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A webcam is not so much a leering eye as the barrel of a gun

It wants to see me stripped

By Alistair Dabbs, 17 Feb 2017

Something for the Weekend, Sir? “Strip it off!” commands a disembodied voice. “We want to see what you’ve got!”

Strangers are watching me all across the Internet, waiting for the big reveal. At least, they would be if they could see anything.

I have joined a Skype conference that is to be live-streamed to the general public and, subsequently, edited into a video podcast. The problem is that my video feed remains resolutely blank.

“Strip it off!” repeats the moderating host. He means the sticky tape obscuring the webcam on my laptop — except there is no sticky tape there. In anticipation of thousands of eager eyes hungry for the full reveal, I had already whipped it away.

At least my fellow participants can now hear me clearly. This wasn’t the case a few moments ago. The instant my call into the conference was accepted, the host said “Hello Dabbsy” and I replied “Hello Hosty” whereupon all hell broke loose through my earphones. It was as if someone had flicked a switch to wake up a barnful of shouty men.

I sat there and listened to the noise for a while to see if it would go away. A lot of these shouty men seemed to be saying the same thing, repeatedly, but talking over each other… and over themselves by the sound of it. Hmm, perhaps it wasn’t a barnful but just the handful comprising the conference participants and their computer audio feeds had slipped into slow feedback insanity.

No matter. I chose to let them get on with it for a couple of minutes while I nipped off to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.

Returning to my desk and popping my earphones back in, I discovered the voices were still arguing like crazy. If anything, they sounded louder and even more insane than earlier. Indeed, they seemed to have grown somewhat angrier over the last two minutes and I could discern the name “Dabbsy!” being yelled increasingly often and ever more angrily.

It was at this point I noticed that I had inadvertently left the audio volume of the live stream video in my web browser at 100 per cent. Skype obediently fed my computer audio straight back down the line to the conference, which was then played back a few seconds later in the web live feed in my browser. And off this went back down the line again, ad infinitum.

Now, when you dial into a live-stream vidcon and hear your own words spoken back to you after a three-second delay, it’s quite obvious what you’ve done wrong. However, when the moderator and all your fellow conference participants attempt simultaneously to tell you what you’ve done wrong, all you get is an endlessly repeating cacophony of polyvocal babble screaming over itself.

When you cock up something so simply so calamitously, there is only one thing you can do. I clicked the audio mute button on my video player and feigned ignorance.

“What was happening there?” I insisted, innocently. “No, I haven’t changed anything. Have you?”

Calm has been restored but now something else is wrong. While I can see the other participants’ talking heads – that is, shaking heads, possibly at my naive attempt to divert blame – my own feed on the video wall is a stubborn black rectangle.

And thus begin the demands for me to strip off.

Like you, I keep an inch-long strip of low-tack masking tape over my laptop webcam. This hasn’t always been the case. In fact, I rejoiced when I bought my first computer to feature a built-in camera — a desktop machine, as it happens — having previously been forced to suffer the indignity of using an external USB-connected device.

I say “indignity” because having the webcam fall off its mount, drop onto the desk with a loud crack and roll onto its side at random moments throughout a web conference does little for objective perceptions of one’s professionalism. But then in those days, some fuckwit in industrial design determined that webcams should be shaped like a golf ball balanced on a tripod of stick-thin, snappable plastic legs, and weighted so feebly that even its own USB cable was heavy enough to tear it away from wherever you had securely mounted it, no matter how much Blu-tak you used.

No doubt this same design fuckwit later entered the sports industry in order to create golfballs in the shape of box cameras, affixing them to cast-iron tees via a screw mount. I do hope he or she went on to receive a similar outpouring of user affection.

So having a built-in webcam is wonderful… but only when you’re using it. The rest of the time, it sits there staring. Or not so much staring as pointing. I don’t get the feeling that I am being watched. I feel like someone is taking aim.

Long before the warnings went out concerning being recorded by pot-bellied would-be ransomware hackers while you indulge in illicit onanism as snippets of low-res naked naughtiness bump and grind across your screen, I’d had enough of staring down that barrel. I taped over the camera, same as you.

We’re not alone, either. There’s Mark Zuckerbeg, so that’s three of us. Oh, and mobile phone insurance company row.co.uk commissioned a survey recently that found some 4.2 million British adults do the same. The survey report suggests there is a strong link between this practice and the number of British men who watch online porn on a daily basis.

Either we are all adverse to being pointed at, or we’re literally a bunch of wankers.

A mere 30 seconds before the web conference is due to start, and with the host getting a little panicky, a lightbulb suddenly illuminates above my head. Aha, I thought: another bloody IoT device on the blink. I switch off the lightbulb with the aid of a clawhammer and sit back down.

And then it occurs to me. I remember now that I went for the full belt-and-braces approach a few weeks ago and installed a utility that claims to disable the webcam in software.

I secretly re-enable the webcam and feign ignorance again. “What, can you see me now?” I gush. “However did that happen all by itself?” There’s no time for accusations and recriminations, and the conference begins on schedule. An hour later, I duck out from Skype with a fleeting farewell so that nobody has the chance to raise the subject.

Webcam disabling utility goes back on. Masking tape back in place. All ready for next week’s conference, by which time I expect I will have forgotten this week’s palaver and will probably do the same thing again.

So sue me. I plead mitigating circumstances over this (hopefully) fleeting fashion for built-in webcams. Whatever I’ve done, I’ve been staring down the barrel of a gun.

Youtube Video

Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. For reasons that remain unclear, he has no qualms whatsoever about the built-in user-facing camera in his smartphone. It’s possible this is because smartphone cameras are very small. And as anyone watching you jack off to web porn might tell you, size matters… as much as screen stabilisation.

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