Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Children's Fight Club

As moral panics go, this week's isn't yet a patch on last week's (Cannabis increases risk of Psychosis by 41%) but I've dealt with that one here and here.

You've got a week to watch Panorama's latest rant on the BBC site.
If you miss that opportunity, I've uploaded a copy to mediafire which you can download (57Mb wmv file) here.

The rant is - as the patronising title suggests - about the latest "wicked" wheeze being practiced by our younger primates; i.e. the mobile phone footage of violent attacks by teenagers against other teenagers, sometimes staged purely for the purpose of the capturing such footage in order to try to win a ratings battle on Youtube.

As is usual with adolescent primates, the kind of playacting they did as infants has lost its charm and become genuinely aggressive and violent as they vie for status within and between their gangs and cliques. The older primates are troubled and looking for ways to control their offspring.

Back in the days when status came automatically with age or wage, it was enough for an elder primate merely to scold or cuff a junior and the deviant behaviour would be nipped in the bud. But this generation of young primates is too well educated and too intelligent to be bamboozled into believing that any of the elder primates has any moral authority over them in today's world.

After all, they've watched Presidents and Prime Ministers start illegal wars, killing hundreds of thousands of people, including thousands of their own people, and get away with it. After that, what credible objections can we make about a bit of brutal happy slapping where hardly anyone dies? Yeah, it's bullying and nasty and humiliating and gruesome and gross and childish and chimplike. But then, quite a lot of real life is like that. And always has been. We just haven't previously acknowledged it or allowed it to be seen.

The question now arises as to what, if anything we should do about this accelerating phenomenon. What the nanny state - on this occasion represented by one of its senior and more respected publicity agents, the BBC - wants is good old fashioned 20th century censorship. As we know, censorship has an excellent track record of success in modifying a wide variety of social behaviour so it makes eminent good sense to apply it in this situation.

The lawyer in the Panorama piece wants to criminalise the practise of recording such violent acts. This man must have an IQ higher than his shoe size. Has it not occurred to this LAWYER that these videos constitute evidence which can be used against the perpetrator?

Yes, I know that SOME of the violence only happens because it is now possible to share the videos. But if you think that this video game represents even a significant minority of routine teenage violence, you are living on a different planet. In fact the real problem with the videos is that generally, they're of abysmal quality.

This works to the advantage of the victim because most of them can't be recognised from the videos and, thus, the subsequent humiliation is a little reduced. Not much, though, because their peers will still know what happened and, as any adolescent primate will confirm, what your peers know and think is vastly more important than anything else.

However, it also works to the advantage of the perp, in that we can't identify the bastards well enough to sustain a conviction. So we desperately need much better resolution.

We also have the problem that we don't know - to the level of satisfaction required for a criminal conviction - whether the footage has been tampered with. To solve that problem, we need to store a fingerprint of the videos created at the time and recorded to an immutable audit trail.

Providing we can trust the time details recorded in the footage or find witnesses to confirm the time of the recorded events, and we can trust the timestamp of the fingerprint, then we can reliably determine the earliest and latest possible times for creation of the video data. If that "window" is narrow enough, it eliminates the possibility of tampering. Now, unless the apparent victim comes forward, without duress, and convinces us that it wasn't really a crime (it was only a gory scene staged for the camera) we will have good grounds to prosecute and a high probability of conviction.

Used like this, the technology is an example of Trusted Surveillance. But how do we separate footage deliberately taken with a view to sustaining prosecution from that taken "for a bit of a laff". Simple, we build the timestamping and web storage into the phones so that the footage doesn't have to be uploaded to Youtube as a separate operation. Uploading starts, to your own secure webspace, from the moment you start recording. And it costs you nothing.

Unless, that is, you ever want to access the data for purposes other than supporting a criminal prosecution (like posting it as entertainment up onto Youtube). Then it costs whatever the market will sustain. Your video fingerprint and record of ownership, however, can be made available to the authorities if the community votes that your footage represents an offence which should be prosecuted. It may well be that a jury would regard your failure to use the evidence as a crime of ommission on your part. That's a risk you will have to take.

Of course, this means that Youtube and others like it, need to fine tune their "flagging" systems. We need to be able to flag a video specifically as a "Potential Criminal Offence - Poster's details should be passed to the authorities for prosecution". Of course, we can't expect or require Youtube, or anyone else, to react to just one person raising such a flag. There must be genuine democratic support for the condemnation.

Once such a flag is raised, it should, in fact, become impossible for the Poster to remove it. After all, that might constitute "interfering with the course of justice". Instead, a notice should go up alongside the video inviting people to watch it and judge for themselves. Nobody should be allowed to vote unless they've watched it. That is a simple matter of cookie management. Once certain thresholds are passed, the site owners should consider themselves instructed, by the community, to act against the Poster/s of the video.

The thresholds cannot be too low. A persuasive cult or corporate could organise a few thousand drones at the drop of a hat to vote almost anything they disapproved of into purgatory. So your voting authority would have to be linked to your site activity. Another task for cookie management. It would mean that those who spend hundreds of hours on Youtube would have more voting power than someone like me, who spends, perhaps, an hour or two a week on those kind of sites. It would mean that regular community users couldn't be outvoted by voters bussed in for the gig.

So, with that "activity based weighting" in place, we'd then need a minimum of - say - 10,000 votes to be cast for any vote to matter; and a minimum 90% majority must approve of criminal prosecution before the instruction is valid.

Don't even think about trying to justify a simple majority. If 49% of the community approve of a video that is more than enough to justify it's continued presence. But if 90% disapprove, that's a reasonably powerful argument for removing it and - if appropriate - passing on relevant details to the forces of internal repression. (If the 10% desperately want to continue sharing such material, they'll have to go off and create their own site)

This arrangement gives the community democratic "teeth" which we can use to control the more outrageous examples of video nasties. It also defends the service provider. They can honestly say that the site ethics are controlled - as they should be in a democracy - by the site community. Censorship might well be justified, on occasions, but such judgements should never be made other than by We The People. We're the only ones that ought to matter.

As for weaning junior primates off this behaviour, I can think of nothing more effective than revealing, publicly, how similar their behaviour is to chimpanzees. With that in mind I propose that someone with appropriate time, energy and editing skills put together a video compilation interspersing choice examples of chimpanzee violence with teenage gang violence. Volunteers and suggested sources are hereby invited.

Once humans with reasonable intelligence begin to realise how chimplike and unintelligent their behaviour really is, then instead of their self image being boosted by peer approval, they'll all begin to realise what a bunch of pratts they really are. And it's never been cool to be a pratt...

[update 11 Aug 2007 - speaking of using Youtube postings as evidence... (irritatingly, I can't find the actual video)]


Stacia said...

You're giving "them" ideas! really they would stop before the "show them similarities" part. (That needs thinking skills)
They would just effectively censor that 10% and that would be the end of it.

Harry Stottle said...

I accept that's a risk but it's a question of "meme" management. If the footage is put together the right way, by the right people, with the right kind of piss taking satirical commentary (eg a spoof Attenborough narration) it could become a youtube favourite as a comedy item. Eventually the less evolved primates amongst us would twig that we were all laughing at them. And even chimpanzees can get embarrassed...

frontieruk said...

And even chimpanzees can get embarrassed...

Or you just promote them up the rankings and they don't care one way or the other... attention is attention for those who seek it, it doesn't matter how it comes.

Harry Stottle said...

"attention is attention for those who seek it, it doesn't matter how it comes."

I wonder if that's true. I shall have a look for research in the field...