May 26 2015

The Implications of Online Time-lapse

This is very cool – programmers have created a process with which they scour the internet for photographs. They then categorize them by subject matter, and then select groups of photos that are essentially of the same subject over different periods of time. They crop, color correct, and adjust each photo so that it matches a master, and put them together to create a time-lapse video.

The result is thousands of time-lapse videos that might have taken years to otherwise create.

This is a fun demonstration of two technological trends that are worth pondering. The first is the absolute explosion in digital data, including photographs and video. One estimate is that there were 880 billion photos uploaded in 2014. There are 27,800 photos uploaded to Instagram alone every minute. This is partly due to the smartphone revolution – a large portion of the population in developed nations walk around with a camera on them at all times.

Those cameras are getting better, which is good because they are becoming the primary camera that people use to photograph their lives. I have been going to school events, for example for the last 10 years. Over that time there has been a clear shift from dedicated cameras to cellphone and iPads. It is not unusual now to be in an auditorium with hundreds of parents, and for there to be only two or three “real” cameras in the crowd; the rest are cell phones.

As this trend continues it is interesting to ponder where it will level off. We may not be close to the ultimate extent to which our lives will be photographed and videoed. Further, we are largely doing it to ourselves. Combine this with the trend toward public cameras. Traffic cams, security cams, and other public cameras are also dramatically increasing. There is a move in this country (which, all things considered, seems like a good idea) for every police officer to wear a go-pro type camera. Drones with cameras are also becoming more common. What other trends will be added to the mix? How long before significant numbers of people are walking around with some Glass equivalent, video recording every moment of their lives.

The other technological trend is the power of computers to data mine – in this case to sift through billions of photographs to find ones of interest. This is a powerful combination: mountains of data with the power to sift, sort, locate, and analyze that data.

What I find interesting to consider is where this trend will get us. It does not seem unreasonable that eventually the density of recording devices will be so high that virtually any moment in any public space will be recorded and accessible.

This, of course, is a boon to law enforcement and security. It is also potentially a threat to our privacy.

As an example, I have already had to shift my perspective in that, whenever I am in a public space or communicating with someone electronically I assume that whatever I say or do can be made public and broadcast to the world. Some people who have not made this shift have had to pay the consequences. We pretty much have to assume a complete loss of any privacy except in our own sanctuaries, and even then electronic devices may be spying on us.

One specific aspect to consider is, who controls and has access to the data? I am not as worried about public data on the internet. The public has access to this, and therefore this data could potentially be used to protect the public. We have already seen abusive cops come to justice because of a cell phone video. (I won’t get into specific controversial cases, but you can see the potential.)

There is reason to be concerned about data that is only accessible by large corporations or the government. This, of course, is the focus of the NSA controversy. The government is sifting through billions of phone calls looking for the telltale signs of terrorists. Whether this program as currently enacted makes the optimal balance between protecting the public and spying on the public is a matter of legitimate debate. I do think this requires open and transparent discussion and oversight. This is an incredibly powerful tool to put in the hands of any government, and the potential for abuse is massive.


The online time-lapse algorithm is a cool use of this technology, but it highlights the power of big data and powerful computer algorithms. This power can be used for good, for fun, or for evil.

The technology is great, but it may be getting away from us a little bit. Perhaps we are at a crossroads where we have to think carefully about how big data will be regulated. We have to look at the big picture. Part of the problem is that individual small decisions are adding up to a big unintended effect. Taken by itself, it may be a great idea for all cops to have personal video recorders. It may make sense to have traffic cams everywhere.

But taken as a whole, all these individual uses of recording technology are eating away at our privacy. What net effect will this have on our lives?

I think the existence of ubiquitous cameras is a done deal. It is probably not worth fighting this trend. We may need to focus on who controls the data, and how to protect privacy given the existence of massive recordings.


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