What Would You Do?

I was recently turned onto an ABC News series called "What Would You Do?," (I don't watch TV, but evidently this show has been around for a while) which examines how everyday people react to awkward but realistic scenarios such as bullying, questionable parenting and other obnoxious behavior. The scenarios I watched included a group of teens bullying a gay teen, parents reacting against their daughter's interracial marriage announcement, a mother ditching her two young girls on the streets and having them walk home, two boys bullying two children for having gay parents, a mother trying to get her four year old to dress provocatively for a beauty pageant, and so on. After showing how people react, the hidden cameras come out and the host debriefs the unsuspecting people and question why they reacted the way they did.

Not surprisingly, people's reactions ranged from awkward silence to direct intervention. The show didn't reveal how much footage they had, and how much they had to edit out for easy juxtaposition. But, from the few clips I saw, it seems that there really are a lot of good citizens out there who will do the right thing.

After watching the clips, I did the obvious, which is to fantasize what I would do in each scenario. Not having a big, menacing build, I'm not likely to intervene in situations where I could potentially get the crap kicked out of me, but I'd like to think that I would step in when someone is really acting out of line. I'm also guessing that it's a lot easier to fantasize what one would do than actually doing it when the occasion calls for it.

Watching the show gave me another thought: What if we intervene not because we want to intervene, but because we fear being caught on camera not intervening? With cameras (privately on smartphones; publicly in surveillance videos) ubiquitous now, it's not hard to be caught on camera in a compromising position, even without a hidden camera crew. Every time any kind of incident happens, the news and social media seem to analyze every minute action in meticulous detail. Yet, does this panopticon make us behave better? More importantly, if being watched does make us behave better, should we be watched more often?

It reminds me again of the scary presentation by Jesse Schell (whom I talked about before), who suggests that we gamify life and make our actions and behavior trackable, so that future generations can look back at us and see whether we behaved in ethical ways. In doing so, we might live healthier, work harder, be nicer, kinder, and gentler. 

But that's crazy. That creates something similar to what historian Daniel Boorstin had termed a "pseudo-event," (before the notions of hyperreality and postmodernism were in vogue), where events are staged just so that they can be talked about. Except, in today's case, every moment of our lives is a potential pseudo-event waiting to happen and go viral. (As I'm typing this in a Starbucks, I can count about 15 cameras ready to be turned on, including two of my own.)

I don't think we're at a time when our first thought during an incident is to worry about whether a camera is capturing footage. But we're getting there. I'm also guessing people like Schell are too cynical and are wrong. We don't need to be tracked in order to do good. Most of us are good. To be good because we fear being caught not being good, is a poor substitute for ethical behavior.