The magic, terror and potential of world webcams | MIT Center for Civic Media

The magic, terror and potential of world webcams

I have recently become obsessed with Google's world webcam widget, which I have embedded on my iGoogle page. There's also a main page, hosted by a partnered for-profit company (Catfood Software) where you can check out some of the 800+ webcams set up around the world.

What's cool/horrifying about this is that it doesn't just show you a webcam; it lets you control the camera. You can zoom in and out, up and down. You can jump to a drop-down menu of locations (city center, famous church, boardwalk) set up by the camera owner. You can follow people as they walk down the street, and even take a still photo. This is equal parts terrifying and amazing. How can we reappropriate this surveillance for artistic, political or civic purposes? Wouldn't it be more powerful if people knew of the existence of said webcams and were willing and engaged participants in the virtual interaction between a stranger's computer screen and their beamed image?

I have to admit, the 50% awesome factor is winning me over. The other day I watched as a middle aged couple in Japan took photos of the changing orange leaves along a calm street. I saw another couple, some tourists, digging for their sunscreen on the beach in Kona, HI. And then I discovered Hungary (see photo). I think it was Budapest, but I'm not sure. It was before dawn, but people were on the street. Teenagers walked in packs alongside the tram tracks. Their figures were dark but I could tell they were kids by their backpacks and their energy. Businesspeople strode with purpose. Stragglers trudged home from being out all night.

Then there was Germany at night, where the hospital windows glowed red and no one was at the cinema. I also found a Prague webcam, and tried to compel a friend of mine in Prague to stand in front of it at a designated time, so she could hold up a sign and I could take a digital still of her and we could both freak out at the big-brother-ness of it all. Along with the creepiness of unauthorized surveillance capabilities, there's the amazing fact that, in two time zones, thousands of miles apart, I can monitor a street camera and potentially have an interaction with another person.

What would a civic media project around webcams and surveillance cameras look like? Surely there are ways to subvert the lure of voyeurism and turn it into a tool to actually connect people across borders.



So cool. Thanks for this.