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Public Surveillance?

It is possible that one could argue that the YouTube generation didn’t really begin in February of 2005 (the month the site was launched), or even in 2003 (the year in which William Gibson deftly outlined the basic framework of a similar site in his novel Pattern Recognition). One could easily make a case that the YouTube generation was born on March 3, 1991. This is the day that Rodney King was brutally beaten by several Los Angeles policemen and the day that George Holliday, a private citizen who happened to be looking out of his window when the beating occurred, captured the entire episode on videotape. And while some might suggest that YouTube’s crowning achievement is the appointment of YOU as Time Magazine’s 2006 Person of the Year, history may suggest that the defining moment for the toddler brand was the moment the uncensored, unedited cell phone footage of the hanging of Saddam Hussein was posted to the site.

In analyzing the videotape of the Rodney King beating, one could assess it as a serendipitous recording of a tragic event. But when the 35-second film was released to the public, it sent shockwaves and horror throughout the nation. It quickly became a defining moment both in the politics of law enforcement and in domestic race relations.

The video was an example of inverse surveillance, (citizens watching police) and the filming of real-life events by “real people” has quickly become one of the leading indicators of cultural trends. The way in which the general public has utilized the mass availability of video footage for cultural discourse is now highly measurable. Michael Richard’s captured racist diatribe and U.S. Republican Senator George Allen’s recorded racial slurs are two recent examples of how the impact of instantaneous access can severely damage a career or ruin a political campaign. According to Ed Driscoll: “In an era of demassified individual publishing, the safety net that the liberal mass media provided its favorite sons no longer exists.”

In what seemed like moments after the execution (which had been rumored to be officially photographed), the recorded cell-phone footage of Saddam Hussein falling through the trap door of primitive wooden gallows spread like wildfire on the Internet and not surprisingly, on YouTube. The recorded footage is gruesome and features a moment-by-moment record of the noose being put around Saddam Hussein’s neck, the executioners taunting him, and most horrifically, what he looked like when the trap door was thrown open and he fell to his death.

No doubt the video was taken to prove that Saddam Hussein was indeed executed. For those that may be skeptical of this motivation, please consider the various conspiracy theories that abound about the deaths of Adolph Hitler, President John F. Kennedy and even Kenneth Lay.

The Saddam Hussein footage is horrifying. But it is also informative. Now we definitively know the truth and can attribute this knowledge to the public online viewing of smuggled footage taken from a cell phone. What we can now call, for lack of a better term, public surveillance.

But at what price, this public information? What does it say about our humanity that we are witnessing this event in this way? Is it acceptable behavior to be documenting an event like this, or does that even matter when an event like this actually occurs? London Times journalist Rosemary Behan believes it is. “Even more chilling,” she wrote in an article published last week, “is the thought that without the escape of this amateur video we would still be in the dark about what really happened, and about the true and apparently now official nature of the sectarian forces driving Iraq. In that we must be thankful for the truth, however sordid it is.”

I have seen the video and it is indeed sordid. Of this, I am quite sure. But should the graphic details have been posted for the entire world to see and celebrate? Of this, I am not so sure.

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PUBLISHED ON Jan.10.2007 BY debbie millman
marian bantjes’s comment is:

I find it strange that people would feel the need for "proof," particularly in an age where "proof" is ever more elusive. If contingents of people are willing to believe that the holocaust never happened or that the Moon landing was staged on a set, I doubt that a grainy cel-phone recording is going to provide that incontrovertable evidence they so hanker for. Those who approve of this on the grounds that it provides some kind of peace of mind are deluding themselves at the very least.

This movement of "inverse surveillance" is interesting, both in its impact on the power structure and in the way we see the world (myself, I have a particular interest in how photography has, is and will change due to man/woman/child-on-the-street shooting), but rubbernecking is just rubbernecking no matter how you dress it up. We are so used to seeing corpses splayed out across the movie/TV screen that it seems OK, or "informative," to display these in real life. But is it OK to watch someone — anyone — die? Do people have a basic human right to die in peace?

