Home Cell Phones, Police and One Court Case in a Sea of Change

Cell Phones, Police and One Court Case in a Sea of Change

Change. We think about this word a lot. Politicians and pundits, reporters and innovators, we are obsessed with this notion of change. How social media changed the Arab Spring. How the iPhone changed the very nature of telephony. The fact of the matter is that change is not some overnight phenomenon. Effective change, the type of change that actually makes a difference, involves a series of events and often takes years to take shape. Unrelated instances become interconnected events that in turn make people take notice. When change comes, we may not even realize that it has happened.

Take the case of Simon Glik, a lawyer who was arrested in October 2007 in Boston. Glik saw a young man being arrested on Tremont Street near the Boston Common. Thinking the arrest looked forceful, Glik pulled out his cellphone and recorded the event. Minutes later, he himself was arrested and charged with illegal electronic surveillance. Today, Glik was awarded a $170,000 settlement from the City of Boston in a civil suit he had filed against the city. Neither Glik himself, nor his cell phone, were agents of change. But they were a piece of interconnected events that have been building up to change.

Agents of Change

This is not a tale about how “product X changes outcome Y.” In that story, cell phones change the nature of the relationship between civilians and public officials. That storyline has been beaten to death in the media and Glik’s case is certainly not a new one. Nor is it unique. Jon Surmacz, a Web producer at Boston University, was arrested in December 2008 under similar circumstances. Charges against him were later dropped, which has become a familiar pattern. In the 7th Circuit Appeals Court in Illinois the American Civil Liberties Union is currently challenging the Illinois Eavesdropping Act as unconstitutional. In Baltimore, instances where citizens record the police crop up again and again, which has led the Baltimore Police Department to codify its rules on how officers are supposed to react. Examples of citizens recording police go back to the advent of the portable video recorder. The infamous Rodney King case would have never happened had a citizen not been there to get it on tape.

If we take a step back and look at all of these events, the conclusion we draw is that advances in technology have created a rift between civilians and authorities. The technology progresses, becomes more advanced and ubiquitous, and lawmakers do not have the wherewithal to keep up with the speed of innovation. Clashes occur. People get hurt. Sometimes, people die.

The case of Glik and other similar situations are a micro issue within the macro context of change. Change and technology are cyclical.

Change and the Evolution of Communication

Seventy years after Johannes Gutenberg created the first printing press, Martin Luther translated the Bible from Latin into German. Thanks to the printing press, that translation became hugely influential, reshaping the German language and eventually resulting in what we know now as the King James Bible. English philosopher Francis Bacon would eventually say typography, as introduced by the printing press, “changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world.” The printing press led to the evolution of media, what we now call, “the press.” The press, as a medium, has gone on to cause massive change over authorities and regimes for the last 400-plus years.

In the 1950s, communism spread through parts of Europe. Berlin, in the center of the Germany that Martin Luther had changed centuries before, was split in two. On one side lived free Western-style Germans, free to the amenities and evolutions that technology afforded them. The press was not restricted in West Germany and, like most of Western civilization, information would start to flow freely as the technology that disseminated it advanced. At first, the primary vehicle was the radio. Later it became television. In the East, Germans had both televisions and radios, but much of their communication with the Western world was strangled through government-controlled media.

That would not last forever. While many people will credit Ronald Reagan or George Bush for bringing down the Berlin Wall, neither person was the deciding factor. Often overlooked in history is how shifts and innovations in the nature of communication have induced change. While Western diplomatic pressure may have helped bring down the Wall, the government of East Germany could not keep Western media from coming through those radios and televisions. It was not the technology that brought down the wall, but the information that flowed through it.

While it is still too early in historical cycles to determine what factors heavily influenced the Arab Spring, there is little doubt the ease of information flowing between the participants was a major factor. Whether that was through cellular devices, social media, radio, television or other media will be debated for years to come. Likely, it was a combination of all of the above. Malcolm Gladwell was right. Social media did not cause the Arab Spring; the fundamental change in the way information flows from one point to another did.

The Micro Within the Macro Cycle

Back to Glik. Well, not precisely. This story was never about Glik, the ACLU or cellphones. Glik’s scenario is but a vehicle to tell a story. A story of change.

Glik’s circumstance brings together a variety of agents. A cellphone. Authority figures. Federal and local courts. A prominent city. Because of the Glik case, most of Massachusetts as well as many jurisdictions within the realm of the First Circuit Court of Appeals have changed policies regarding how police officers can react to being filmed by civilians toting recording equipment.

But, to focus on Glik is to focus on the micro. What is difficult to see is the macro issue, the sea of change. It is hard to discern the macro issue right now because we are stuck in our news cycle, our perpetual upgrades and iterative innovations. An astronomer wants to see the entire Milky Way but cannot because our Sun is but one drop in a very large pool. We cannot see the rest of the pool.

No innovation since the printing press has changed the world in the way that the Internet has done over the past 20 years. But, in many ways, we are not that much different. Information breaks down barriers, changes societies. The more efficient means of capturing and disseminating that information, the more society will change. In the series of unrelated instances creating interconnected events, one court case in Massachusetts is a drop in the puddle. But, take many drops and add them together and a clearer picture starts to form. Micro issues turn into macro movements and the wheel or civilization turns ever so slowly. Eventually, we look back and wonder how we got here.

We, as humans, change society through the vehicle of technology. It has been like that for thousands of years and will continue for another thousand.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock

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