An interesting article was just posted reviewing Ben Kafka's recent book The Demon of Paperwork: Powers and Failures of Paperwork. It's interesting in pointing out the bureaucratic nature of writing, and, more importantly its optimistic promise of the power of transparency in making governments accountable. Precisely here, the gordian knot of surveillance and citizenship is tied.
A recent post in Oxford's "Practical Ethics" blog prompted me to think about some of my past work on surveillance. I've posted a few comments here.
There are two things about this post which I wanted to question briefly.
Firstly, yes, I think this is basically right, we are moving towards a surveillance society and the social and economic logics which are driving this move are seemingly inevitable. It's important to note however that although the electrification of surveillance is new, the practice of tracking and tracing citizens has a much longer history. Surveillance is linked to the history of writing, which begins not with poetry but with mesopotamian bureaucracy. Enlightenment scepticism about surveillance is rooted in a critique of this bureaucratic power. Current concerns about privacy and the integrity of individuals are only one symptom of this longer history. In this sense, surveillance is very old and public concern about its electronic and digital forms are a continuation of a longer engagement. Thinking about how to get the most out of surveillance is, then, a rather banal comment. It's a central concern of democratic cultures for the last three hundred years and is written into many of our constitutions.
Secondly, however, the author of this post passingly notes that "we all know the negatives." I disagree. Part of my previous research on this topic was to uncover some of the hidden costs and dynamics of a surveillance society. The key paradox I tried to show was that the very camera which is said to bring safety, simultaneously undermines it. The reason is that precisely by tracking an individual, it alienates them from their neighbour. We see this time and again in the way people live in highly surveillanced societies. The goal is not to get to know your neighbours, but rather to get a camera up in your neighbourhood, so that when they do something wrong they can be caught by somebody in power. This practice undermines the reciprocity of human relationships, the engagement and communitarian practices where people do not live in constant fear of who is lurking beyond their surveillanced boundaries. The very idea of total surveillance demonstrates the paradox. Human people cannot be completely surveyed. It is a practical impossibility to see all that a person is and is doing. More to the point, however, there is always an excess lurking beyond the data being tracked. This excess leaves citizens with an even more severe fear, of the "other" beyond the camera'd walls, or the "other" beyond the political reach of the particular state in power, or indeed, the various ways in which people always find ways to circumvent the surveillance apparatus. The farce of "360 degree surveillance" only perpetuates the possibility that such a goal may, in the end, produce the least safe society in human history.
A recent Brazilian film, Neighboring Sounds, directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho, explores this dynamic of safe, surveillanced building complexes in neighborhoods that are springing up all over the globe. The geographer Emanuel Castells' notion of a "space of flows" is relevant here, in that it is increasingly possible to land in any city in the world and enter a frictionless, glass walled pleasure ground just like the one you came from. All the while the makeshift rick-shacks of the have-nots and service class live just out of view. The film brilliantly captures the paradox of the safety these neighborhoods promise. The soundtrack and camera work both foster a sense of unheimlich, of terror. As the film critic A. O. Scott commented, "No one can quite see or hear what is coming, but something is out there, just on the other side of the whatever we think keeps us safe."
In the end, I agree that surveillance is an inevitable part of contemporary society and will continue. So too, the idea of enlightenment surveillance is redundant. Enlightenment thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, who promoted independent thought and self-governance were acutely aware of the power of governments to survey their citizens. However, this very recognition of the longer condition of surveillance should make us even more critical of its current uses and abuses. The "negatives" are not well known, and turn out to be far more problematic and paradoxical than a mere concern for privacy might suggest. A luddite response is impossible at this stage. We must think technology through.
“Gail Albert Halaban began looking into other people’s windows six years ago, soon after moving to New York. She was living across the street from a 24-hour flower shop, waking up at all hours with a newborn baby, and the shop was the most reliable show in town. Then, when the store changed owners and hours, she said, she needed something else to watch... The photographs here come from her continuing project/obsession, ‘Out My Window,’ taken from the apartments of people who like to look into their neighbors’ lives. Fifty images from the series will be published in book form by powerHouse on Sept. 18.”