The reason why criminals are executed in relative private (with only a few witnesses to verify that it actually happened) is because at some point in our history we stopped putting people in stocks and parading them through the streets; we stopped public hangings and beheadings; we decided as a society to give people this one last piece of respect.

Someone may not think that Saddam Hussein or other individuals deserve our respect, however small, but personally I think we have to redraw that line. If the respect is not given on their behalf, it is not taken on our own.

I have not seen the video of Hussein's hanging: not because I haven't been curious, but because ultimately I asked myself "Why?" and my reason didn't feel so good to me. So for my own self respect, I've chosen not to stoop to watching people in their last moments of life ... unless I love them very, very much.

On Jan.10.2007 at 10:58 PM
Tan’s comment is:

I'm not an anti-violence activist by any means, but as I grow older, I do believe that pervasive scenes of violence and brutality is visually de-sensitizing an entire generation. I don't think people who witness real videos of brutality truly understand the fact that someone is really being hanged, or butchered, or beaten.

We watch horror movies like Saw or thrillers like The Departed, where violence and gore is so real, that when we see a real beating or severed limb on YouTube, we can't discern between real and fabricated. The experience, shock, and visual context in our heads have been de-sensitized to such imagery.

In a previous career choice during college, I worked in hospitals where I saw real death and real bodies in morgues. You remember the color of the skin, the coldness, the sterile smell of death. Trust me, it's nothing like Six Feet Under. The real experience is nothing you ever want to remember -- eventhough you can't forget it.

The morality of this issue depends on the context, too. For instance. One of the most horrific experience of brutality I've ever had was the National Holocaust Museum in DC. I couldn't fathom how horrific the holocaust was until I saw the giant bails made out of human hair from the victims. In that instance, the graphic details were posted for the entire world to see so that we would never forget the magnitude of the brutality committed.

In Saddam Hussein's case, is the video meant to be a cathardic release? Or is it meant to be some perverse form of entertainment? Have we completely lost our sense of humanism?

On Jan.11.2007 at 04:11 AM
Ed’s comment is:

power to the people.

On Jan.11.2007 at 07:58 AM
Pesky’s comment is:

Images of death are nothing new. Goya drew the calamity of war before daguerretypes were invented. Is it that photography is a more precise rendering of gruesomeness that makes us turn away? Or is it that viewing pictures is so amazingly global and almost instantaneous now that we get the blown apart and dismembered before the bodies are even cold?

If there was a line crossed about pictures of death, it happened a long time ago: American Civil War photography by Matthew Brady showed dead soldiers and the cold truth of war. Southern lynchings were usually photographed - a colored man hanging from a tree limb - in a picnic-like atmosphere filled with grinning racists. The photos were souvenirs. By the time Americans witnessed the offing of a president on live TV that line was way behind us.

Conspiracy theories developed when official photographic "evidence" of dubious authenticity clashed with on-site witnesses. Some are off the deep end like denying the Holocaust. But others are still strong challenges to the official storyline about events that shape our world. This skepticism becomes a demarcation line in believing everything one is shown.

But in an age of Photoshop and digital manipulation who believes photos and video as truth of anything? Some still doubt if it was really Saddam hanged or a double. Or a plane hit the Pentagon. The threshold of what is accepted as truthful images is higher to cross. And it ought to be.

George Orwell's surveillance-crazed Oceania sort of crept up on England while everyone was sleeping, didn't it?

On Jan.11.2007 at 10:40 AM
Héctor Muñoz’s comment is:

I think the video was actually produced by the exeutioneers and spread as a way to avoid those "conspiracy theories" about Saddam's death. Who would be so stupid to allow anyone introduce a cellphone camera into that kind of execution?

I also find funny that the society that has the most violent media culture scandals about that video and refuses to post the picture of the hanged Saddam in newspapers while that photo made the first page on almost all newspapers worldwide.

On Jan.11.2007 at 11:57 AM
felix’s comment is:

Thanks for reminding me I needed to see that video. It isn't hard to find, though you won't find it on youtube anymore (cut to long shot of rupert murdoch's stock offering dropping from Wall Street gallows).

