Don’t Say Cheese!

Photo: Kanika Rehani

The random quality would have to do with the picture-taker: no longer just the sanctioned paparazzi and the occasional enterprising young buck who might have the balls to sneak in and discreetly aim a compact camera, but any bloke with a cameraphone.

I mean, you got invited to the show, but your buddies didn’t. How could you not snap and e-mail a few quick pics of Heidi Klum pouring out of this season’s naughty nightie? How could you be so selfish?

I’ve got a cameraphone now, even though I didn’t really realize I was getting one. All I wanted was a smallish cell phone with a built-in Palm organizer. But the supercool new Treo 600, available in New York through SprintPCS, comes with a built-in camera.

As recently as last year, digital cameras for cell phones were mostly bulky little attachments, purchased separately, which you had to piggyback onto your cell. With the newest phones, the only sign you’ve got a built-in camera is a not-so-telltale little camera eye, half the diameter of a dime, on the back of the phone itself.

There are already 6 million cameraphones in the U.S. alone. This year, 57 million will be sold worldwide. (Nearly every new cell phone Nokia introduced this fall has a built-in camera.)

That’s a lot of schmoes with cameraphones at any given Victoria’s Secret runway show. Or across from you in the subway. Or in the elevator next to you. Or at your next slightly drunken office party.

The little eye on the back of your cameraphone is not only nearly unnoticeable, the actual act of picture-taking with a cameraphone is virtually undetectable. You don’t hold the thing up to your eye, because there’s no eyepiece to stare through. Instead, you casually hold the phone out in front of you—as if you were scrolling through your phone book, or dialing a number—and look at the image that appears on your screen. Then you click the shutter by tapping a button on the keypad. If you’ve turned off the volume on your phone, as I have (because my Treo 600, like a lot of cameraphones, emits a cute little faux shutter-snapping sound), nobody knows anything’s just been captured (a cameraphone doesn’t necessarily have a flash).

But the rest of the world, if you wish, can know almost instantaneously. In all of fifteen seconds, you can e-mail the image from your cell phone (which, with the SprintPCS Vision option, goes for an extra $10 a month) to anyone with an e-mail address. Or you can upload images to any of the burgeoning number of Websites that post cameraphone pictures. Sometimes for reasons that go beyond crude voyeurism.

Last week, for instance, the British site organized a protest called “Chasing Bush” and extended an invitation to cameraphone users to submit pictures of the president, whose visit to England was planned with an eye toward avoiding confrontations with unfriendly crowds: “If you see George W. Bush, know of a possible location ahead of time, or have images of him (or protesters) to share, then send them to:” (The site’s motto: “George W. Bush thinks he can escape an angry public. He’s wrong.”) The beauty of a cameraphone is that it can turn anyone—even those of us who could never be prompted to lug around even an ultracompact camera—into an accidental activist, or reporter.

Of course, I’d wager that the Bush daughters—Jenna and Barbara—face a greater menace from cameraphones than does their dad. The Secret Service tried (and failed) to maintain a cell-phone-free zone around Bush in England last week, but surely the twins have a much more urgent need for such a protective bubble, particularly when they go out at night.

Or, worse, unwitting Underoos models. Consider, for instance, that this past spring, quick-thinking Council members in Bolton, a town near Manchester, England, banned the use of cameraphones in the changing areas and restrooms of community sports centers to prevent pedophiles from surreptitiously snapping shots of scantily clad kids. (That nice man over there is possibly not just calling his wife.)

Of course, the extremes of cameraphone misuse—like the extremes of any misused technology—are easy to get all exercised about. (A few months ago, a rumor was posted on the Internet that a group of men had used their cameraphones to record the rape of a woman in a bar in England; it turned out, shockingly, to be entirely true.) After all, rapists and pedophiles and other sickos who wished to quickly, clandestinely record their activities had digital cameras before, and Polaroid cameras before that. The crimes of the few will always stand out—and make for good eleven-o’clock-news stories that suggest that the technology involved is somehow responsible for the bad deeds. (I mean, please. Paris Hilton didn’t really need a camcorder to turn into an exhibitionist—she was already a walking sex tape. And I really don’t want to know what she plans to do with the Nokia cameraphone that “Page Six” took great pleasure in noting that she carries.)

So forget cameraphone-related criminality for a moment. The more interesting phenomenon is what happens when an image-capturing technology is suddenly being used by tens of millions of people, almost literally overnight. There are, for instance, already 2.7 million SprintPCS Vision customers—and in the third quarter of this year alone, they uploaded 23 million photos (i.e., they certainly shot many more photos, some of which they wisely discarded, but liked 23 million of them enough to actually e-mail them to people). That’s a lot of stuff suddenly being photographed that likely never before would have been photographed.

There’s also the question of what happens to our collective understanding of the relative privacy of public space. New Yorkers in particular still tend to think of themselves as virtually invisible—anonymous—in public. But when you really think about it, any time you step outside of your home, your image is being recorded. In a way, cameraphones merely democratize, or delegate, Big Brotherdom. Now, instead of just being shot by the cameras hidden in your ATM vestibule and bank and deli and pharmacy, you might get captured by any number of the cameraphones surrounding you.

“E-mailboxes were hardly lacking for pictures of your adorable babies and frisky puppies before the cameraphone explosion.”

Meanwhile, some unexpected forms of visual information are getting shot and sent, too. In Japan, for instance, there’s the phenomenon of teenage girls engaging in “digital shoplifting”—photographing a cute haircut or an adorable handbag featured in a women’s magazine, and then e-mailing the shot to friends instead of actually buying the magazine. It’s considered so serious a threat to newsstand revenues that the Japanese Magazine Publishers Association recently started up a public-information campaign complete with posters reminding readers to mind their “magazine manners.” (Lucky magazine, beware!)

The manners thing is key. The great threat of cameraphone ubiquity is probably not that creeps will be secretly taking pictures of your luscious breasts when you wear that great low-cut blouse but that you’ll be taking and sending pictures of things and people you probably shouldn’t be. (E-mailboxes were hardly lacking for pictures of your adorable babies and frisky puppies before the cameraphone explosion.)

Blogger Peter Rojas, who edits the gadget site, likens this to the e-mail effect. “It’s like how e-mail makes it really easy for every dipshit to blast off an angry missive just because it’s easy. You could always send an angry, anonymous letter to somebody—but how often did you do that, you know? Now you’re doing it all the time! It takes two seconds. You don’t have to get a stamp.”

Now, also, you don’t have to carry a camera—you’ve always got one. A cameraphone makes taking a picture way too easy, way too seamless. It practically begs you to be capturing everything, even ridiculous things.

Sort of like how an office copier begs you to pull down your pants and sit on it. Ass photocopying as a pastime did not exist before the advent of office copiers. The difference, of course, is that cameraphone picture-taking is virtually unnoticeable. Cameraphones discreetly bring a sort of antisocial behavior into social spaces. You don’t need to be all by yourself in the copier room, after hours, to engage in it.

The whole world is now the copier room.

Don’t Say Cheese!