Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Eye of Power and “Sousveillance”

After reading the interview with Barou, Foucault, and Perrot, in addition to the piece on “Sousveillance” it is clear that in the 21st century there exist diverse methods and effects of surveillance. At one point in the interview, Foucault mentions that the importance of Bentham’s concept of the gaze is archaic by today’s standards. No longer can something like Bentham’s panopticon model be thought of as an ultimate solution to easily control the behaviour of a large number of people. Today we are constantly using a variety of technological devices, which use a variety of methods of tracking us and mining our information. The idea that big brother is watching – that we are all under one vast overseeing gaze – is hard to reinforce because there are an increasing number of methods of surveillance today. Furthermore, it is becoming less and less obvious to individuals that they are under surveillance as the methods used for tracking people and information are disguised in the form of a necessity, a tool, or an entertaining activity.

Steve Mann’s experiments go a few steps father than Bentham’s concept. The article discusses some of Mann’s surveillance experiments and shows how our attitudes and concerns can change about being watched – but it depends on where we believe the gaze originates. “Sousveillance” is an interesting term in the article; it refers to the use of panoptic technology to monitor authority figures and help individuals take control of how they are being monitored. Indeed, by turning the gaze on those who are used to being the “watchers” Mann was able to cause a minor breakage in the power relationship, empowering the individual as opposed to the authority. But we’re not allowed to just go around everywhere with a camera attached to our body. It is tricky to implement Mann’s theory in real world settings. So what can we do?

I believe the website is an example of one way in which we can start to shift the gaze around. The site offers org charts of the major US companies, listing the names of their directors and illustrating how much power a few companies and directors actually have over the economy. I love the concept of this site. Having information about major companies, being knowledgeable about a conglomerate’s assets, etc. provides an everyday person with power as a consumer. Keeping an eye out on the power relations between companies is definitely an example of sousveillance because it undermines the branding of major corporations that disguise themselves with a variety of brand names. Such knowledge means that the individual can’t as easily be manipulated by companies who purport to have specific values when really their values are the same as their relatives. The information on can enable a person to make more informed consumer decisions, rather than falling victim to corporate manipulation and advertising – the corporate gaze.

While all this talk of the gaze and power relations can be a bit scary, what’s even worse in my opinion is the fact that sometimes the gaze is invisible. As I mentioned earlier, new fun gadgets and convenient technologies (debit cards, visas), make it less obvious to individuals that they are being tracked. When the gaze becomes invisible, or when we don’t know where it’s coming from but we know we’re under watch – that’s when I would be most concerned. I thought about the Google Street View car example that we discussed in lecture.... If the Google car was driving around my neighbourhood with a big camera taking pictures, yes it would feel a bit invasive, but at least I would have a good idea as to why it is in my neighbourhood. If a car with no name on it was driving around taking pictures – I would be much more worried. I wouldn’t know why it was taking pictures, or where the pictures might end up. And I wouldn’t really be able to practice sousveillance because how would I know what authority to keep watch on?

To sum it up, I agree that Bentham’s concept is archaic as new technologies allow surveillance of individuals in a greater variety of ways than simply one gaze. I also like the concept of sousveillance to undermine the power of authorities. But my problem is that as the technologies become more advanced, they become more invisible – and so does surveillance. As the example with the nameless car shows, it becomes more difficult for us to know when we are being watched, to pin down the authority, to know why we are being watched, what type of data is being gathered, and why. Invisibility of the gaze makes it very hard for us to be aware that we should even be practicing sousveillance.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Google reads email too

The night of September 20th, I got home from our first full lecture and sat down at my laptop to check my email and finish coordinating a meeting with a friend. That night in class we had discussed actor-network theory and cybernetics, to note two topics... I log into my Gmail account and notice that my friend had agreed to meet with me the following day. I also notice to the right of my email, Google requesting to add this meeting to my calendar. I was caught off guard; Google had the details down: “meet at TD Bank on Richmond at 1pm”. How on earth....? And then I realized that I had written nearly those exact words to my friend in the previous email, which obviously triggered some Google Calendar function, providing me with the feedback that I should be adding this commitment to my calendar.

I am used to shopping online (Amazon, Sephora, etc), so I am frequently being offered suggestions by the cybernetic technology of those major consumer websites. I’m used to that sort of technology tracking my actions. But when I realized that text from my email was also being scanned – not just my clicks and product choices – I was shocked (and a little creeped out).

To me, this instance reveals greater depth to the capability of cybernetics than what we had discussed in class. In that moment, I realized that so many of our online activities occur within the cybernetic loop and we don’t even realize it, plus there’s not much we can do to avoid it.... unless we’d rather boycott web 2.0; these cybernetic surveillance technologies can only fulfill their intentions with our participation. We perpetuate the feedback loop between users and technology so technically, we’re accountable for the way cybernetics works. I am not willing to forfeit cybernetics today for the sake of my privacy and identity. So many of our online activities are interactive and the feedback we get – fun features, smart applications, efficient ways of web browsing – encourages us to continue interacting. It’s almost an example of classical conditioning, where we receive positive reinforcement for our behaviours. I’m conditioned to see cybernetics in a positive way. I want to keep participating and giving away my information.

And so I guess I understand now how, in terms of actor-network theory, I am an effect of the network. Who I am online is undoubtedly shaped by what I do and what I am connected to. has a very specific identity, which is constructed by every interaction: every online purchase, every Google search, and every site that asks for a log-in or email.

I would love to see a giant a cloud diagram with my email or IP address in the middle of it, stretching out to everything I am related to online, every site that stores information on me...and then I would like to compare that data-mined image to who I think I am. I think it would be frightening to see all the information about me that is stored somewhere, but I think it would be interesting to see the type of identity that is constructed for me. How personally can an actor within the network be portrayed?