An avid UFC fan, I love seeing pain and I felt no tears dribble down watching Saddam snap. What I see (and find most repulsive) is a failed foreign policy and a nation (ours) in such disrepair it makes me want to snap. Hopefully, the general public will see this video and snap to it. It being the allusion that November 7th changed things.

On Jan.11.2007 at 12:01 PM
minus five’s comment is:

if i were saddam, i believe i would have wanted the whole thing documented for everyone to see. because it would make people ask bigger questions.

for me, it was sadly anti-climatic. saddam feels to me like a small dot on an imax movie screen. my mind went straight from the hanging to thinking:

now what?

has anything changed?

why did we go over there, again?

so we do a clean-up and leave and who's next?

does the world view us as a 43 year old father who showed up at the playground to beat up the 8 year old school bully?

On Jan.11.2007 at 12:44 PM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

In reference to the video recording and distribution of Saddam’s hanging or other scenes of violent death, I agree with those who question where our humanity went.

On the other hand, I question myself as to why I should be more comfortable knowing it happened, but that I just didn’t have to watch it.

I think it has something to do with the issue of respect...a respect for life...or respect for the privacy surrounding the final moments before life is ended. Even if the “victim” did not extend that respect to others during his/her lifetime, our humanity seems better served by keeping that respect as our standard.

On Jan.11.2007 at 01:01 PM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

I see that Marian already posted some thought similiar to mine. Sorry, Marian. I didn't mean to copy you.

On Jan.11.2007 at 01:06 PM
brooklynmatt’s comment is:

According to Ed Driscoll: "In an era of demassified individual publishing, the safety net that the liberal mass media provided its favorite sons no longer exists.”

Odd selection for a quote, in an otherwise non-partisan post. I assume you selected it due to its general point that the corporate mass media no longer controls the story (as much), but its unfortunate that you selected a quote from someone who needed to label it the "Liberal" mass media, a contentious point in itself, especially in this age when FoxNews dominates the ratings, and most other news outlets fall all over themselves trying to imitate the successful Fox model. Inasmuch as citizens can create their own stories, it will not harm some liberal monopoly on the news, but will be an equal-opportunity pain in the a**, for both the Right (and their media outlets) and the Left ( and theirs).

On Jan.11.2007 at 01:08 PM
Edwin Rivera’s comment is:

On a primal level, it was cathartic, I am sure, for many people-- the families of murdered Shiites, as well as any human being who has ever lost a loved one or suffered immensely beneath the bloody hands of tyrants-- to witness the hanging of Sadaam Hussein. We must remember that he was known as the "Butcher of Bagdhad." He did not earn this moniker because he could carve a beautiful shank of lamb. There are real people who have been mutilated, decimated-- women, children-- merely because they were of a particular sect, a particular tribe. This is no different than the genocide in Rwanda, the murders of Christians in Somalia, the absolute mastication of people in western Sudan.

We learn about these horrors and we shake our fists and bang our desks, we argue in bars and over our plates at family dinners and state: oh the horror! oh the injustice!

We feel anguished, vengeful, helpless, remorseful, and even a bit guilty. There is very little that can be done. For if the United States, a supersized nation and a force to be reckoned with, cannot seize the reigns and ease the bloodthirsty sensiblities of run-amok republics, than what chance does one lone individual have?

I wonder if the pessimist and optimist would share similar responses. For this is not an age of apathy, this is the age of cluelessness. All the knowledge we desire is available at the push of a button, and yet millions choose to surf YouTube and the pornography web sites, to kill countless hours on Yahoo Chat or to play with their profiles on MySpace, as oppposed to learning, say, what Orhan Pamuk has to say about Turkey's insidious past.

Paradoxically, the instantaneous access to a wealth of knowledge is exactly the problem, for much of that knowledge is faulty, and useless. There is a rushing flood of misinterpreted data, an overflow of endless minutia that one has to wade through in order to get to the heart of the matter.