- "They Know They Are Being Watched?" - http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/?p=118320
“Imagine, he suggests, a photojournalist covering a presidential speech whose audience includes a clutch of protesters. Using a traditional camera, he says, ‘I could easily set my controls so that what’s in focus is just the president, with the background blurred. Or I could do the opposite, and focus on the protesters.’ A Lytro capture, by contrast, will include both focal points, and many others. Distribute that image, he continues, and ‘the viewer can choose—I don’t want to sound professorial—but can choose the truth.’” - “The Revolution in Photography,” The Atlantic Monthly, http://bit.ly/rKfXXO
One of the interesting things I wrote about surveillance some years ago now is that it comes in two forms. On the one hand, it’s used by governments to discipline certain segments of its populace such as prisons, and, as is common now, public spaces such as urban centres, shopping malls, and high traffic areas. On the other hand, cameras are now in people’s hands, and can be used to reverse the gaze, thus instituting reciprocity in an apparatus designed to refuse any relationality. Whereas the typical surveillance camera is high up and conceals the watcher, the hand held camera is up close and personal at ground level and brings the seen into relation with the seer. The power of the hand held camera became the source of a major scandal at the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib, as guards used their hand held cameras to document the abuses occurring there, but so too, we are seeing the hand held camera used to record voter fraud, most recently in Russia, as the NY Times reports:
Mr. Duda is one of a number of freelance election observers in Russia, who, with the help of hand-held cameras and smartphones, have grown increasingly successful at frustrating voter fraud here. - http://nyti.ms/tIeiJb
“…many users do not understand that Facebook’s tag suggestion feature involves storing people’s biometric data to re-identify them in later photos.”
“There are many risks,” Mr. Caspar says. “People should be able to choose if they want to accept these risks, or not accept them.” He offered a suggestion for Americans, “Users in the United States have good reason to raise their voices to get the same right.”
“Face Recognition Makes the Leap From Sci-Fi,” http://nyti.ms/vrRpW3
“As our world becomes increasingly instrumented and we have the capabilities to collect and connect the dots between what people are saying and the context they’re saying it in, what’s emerging is an ability to see new social structures and dynamics that have previously not been seen. It’s like building a microscope or telescope and revealing new structures about our own behavior around communication.” -Deb Roy, “The Birth of a Word,” http://bit.ly/qM1sOc
Although the Google search engine may be seen as benevolent, Google Street Views present a universe observed by the detached gaze of an indifferent Being. Its cameras witness but do not act in history. For all Google cares, the world could be absent of moral dimension.” - Jon Rafman, http://wp.me/pY8Oz-2h2
Since Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, the importance of maps for national identity has been a commonplace in humanities discourse. Whereas the physical geographer measures the physical world in order to make a map, the cultural geographer measures the map in order to understand how people make their worlds. What then does the cultural geographer make of Google Maps? One little inkling can be found in a recent article in the Paris Review, “The Grand Map,” by Avi Steinberg:
Still, we have succeeded at folding many unruly miles of earth, from Manhattan to the Arctic Circle, into our own Grand Map. And, using our newfound ability to step through the cartographic looking glass, we began making discoveries… First, we noticed the fantastical creatures. The boxes with legs, the transcendent weirdos, the off-duty robots and headless zombies, the sad-sack centaur. Then things got a bit more serious. Sin entered the map.
Wall Street Journal reports on The Truthy Project. “In an era of digital deception, scientists at Indiana University are using Twitter to investigate the nature of truth, lies and politics.” - http://on.wsj.com/nqIHEs
Living in Manchester for seven years left me with an irrevocable affection for the UK, and an inevitable sadness when things seem to go haywire. Making sense of the riots raised a few thoughts.
1. Was this thugs thieving long lusted after Adidas? Or were these the signs of social unrest and eventual revolution? Most of the media seemed intent on painting the former picture, while the latter was represented in the usual suspects of leftist anti-capitalists. Slavoj Zizek, one of the latter motley crew, was quick to make a number of important points in this regard, concerning the riots’ links with the Arab spring, and the question mark which hangs over these protests’ ability to result in any genuinely new social order. However, what most interested me was his citation of Zygmunt Bauman:
Zygmunt Bauman characterised the riots as acts of ‘defective and disqualified consumers’: more than anything else, they were a manifestation of a consumerist desire violently enacted when unable to realise itself in the ‘proper’ way – by shopping. As such, they also contain a moment of genuine protest, in the form of an ironic response to consumerist ideology: ‘You call on us to consume while simultaneously depriving us of the means to do it properly – so here we are doing it the only way we can!’
