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Got a TV Eye on Me: Video, State Surveillance, and Resistance

It's the cameras around us, and the ones in our pockets, and the software and servers that monitor our texts and clicks, that make, and record, history in 2013.

by Mike Mosher

1. Screening Them Seeing Us

Is there a big, boom-boom blockbuster movie in our time that doesn't involve paranoia and surveillance? Is there a movie made in Hollywood where the inescapable observant camera itself is not a character? The various Bourne movies, the latest James Bond film, the 2007 adventure called Next with Nicholas Cage as a guy whose ability to see two minutes into the future helps him outwit surveillance cameras in Las Vegas casinos. The 1998 action film Enemy of the State had Will Smith as a lawyer whom the National Security Agency investigates and harasses, destroying his credit cards until he met a former operative paranoid enough to have obtained the resources to help Smith's character win his identity back. And what about The Social Network, about the voyeur who invented Facebook, where we all readily confess our contacts?

I’m less concerned about expensive or medium-budget movies in the cinemas, all of which make their way to the two-for-a-dollar racks at the neighborhood video store at increasing speed. It's the cameras around us, and the ones in our pockets, and the software and servers that monitor our texts and clicks, that make, and record, history in 2013.

2. Watch Me Now

Those of us raised Roman Catholics remember being taught that all sins are known by God, "in thought, word and deed", and an only child of nervous, intrusive parents especially feels no freedom from surveillance. Yet as a young adult, I still thought some rights were sacrosanct and respected. A couple of days before the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco, I mailed Craig Baldwin, living near Sixth Street, something from the Sixteenth Street US Post Office station, These were drawn-on 35mm slides, with caricatures of (then) Mayor Dianne Feinstein and skeptical sayings about the Democratic Party. I figured Craig would put them in the hands of activist friends like the Urban Rats, who'd project them on public walls in the night. Two days after the Convention ended the package was returned to me by the USPS, inexplicably opened and re-taped. Baldwin told me he'd never received them, and any illusions I had about the sanctity of the US Mail were dissolved.

Shortly after I began working at (then) Apple Computer, Inc., in 1987, we were told to never say anything in an email we wouldn't want to see subpoenaed. Dimly having a sense of all the nodes and maintenance-friendly technology between me and any email recipient, I guess I never considered words over a wire "private". In 1988, Apple got a contract to sell Macintosh computers to the US Army, and for several days there was a worried in-house online discussion the morality of the military as a customer, since many employees remembered the Vietnam War, or were concerned about President Ronald Reagan’s military policy in Central America the Caribbean. A lesbian Editor of user manuals that came with the computers initiated the topic, and I remember Apple's first user interface evangelist participating in the serious discussion.

While there's a supposed ethic of respecting people's privacy in the United States, in other societies are more aware of all individuals. When I was a visiting professor in Tokushima-shi in southern Japan, my wife and I walked from the campus across town to the beach one Saturday; on our return, the university's International Programs director said he'd been besieged all day by callers saying, "Your Americans are walking in our neighborhood! Didn't you give them enough pre-paid taxicab tickets?" Joseph Losey's Mr. Klein (1976), about a Gentile businessman in 1940 Paris worried that he's perceived as Jewish when he receives unsolicited mail. The Director's grandson Luke (who never met Joseph Losey) exhibited his short 2007 film i at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. It featured a single, close-up shot of Allison Newman's eye, with events (I recall a speeding train) reflected within it.

THe September 11,2013 New York Times reports that the federal appeals court in San Francisco rejected Google's arguments that lawsuit against the corporation should be dismissed. The plaintiffs don't like the fact that email, passwords, images and personal information were hoovered up from their unencrypted computers by the roving digital cameras of Google's Street View as it rolled by. They claimed, if they could read it on your device, any Wi-Fi in your home or office was "radio transmission", unprotected by existing wiretapping laws. Merely a Street View, indeed.

The week after that other 9/11, in 2001, I asked an administrator at my university who had worked as a policeman in Detroit forty years ago what he thought would happen in America. He worried that urban police department resources would go to surveillance of leftist groups and individuals, remembering cartons and cartons of files of his department's "red squad" in the days of the Black Panther Party, White Panther Party and anti-Vietnam war activism.

Is there a Punk band called the Panopticons, after philosopher Jeremy Bentham's 19th c. prototype prison, yet? In Wired magazine in 2004 David Brin published a provocative and influential essay "The Transparent Society", where Brin used Great Britain as an example of a society where all urban space is monitored by video cameras (an example which the US has since increasingly adopted). He proposed an alternative idea of giving every citizen access to all surveillance cameras, so police procedures are monitored as well as crime and more mundane activity.