One would do well to cross the threshold of their local libraries and crack the spine of a book, of many books, before they immersed themselves in the Internet's dangerous waters. After all, who do you trust more, Wikipedia or Encyclopedia Britannica (which is available online, for a price, of course)?

This is an issue that must be considered with more scrutiny. We are dumbing ourselves down, casting on the blinders, riding the contaminated information-wave. It is important to know and understand the world's monsters, to study them as we would our heroes.Tyrants and dictators and all-around monsters (such as Charles Taylor, General Suharto, Fidel Castro, and scores of others) have always crowded the world stage. We have witnessed the murder of the dictator Hussein (for it was murder, was it not?). But what do we know of the man, his actions, the history of his nation? Do we truly understand the underlying complexities involved in our own nation's complicity? We see the effect but have no true knowledge of the cause. For all we know, this could be any man swinging from the gallows, mere bag of meat like us all.

What is different about our era is that it is far more difficult to bury one's garbage. News is disseminated so quickly by the merest touch-flash of a questing finger that a clever villain peforming a barbarous act would be swiftly discovered. Examine the alacrity with which our immoral politicians (an oxymoron) are despatched, each fool unmasked to show his true face. No one can hide from the invading eye of the camera. Yet the camera, like the human eye, does not capture the entire story. There is always something transpiring at the periphery, far out of range. Events can precede what the camera already knows. We see the effect, but cannot always discern the cause. Herein lies the danger. Subjectivity versus objectivity. No eye is so chill as to not impose its own world view. The Internet is rife with people eager to voice their misinformed opinions. A bored miscreant from Buttfuck, Illinois types a few words onto his web page, say, stating that the people on the West side have been keeping down the people on the East side, corroborating this with cooked-up facts, a spew of false data, crunching numbers that never even existed, and another person in Buttfuck, Illinois, who happens to live on the East side and just lost his job at the fat-rendering plant, takes that person at face value and is inspired to spearhead the cause, and off he goes to spread this wrongheaded knowledge he has gleaned, and this in turn spreads to others, and before you know it, you have an entire state filled with infected people, East and West, hacking away at their neighbor's limbs because they believe that they have been kept down for decades.

Think of Pakistan and India. Think of Africa. Think of history. Big Brother is not the only one watching today. Now his whole family is on on the act. And they are all laughing their asses off because they have us right where they want us: scared and compartmentalized. So smile and look pretty for the camera. Because right now, somone might be munching popcorn, watching you, watching your death, and sighing because the world is one big awful mess.

On Jan.11.2007 at 06:35 PM
dan’s comment is:

Interesting post Debbie- I agree that methods of public surveillance and 'everyday people' recording the news is not a new thing.. it has just become a MUCH bigger thing -thanks to the likes of YouTube, blogging, and especially mobile recording devices, and the internet provides a medium for displaying this and much more.

What I do disagree with is your use of 'the youtube generation'. I think you wrongly attribute it to being a generation focused on truth and news... or one of surveillance. The site does provide an outlet for this but the 'generation' or 'youtubers' that uses the site for a variety of different reasons do not necessarily (as a whole) contribute to your theory, or define the site/generation as surveillance orientated.

Yes, the video of Mr Hussein is disturbing and a milestone in surveillance and public reporting.. but it is not related to 'YOU as Time Magazine Person of the Year'. More likely other examples such as Mentos advertising, 'characters' (and I say this loosely) creating shows and user generated content, 'lonelygirl15' and the vlogging phenomenon has more to do with the consumer becoming a media savvy producer... and thus YouTubes connection to Times person of the Year.

I admit YouTube could be seen as providing 'news' - this is public reporting and is often more likely through the sampling of content and 're-mixing' into their own expressions. YouTube is a way for people to communicate and share stories, information and news- via video- Yes, but the mobile generation (which of course has cross overs to youtube) is a better example of defining the concept of public surveillance. The generation of mobile phone users is the correct generation that should be attributed to changes in how we see news events as the public further grow the reach of existing news media.

