Anti-surveillance architecture

2-0763561030Architecture seems increasing implicated in the generation of a ubiquitous surveillance society, not simply in the relatively longstanding modernist obsession with glass and visibility, but with security increasingly considered not as option but as infrastructure. It was nice to see at least some people concerned with creating anti-surveillance architectures. Two great examples are Deborah Natsios, and Eyal Weizman, and another I recently came across (via The Verge), is Asher J. Kohn, whose Shura City project, aims to create a living environment in an Islamic cultural context, that is protected from drone surveillance. As Kohn states:

“Shura City is constructed to be livable. It is built according to local logic, using local materials, and amenable to local needs. It is meantto be alien – but not hostile – from the outside while homey and familiar from the inside. It is meant to confuse the machines and their distant operators while creating a safe zone forpeople whose lives are being rended by war. Shura City is not about judgment on the survivors or destruction of their persecutors. Shura City is about using architecture to create a space for humanity in an increasingly inhuman sphere.”

Canada and Mali

I’m privileged to be supervising some great students at all levels, but Jeff Monaghan is something else*. Not surprisingly for someone who previously worked with the awesomely prolific and engaged, Kevin Walby (now over in Victoria – who may be the young researcher I most admire in surveillance studies), he mainly uses Access to Information and Privacy requests (ATIPs – under Canada’s freedom of information legislation) as a basic method, and as far as I can see he is constantly firing these things off and sorting through them for revealing nuggets. Right now, Jeff is working in the way in which Canadian development aid, like that of many wealthy nations, is becoming increasingly entwined with a security agenda, what he calls ‘security aid’. Anyway, he’s in the news today because one of his ATIPs has revealed that Canada was engaged in planning for military intervention in Mali, of some sort, over a year ago, belying their apparent public reluctance to get involved right now.

 

Science Fiction post-9/11

I’m writing a piece right now on Science Fiction since 9/11, based around, but not entirely limited to, the themes of security and surveillance. I’ll be giving this as keynote at the Images of Terror, Narratives of (In)security conference in Lisbon on the 23rd and 24th of April this year – I am not sure where I will send it for publication yet. Because of this, I have been reading and rereading a lot of SF, but I thought I’d mention two recent works that have most impressed me. I will probably add more thoughts in the weeks to come on this topic.

intrusion-ken-macleodThe first is Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion (Orbit, 2012).  Ken MacLeod was a welcome participant at Mike Nellis’s excellent split location Glasgow / Jura workshop that marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four back in 2009, and many of his books have dealt overtly with security and surveillance themes, notably his near-future / alternative world novel, The Execution Channel (Orbit, 2007). Coming out of a period spent not only engaging with surveillance scholars, but more importantly being a Writer in Residence of the UK Research Councils’ Genomics Network, Intrusion takes place in a subtly nightmarish near-future Britain of oppressively caring forced medical intervention (in the form of a compulsory pill to cure genetic illnesses) and ongoing but nebulous terror threats, where even being seen to look too long at a piece of pro-terrorist graffiti is grounds for arrest and ‘torture-lite’ interrogation over where your loyalties lie. For a writer who has a well-deserved reputation as a pretty hardcore materialist and socialist, there are also unexplained hints of myth and magic at the edges of this work, and there is also a strong sense of what architects would call genius loci, the spirit of place, in both its London and Scottish island settings, which make the book all the richer and more satisfying as a piece of fiction. I think it’s his best novel ever, and that is coming from someone who was already a big admirer of MacLeod’s work – all of which is well worth reading.

osama_dj_final1

In contrast, Lavie Tidhar’s Osama (PS, 2011) is all edge. It is slippery, slipstreamy and dreamy and reading it generally makes you feel like you’ve been drugged or waterboarded. This novel is dominated by the image of Osama Bin Laden, but not the ‘real’ Bin Laden, for this is a world separate but somehow connected to our own in which 9/11 (and subsequent attacks) never happened. As the novel progresses one realises its alternative earth is profoundly anachronistic, even non-modern: trains still seem to be steam-powered and there is no Internet. In that world, ‘Osama’ is the vigilante protagonist of a series of hard-t0-find cult pulp novels which detail Al-Qaeda’s fictional exploits, but which fill their most fanatical readers in this other world with the belief that somehow the events of the novels are more real than their own. There is a divergence point where everything changed, but it isn’t actually 9/11 at all, it’s much further back and has to do with the Sykes-Pichot agreement which formalized the settlement of the ‘Middle-East question’ in WW1. And Osama Bin Laden, it hints, is inseperable from the history of our own world, inevitable even. Osama is reminiscent of writers like Philip K. Dick, in particular, The Man in the High Castle, and much more so, the surrealism-influenced writers who came out of the 1960s British ‘New Wave’ of SF like J.G. Ballard and Brain Aldiss (I was reminded of that very underrated post-9/11 Aldiss novel, H.A.R.M) and particularly Chistopher Priest, both in terms of his slippy alt-history, The Separation, but also the atmosphere of earlier works like A Dream of Wessex and his ‘Dream Archipelago’ sequence of stories, which he recently added to with The Islanders. But at the same time, Osama is something quite unique, rich with pop cultural allusion, irony and bathos, and frequently seems to invert or counteract its own apparent intentions.

