televisions (and my guess is that I'm one of the few around anymore who doesn't have cable).

It seems, however, that many people want the real thing, no matter how boring it may be. allows us to listen in to the police bands of Los Angeles, New York and Dallas, and undoubtedly there will be more.

There's nothing new about broadcasting via the internet. I first heard about a 24 hour a day web camera almost three years ago. It was stationed above and facing the desk and computer of a Scandanavian professor, and if he was in his office you could see him sitting at his desk. If he wasn't in his office you could see his computer. It wasn't very riveting. Since then, continually operating web cameras have gone from rare to common to passe. This isn't an aspect of the internet that I follow much, but I get the feeling that if anything "interesting" is happening in this regard, it's at some sort of meeting point between the art community and voyeurism.

Probably the first big web camera success was JenniCam. A couple of years ago a college student, Jennifer Ringley, set up a web camera in her dormitory room. She apparently expected only her friends to log in and see what she was (or wasn't) up to. But instead her site started getting as many as 500,000 hits a day. Now, after college, there are two ways to view the site: the picture in the free version is refreshed every twenty minutes, but if you pay $15 per year, you can have the picture refreshed every two minutes. Even assuming that many of the hits at sites of this sort are one-time hits by people who've heard about the sites and want to know what they're about, there still seem to be an awful lot of people using their internet accounts in order to peer into other people's lives.

But all that isn't really much more than an introduction, because what basically interests me about web broadcasts isn't the broadcasts aimed at the entire world, or at least toward whoever has the time to devote to this particular sort of voyeurism (and when it comes down to it, there's no essential difference between a home page with a web camera and one without) but web broadcasts aimed at particular, limited, communities. Israel apparently lays claim to the first internet wedding. I'm not referring to a couple that met via e-mail or in a chat room, but to a couple that broadcast its wedding in the same way that Jennifer Ringley broadcast her dormitory room. Just who the wedding broadcast was directed toward is rather unclear, and of course after the wedding it became "just another web site", but this was an early example of the sort of thing that interests me.

This next example I got from my mother's clipping service. (Somewhat to my surprise it turns out that I know one of the people involved from long ago, but that's beside the point.) It seems that due to health problems the grandparents of a bride to be weren't able to travel from the States to Israel for their granddaughter's wedding. Not wanting to miss out on the simcha the families found a pleasant solution - a web cast of the wedding via video conferencing. Without going into the details, it should at least be made clear that this wasn't just another web site - we're talking about three-way video (the wedding was broadcast to two different locations in the States) and this was apparently quite a technical achievement. But what's most interesting here, for me, is the fact that a seemingly public media was able to serve a private function.

But that was video-conferencing, not exactly a web site. The next example is very traditional web-cam stuff, but with a slightly different angle. From the newspaper clipping:

In what is believed to be the first case of online motherhood, a Riverside County couple plan to broadcast the birth of their child on the Internet this month. Brad and Karen Park of Wildomar will use a digital camera and computer laptop to film and send live footage of the birth of their second child to a private site on the World Wide Web to allow family and friends, unable to attend the event, to watch. A small camera, attached to a laptop, will be set in a corner of the delivery room at Sharp HealthCare in Murrieta. Relatives are given the address to a secure Web site, a user name and a password to access the site. The broadcast - one frame snapped every six seconds - will show Karen from the waist up.

This clipping raises a number of questions, not the least of which being how common is it for family and friends to attend such an event, such that for those who are "unable to attend" the web site is a necessity. Are there people who can't come because they're at work, and now they'll be able to both do their work and occasionally pop in on the web site for an update on the birth? It sounds like a sporting event. At sporting events you have refreshments - are the relatives and friends supposed to sit around a computer screen eating popcorn, rooting for Karen? This seems to be an example of taking You Are There a bit farther than is called for. And if we're asking questions, I've got yet another: Just why is this a secure web site, accessible only via password? The chances of someone stumbling onto the site while surfing, or even finding it (at the right time, no less) by running an AltaVista search on "online birth" or something like that, is negligible. And if, by some very slim chance, someone were to actually stumble onto the site, it seems that the people involved would still seem rather anonymous. I don't understand why someone would choose to "broadcast" an event such as this, but if they so choose, why all the security precautions to keep voyeurs out?

Perhaps my final example will come as a bit of a letdown after an online birth, but for me it seems to take the entire idea of being there in an even more distressing, perhaps even ominous, direction. Once again, it's from a clipping, though I've found at least two more web references to the same story. The opening paragraph is quoted here:

Forging an unlikely marriage between technology and parenting, a preschool in Tustin is installing video cameras in its classrooms and plans to broadcast the footage on the Internet so families can monitor their children.

The promoters of this idea are convinced that they're performing a positive service for parents. Why spend your day worrying about your child's welfare. Log in to a secure web site (so that perverts won't spend the day watching your children like you do?) and make sure that your child is playing happily. I guess that it's common knowledge that more than children have difficulties parting from their parents, it's the parents who find it hard to part from their children. But though many times throughout my day I find myself wondering what my kids are doing, I can't picture myself actually spying on them. The day care people who offer this online service proudly state that they have nothing to hide. As the director of a child care center tells us: "A center that's not proud of what it's doing won't have a program like this". But of course if I can watch my child while at work, what happens when I don't see him or her via the web camera? Do I phone the child care center and ask what's wrong? Why isn't my child on camera, did something happen to him? And what if I see someone bothering my kid? Do I immediately phone and demand that the care providers (that sounds like a nice PC name for the job) intervene? Frankly, I think that not knowing what's happening every minute of my kids' day makes me feel more confident about their welfare than knowing.

The article tells us that one company in the field of what I guess should be called "online surveillance" is expanding its markets, including "offering the program to funeral homes seeking live 'cyber-mourning' services". And if that's the case, then we have the possibility of being online throughout our lives, from birth to the grave - if anyone really cares to watch. I guess that anything and everything can be considered information, but what makes it useful and worthwhile for us is the fact that it's gone through some sort of filtering system which distinguishes it from all other pieces of random information. A coming-soon-to-your-local-web-site unfiltered online life seems to me to be pushing the definition of information a bit too far.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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