On Jan.11.2007 at 06:52 PM
David E.’s comment is:

It's been a long time since we've had public hangings in this country, but people obviously haven't changed much in their desire to see it. The technology is the only thing that's defining The Youtube Generation – human nature stays the same.

On Jan.11.2007 at 07:38 PM
Ravenone’s comment is:

While not necessarily wanting proof, people have almost always (it seems) been attracted to the horrible. The gladiator games of ancient Rome were popular...for a reason, and the Many Faces of Death dvd serries is freakishly popular at my local video rental store. Added to the spectacle of death, you have the knowledge that this person was famous.
How often do you get to see a famous person die in a horrible way?
... not often.
Wanting to vicariously participate in the execution of something deemed evil.
There are a lot of reasons someone could want to see it.
Does the reasoning have much to do with YouTube?
I doubt it.

People have gawked at death long before this; and many of us still slow while driving past car accidents, turn our heads towards the chaos, trying to see...

It's not just the 'youtube generation'.

On Jan.11.2007 at 10:21 PM
cweese’s comment is:

I think that we have a choice about how we react to seeing such things. "... for the entire world to see and celebrate." See, yes, celebrate, no, not necessarily. We can witness great events of our time with solemnity and thoughtfulness, as anyone who has withessed death in person will understand. The very powerful thing about our media now is that we can, in a small way, witness history. I recently downloaded an iTunes podcast of Martin Luther King's I Have A Dream speech... listening to it actually brought tears to my eyes.

I did watch the video, but not one of the ones that showed the entire hanging. I am glad I had the chance to see what I did but I won't seek out the entire thing...

On Jan.11.2007 at 10:28 PM
Michael Surtees’s comment is:

It's amazing how only a couple months ago this cover
from time was floating around airports and it seemed ok.


On Jan.11.2007 at 11:58 PM
Andrew Twigg’s comment is:

It's amazing how only a couple months ago this cover
from time was floating around airports and it seemed ok.

Never ok with me.


The idea of watching someone die violently seems incredibly grotesque, whether it's in person or remotely.

I once witnessed a construction worker dead on the side of the road. He was poorly covered with a blue tarp while - I imagine - the crew he was with waited for the authorities to show up. The scene was more graphic than I'm going to share here. That was one of the worst experiences of my life and I can't see willingly putting myself in a situation where I'm witness to another violent death.

In cases where "public surveillance" can be used to call attention to a problem such as police brutality, I'm all for it. Sometimes catching a wrong in action is the only way to prove it happened in the first place. But watching someone die a real, violent and (in this case, planned) death is not for me, and I can't put myself in the head of someone who feels differently.

On Jan.12.2007 at 09:46 AM
redSAID!’s comment is:

I have seen death, and am not interested in going out of my way to watch more. I did NOT appreciate seeing pictures of said individual with noose around neck splashed all over the front page of newspapers and media, and I certainly am not interested in seeking out the smuggled video online. How can people watch something like that and NOT feel something? It surprises me to see how bloodthirsty people are and to the degree that they have become desensitized.

On Jan.12.2007 at 10:05 AM
Randy J. Hunt’s comment is:

The ubiquity of video capturing devices and the ease and affordability of sharing what they capture does, in fact, have the power to change or perceptions of the events in the world. In the case of Saddam's execution, we see this in the saddest of ways.

Not becuase I have a sliver of respect for Saddam Hussein, but because I respect the beauty of a human life. I have no intention of voluntarily watching a person die out of the context of some story-telling movie event. Yes, I can draw a distinction there and be comfortable with it.

Back to Debbie's other points though:

...the filming of real-life events by “real people” has quickly become one of the leading indicators of cultural trends.

I believe these videos can not only be leading indicators--they can be leading influencers. Look at the work of Witness, where sysems are in place to support a network of human rights offense watch dogs. By drastically decreasing the time

In developing countries (where human rights offenses are still most prevalent, because the poor and uneducated don't have the resources to "fight back") mobile phones are one of the most successful integrations of contemporary technology.

With programs like Witness, there is the potential to both shock sympathetic audiences, aid vigilante law-enforcers, and pressure governments.

