Monday, July 18, 2011

You Don't Know Me

Some people may be surprised, but it's true - we live in a world with masked superheroes in it, though these "superheroes" don't necessarily match what you might expect to see in a comic book. They're ordinary people trying to make a difference in different ways, whether it be the street patrols and interventions of Seattle's Phoenix Jones, or Thanatos passing out supplies and calling 911 when necessary in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Sometimes, though, it's easy to look past what they do and just focus in on the mask.

I know that outside of Halloween, masks have a bad rap, and understandably so; they're specifically designed to conceal the wearer's identity. Events such as the recent Vancouver riot forcefully demonstrated the necessity for people to be recognizeable - and if they're not, the Criminal Code of Canada makes it clear that "every one who, with intent to commit an indictable offence, has his face masked or coloured or is otherwise disguised is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years."

In other words, not much room up here for the sort of masked vigilantism that was traditionally the bread and butter of comics. Which, honestly, is all for the better: vigilantism has no place in modern society, masked or otherwise. It's more the masks that get me. I've heard people express misgivings about the mere act of mask-wearing, even for characters like Thanatos - who limits himself to distributing food and reporting crimes in the DTES. Personally, I have difficulty getting behind a distrust of masks for distrust's sake... mostly because of my concerns about where this might lead us, ten or twenty or thirty years in the future.

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Today, it's a rare person on the street who doesn't have a camera on them, usually in the form of a cameraphone - but when you stop to consider it, this is a staggeringly vast change that came about in less than ten years. Back in 2001, I don't know if I knew anyone who had a cell phone; hell, the fact that someone in my staircase at university owned a laptop was unusual. Even with the world teetering on the brink of financial collapse, I don't expect this pattern of change to alter much in the coming years. Augmented reality, which literally lets you see the world a different way, is speeding up and gaining traction.

What I worry about is a world where it's impossible to slide beneath notice on the street - not from the police, mind you, but from the people around you. Facial recognition programs exist today, and they're only getting better. What I worry about is the phone of, say, twenty years down the road; maybe it's linked into your glasses so that you can see the augmented reality layers clear as day, and to do that, it's got a camera that's seeing everything that you see. Every face that you see. How hard would it be for a facial recognition program to look at every face passing by, scour the internet, and have that face's name hovering above like a character in a computer game?

At that point, the game would be different. At that point, I would consider myself obligated to wear a mask, or at least something like really big sunglasses that obscure a huge swath of my face, day-to-day - because while I know I don't have any expectation of privacy in a public space, other people don't have the right to know who I am because there's an app for recognizing faces. It's one thing for the panopticon to be a prison, but to build it ourselves is something else again.

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