What I’m reading, January 2013

I am going to try to do a reasonably regular round-up of books on surveillance and security that have come across my desk.

First up is Harvey Molotch’s new one, Against Security (Princeton, 2012), published just at the back end of last year, which is an excellent and wise demolition of contemporary US security culture. Wisdom is a quality that I am rather wary of attributing to any work, but Molotch’s book really has the intelligence, consideration and compassion that constitute wisdom. Plus he’s a lovely man in person, who I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time last year at the Association of American Geographer’s Annual Conference in his native New York.

Second is Zooland, by Irus Braverman (Stanford Law Books, 2013). Just out is this great book from one of the most uncategorisable and free-roaming young scholars around. Irus has written on all kinds of things from the use of trees in the Israel-Palestine conflict to the surveillance and security dimensions of automated public washrooms, and in this book, she deals with zoos, but from a governance perspective, dealing with the management and global flows of human and animal bodies, materiel and increasingly importantly, data, that make them up. There will be a glowing review of this by Kevin Haggerty in the next (double) issue of Surveillance & Society 10(3/4), out very soon.

I’ve just received a copy of Surveillance on Screen, by Sébastien Lefait (Scarecrow Press, 2013). He’s not someone I had ever come across before, but this looks to be the most comprehensive and wide-ranging study so far of surveillance cinema. I’ll be reviewing it for Surveillance & Society

As someone who was originally a historian, I am still always drawn to approaches which take a long view. Endless Empire, a collection edited by Alfred McCoy, Josep Fradera and Stephen Jacobsen (Wisconsin, 2012). A set of essays by leading historians of imperialism which adds to the longstanding debate about whether the USA is in decline as an imperial power and they are very much on the ‘decline’ side. McCoy has become one of my favourite historians largely due to Policing America’s Empire (Wisconsin, 2010), his work about US neo-imperialism, surveillance and control in the Philippines.

My other favourite working historian is Mark Mazower, and I’m just finishing his recent book, Governing the World (Penguin 2012) a major synthesis which examines the intellectual and political history of attempts to create global governance in the modern period. This was published just as I was starting to revise my article for Geoforum on global surveillance and it has helped a lot with how I have been thinking about my revisions. Among the gems in the book for surveillance studies scholars, or indeed anyone interested in government – Jeremy Bentham’s design for the Panopticon is pretty much unavoidable in this area, but I hadn’t paid much attention to the fact that he also invented the word ‘international’…

 

East Asia Drone Wars

Northrop-Grumman Global Hawk (USAF)

In one of my only posts last year, around this time, I argued that 2012 would be in the ‘year of the drone’ – and it certainly lived up to that. But we’re still only just beginning. This is already the decade of the drone. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are going to be everywhere in the coming few years (and of course not just in international disputes – I am writing about the spread of domestic surveillance drones for a major report on Surveillance in Canada that we’re producing right now).

Media outlets are reporting that the dispute over maritime territory between China and Japan is ramping up through the use of UAVs.  At the moment both countries rely heavily on conventional naval or fisheries surveillance vessels, which are limited in terms of speed of deployment and numbers. However, surveillance drones could enable a more consistent presence over the disputed islands (and more importantly the sea around them, whose fisheries and below seabed mineral resources are the real underlying issue here).

However, there are big differences in the politics and the political economy of each state’s strategic trajectory here. Japan is relying on its longstanding ‘alliance’ with the USA, and is likely to purchase US-made Northrop-Grumman Global Hawks, further emphasizing the military dependency Japan still has on the USA. China, on the other hand, is speeding up development of its own UAVs, in multiple different models. US industry sources seem more worried by alleged breaches of intellectual property rights in the drones’ design than by strategic issues – but of course, China has almost certainly had access to both hardware and software from downed US drones, which is all part of what some analysts are terming a ‘drone race’ with the USA.

and the Chinese version (Chengdu Aircraft Co.)

But this isn’t just about surveillance. Like the USA’s models, many of China’s UAVs are armed or can be weaponized very easily, and again like the USA, China has also been looking to export markets – most recently, Pakistan has been discussing the purchase of several armed drones from China, following the distinct lack of success in its own UAV development program.

The Global Hawks that Japan is buying are not armed, but this doesn’t mean that Japan is acting less aggressively here or will not in future used armed drones. Despite the post-WW2 US-imposed but popular ‘pacifist’ constitution of the country, the recent return to power of rightist PM Shinzo Abe might will mean both more heated rhetoric over territorial claims and attempts to increase the of the country’s self-defence forces: a review of Japanese military spending – with a view to increasing it – was announced just yesterday.

Drones would seem to be a politically popular choice in this regard as they do not involve putting Japanese lives at risk, or at least not directly; however the longer term outcomes any drone war in East Asia would not likely favour a Japan whose regional economic and political power is influence declining relative to China’s.