Watch this video from The Guardian on Camden, NJ. It’s ostensibly about police surveillance, and I was expecting to be outraged (once again…) at the use of over-the-top high technology – visual and audio surveillance – to deal with everyday crime.
But instead, what struck me was not so much the ostensible subject but the backdrop: the place itself. The areas patrolled by the officers in this film look almost post-apocalyptic. I’ve seen favelas in Rio de Janeiro that are in better shape, and many certainly seem to have more hope than this. Poverty and inequality in the USA, grounded in a history and present of racial and class exploitation, have become extreme. There’s no other way to put it.
And yet, outside of these places, which are everywhere across the USA, and ironically given the investment in technologies of visibility, the reality is invisible. The use of surveillance here is just a recognition of the lack of anything that amounts to a conception of a decent and fair society in practise, while people are still blinded by the noble goals of the USA as expressed in its constitution. This constitution means little to millions of Americans forced to live in these conditions, while being treated all the time as not even ‘potential criminals’ but simply ‘future criminals’, who will commit a crime at some point, and are destined for nothing more than to be churned through a carceral system that is in itself now a profitable and perhaps even essential component of American capitalism. However, this seems to have escaped the notice and concern of those who actually vote in elections and make decisions, whether they class themselves as liberals or conservatives, most of whom are so far removed from these conditions, physically and emotionally that they could not possibly understand.
This makes it even more bitterly ironic that The Guardian choses to title this report as ‘Minority Report meets The Wire‘, as if the only way to understand this is through fiction – that, somehow, it can’t be real. Yet here it is.
Actually, the headline (from the Toronto Metro free paper) is a little misleading as what my friend and colleague Andrew Clement is actually betting on here is that no-one can find a video surveillance system in Canada that is fully compliant with Canadian privacy law. Which of course may of may not be the same as ‘privacy’ in any other terms. But it’s an interesting challenge – that is largely to do with signage. Prof Clement and his team at the iSchool at UofT have been monitoring the way in which video surveillance systems in Canada are signed for quite some time. As their website, surveillancerights.ca (which is also where you can try to claim your $100…) says
Architecture 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.”
There is a fascinating little piece on Bldg Blog about ‘security geotextiles’ and other actual and speculative surveillance systems that are built in to, underlie or encompass whole landscapes. The argument seems to support what I have been writing and speaking about recently on ‘vanishing surveillance’ (I’ll be speaking about it again in Copenhagen a the first Negotiating (In)visibilities conference in February): the way in which, as surveillance spreads and becomes more intense, moving towards ubiquitous, pervasive or ambient surveillance, that its material manifestations have a tendency to disappear.
There is a standards kind of alarmism that the piece starts with and the assumption that such things are malevolent does strike one as an initial impression, perhaps not surprising given that the piece is inspired by yet another security tech developement – this time a concealed perimeter surveillance system from Israeli firm, GMax. Perhaps if it had begun with urban ubiquitous sensory systems in a universal design context, it might have taken a very different direction. However, what’s particularly interesting about the piece is that it doesn’t stop there, but highlights the possibilities for resistance and subversion using the very same ubiquitous technologies.
But whether hegemonic or subversive, the overall trajectory that post outlines of a move towards a machine-readable world, indeed a world reconfigured for machines, is pretty much indisputable…
There’s an interesting new research network called ‘Negotiating (In)visibilies‘, one of those fascinating interdisciplinary collaborations (or collisions) that spans architcture, urban studies, cultural studies, arts and information (and probably). I’ve been asked to be an advisor and will also be giving one of the keynotes at what looks to be a really great opening confererence in Copenhagen, February 1-2 2012. Should be fun!