Last week, I gave grand rounds at a small hospital in Northern California, and they filmed it for medical staff who couldn’t attend in person. A few days later I attended a drug policy conference where every talk and every comment from the floor was filmed. My university has a deal with YouTube to post many lectures for whoever wants to watch them. Any student at any university can video lectures on a cell phone or laptop videocam. My working life, and those of my colleagues, is increasingly going straight to video.
I can see the upsides: Progressively cheap technology frees audiences from the constraints of time and location. If you have a surgery scheduled during grand rounds, no problem, you can watch it later when you have time. More importantly, a kid in Cairo who gazes mesmerized at the stars and dreams of being an astronomer can view a Stephen Hawking lecture at the neighborhood Internet Cafe or even at home if his family can afford web access with a reliable broadband connection.
Yet I also have two anxieties. The first is that being filmed all the time can accentuate some of the bad impulses to which all people, including professors, are subject. A professor who delights in his or her reputation for obnoxiousness or withering comments may be tempted to engage in such behavior more often if there is a chance a video-gone-viral could be the result. I also worry about the untenured assistant professors who want, at a conference for example, to put a controversial but important idea up for debate in front of colleagues for critique before it goes into the film-and-web-o-sphere. Will they censor themselves knowing that if the idea turns out be ridiculous or offensive, it will be preserved forever and more broadly distributed? Will professors who aspire to be deans or provosts (or simply hate public controversy) shy away from anything other than the safest, most banal pronouncements lest their filmed remarks come back to haunt them later?