surveillance and the sentient city



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Flee visibility. Turn anonymity into an offensive position … Take up arms. This line from Tiqqun/the Invisible Committee’s 2007 text The Coming Insurrection is pretty memorable, as clarion calls go. Arguably, the likes of Anonymous and various lulsectarian factions have been making quite an un/attributed name for themselves doing just this. There’s a few great treatments on the subject at Triple Canopy that are well worth a read—Gabriella Coleman’s Our Weirdness is Free and David Auerbach’s Anonymity as Culture: Treatise and Case studies.

What I’d love to see, however, is a treatment of /b/ and 4chan—the “asshole solar anus of the internets”—in terms of Bataillean excess. And especially, readings on A-culture as an insurrectionist enactment of Social War; as an digitalised bleeding of the same injuctions to flee, become untraceable, fetishise certain militancies. In a way, DDos attacks and other forms of hacktivism aren’t that different from their syndicalist wrench-in-the-spokes or civil rights flood-the-[institution] counterparts. As Gabriella Coleman pointed out at last night’s Triple Canopy event, they share civil disobedience’s reliance on a politics of recognition, spectacle, and mediatic amplification. If tens of thousands of people marched in New York’s streets on the first of May and mainstream media didn’t report on it, was it just a collective, consensual delusion? Livestreaming or it didn’t happen.

Yet as the crusty class rules everything around me aesthetic wanes with earnest attempts to legitimise Occupy—read: distance the movement from the spectre of the Black Bloc—bandannas seem to be losing their subpoena envy-inducing cache. CV dazzling, while delightfully theatrical, would similarly seem to attract the attention of passers-by, even as it deflects computer vision. (Here, the evolution of Japanese street fashion might be understood as a spookily prescient preparation for the coming surveillance society). Outerwear, it would seem, can only provide so much protection.

So how do you escape detection in today’s increasingly surveilled, networked, and coded urban spaces? Mark Shepard’s Sentient City Survival Kit may be a good place to start. Not unlike Anonymous, the project shares an ethos of disidentification, autonomy, and protecting personal privacies coupled with a radical institutional transparency. Rather than actions, however, it produces a set of objects and artifacts and strategies for survival in the near-future sentient city. They say:

As computing leaves the desktop and spills out onto the sidewalks, streets and public spaces of the city, information processing becomes embedded in and distributed throughout the material fabric of everyday urban space. Pervasive/ubiquitous computing evangelists herald a coming age of urban information systems capable of sensing and responding to the events and activities transpiring around them. Imbued with the capacity to remember, correlate and anticipate, this “sentient” city is envisioned as being capable of reflexively monitoring our behavior within it and becoming an active agent in the organization of our daily lives.

Few may quibble about “smart” traffic light control systems that more efficiently manage the ebbs and flows of trucks, cars and busses on our city streets. Some may be irritated when discount coupons for their favorite espresso drink are beamed to their mobile phone as they pass by Starbucks. Many are likely to protest when they are denied passage through a subway turnstile because the system “senses” that their purchasing habits, mobility patterns and current galvanic skin response (GSR) reading happens to match the profile of a terrorist.

Among these artifacts are the ‘Ad-hoc Dark (roast) Network Travel Mug,’ designed to create ‘dark,’ or secret networks for communication—or filesharing—on the morning commute. A dozen mugs should be enough to ‘wire’ an entire train; messages are instantaneously received, and are broadcasted via a ‘drinking gesture’ that exposes the bottom of the object. There’s also the Serendipitor app to facilitate circuitous psychogeographic wanderings, including suggestions for ways to interface with the built environment—“Walk towards the heart of the city. if the city has no heart, give it one” is particularly lovely. Lingerie gets a turn too, with the His-and-Hers RFID Under(a)ware line. It’s designed to sniff out hidden Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag readers, and alert the wearer by activating small, strategically embedded vibrators sewn into the pink lace or grey spandex.

Finally, there’s the anti-computer vision ‘CCD-Me-Not Umbrella,’ stylishly studded with infrared LEDs that are visible only to CCD surveillance cameras. When turned on at night, the LEDs work to frustrate the cameras’ detection algorithms, with their flare essentially ‘blinding’ any watching lenses. Right now, the umbrella wold only seem to have night-time applications, but still seems like a good start. As chips and other hardware get ever smaller and less obtrusive, the danger of these technologies—a digitally shouty version of name tags sewn into school uniforms, perhaps—being misappropriated and misapplied seems ever greater.

There are legal questions too. In many cities, wearing any kind of facial mask—feathered, balaclavic or otherwise—is a criminal act. Advocates of French legislation outlawing overt displays of religious affiliation—including the Muslim and Sikh covered hair—similarly cite questions of national security that require its denizens to be as identifiable as possible. Even in something as innocuous as being pulled over for speeding, a failure to provide appropriate identification upon demand has its long-standing ramifications. A blanket outlawing of any attempts to resist identification and surveillance doesn’t seem too far off.






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rahel aima

rahel is editor-in-chief at THE STATE. Her research interests include alternative futurisms, auntycapitalist praxis, and full #cccccc. She is currently based in Dubai, and can also be found at here & here. @cnqmdi





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