And this follows on to one of the most insightful eyewitness comments I found, which depicted the riots as a kind of carnival. Although social unrest seemed indicative at certain points, the riots quickly degenerated into public revelry, hooded masquerade, something more akin to Mardi Grass and a temporary suspension of law. As one commentator put it,
When I got to Debenhams I saw people walking in and out of the smashed door and window as if they were doing their shopping… I saw people watching, open mouthed, struggling to take it all in. What I didn’t see — and this really amazed me — was the police. Not a single one… Some of the group threw footballs out of the store and these started being kicked around St Johns Rd as the mob laughed and ran amok.
2. What got me writing about the riots was the the article in today’s NY Times, which framed a series of concerns over the relationship between social networking and the riots, or, more to the point, how particular networks, such as Blackberry’s RIM, were being used to circumvent police monitoring.
The Times reported that the UK government is currently not interested in closing down or limiting social media, but rather, ensuring that it is open to police surveillance monitoring. Blackberry networks were singled out because they lacked necessary transparency. The Times reported:
The government’s home minister, Theresa May, according to one account of the meeting, said that the aim was not to “discuss restricting Internet services,” but to instead “crack down on the networks being used for criminal behavior.”
Blackberry’s RIM network is now being asked to allow police access in the UK, as they’ve already done in Saudi Arabia. Freedom of speech, it seems, will now only be granted on the condition that it comes with sufficient transparency. And here we are confronted with the absurdity of social media utopian ideologies which baldly link Facebook use to political revolution.
The absurdity of the ideology can be seen in two of the brave new world’s most hypocritical proponents. Julian Assange’s closets have recently been opened, and it turns out Mark Zuckerberg’s been hiding Facebook’s financial profile from investors, as well as its smear campaigns against its rivals.
But the more sinister face of transparency’s absurdity was seen in the quick response to the UK riots by the Iranian government, which offered to send an envoy to investigate civil rights abuses. So too, as the NY Times cited:
In China, The Global Times, a government-controlled newspaper, praised Mr. Cameron’s comments, writing that “the open discussion of containment of the Internet in Britain has given rise to a new opportunity for the whole world.”
Whether it’s the UK, Iran, China or Saudi Arabia the concern is not with closing down social media for fear of revolution, but, rather, opening it up to more pervasive surveillance in order to control it.
Deny transparency and you will quickly be met with the question: What do you have to hide? And it is precisely here that I would suggest the real root of global interest in the Assanges of the world can be seen. It’s not that he leeks usually already known state secrets to his wiki. Rather, the interest is in the resulting denial of transparency itself. When governments deny Assange, they expose the absurdity of their own increasing demands for transparency, and, more importantly, why their citizens fail to deny it to them.
A further comment: Hanah Arendt linked transparency to totalitarianism in her philosophy after the second world war. In brief, she radicalized Heidegger’s philosophy of truth as aletheia or un-concealment, by taking it out of the philosophers’ mountain huts and ivory towers and bringing it into the public sphere. She argued for a kind of clearing, openness and transparency, which she linked to the public sphere of debate. This vision of transparency cut against her definition of totalitarianism. For Arendt, totalitarianism was not to be identified with the dictator, strictly speaking, but in the flattening of public life into a single party state where political difference becomes impossible. Thus, truth requires public openness and debate in order to refuse the totalitarianisms of the second world war.
The irony, again, is that the ideology of transparency is more often used to squelch political difference and debate today, than to foster it. This was a point which was made even more absurdly by Tony Blair, the champion of UK Freedom of Information legislation, who admitted in his memoir and in an interview with Andrew Marr in 2010, that it is virtually impossible to get government business done if politicians cannot speak freely and openly to each other behind closed doors. As he put it in his book: “Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot.”
