Capturing history as it happens

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Small technology innovations continue to create enormous ripple effects in ways that we don't see in the early stages. This phenomenon is playing out right now with a device you probably carry in your pocket or purse.

For the past two weeks, the world has been riveted by a grainy video of the last moments of Saddam Hussein. Millions have watched on their computers as the former Iraqi dictator mounted the stairs to the gallows amid the taunts of spectators and plunged through the trapdoor to his death.

This video was recorded not by a media organization but by an unidentified individual using a camera phone. Its impact has been rapid and far-reaching, generating international condemnation of the execution, arrests in Iraq and, tragically, at least two copycat suicides by young people. Google already lists nearly 3 million citations of the video, along with 1,000 articles in mainstream media.

It's hard to believe that camera phones, which already make up 80% of new cell phone sales, have been commercially available for less than seven years. Yet on their current trajectory, 1 billion people will have this capability within five years. This will transform our world.

There's nothing new about individual citizens playing a role in capturing historic events. What's revolutionary is the sheer numbers. How would the world be different today if there had been 100 Abraham Zapruders in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963? What if we had been able to watch the 1989 events in Tiananmen Square from the perspective of the protesters? How will the justice system change when witnesses to a crime can provide video evidence of what they saw?

All of this is feasible today, and quality and accessibility are continually improving. Within five years, it will be possible?and affordable?to transmit streaming video images from a cell phone. Specialty Web sites will spring up for everything from sports video to voyeurism. The concept of media exclusivity will vanish. There will be vigorous debate over issues of privacy, intellectual property and legal admissibility. Governments will impose regulations. Users will circumvent them. All because a technology innovator named Philippe Kahn figured out a way to turn telephones into lenses on the world a decade ago.

There are big implications for business, too. Your employees and executives will be more accountable for their actions. Secrecy will be harder to maintain. But there are opportunities, too. You may harness this technology in exciting new ways to connect your employees and customers. There will be viral marketing and consumer-generated advertising prospects. The pros and cons will be debated for years, but there's no doubt that the world of video media is about to change in fundamental ways.

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