On Jan.12.2007 at 10:59 AM
Joe Moran’s comment is:

This reminded me of three things:

1. A college buddy, from Jordan, told me people in the middle east don't believe "it" unless they see it. I read in Stars & Stripes that the Army decided to publicly display the bodies of Saddam's son's for that very reason.

2. The Inca's carved "death-" or "trophy-heads" on their building walls. Even the cavemen painted thier killing animals.

3. I saw photos in a magazine of an honest to God glass house! You could see the people inside eating, sleeping, getting up in the morning, showering, using the toilet... everything!

Exhibitionism and voyeurism. It's in our nature. (Real "ism?" -- anyone?)

Great stuff Debbie!!!


On Jan.12.2007 at 03:54 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

It's simple:

1. People love to watch.
2. People love to be watched.

The content in this instance is bothersome, but, its not for me or any government to say yea or nay to it being put online. You have a choice to watch, or not to watch--so long as the power to make that choice is maintained, I'm fine with it. Let's be extreme for a moment and ask, "would I want my execution videotaped and broadcast?" Well, no. But, I'll be damned--and I suspect most people here would agree--if there's to be any restriction on owning or using a device that records. Hell no.

Time was, diaries were private. Who keeps a diary anymore? Now we've got blogs, myspace, facebook, all manner of crap to broadcast our lives to anyone who might take an interest. Apparently there's a desire in many people to have an audience. Doesn't mean they want to be stalked and followed and tracked, but, there's no denying, that being witnessed to SOME degree is something of an objective.

Our "humanity" and holding onto it is an individual choice; the technologies afforded to us, from video cameras to txt msging, make it easier to slip away from that, but they do not make us less human. Nobody can control the actions or decisions or mentalities of anyone else, meaning that its up to each and every one of us to maintain dignity, honor, and whatever else.

It's not easy.

On Jan.12.2007 at 05:38 PM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

We're not as civilised as we like to think we are, are we? The fact is we haven't really changed at all from the time of the coliseum to public executions to now. Given half an excuse we are more than ready to toss aside our mask of human dignity.

But does that mean we should stop trying for something better?

On Jan.12.2007 at 07:35 PM
Pesky’s comment is:

I've seen that photo of the Gill Tribe in Wales that you sent for Christmas, Jeff: All with sharp spears, blue painted skin and grins... (just kidding, mate)....cheers to that final statement.

On Jan.12.2007 at 11:17 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

"But should the graphic details have been posted for the entire world to see and celebrate? "

I dunno...I do know there seems to be way bigger questions that we should be asking about our actions over there...

On Jan.14.2007 at 11:18 PM
Callie’s comment is:

Well, at least he wasn't fullly decapitated in the process like the botched Iraqi hanging of a couple of days ago.

I have absolutely no interest in watching such a barbaric scene. The death penalty, in any form, should be abolished. Then there wouldn't be any of this fodder to watch in the first place.

On Jan.17.2007 at 01:38 AM
Ravenone’s comment is:

Just shooting out some questions:
What role should morality play in design?
Is there a universal standard of morality?
When dealing with people from other cultures, should one take the ethics of that culture into consideration, or should one merely assume his or her own way is the best?

How does public execution affect morality in design?

On Jan.17.2007 at 12:35 PM
fatknuckle’s comment is:

Morality plays into design in several ways, but I don't really see where this has anything to do with morality and the design profession.

We all can in our own ways decide not to work for a company we don't believe in or goes against our own moral codes. We can also design materials according to our own standard of ethical production methods (cradle to cradle, etc...) We can also help those causes that we feel are important to us through pro-bono work.

But in this instance I think we have become a remarkably distrustful society. We don't believe our government, we don't believe your government, we don't believe our papers, we don't believe our neighbors. We as a culture simply don't believe what anyone tells us. We have become a society of conspiracy theorists (some more than others) and our only real proof seems to come from seeing it with our own eyes. But even then we still harbor doubts as whether they too are lying to us.

On Jan.17.2007 at 03:35 PM