Victor Oladipo's Google Glass view of the NBA Draft and what it all means.

 

"We teach, by having no cameras, that we are different," Anthony Kennedy told a House Appropriations Subcommittee in 2007, arguing against the introduction of video cameras into Supreme Court hearings.

People in powerful institutions have long indulged in the privilege of having their public selves presented in media forms that they have the most control over.

As the variety of data-capture tools continues to grow, it becomes clear that the least privileged tend to be those who have least control over the media forms in which they're captured.

When Victor Oladipo wore Google Glass to the NBA Draft last week (before being told to shut the camera off moments before the event began), he left behind a document both tedious and hypnotic. It was something that demonstrates how surveillance devices can, when pointed at privilege, become thoroughly deflating. The Orlando Magic draftee's video is the fodder of a billion boyhood dreams, my own included, of having one's physical skill become the basis for being anointed as an instant millionaire. 

 

What makes a picture is not the specialness of its subject, but the specialness of the object framing and filtering it.

 

This is a fantasy that has most power when put into words, which the ardent imagination of a kid can spend years filling in with details. Turned into video, the fantasy becomes a tepid tour through the incongruities of personal joy and institutional coldness.

There is something sad about Oladipo's waking in a plain but doubtlessly expensive Manhattan hotel room, pulling up the blackout curtains, and looking down on the fuzzy gray pollution of a New York summer morning, no sun in sight. The sense of cramping is palpable when his friends gather as he gets ready, carefully moving in the small spaces between hotel bed and dresser.

The NBA Draft serves a very different functional purpose than a Supreme Court hearing, but both rest on the same pedestal of privilege and limited access. It is those two elements that become the focal point in video documentation.

In the same way that it's absurd to see a lifelong fantasy of success culminate in a stodgy conference room surrounded by a bunch of waxed-hair sycophants in suits, it's just as ridiculous to see the incontrovertible standards of law enforcement for a country of 300 million humans set by a crew of old people pursuing lines of philosophic debate that sometimes sound alarmingly Cliff Clavin-ish.

When civilians are subject to nonstop surveillance—one's chat in an online video game being logged and later used as grounds for arrest, for example­—the presumption is always guilt. We fear that surveillance acts as a net, sifting for alarm triggers while discarding all of the inoffensive content we send into the world.

 

The disposability of all of our postings, however, serves to reaffirm our social roles and relative unimportance. Whatever our indiscretions might be, society can survive them unharmed.

Guilt is a slightly more abstract notion for the rich and powerful. It is more of a philosophical struggle for one's brand identity than a matter of daily sustenance. The "Have You Ever Been Convicted of a Felony" line on job applications is far less likely to matter to an NBA draftee than you or me, after all. We are aware of these unjust differences in the abstract, but the boring ephemera churned up through digital surveillance of the privileged begin to inform against the system as a whole and not just the person.

If the lesson of leaving cameras out of the most privileged outposts of power is to reinforce the differentness of those who work in them, having surveillance implements there would help enforce a sense of sameness. A few years ago I wondered if all politicians shouldn't submit a sex tape of themselves as prerequisite to running for public office as a sign of good faith and a willingness to undergo such thorough and humiliating public scrutiny in exchange for the privilege of speaking for the many. Maybe it's a dumb idea, but it doesn't seem any dumber than having the legal standards of an entire country depend on the interpretative powers of a bunch of people without Twitter accounts.

As we worry about the inevitability of the rapidly expanding cloud of surveillance spreading across the western world, much of the anxiety comes from the incompatibility between the value systems built up in our social and legal hierarchies with the effects of our rapid digitization in the last few decades, which create an emergent sense of sameness.

What makes a picture is not the specialness of its subject, but the specialness of the object framing and filtering it. The 18th-century values that circumscribe the far reaches of our culture cannot be digitized anymore convincingly than say, some found footage of Jesus preaching in a Wal-Mart parking lot could be used to found a new branch of Christianity today.

We are quickly passing from an era of mostly imaginary values, founded in myth, to one where the full strangeness of human behavior will become unavoidable as the implements of capturing and framing it become omnipresent. 

Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.