The July issue of Wired magazine features the story of an imaging satellite company whose executive is told by a senior Defense Department official “You better be thinking about the role you want the government to play in your company”. It follows a glowing cover story on the National Security Agency (NSA) Director General Keith Alexander, organizer and head of its Central Security Service (CSS) and US Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM), with only the most minor reservations about his realm raised at the conclusion. In Alexander's biographical details, I could only think of a couple of the smartest guys I knew in high school—nerdy guys who hosted warlike Avalon Hill Diplomacy board game parties deep into the night, or who made electric guitars and electronic musical instruments—now have computer jobs they refuse to talk about. I have long liked to think they're the kind of extremely intelligent cynics protecting our county…but then I increasingly learn exactly what these agencies are doing, and...hmm....

3. Artists Look Back

Notable among visual artists working with digital technology and video two decades ago, Wayne M. Draznin (1950-2001) created works that interrogated the idea of surveillance. Draznin was an Associate Professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art who had earlier been an SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) organizer and anti-apartheid activist in Atlanta, GA. His installation at Cleveland's Brandt Gallery in November 1993 included an eye projected on the window. One day there was a piece of cardboard taped to the window with the message “People are trying to sleep” and he wondered if kids across the street thought their bedroom window was being watched all night. In the following decade, ISEA2006, the International Symposium of Electronic Art, coincident with the first ZeroOne Festival in San Jose, CA, included artworks viewable only through cell phone cameras, remote illumination of a hotel by passersby, and pigeons with sensors that monitored and transmitted air quality information. The 2007 Ars Electronica conference, held at the ZKM media museum in Linz, Austria, was entitled "Goodbye, Privacy", and interrogated Second Life's virtual world as another social network that's an arena of contradictions.

The theme of ISEA13, held at Sydney. "Resistance is Futile", meaning the impossibility of resistance to a digital world by artists in our time. Yet it became apparent that many of the presenters proved "Resistance is Fertile", and Australian citizen Julian Assange gave a rambling but inspiring closing talk at the conference. Coming full circle, a June-July 2013 exhibit at the Brandt Gallery, where Draznin exhibited 20 years earlier, was "Seen/Unseen" by Peter Seward. Peter Seward's earlier artwork exhibited there were richly realistic paintings of “Stealth Towers,” real and imagined cell phone towers camouflaged as pine trees, church steeples, flagpoles, barn silos, and totem poles. "Seen/Unseen" depicts drone aircraft, which Seward calls "unwitting ambassadors of American policy, ...[that] demonstrate our reliance on technological solutions while, literally, being personally removed from the equation." I have not yet, to my knowledge, seen a drone. Yet I now wonder how many of the remote-controlled model airplanes I saw puttering through the sky fifteen years ago above Shoreline park in Mountain View, CA, beside Moffett Field Naval Air Station and its top-secret "Blue Cube", may have been prototypes.

4. Hope Under the Gaze

And this year, a guy in a corporation, Edward Snowden, felt that enough was enough.

On July 13, 2013 Reuters news service quotes Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who first published the documents Snowden leaked, in an interview in Rio de Janeiro, Argentina newspaper La Nacion, "Snowden has enough information to cause harm to the U.S. government in a single minute than any other person has ever had...The U.S. government should be on its knees every day begging that nothing happen to Snowden, because if something does happen to him, all the information will be revealed and it could be its worst nightmare."

My own essay in this publication "Towards Community Art Machines", written late 1994, ended with the hope of videos readily, easily shot, assembled from diverse sites around the world, remixed for critical comment and redistributed. In a 2007 update "Future Now!: Criticism Machines Strengthens Communities" I revisited the goal, content that the ideal of “criticism machines” had been achieved via iMovie and YouTube. Since then, we've watched long-ruling Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, shot with rebel cell phones, kicked and beaten to death, provided upon our desktops and phones courtesy a corporation whose motto is "Don't Do Evil" whom we have learned, from Snowden and others, is deeply compromised.

I would rather take solace in a couple of great videos posted on Facebook this summer by San Francisco activist-author Chris Carlsson. As I lament Midwestern college students' economics-driven political apathy (Assange quoted Plato, that the penalty for noninvolvement in politics was to be ruled over by your inferiors), I watch the variety of students in Turkey who came together to fight corporate co-option of their public sphere. And as I worry about lingering and newly-imposed Christianist laws in our country that restrict the freedoms of women and gays, I take heart in the articulate 12 year old in Egypt who commented on how repressive Islamist laws are not a true expression of his people's faith.

That kid, he's got a TV Eye on the world.

Mike Mosher surveys and surveils the world from mid-Michigan for Bad Subjects. Graphic courtesy Truth Beckons on facebook.

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