SINGAPORE: I recall growing up as a kid chatting on bulletin boards via a 24k modem dial-up, the connection breaking whenever someone tried to call the home phone.
Youth of today must think of all this as belonging to the technological stone age.
But as kids, those were care-free days, too. We weren’t preoccupied with bugging our parents for tablets or mobile phones. We would cycle for hours on end, without luminous vests, lights or helmets, or our parents being worried about traffic.
CHANGING SOCIAL NORMS
My parents used to reminisce about the good old days when if they got into an accident, other motorists were more likely then than now to stop to render assistance and offer to be a witness.
That social norm to bear witness seems today to have been replaced by the ubiquitous camera. How that wretched little device has changed lives.
I can count the instances I have captured the moments in my children’s lives instead of living it with them. Look, I have the evidence. And when I swipe through the pictures and the videos taken, there is a sense of part reliving and part vicariousness.
That something is preserved, and, thereby, something is lost. So too, when these images are shown to family at gatherings or friends on social media, rather more as spectator than witness. There is a lesson about the boon and the bane of technology in all of this.
WHAT IS LOST
Perhaps Mr Kamaruzzaman Abdul Latiff or his passenger might chime in on what they gained and lost from that Go-Jek kidnapping video that went viral. The blockbuster strikes me as a tragic-comedic cross between Taken and Taxi, both, incidentally, produced by Luc Besson.
The script and screenplay aside, what’s so problematic about capturing a conversation between chauffeur and passenger, or, for that matter, uploading it for the world at large to see? Nothing, some of you might think. And you might be forgiven for thinking so.
After all, everywhere you go – on the street, in a shopping mall, on the roads - you find cameras capturing your every move. Closer to home, virtually all my neighbours have embraced the device, plastering it in every conceivable nook and cranny on the walls surrounding their homes.
Some footage trickles its way into the neighbourhood WhatsApp group, to share the goings-on in our community when we are at work.
Some might rise up in defence of this eye in the sky. For my neighbours, they clearly think technology might do a better job than Guan Gong in keeping intruders at bay (or my curious children, for that matter).
Surveillance and security thus go hand in hand, which partly explains why the Singapore police rolled out body cams in 2015; and, where I work, campus security started wearing them since last year.
Am I comfortable being surveilled? Not entirely. But it’s the price we as a society have decided is worth paying to partake in a society that values safety as paramount, especially in public spaces.
READ: Our convenience is coming at a (security) cost, a commentary
In this day and age of terroristic or psychopathic lone wolves, that kind of argument will find many sympathetic supporters.
A DYSTOPIA OF A DIFFERENT KIND
Some might say this is a slippery slope, and that the true price is a dark Orwellian future. That might well be, and that might well be a whole other essay. Yet when he conjured up Big Brother, George imagined an authoritarian dictatorship synonymous with state surveillance and state interference with private life.
What the Go-Jek incident hints at is symptomatic of a kind of democratic dystopia, of private surveillance and private interference with private life.
Who knows why Mr Kamaruzzaman recorded the incident. Subject to LTA regulations of May 2018 on inward-facing cameras, he was well within his prerogative to do so.
The regulations, among others stipulate that audio must not be captured, that a notice must be affixed in the car notifying the passenger may be subject to video recording, and that when she booked his car on the Go-Jek app, the app must send a system notification that the car she booked has an inward-facing camera.
These rules are put in place in order to comply with the Personal Data Protection Act, which provisions protect privacy and allow collection and dissemination of information only on the basis of consent, and, exceptionally, public interest. Indeed, such footage can only be accessed by law enforcement or accredited agencies for investigative purposes such as fare evasion or misdeeds by the driver.
But it would appear that Mr Kamaruzzaman did not follow those regulations, when the clip has been shown in all its glory for all the world to see.
BEST DISINFECTANT IS SUNLIGHT?
Can we defend Mr Kamaruzzaman’s actions? Let’s draw from the wisdom of the sages in so doing.
The late US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said that publicity is justly recommended as a remedy for social diseases, and that sunlight is the best disinfectant.
In this context, the uploading of this video clip snuffs out passengers who might otherwise conduct themselves as Mr Kamaruzzaman’s passenger did. Camera footage, therefore, contribute to publicity and transparency and therefore deter unwanted behaviour.
Was Mr Kamaruzzaman unknowingly though righteously following Brandeis’ exhortation? We know from Mr Kamaruzzaman why he chose to upload the video:
After (sic) few days of thinking, I guess (sic) I better to let it out.
Better for whom, or for what, though?
My thinking is that the incident left a bitterness in his mouth. He had to deal with an unreasonable passenger who made all sorts of accusations about his professionalism and character.
That aftertaste might be due to a sense that the dispute remained unresolved. Allowed to stew over a couple of days, the memory simply became more distasteful. And the act of uploading is either a manifestation of catharsis or vendetta or both.
He must have wanted sympathy from the wider community or endorsement for his actions, and, at the same time, re-probation for that of his passenger’s. In other words, he was inviting judgment.
And judgment he got, for himself and for her. In a mob court where every keyboard warrior is, safe behind the veil of a computer screen, judge, jury and executioner. The first opinions focused on her behaviour, but very soon, the chatter takes an ugly turn, uglier, perhaps than the passenger's own behaviour.
But just as the passenger must be held – socially or otherwise – responsible for her conduct in the car, Mr Kamaruzzaman must take responsibility for subjecting her to social vilification unrelated and disproportionate to what she’s done.
What right has any one of us to judge another and in that manner? Mr Kamaruzzaman’s passenger did displayed crass weakness of character, no doubt about that, but does that justify that Friend/Foe distinction of Schmittian proportions?
We cannot champion values like fairness and due process, while at the same time endorsing the results of any mob verdict.
Is publicity absolutely justified? Is sunlight the best disinfectant? In this case, shining a light on the problem quite possibly guaranteed that the passenger and like-minded folk would think twice before acting the way she did.
But sunlight also became the conduit by which other socially undesirable behaviour was imported and allowed to flourish.
GIVING RISE TO OTHER BAD BEHAVIOURS
Let me be clear, I don’t condone how Mr Kamaruzzaman’s passenger behaved or what she said. Indeed, I hope the children I raise never behave as such.
But I also hope they don’t behave that way because of the values they are raised with, not because they fear some surveillance system connected to the amorphous morality that is the internet mob.
Do we behave only because we think we’re being watched? As a concomitant of our private space being surrendered, we negotiate a new balance between our private and public personas. I am less free, more constrained, more acting than being.
I too have been in a situation where I had the urge to whip out my phone and start recording, having witnessed something distasteful, or because I’m in a sticky situation.
But I just hope I will give pause to think why I’m hitting that big red button at the bottom of the screen, or whether I should click “upload” thereafter. Do I really need 800,000 views or likes in order to ascertain what I did was right or wrong? What the public is interested in and what the public interest is are two very different things.
Publicising the passenger's ugly behaviour seems to beget even more ugly behaviour.
Equally important, when private intrinsic motivation to behave becomes subordinate to public and extrinsic supervision, what remains of one’s moral compass?
To Justice Brandeis, I say there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Light can be glaring. Beware always of sunburn
Dr Gary Low is presently on faculty at the Singapore Management University School of Law. He writes and researches on commercial law, consumer law, and data protection law.