I just received notice of a fashion show: not the kind of thing I used to blog here back when I was blogging regularly – hello again BTW, this will be the first post in a revival of this blog, apart from anything else I miss the combination of disciplined regularity and almost random new directions that blogging brings – anyway, the fashion show is by a New York artist, Adam Harvey, who will present various items designed to counter surveillance of different kinds.
There has been a growth in both surveillance and anti-surveillance clothing over the past few years. Back in the 2000s, we saw items like the Bladerunner GPS-enabled jacket – supposedly to enable parents to keep track of their kids but which would probably be more likely to tell them which bus they’d left it on or which friend they’d lent it to – and even earlier, Steve Mann‘s lab had been creating artifacts that combined engineering and art to subvert or reflect surveillance in ways both serious and humorous. More recently we’ve seen anti-surveillance make-up – another art project. But while artists have explored anti-surveillance and sousveillance, the general trend does seem to be towards clothing enabled for surveillance or at least connection into systems which require surveillance of the item or its wearer as part of some augmented reality / ubiquitous computing scenario.
My first post of 2012 – and, yes, my New’s Year’s Resolution is to blog regularly again – is not about a new subject. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones, are already on their way to being a standard tool of national security and increasingly of policing too. However, given decreasing price of small Micro-Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (MAVs), it was also inevitable that NGOs, activist and citizen groups and even individuals, would soon start to operate them as a form of sousveillance or counter-surveillance, or simply as surveillance.
Some Occupy protestors in Europe and the USA had already made use of commercially available MAVs to broadcast footage of protest. And, the BBC reports today that the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the radical direct action anti-whaling group, will this year use an Osprey drone aircraft to monitor Japanese whaling fleets operating in the southern oceans. Sea Shepherd has always been technically adventurous (and PR savvy), operating radar-invisible speedboats and even a submarine in the past.
But it all suggests that drones have made the leap from military to policing to civil use with remarkable speed, and I suggest that in 2012 we will see the proliferation of MAVs operated by non-government users. Let’s just see how fast governments now try to outlaw drones in response…
Marina Hyde in the Guardian last week wrote a very interesting piece on the ongoing fallout from the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests in London. She argued that the appearance of mobile telephone camera foogtage, which revealed more about the way the police treated the passerby, showed that this kind of inverse surveillance (or what Steve Mann calls ‘sousveillance’) was the way to fight the increase of surveillance in British society.
The bigger issue here is the fight for control of the means of visibility, and the legitimate production of images. The British state is slowly trying to restrict the definition of what is considered to be ‘normal’ behaviour with regards to video and photography. In the new normality, state video is for the public good, but video by the public is potential terrorism; police photographing demonstrators is important for public order, but demonstrators photographing police is gathering material potentially of use in the preparation of a terrorist act.
However, I am not 100% in favour of the proliferation of cameras, whoever is wielding them. I think it’s essential that we, at this moment in time, turn our cameras on an overintrusive and controlling state. However a society in which we all constantly film each other is not one in which I would feel comfortable living either. A mutual surveillance society in which cameras substitute for richer social interactions and social negotiation, is still a surveillance society and still a society of diminished privacy and dignity. I worry that sousveillance, rather than leading to a reduction in the intrusiveness of the state, will merely generate more cameras and more watchers, and merely help reinforce a new normality of being constantly observed and recorded.