The question I’m left with is the degree to which a transparent public sphere of debate as Arendt envisions it, is still thinkable today. Is transparency still a workable political ideal? For my part, in my past work, the networks of surveillance were the place to look when beginning to rethink public space. A few more years writing on my current project on the origins of the codex book, and then I’ll address surveillance again.
Errol Morris has been working on a documentary about the photographs of Sabrina Harman smiling over a dead body at Abu Ghraib. It’s an important and interesting investigation into what he argues is a miscarriage of justice aided and abetted by the horror evoked by this picture. Horror, he argues, which plays on some of our most primal human understandings of the meaning of Harman’s smile. Morris’s argument is based on his investigations and many interviews with the people involved in the Abu Ghraib scandal, and are all well footnoted in the blog article he wrote for the NY Times this week. The heart of Morris’s argument goes something like this: 1) The institutional military system at Abu Ghraib was corrupt; 2) the deceased man in the photo was murdered, most likely, by interrogators; 3)the photo of Ms. Harman was taken largely out of curiosity and in a series intended to document the murder and its cover up; 4) Harman’s smile is not genuine joy, but camera cheese. As Morris concludes:
“And so we are left with a simple conundrum. Photographs reveal and they conceal. We know about al-Jamadi’s death because of Sabrina Harman. Without her photographs, his death would likely have been covered up by the C.I.A. and by the military. Yes, at first I believed that Harman was complicit. I believed that she was implicated in al-Jamadi’s death. I was wrong. I, too, was fooled by the smile. Abu Ghraib is all about the blame game. M.P.’s blaming M.I. M.I. blaming the civilian contractors. And everyone blaming the ‘bad apples.’ Harman didn’t murder al-Jamadi. She provides evidence of a crime, evidence that this was no heart attack victim. She took photographs to show that ‘the military is nothing but lies.’ At the very least, to show that she had been lied to by her commanding officer. It is now our job to make sure that her photographs are used to prosecute the people truly responsible for al-Jamadi’s death.”
Morris’s brilliance is his ability to create a sense of gravity around the meaning of Harman’s smile. It’s a catchy way to engage the story because of some very basic features of our humanity. For instance, we tend to smile when smiled at. Part of the reason this picture evokes such horror is because we realize Harman is smiling over a corpse. We associate her smile with sadistic pleasure over a death she must surely be responsible for. The picture doesn’t give us the context. Rather, it enraptures our basic primal fears and anxieties about death, which, in the end, must find a scape goat. That scapegoat, inevitably, became Ms. Harman. Morris’s point is that when you look at the evidence, she and her fellow guards realized what had happened to the detainee that had died. Upon seeing the man’s injuries they realized he had not died of a heart attack as they had been told by their superiors. From Harmann’s diaries from this time, it is quite clear she was not happy, nor without disgust concerning the lies being propagated by the system at Abu Ghraib.
But the picture remains. Why the smile? Morris brings in a facial expressions expert to prove that it is not genuine joy expressed in the picture, but rather a “say cheese” smile. This is consistent with Harman’s own testimony. It is also consistent with they way they went back to take more incriminating evidential pictures of the body which had been beaten to death, then cleaned and covered up in a body bag on ice in a padlocked room.
There are a couple of further points which I’d like to make that Morris comments on, but doesn’t draw out their political consequences.
The Power of the Personal Camera
The first concerns the use of the camera at Abu Ghraib. In my Master of Arts dissertation, The Urban God of Surveillance Society, I argued that the surveilance camera distances and fragments insofar as it takes the position of an all seeing deity and demands unique identification markers to single people out and police them. Furthemore, the experience of being under surveillance, as Michel Foucault points out, creates a kind of subjectivity. It shapes the way we think about ourselves in relation to others. The technology was applied to prisoners in the past and still is. Now, however, it is applied to the wealthy insiders who can afford to live in the recently Disneyized city centers and gated communities around the world.
I am not a Luddite. Although I question the uses of surveillance in our cities, and argued for the need to develop communal practices that foster solidarity and community in our cities, I also argued that the personal camera may be a way in which the more sinister aspects of surveillance societies can be challenged. I specifically cited Abu Ghraib in this example as a concentration camp which was radically reversed by the use of a private camera. The surveillance camera fosters distance, fragmentation, and disengagement. However, the camera in the hands of the individual fosters reciprocity, emotion and engagement. The angles are from below as people look at each other and take pictures. They are not above, but at a human level. So too, they are close, detailed and able to capture emotion much better than the surveillance camera typically does. Thus, in the center of a concentration camp like Abu Ghraib, people caught in a dehumanizing system were able to humanize it.
