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“Battle not with monsters,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, “lest ye become a monster; and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you.” Nietzsche understood that to confront a thing is to involve it in your person. To look into that thing is to allow it to look back.

The same is true of your computer’s webcam.

News broke recently of a class-action lawsuit pending against Aaron’s Inc., a national rent-to-own retailer. The Atlanta-based firm is accused of routinely installing software “in its rented computers that let[s] the company spy on customers by, among other things, taking photos with webcams.” The lawsuit stems from an incident late last year in which an Aaron’s employee allegedly showed a webcam picture of a customer to that customer in an attempt to repossess the computer in question.

Webcams, the tiny cameras sitting atop your PC or built right into your laptop, are a pervasive technology taken for granted in modern society. They are plentiful in the news. Webcam technology is, for example, being used in Boston for real-time monitoring of cardiotoxicity. Webcams also facilitate poker among players not in the same room. At Yellowstone, trespassers walking on Old Faithful can be caught by webcam spies hundreds of miles away. In Nebraska, the legislature is contemplating banning “telemed” abortions – procedures performed via webcam in which RU486 is administered to patients while the abortion doctor is present only by computer. In Italy, a former U.S. Air Force master sergeant allegedly used his computer to view real-time child pornography transmitted by webcam from the mother of a minor in Georgia.

Then there’s, PalTalk, described as “the leading real-time, video-based community with over 70 million downloads.” It’s a video chatting site that has launched mobile apps and free texting and calling. The software allows users of video chat rooms to appear to each other through their webcams. To those of us old enough to remember text-only chat rooms, the idea that each and every participant can also appear on video to see and be seen is both fascinating and repellent. When one considers how extensively such chat rooms are used for discussion and participation relative to pornography, one’s horror increases apace with one’s imagination.

Acuirimage, a “directory of independent actors, dancers, models, musicians, personal trainers, and PAs,” described what its editorial writers termed “little brother” – the rise of the webcam – as a technology influencing every industry, from child care to fashion. It highlighted, among other things one ought not be looking at in mixed company or at work, the “rise of the camgirl.”

The webcam has granted international access to the once private domains of the bedchamber, office and shower cubicle of almost every man and woman on the planet. In the mid-1990s Jennifer Ringley had the simple but contagious idea of setting up a camera in her college dormitory room. Known as “Jennicam,” which she referred to as a live broadcast of her life, this video diary of a lonely soul launched a thousand personal webcams. She was closely followed by more explicit commercial sites which introduced paid subscriptions and merchandised personal items over the Internet. …

What the webcam has created is the finite possibility that the smallest of people can in theory be viewed at any time, at will, anywhere on the planet. Privacy and anonymity are in theory abolished with the click of a mouse, although in this rapidly expanding market a webcam is often little more a distant voice in a chanting crowd. Amongst those webcam exhibitionists who crave the promise of attention, money and popularity, this had led to an explosive competition to become ever more extreme and sexually outlandish to capture a market share of attention. …

It only gets wierder from there. Set aside the lonely losers and naked exhibitionists making spectacles of themselves in front of their computers; there’s real politics and real rancor being generated and transmitted before and by webcam. In Syria, “journalists” are denouncing PalTalk chat rooms they believe are “fabricating lies” and otherwise “instigating against” that nation. (Just why video chatting software is more or less guilty than any other media of real-time communication is not clear, but then, this is Syria and Syrians we’re talking about.) Meanwhile, Dharun Ravi, the former Rutgers University student who used a webcam to spy on and broadcast his roommate’s same-sex activity, has been charged with a hate crime. The roommate committed suicide over the affair; Ravi’s own life is no less over.

Webcam technology, like all technology, is amoral. As I have written previously, you, as a rational, reasoning adult, “must strive to make informed decisions about the technology in your life. Modern technology is wonderful and does many incredible things for us, as we’ve described. It can also be misused, either by a government that uses it to take your liberty, or by individuals who fail to exercise good judgment and self-control.” The key herein, and the common thread among all webcam news stories, is this latter concept: self-control.

Whether a webcam helps soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan speak with their loved ones, see their children, and reassure their friends and families back home is a choice borne of individual self-control. So is using that webcam to expose yourself to strangers in a video chat room. The technology is neither at fault nor blameless; it simply is. The employees at Aarons Inc., if they spied on their customers, are to blame for that violation of their customers’ rights. The researchers using webcam technology to develop real-time medical monitors likewise get the credit for their innovative ideas. The technology, regardless, simply sits in or on the computer.

As its baleful, glassy eye looks into you, your webcam holds a mirror to your face. You must ask what you see … and what you will reveal. Will you use webcam technology to improve your life? Will you entertain as you are entertained, or will you debase and be debased?

The choice to be man or monster falls, as always, to you.

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