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Rowdy sports fans: welcome to the panopticon

Your every move is being watched so think and act accordingly (aka conservatively).

orioles, baseball, panopticon

Sports Panopticon:

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The media – both traditional and social – was consumed on Wednesday with finding out who the mysterious beer tosser was at Tuesday’s epic wild card playoff game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles. To anyone who’s paying attention to technology’s larger effects on society, it was a frightening drama to watch unfold.

In a nutshell, someone in the stands at the Rogers Centre threw a half-full beer can at Orioles outfielder Hyun Soo Kim while he was trying to make a catch. The throw missed – and the catch was made – but the Orioles were understandably livid. So too were many Jays fans, and the internet in general, since the episode embarrassed the city and the home team and marred an otherwise great game.

Cue the amateur detectives, who started sleuthing together clues. Various efforts reviewed and matched broadcast footage with photos. A few theories emerged, with one pointing toward a woman and another suggesting the beer thrower was ducking for cover and therefore not viewable in photos. The most compelling identified a dour-looking man as the culprit.

Toronto police urged the thrower to turn him- or herself in, claiming they had photos. Later in the day, they did indeed release an image – the same dour individual arrived at by the amateurs. Before long, the man was identified as a journalist working for Postmedia News – I won’t name him here because it’s still possible he’s innocent.

As of Wednesday night, The Toronto Sun was reporting that the man had turned himself in. He wasn’t admitting guilt, though, on the advice of his lawyer.

“I was drinking out of a cup,” he told Postmedia, pointing to another photo that showed him with a cup in his hand. “I’d love to tell you what happened and my story … but I can’t say anything.”

Whether the man did it or not may be determined by the time anyone reads this, given the speed with which this story has moved, but that’s besides the point. So too is the throwing of the beer itself – it was clearly a reprehensible act that shouldn’t be tolerated.

The larger issues at play are the witch hunt the act inspired and also how it might affect what other people do, say and even think.

Writing for Macleans, Adrian Lee covers all of the bases – no pun intended – on why the police releasing the suspect’s photo was a bad move.

In doing so, the cops fuelled the online witch hunt. As we’ve seen on too many occasions, such mass pile-ons can ruin an individual’s life whether they’re guilty or not. The mere sniff of internet infamy is enough to tar someone for life. Just ask the Star Wars kid about that.

The other issue at play is what I’ve hinted at above – the speed with which such witch hunts can happen now. With ubiquitous cameras watching us at all times, it’s easy not just for authorities to reconstruct incidents, but also for anyone in the general public with some time on their hands.

That’s a fine capability when it’s put to good uses, but it can also backfire, such as when certain individuals were falsely accused of the recent bombings and shootings in Boston and Dallas.

But knowledge of that capability existing, and even of being falsely accused – as perhaps the alleged beer thrower in the photo has been – is enough to modify behaviour. Knowing that your life can be quickly ruined thanks to cameras everywhere that can then be manipulated and misinterpreted by anyone with a Twitter account should be enough to send chills down anyone’s spine.

We’re all effectively one unlucky moment away from disaster. What if it was someone next to you at the Jays game who tossed the beer, but the internet pounced on you instead?

Knowing this happens and that it can happen at any time is enough to cause people to behave more conservatively – to follow the rules more closely. And when people start behaving differently, they inevitably start to think differently.

Numerous studies have shown this to be the case. A 2005 British Home Office study of London’s pervasive security cameras, for one, found significant reductions in premeditated crimes in most places where they were watching.

A 2008 study on the effects of cameras in Swedish soccer stadiums found unruly behaviour – likely including beer chucking – to be two-thirds lower when they were present than when they weren’t.

A 2011 Australian study found that people were more likely to condemn the socially “bad” behaviour of others if they felt they were being watched.

The concept of better behaviour through surveillance is embodied in the panopticon, an architectural design first suggested by English social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century, and eventually deployed  in prisons around the world. The idea is to have all cells exposed to a central post so that guards can monitor all prisoners at once. With constant surveillance, it’s naturally harder for inmates to get away with anything.

Today, the omnipresence of cameras, the distributive speed of the internet and the mob mentality of social media has combined in a virtual panopticon. Just as a centrally monitored physical building can inspire so-called better behaviour, so too can a digital one.

That’s great when you’re trying to prevent crime or socially unacceptable behaviour – like throwing beer cans onto a baseball field – but who’s to say what those are, and what they will be in the future? There are plenty of things we all do today that would have invited social scorn, ostracizing or even a jail sentence not so many years ago.

Women wearing mini-skirts, for example, or using certain curse words in public are among some of the minor offences. Being anything besides heterosexual is another.

What are the things we deem illegal or unacceptable today that we may not in the future? It may be harder to know, and harder to change, because of the panopticon that is making us all more conservative without our even knowing it.

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