One concern here was that the personal camera was also used to exploit at Abu Ghraib. Wasn’t it just part of the surveillance system in the hands of the guards? This is, in some sense true. But, in fact, as Morris argues, without Ms. Harman’s photos the system would have covered up a murder. Furthermore, she was in fact as horrified by what had happened as we all were. She came to realize that a cover up had occured, and they went back to document it. Morris points out how her fake cheesy smile proves it.
Radical Homo Sacer
The second issue I want to raise concerns the term OGA. OGA is a military abbreviation for “Other Government Agencies.” As Morris puts it:
“The C.I.A. and various associated groups are referred to in the military as O.G.A. – Other Government Agencies. Curiously, ‘O.G.A.’ also refers to prisoners not ‘logged’ into the system, prisoners without identification numbers. The fact that they are not logged into the system rendered them officially ‘not there,’ even though they were. Another term captures their status of ‘being there’ and ‘not being there.’ They are called ‘ghosts’ – ghost detainees and ghost interrogators. Many soldiers refer to Swanner’s interrogation of al-Jamadi as ‘an O.G.A. interrogating an O.G.A.’ – preserving the sinister double anonymity of the scene in the shower room.
This is a really important point. OGA refers both to groups like the CIA, but also to prisoners not logged into the prison, but who are clearly there. Morris interviewed a fellow who came into the prison and had too learn its procedures. Upon asking about detainees not on the books, he was told they did not exist in the prison, i.e. they were not there.
Another way to talk about OGAs is in terms of an extreme form of homo sacer. This is a term Georgio Agamben’s develops for the political identity of those who are not given full existential rights as citizens, but nonetheless are still people and are not to be killed. The prisoner in Guantanamo Bay is a kind of homo sacer, insofar as the laws of the United States do not fully apply to them. They can be held without trial, for instance. The prisoners in Abu Ghraib, were, in a sense a kind of homo sacer as well. They existed in a no man’s land with limited legal rights such as those ensured by the Geneva Convention as well as military imprisonment laws, but little else. Because of the “state of exception” under which they are held, it becomes possible to begin questioning the degree to which they should be protected as full human beings. They category of citizen becomes a stand in for their existential status more fully. It makes sense then, that questions about torture are often couched in terms such as special treatment. Special treatment for special kinds of people stored in special no-man’s-lands. Torture is wrong, but are some forms of interrogation possible for special cases? Killing is still wrong, but does it really apply to the people who don’t really exist? Out of the context of Abu Ghraib or Guantanimo Bay, these questions seem absurd. And yet, they become possible precisely because of the political categorizations applied in these circumstances.
The OGAs are, therefore, a kind of radical homo sacer. Because they are not listed on the records, they do not technically exist under whatever law or convention which might apply to them.
What I find interesting about the radical category of the OGA is that it applied both to captor and captive. This seemed to create a kind of biopolitical zone for these OGAs to work and do their business within. No one was supposed to die. This was off limits. And yet, because they all had been given freedom from the constraints of a recorded existence, exploitation and eventual death was sure to occur. Why? Because once the law is gone, all people are left with is the pressure a life can take. All we are left with is the biology, the flesh and bone. There is no intrinsic value of the person given to them by God or a legal system which assumes a law giver. People become things to be exploited.
Questions for Today
The creation of sacred antinomian zones where people don’t fully exist is important to pay great attention to for a number of reasons, but two stand out to me at the moment:
Firstly, because the creation of homo sacer is a pattern which we see time and again. When do genocides happen? How does it become possible to destroy an entire race or category of person? The first stage is they have to be given an in-human status. Their existence under the law has to be eroded, changed, and or removed. This is what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany.Those that didn’t recognize it quickly enough paid with their lives. It continues to happen however, to refugees around the world. Just this week in South Africa, residents lashed out at refugees flooding in from Zimbabwe and other oppressive regimes and war torn countries. The lesson here is simple, if you live in any society without full rights under the law, you are vulnerable. When the chips are down and people start to look for scapegoats to appease the loss of their job, rising food and fuel prices, etc. foreigners, the not fully real citizens, often pay. It’d be nice if this didn’t apply to other western countries as well, but we only need to look at the human trafficking records to note that whole categories of enslaved people are being exploited all around us. The first step to adequate response is to give people, no matter their circumstance, full political and ontological status. Just becuase a person is a prostitute, does not mean that they can be overlooked, discarded, or simply flitered out of the snazzy down town into some seedy suburb nobody cares about.
