CFP: Neat Stuff


The multimedia highlight of CFP so far has been a performance of "These Guys Are From England and Who Gives a Shit," Negativland's mashup of U2's music and Casey Kasem's legendary "Dead Dog" diatribe. The highlight should have been the spycams that were randomly planted in an undisclosed number of the goody bags (not mine, sadly), so that occasionally the big screens in the conference rooms show you a montage of footage from unsuspecting people around the conference. Unfortunately, this is a group that takes a dim view of entrapment. If I'd have been planning things, I'd have included a copy of Celebrity Sleuth and the Stephanie Swift Strap On in every bag, to encourage people to do something interesting for the cams. As it turned out, all you saw in the montages were the bottoms of chairs, the back of a laptop, and, if you were really lucky, half an upside-down person skimming through the EPIC annual report.

Which in itself may provide some instruction about the nature of total surveillance. Part of the theory of the panopticon is that eventually they won't need any guards, because prisoners will just assume they're constantly being watched and behave accordingly. Maybe the opposite is true: In the panopticon, you start to assume that the system is so glutted with numberless hours of dull footage that the few moments where you're up to hankypanky will never be found amid all the white noise. Between the bagcams, the large number of cameras, camera-phones and other devices carried by the participants, and whatever security monitoring the Westin Seattle has up, this was pretty much a total surveillance environment, and I'm pretty sure I could have snuck up behind guest of honor Cory Doctorow and felled him with a karate chop without being noticed.

That seems to be part of the philosophy of Steven Mann, the wearcam provocateur and all-purpose performance artist. He goes around with a Brotherhood of the Cyclops camera over one eye and deploys an arcane vocabulary of phrases like "equiveillance," "mutual submission," "pre-sabotage," and "visual memory disability" (this last being his ostensible reason for wearing the eye thingee). This is all with the goal, if I understand it correctly (and Mann's favorite conversational tactic is to be constantly telling you you're not understanding his point, then restating the point with a battery of new weird little phrases), of weakening the power of surveillance by decentralizing it.

This idea is no longer new. The theory of sousveillance (which in practice consists mainly of pointing cameras at inarticulate security guards) is getting a thorough workout these days, as every other citizen comes equipped with at least a camera phone.

Not everybody is happy with that. After Mann gave a presentation about his own sousveillance misadventures, an irate woman identifying herself as some kind of Canadian regulatory official stood up to condemn him. We should, said this person, be looking to the model legislation in the province of Quebec, where the right to ownership of your own image is so strong that newspapers, unable to obtain positive permission from everybody whose picture they take, now must blur out the faces in photos of crowd scenes.

Now it's a truth universally acknowledged that a Canadian left unsupervised for more than 30 seconds will begin talking about how Canadians do everything better than Americans. But even by the broadest Maple Leaf standards, this was absurd. I can only think of one thing stupider than the photos of happy folks in a park newspapers run on weekends with captions like: "Spring in Montreal: Touq MacMackintosh and Porky LeBeouf were two of the many Quebecers enjoying the gorgeous May weather yesterday." And that would be if the guy in the background throwing his dog a frisbee had his face digitally blurred like a suspect on COPS (and what about the dog?). In last year's "Database Nation" story, Declan McCullagh artfully spelled out the balancing tension between free speech and privacy, and the way a tilt toward free speech in America makes many things cheaper, simpler, and more convenient. I'm not sure the crowd here is willing to entertain that view of the dichotomy, or even consider whether such a dichotomy exists.