Secondly, the creation of homo sacer, raises a question concerning the value of a strictly legal conception of rights and citizenship. In other words, when the law becomes the basis for a phantasy deity, a law giver, then once the law is removed from certain people, they lose their existential value. No God can save them. Without the protection of the law, people don’t fully exist. It’s like when you go to get a government certificate like a passport or driver’s license and you are asked to provide identification. You don’t have it because you are there to get it. Suppose your house burned down and you lost all identification and couldn’t remember you proper numbers? You’d have a serious problem of existence at that point. Could you get health care? Could you hold your neighbor accountable if you have no legal status of your own? In other words, you become the immigrant, the homo sacer. It’s important to imagine because I think most of us consider our existence to be self grounded. However, legally and politically it may not be. At least, this is a question that is raised by events at Abu Ghraib, and, as well, whenever immigrants are exploited or abused around the world. Is the law enough? Or do we, in the end, need a more thoroughgoing account of the intrinsic value of the human person that goes beyond their legal status? How do we ensure that such value is accounted for in our legal systems?
Certainly, we can assume that whenever homo sacer is created in our societies, it should be challenged and questioned before the consequences of such a status are lived out as they inevitably will be. But so too, we must be careful not to become complacent with the fiction that the law alone can protect us. Laws are made precisely because they have already been broken. They are retrospective of our account of the human conditions of the day. What is needed therefore, is an account of human existence which is grounded irregardless of what a person does or where they are located in any particular legal system, be it Abu Ghraib, South Africa, or, in our own cities and suburbs.
This was a quote which rang home to me this week. It was my quote of the day on my Google homepage this past Monday.
We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real? - Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
No amount of fences or security or surveillance cameras will ever provide an adequate response to what happened at Virginia Tech this week. All these techniques could be part of a solution, but more security and surveillance are just knee jerk stop gaps to “quick fix” a problem which ultimately requires a more full bodied wisdom to resolve. It seems to me that we need to come to terms with the fact that the more police and security approach has the side effect of fostering greater alienation and distance between those on the inside of the surveillanced boundaries and those on the outside. The outsiders inevitably come in. The Twin Towers fell at the hands of global outsiders to western society. The London bombings were enacted by British citizens relegated to the council estates outside Birmingham, and the Virginia shooter was a socially alienated college student.
Could it be that part of why Cho was left to his own devices is because we have developed categories of human waste in our societies that allow people to be disregarded as weird and different? Isn’t our response to people like Cho just to disregard them as freaks or the evil ones destined to do what they did? Don’t we just hope that they’ll be caught and filtered out of our society into prison, or the outlands and byways of our city centres? Isn’t the real shock for the people of Virginia Tech that it could happen to them in one of the citadels of western enlightenment?
Could Cho have been helped? Could what have happened been prevented? To speak of such things is at this point ridiculous and morose. Silence may be the best policy for a while. But it seems to me that a lot depends right now on whether we brand Cho as a psychotic image of pure evil that was fatalistically destined to do what he did, or as a person like so many others in our culture who have, over a period of time, given themselves over to evil in a way that could have been prevented had someone stepped in earlier. Eventually we will have to face the fact that there are many more Cho’s in our midst and that banishing them as the “evil ones” only serves to further isolate them in their own neuroses. The drug addict, the homeless, the immigrant - at what point do we stop and get bothered about the isolated and overlooked in our society?
The suicidal murderer at Virginia Tech was once a lonely child in desperate need of help and support. When did he just become another angry isolated teenager? When did such a category of human being become an acceptable justification to disregard and ignore? It seems to me that now more than ever Bradbury’s quote rings true: “we need not to be let alone.”